Sweat, Stench, and Pigeon Droppings Produce Leather at the Tanning Pits of Fez, Morocco
An employee handed us each a sprig of mint as we filed into the door of the Chouara Tannery. “Oh, they’re going to make tea for us, how nice,” I thought. I picked my way up the dark, narrow stairway, emerging three flights later into an open-air leather goods shop, where we were led to a terrace overlooking the tannery pits. The stench of rotting flesh and ammonia hit me full-force. Sheepishly, I held the mint under my nostrils, realizing it was meant to help mask the odor that emanated from the pits below.
Chouara Tannery, largest of the three tanning pits of Fez, Morocco, was built in the 11th century and leather goods have been produced there using the exact same method for more than a thousand years. Skins are first placed into the white vats, which contain a mixture of water, limestone, and pigeon droppings. The limestone helps to remove hair from the skins while the acid in the pigeon droppings softens the hides. Three days later the skins are removed and washed, after which they are placed in the dying pits.
The colors in the tanning pits of Fez vary from day to day. During my first visit they were mostly shades of brown but the second time colors ranged from blood red to white, with a little of everything in between. Dye colors are all derived from natural products: red from the poppy flower, orange from henna, blue from indigo, and yellow from saffron, but because saffron is so expensive yellows are produced by hand-rubbing a small amount of the spice mixed with oil into the hides. Other colors are all produced in the pits. Men in skimpy shorts, many with bare feet and legs, stand thigh-high in the dye solutions and agitate the hides like human washing machines. When the desired colors have been achieved the skins are pulled out of the pits, trimmed, and laid out to dry on surrounding rooftops before being moved inside for cutting and sewing.
After this brief orientation on the terrace, our group was led into the showroom and the pressure to buy commenced. Butter soft leather jackets, belts, handbags, suitcases, and slippers stacked to the ceiling were pulled down and laid out for our perusal. One salesman pulled four footstools from a stack and invited me to touch each one; except for design and color they looked the same, but to the touch they were very different, depending upon whether they had been made from camel, sheep, cow, or goat hides.
As a perpetual traveler with no permanent home I had no interest in buying and somehow, the salespeople sensed immediately that that I wasn’t a potential customer. They left me to wander, focusing instead on those who showed interest. Prices started high because customers were expected to negotiate, but as I eavesdropped on the process it was obvious that some were more comfortable with bargaining than others. Some paid half of the original asking price, while others paid as little as a third. But in every case, the final price was much less than what it would have been in the U.S. and the quality seemed quite high. You just had to be able to tolerate the smell to get the bargain.
I was a guest of Best of Morocco Tours during my stay in the Sahara. However, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items or services will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.