Photo Essay: The Ancient Tannery of Fez, Morocco

Each month, I publish a photo essay. My hope is to capture the essence of a particular location as I continue my pursuit of adventure and exploration, showcase the craftsmanship and creativity of people around the world, and learn from the rituals and routines of different cultures.

This photo essay is from Fez, Morocco. As always, all photos are my own.

Fez, Morocco Photos

I’ll start with this: I love Fez. If you ever have the chance to go, I highly recommend it.

The ancient part of the city, known as the medina, is like a criss-crossing maze of tiny alleyways and thousand-year-old streets. There is a surprise around every corner and a dizzying array of shops selling every item you could imagine. From the rooftop of any cafe in the medina, you’ll see thousands of homes, apartments, and riads stacked on top of one another.

Tucked away in these alleyways and hidden between the stacks of buildings are some unexpected surprises. One of those surprises is the Chouara Tannery. For hundreds of years, Fez has been known for its leather goods. Today, Chouara Tannery still runs a full leather production line using techniques that are largely unchanged from the 14th century.

tannery fez morocco

The main portion of the tannery is composed of a series of dried earth pits, which are used to hold different colors of dye. Each color is derived from a natural sources like plants and trees: brown comes from cedar trees, red from poppy flowers, green from mint, blue from indigo, and yellow from saffron. These colors are used to dye the leather for different products.

The tanners begin by cleaning and shearing the animal skins. I actually saw two men pulling hair off of the skin by hand. The skins are then soaked in a mixture of pigeon feces and cow urine, which apparently removes animal fat and any remaining hair. (This is probably an appropriate time to mention that the tannery has a very distinct smell.)

tannery fez morocco

tannery fez morocco

tannery fez morocco

tannery fez morocco

tannery fez morocco

After drying, the raw hides are then scraped, cleaned, and softened before soaking in the dye. From what I could tell, tanners would then separate the hides into large stacks based on the type of coloration each hide would receive.

tannery fez morocco

tannery fez morocco

tannery fez morocco

tannery fez morocco

After separating, the tanners would jump into a dye-filled pit and soak each piece of leather — sometimes dipping it by hand and other times jumping up and down on an entire stack of hides.

tannery fez morocco

tannery fez morocco

Eventually, after enough soaking, someone would come along, load up both arms with wet animal skins, and take them off to hang dry along the walls and roof of the tannery.

tannery fez morocco

tannery fez morocco

Want more?

Click here to view more photos from Morocco.

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