Snapshots of Morocco – The Ancient Chouwara Tannery of Fes

You do your best to navigate the labyrinth of alleyways that form the walking streets of Fes to find the ancient Chouwara Tannery, the biggest of those operating in the medina but it is highly likely you will get lost on the way – welcome to Fes! I ended up following a Japanese tour group as I gathered they were heading that way! You will probably smell the tannery well before you see it, especially on a hot day!

Fez Medina Morocco
Exploring the maze like streets of the Fes Medina (January 2017)

You will also soon have plenty of touts offering to show you the way or indicating they have the best view from their balcony for a small fee, which is naturally only accessible through their leather goods store! Despite what the tout may say (surprise, surprise), not all are actually in a prime spot but you probably wont know until you get up to the viewing area (you cannot see anything from the Medina streets). Note: if you buy something, they will still expect to be paid for showing you their view from the balcony!

13th century Chouwara Leather Tannery Fes Morocco
The 13th Century Chouwara Leather Tannery – the tanning pits and drying leather atop the buildings – not a prime viewing spot but this still gives an interesting perspective on the scale of the operations there (January 2017)
Chouwara Leather Tannery Fes Morocco
A prime viewing position over the tannery (January 2017)

Once you get there though you will soon be exposed to a wonderful and colourful sight of all the tannery workers moving about the honeycomb like earthen pits below, manually dying and drying various cow, sheep and goat skins just like they have always done since the 13th century (sections of the pits have been refurbished in recent years). They still use traditional methods to cure and bleach the skins which can include pigeon droppings and donkey or cow urine!

Chouwara Leather Tannery Fes Morocco
You can see the difference between the older and newer pits within the large Chouwara Leather Tannery

All those rich colours are a pretty sight but the smell can be a bit overwhelming. If you have a bit of a weak stomach, don’t breathe in too deep on a warm day!

13th century Chouwara Leather Tannery Fes Morocco
Hard work the old-fashioned way (January 2017)
13th century Chouwara Leather Tannery Fes Morocco
A tanning tradition that has changed little since the 13th Century (January 2017)
Chouwara Leather Tannery Fes Morocco
Quite a sight and a glimpse of a tried and true tannery method of the past
Chouwara Leather Tannery Fes Morocco
From what I saw the buildings that surround the tannery are leather workshops and retail stores
Chouwara Leather Tannery Fes Morocco
Workers manually handle the skins in the dye colouring pits
Chouwara Leather Tannery Fes Morocco
The tannery dye pits almost look like paint pots

Apparently its a bit too expensive to use vegetable dyes such as poppy (red), turmeric (yellow), indigo (blue) etc. to colour the skins these days though and artificial colouring via chemicals is generally the path they follow today. The process is all still very manual though as it has always been.

Chouwara Leather Tannery Fes Morocco
Colourful
Chouwara Leather Tannery Fes Morocco
Many different dyes to achieve all the brilliant colours of the famous leather products of Fes – skins can be seen in some of the pits (January 2017)
Dying various cow, sheep and goat skins Chouwara Leather Tannery Fes Morocco
Dying various cow, sheep and goat skins
Chouwara Leather Tannery Fes Morocco
Colourful but there is a smell that could outlast religion!

So that’s the Chouwara Tannery of Fes. It’s a pungent but rather fascinating sight down below and if you can handle the smell you wont be disappointed!

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