Photo Essay

seven centuries long tradition

tightrope walker

That day I've been following the smell, which came from the tanneries. Through the alleys to the open-air market I ended up in bedlam of people close to blind continuous walls of buildings in row, which bound a narrow street. Sun in Morocco is always strong enough to enlighten everything even the most shaded porch so I could recognize all the faces and the entrances of the workshops at the sides.

On the both walls of the street dark faces were waiting for visitors in order to show and hopefully sell local leather products and some other stuff among which herbs, spices and craft rugs.

That guy saw me since I move my first step in that street and quickly grabbed me up with a particular ability that only the Moroccan dealers are specialist to do and he pushed me to the entrance of the first workshop. Approximately he was my same age although the job and the environment leave a visible traces on the faces even in the young people.

The ground floor of that building was full of colourful leather products and people inside were busy in a frenetic industrious back and forth, pushing unaware visitors to buy something. The smell of the treated leather is something really indescribable for who hasn't been in that place.

We quickly reached the top by a tiny staircase and from the terrace I could finally enjoy the first panoramic view on the tanneries.

The smell got through the nose till the brain and I realized that I've already been at that place several years ago however nothing was changed since that time.

Surrounded by building, the tanneries of Fez are one of the most important touristic destinations in its old Medina. The Fez tanneries are the oldest leather craft factories in the world and the Moroccans boasts about the use of natural old techniques for the treatment of the hide. Actually since 14th century we can find the first traces in the history of those tanneries. Groups of tourist are used to go there in order to see how the leather is treated before being sold on the shelf of common Moroccan boutiques.

The process by which the hide is treated is really easy understandable as the guy told me. He was really remarkable due to his skill to change the language according to the tourist. I heard he speaking Spanish, Italian, English, French and German.

Everybody in the tanneries works under a cooperative, which selects people for proper jobs according to their skills. There is somebody who is good in language and fit in public relationship and somebody who has to work directly in the tanneries.

Generally they work on three different hides: goat, donkey and camel ones, which are more precious along the order I mentioned. Usually the leather gets the tannery already free of flash and other imperfection, nevertheless the first treatment works in order to remove fat and hair. The rough hide is collected in vats and then watered and treated by lime, which takes at least a day to perform its process of cleaning.

Next process is the stickiest one therefore the guy recommended me to pick some mint plants at the entrance. Hide is taken out from the lime and dip into an ammonia solution in a different vat. Ammonia can naturally be found from pigeon drop or human urine in the time past. Nonetheless lately they use chemical solutions to soften the hide. That's why the tanneries are famous for its acrid smell.

At last the leather is place in another container where it is soaked in natural colour solutions, which are from plants or spices according to the tradition and after days dried in the open air on the surrounding terraces.

What's really interesting in the colouring process is the use of the natural pigments. The guy showed me different plants from which they use to extract colours. For instance yellow is from saffron, green from mint and brown from henna.

Before say goodbye I've been forced to have a look on the products that they use to sell. Sleepers, any sort of bags and poufs are just a part of the rich and colourful assortment of products. The price has to be dealt as always by a careful contractual ability.

Once again, that smell and that noise disappeared and I found myself again lost in the Medina...

7 responses

  • Karen Foto Fiddler

    Karen Foto Fiddler (Deleted) gave props (17 Apr 2010):

    What a great sequence of shots! a process I for one have never thought about. Your story really took me through the Tannery in my minds eye. I did ahve a question or tow more. One was how deep are the vats, but as you posted the pics with the men standing in them I can see they are not very deep. Or are they different depths? (2.) How many men does this process employ? (3.)How do they fill the vats? Are the vats ever drained? If so how? (4.) Some of the vats are almost white in color..does that mean something? (5.) I see some vats have some tiles in them. Is there a reason for them? (6.) How long has this particular tannery been in operation? the vats and the surrpounding structure looks ancient! (7.) Such hard heavy and hot work in this process. Like in the photo Mising Up the man's leg muscle is realy pronounced. You can tell he had been doing that job a long time. Wading in that stuff cannot be healthy for the guys! Much less than the fumes! Got to give them credit tho. At least they are willing to work! Exdellent story and photos of a world most of us will never get to experience. Thank you for sharing! I voted yes for publication!

  • Dorothy Menosky

    Dorothy Menosky gave props (17 Apr 2010):

    Great series! My vote.

  • Michaela K.

    Michaela K. gave props (18 Apr 2010):


  • Andrea Gamba

    Andrea Gamba said (23 Apr 2010):

    Hey Karen,

    I'll answer in the followings about your questions.

    Actually since your question were really specific I'd say that perhaps my answers won't be so sharp. However, I've been searching for more information about the process on the hide especially the one used in Morocco. As you noticed there are several vats which have a different color according to the specific use that they made for. Indeed the white ones are for the lime treatment which sometime deposits itself on the surfaces and gives a shape and color as well. Another factor is the use of tiles you noticed on a picture. The reason is really related to the easy way of cleaning it up and on the resistance of the material itself. The entire process of treatment of the hide is about 1 week long or a bit longer according to the quality of the product they'd like to gain. Each vats is filled emptied and cleaned as soon as the process is done. So, all the vats are eventually cleaned besides the ones used for process of coloration which is the most expensive one compared to the others due to the use of products among which saffron (the most expensive spice in the world).

    In order to answer the other questions I would tell you about my experience in Fez. Once I got out from the tanneries, I've been looking for the store that I've been 3 years ago in order to buy a pencil case. Hanging around on that place made me realized about how many people are involved in that business. As I told specifically in my story fez's tanneries are part of a cooperative which has more than 100 employees for sure. I don't really know how many of them are working directly in the vats and who is working as a dealer or in a public relationship. I do remember there were 6 or 7 people at that time in the vats which made me suppose that they use to work in turns.

    The last question triggered me a lot since i use to study architecture and I'm really skilled in history in general. Well they first trace of the tanneries are from ancient time. I would say around 15th century which is pretty long time ago. However the ones you see on the pictures are probably recent ones. Perhaps the old bricks are so due to the erosion and use of the products and water on them. We can suppose that they haven't been using a precious materials once they built them up. So, Bricks are made by mud and straw according to the traditional way to build in the northern african countries. Nowadays I guess they use to build tanneries by concrete or at most with recycled building materials.

    I've been through all the buildings in the surrounding and I noticed that they are pretty new. I mean that they are built up by wide use of blocks of concrete which are really improper consider the climate. Concrete collects the heat during the day and releases it during the night. Would you image what could happen during the summer time when the temperature rises till about 45°C? Well, I hope I fully answered your questions. however don't hesitate to ask for any further information.

  • ! Mario Scattoloni ¡

    ! Mario Scattoloni ¡ gave props (29 Apr 2010):

    Oh, I am totally green with envy given the fact that I just cancelled my trip to Fez next week....thanks for the journey all the same some other time I guess I´ll get to see this up close & personal.

  • Epin Hervin

    Epin Hervin gave props (5 Feb 2011):

    I saw this on tv

  • Saroj Swain

    Saroj Swain gave props (4 May 2012):

    lovely story and congrats!!!

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