Visiting the Tanneries in Fez, Morocco

Author Edith Warton wrote, “To visit Morocco is still like turning the pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript all embroidered with bright shapes and subtle lines.”

 Morocco is indeed a tapestry of woven sites, colors, exotic aromas, north African sounds, and a history as rich as their food is wonderful. Curious travelers will look at the world in which they travel, interact with it differently than others, and learn from these discoveries uniquely. Morocco is the perfect place embark on such a discovery.

One unique city in Morocco where all of Morocco’ s delights come together is in the ancient city of Fez. While the ancient Medina came to life for me on the trip I took to Morocco with Overseas Adventure Travel called Morocco’s Sahara Odyssey, this colorful Media was filled with unparalleled vibrancy, and even donkeys turning around the bend, some pulling carts. It was established circa 800 AD, and is a dark and complex labyrinth. I had experienced Medinas before during my travels, but what completed this rich experience in Fez was the nearby tannery.

Watching the tannery workers from an upper lookout point which afforded us a full view of the workers and colorful vats, put my sense of modernity into perspective. This profession preceded Elvis by centuries and has endured long after the last recording by Freddie, yet watching them dressed in modern clothing while working in the ancient tannery reminded me that their work has also outlasted the rein of Kings and Queens. Both literally and figuratively.

Yet looking at the tanneries themselves and their vibrant, traditional colors was fascinating to view, and pungent in odor. There are three Fez tanneries nearby which allow the traveler to switch centuries and leave the 21st century behind, since Fez is part 9th century and part 14th century, and the origin of the tanneries date back that far.   

The largest tannery in Fez is the Chouara Tannery, although there are two others nearby, and there have been as many as 86 over the centuries. Besides being a photographer’s delight, they are also an environmentalist’s nightmare. A sprig of mint is required to walk in the area near them as well as the stores which sell colorful leather byproducts, but they do little good to mitigate the stench from the tanneries. Yet both the tanneries and their bountiful leather stores have been a staple of the local Fez economy over time.

Viewing the unique stone vats of dye and watching (and smelling) the cloth and leather dyeing process these tanneries workers perform daily, afford the visitor the totality  of the tannery visit, even when watching from a viewing point as we did. Hides of cows, sheep, and goats among other animals are soaked in water with ingredients to help clean and soften them, then they are placed in multicolored dyeing solutions that are indigenous such as indigo or poppy, before being placed in the sun to dry.   The production of leather and cloth products which follow the dyeing process has been unchanged since medieval times. So, the entire handmade operation is as traditional as a Moroccan tagine. It’s refreshing to travel the world, see how things have changed over time, yet stumble across one part of a society that not only adheres to its traditions, but reveres them.  Our favorite King and Queen – Elvis and Freddie – would most likely agree.  


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