Chaouwara Tanneries, Fès el-Bali Medina, Morocco
The Chaouwara (or Chaoura) tanneries in the ancient medina of Fès should be near the top of any traveller to Morocco’s list of places to visit. The medina is a UNESCO World Heritage sight and is considered one of the most extensive and best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world.
The tanneries date back to the 11th century and are an assault on the senses. They use essentially the same methods today as when they were founded. Visitors who come to view the curing and dyeing process are handed a bunch of mint leaves to disguise the smell, although this is not as bad as we were led to believe.
The first task is to soak the raw skins in vats of water, limestone and pigeon droppings, to remove flesh and hair and to soften the hides. After three days the cleansed skins are washed and moved to the dyeing vats, where natural, vegetable ingredients are used to add colour: poppies for red, indigo for blue, henna for orange and saffron (the most expensive) for yellow. The dyes are mixed with alum stone to fix the colour. They are then hung to dry on the rooftops before being moved to the cutting rooms, where they made into the end product.
A visit to the viewing galleries is followed by a tour of the showrooms, where the inevitable process of bargaining over the finished goods begins. I was grateful to be with my partner, without whom I no doubt would have left carrying an armful of purchases.
This YouTube video provides an account of the process and gives a feeling for how lively the tanneries are and of the pleasure of watching people at work.