The Chouara Tannery in Fez, Morocco is the oldest tannery in the world. It dates as far back as the 11th century, where the processing of mainly sheep and goat hides (some cow, and camel too) has remained unchanged for about 1000 years.
As we followed our guide Naim through the chaotic maze-like structure of the medina , we knew we were getting close to the tanneries because of the strong putrid smell emanating above the stone walls. Naim led us up and down the narrow alleyway of the leather souq, then finally bid us to enter through an inconspicuous doorway. We climbed single file up a steep confinement of stairs which opened up to a room filled with colourful leather products.
Leather jackets, slippers, belts, bags, and cushions seductively lined the walls of the balcony shop. But we ignored their attractive welcome because the view from the balcony was what we came for.
To remedy the offensive stench wafting from below, two friendly Moroccan merchants greeted us with sprigs of mint to hold under our noses.
An activity of barefoot workers moved among pools of large earthen honeycomb vats containing curing and dying chemicals. This medieval process of leather tanning handed down from generation to generation is still practiced today.
First they clean and sheer the animal skins.
Then the hides are soaked in a mixture of acidic pigeon poop and cow urine to clean away the animal fat and remaining hairs. This softens the leather and prepares it for dying.
Once clean and supple, the leather is soaked in natural vegetable dyes. We saw vats filled with yellow, red, orange, brown, and blue colours.
Then finally, the hides are hung to dry for days in the sun. They’re cut into patterns and made into beautiful leather accessories.
After practicing our bargaining skills, we bought the girls each a small purse as a keepsake for their Christmas presents that year.