Artisans of Fes: The Tanners

One of the best places to visit when you are touring in Morocco, or especially in Fes, is the tannery. Hidden in the middle of the medina, it is well worth the walk there. You will climb narrow flights of stairs, seemingly never ending before you arrive at the rooftop, overlooking the incredible sight. It will smell disgusting, unless you are equipped with a sprig of green mint, provided at the base of the leather shop. This place is a definite must-see.

The process of making leather takes many steps. The Moroccans have done the same way with the same system since the 11th century. If you walk along the roads of the medina, you will sometimes see donkeys laden with stiff, dirty sheepskins. It’s hard to believe that they will turn into beautiful, often colorful leather. The sheepskins are brought in and then they are scraped by hand to soften them. They are also put in a mixture made mostly of pigeon droppings to help with the softening process. This key ingredient is responsible for the stench that accompanies the tannery. Though it smells horrible, it is essential for making the authentic Moroccan leather.

The men balance on the edges of the large vats full of dyes and other liquids, working in extremely uncomfortable conditions. During the summer, it is almost unbearably hot, but they still persist in their work. After the hides are sufficiently softened, it goes through the first dye. It is soaked in vegetable dye, some of which are saffron, henna and mint. After it has finished the first dyeing, it is then transferred to the second vegetable dye. To make sure that the skins are well-colored, the men have to stand in the vats. When the skins are done being dyed, they are either hung on lines nearby or placed on a close hillside to dry. When you are at the tannery, if you turn away from the sights of the vats and look closely in the other direction, you will be able to see small spots of color dotting the hillside. The hides are then taken down and cut in a specific pattern to make into leather items.

After looking at the amazing process of the tannery, it adds a whole new view to the leather bags, shoes, and poufs. At the bottom of the stairs, on the way down from the rooftop, there are many choices of leather products for sale. Because it is at the original site, it could be a bit pricier, but the experience is worth it. You have choices from colorful leather babouches (the Moroccan shoes), leather jackets, leather handbags or purses, leather sandals and even chairs made out of leather. They are all top quality and ideal purchases for friends, family or a souvenir for your self. If the prices aren’t set, be sure to bargain with the owners. It is almost impossible to leave without buying something, no matter how small. Once you see the true art of the tanners, you will want to have a memento forever.

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