How To Get To The Chouara Tannery
There are two ways to get there: the long way, which is done with a guide through the entire medina (you start at the north gate and end at the south gate); and the short way, entering directly from the south of the medina, since it is right next door.
The problem with the square is access, as it is an area where only workers are allowed. So the only way is to see it from the buildings surrounding the square.
All the buildings surrounding the square (characterized by being narrow and having three or four floors) belong to companies that sell leather. So, while you feel overwhelmed by that spectacle, they take advantage of it to sell you their products.
If you go with a guide you should not have any problem, since they will already have arranged the views from a specific terrace, and they will also show you their products. However, if you go on your own, a “guide” will come to offer you his services, give you tips, and take you to a terrace to see the square of the tanners and buy some leather products if you want.
Once you have decided to enter one of the buildings, you will be provided with a mint branch. Do not throw it away, because it will become your ally during your time at the square. Then you will follow the guide, going up the two, three, four floors and passing through a series of narrow corridors, until you reach the terrace.
You will then see a spectacle that will stay in your mind for life. Something that will produce a contradiction: on the one hand you will feel chills because of the conditions in which these people work, while at the same time you will be fascinated by the spectacle and the sensation of having travelled through time.
Leather Tanning Process
The vision of what you will have before you will be dominated, in addition to a strong smell, by a group of enormous buckets, grouped together as if they were a panel of bees, in which you will see half-naked workers, working with the skin rubbing and rinsing it.
You will be able to distinguish the buckets in two groups: those with a whitish interior and those with a coloured interior. In addition, and not less important, you will be able to appreciate skins swirled around entrances around the perimeter of the square, as well as some lying on the terraces that surround it.
Well, each part described corresponds to a part of the process, a system that is practically preserved as in antiquity and is usually inherited from parents to children.
The first part, which is not part of the view you will have in front of you, takes place when obtaining the skins. These belong to animals that, once slaughtered, skinned and soaked, are cleaned superficially. Large amounts of coarse salt are then applied to them and they are left on roofs, so that they lose much of the excess water that has been added to them previously.
Once all this process has been completed, a wagon will pick them up and take them directly to the tanners’ square.
The second part, once in the square, will consist of introducing the skins into the white tanks; this process has two purposes: on the one hand, to finish eliminating everything that is not skin itself, and on the other to give it firmness. To do this, it will be necessary to immerse it in a liquid, inside the vat, composed of a mixture of lime, pigeon droppings, ashes and cow urine. As you may have deduced, this is the main reason for the strong smell coming from the square.
Next, the skins will be checked, removing any remaining meat or hair that may still be attached (a process that takes place inside the doors where they are stacked).
At that point, the process of “cleaning” the skin will be over, and what will continue is to give it additional properties, such as softness and color. To do this, it will be immersed in the other vats, in which materials such as fig paste and oils are used to give it softness and tanning, and natural dyes to give it colour.
Finally, there will be the drying process, which takes place on the roofs around the square. Once the skins are colored and dry, the artisans will remove them to transform them into leather products to be sold to the public.
Just think that it is hard enough, three floors away, to stand the smell and the dizziness, so I don’t even want to imagine what it must be like to work from sunrise to sunset, day in and day out, in that square.
Finally, I would like to add one thing to understand this trade in all its magnitude: normally the work with the hides is done with sticks and by hand, sitting or leaning the tanner on the edge of the jar, on the top. However, there are times when the hides (as several are introduced in each vat) fall to the bottom, so to handle and work them it is necessary, literally, to get inside the vat, even in the first phase.
After knowing this, I don’t think anyone will be surprised that the tanning trade is considered as the hardest in Morocco.
I don’t want to say goodbye without recommending you, please, that if you visit Morocco you should take the time to visit the tanners’ square in Fez: it is something that every lover of Moroccan culture should see at least once in his life, and I don’t think that any photo or video will do justice to it.
I don’t want you to think that this is the only thing Fez has to offer, far from it. We have another post to talk about other places of interest in Fez, besides the modern part.