Whenever I think of Morocco, I think of leather.
For some reason, leather has always been my achilles heel of travelling. No matter how many countries I visit, I still can’t walk past a market stall covered in handbags, woven bracelets or pairs of soft shoes without reaching out my hand and running my fingers across the smooth, supple leather.
So visiting Fez, a city famed for its leather, was basically a perfect destination for me. Before leaving, I talked myself into believing that my life was sorely missing a Moroccan handbag (which is a total lie – I have way too many leather bags for my own good), and could already see myself trailing through the confusion of Fez’s winding medina with an eagle eye poised for The Perfect Bag.
Yet unlike most places in the world, Fez also held a different leather-related temptation for me.
The leather tanneries of Chouara.
Buried deep in the heart of the city’s medina, these ancient tanneries have remained virtually unchanged since the 12th century. Every day, the tanners who work there place the raw hides of goats, camels, sheep and cows into deep earthenware vats, and take them through a process of soaking, stripping, drying, more soaking and finally dyeing – or tanning, hence the name.
Along with two other tanneries in the city, Chouara produces a huge amount of leather for Fez, for Morocco and for export around the world. But the tanneries are still just one part of Fez’s leather world. Because when a medieval Moroccan city devotes itself to turning animal skins into leather, that process influences every aspect of life.
It means that Fez is absolutely leather crazy.
An aerial introduction to Fez
My education in Moroccan leather really began on the roof terrace of our guesthouse, while we ate our first Moroccan breakfast and chatted to Ahmed, the guesthouse manager. He was intent on showing us every visible part of the city from this fourth floor vantage point in the middle of the medina – and as his pointing finger drifted above the medina roofs, I followed his gaze to a hill on the horizon, littered with old stones and crumbling brickwork.
These were the Merenid Tombs, Ahmed told us, burial places dating back to the 14th century – but I was more focused on the wandering men, the ambling donkeys, and the lines of coloured animal skins, either pegged up to the wall or laid out flat in the grass to better absorb the sun.
“You can walk up to the ruins, sure!” Ahmed said when I asked. “It takes about an hour but the views of the medina are beautiful.”
I didn’t explain to him that seeing the drying animal skins up close was much more my focus for the climb.
Getting leather-happy in the medina
First up, though, was actually wandering through the labyrinthine alleyways that make Moroccan medinas so thrilling – like they’re taking a gleeful pride in how easily a tourist can lose themselves.
From the minute we stepped out of the guesthouse we were squeezing through the crowds clustered outside mosque doorways; dipping our heads downward when men stared with a little too much curiosity; and constantly snapping our heads from side to side in awe of just how many things were on display.
The streets were incessantly busy, too. It seemed like every few minutes a shout went up from behind us, and we pushed ourselves into the sides of the alleyways to allow a stream of placid donkeys to walk past, or people pushing carts, or men with piles of animal hides heaped up on their shoulders moving quickly through the streets.
Occasionally we found ourselves in a quiet patch, and then I had more time to look around. Up above my head, or down towards my feet, spotting parts of the medina I couldn’t always catch – like a pile of wooden shoe moulds, strips of leather piled up beside them.
Ahmed had told us that we’d know when we were close to the leather tanneries by the smell: a ‘happy’ by-product from the fact that the animal skins are soaked in vats of animal urine for two or three days, before being washed in water and pigeon faeces to soften the leather.
But after a few hours of wandering, we still hadn’t caught wind of the expected smell, until we passed a group of Spanish tourists clutching fistfuls of mint leaves along with their cameras. A quick interchange with their tour guide gave us the right direction to walk in – along with an emphatic “Just follow your nose…”
Sniffing our way to the tanneries
The strong smell of ammonia grew quickly as we wandered down a myriad of alleyways, no longer paying attention to the shops, crowds and photo opportunities on either side. Reaching a dead end while being followed by a gangly teenager was a double whammy of confusion, particularly when he paid no attention to our refusals for help.
He essentially herded us through the dark open doorway at the edge of the dead end, and we came face to face with a small, blinking man who pressed a handful of fresh mint leaves into my palm. A huge sack filled with mint was beside him. Clearly someone in Fez is doing a roaring trade in mint selling…
With barely a pause, we were hurried up multiple narrow flights of winding stairs to the third floor. At some point the gangly teen ahead of us transformed into a different man, blind in one eye, who directed us into a showroom filled to the brim with leather bags, cushions, belts, boots and hats in all shapes and sizes.
But it wasn’t time for buying finished products just yet.
Instead, it was all about the bank of open window frames in front of us – which, when I stuck my head out, rewarded me a view something like this.
Inside Fez’s most famous tannery
The pits below me looked like less like a factory floor and more like an artist’s watercolour palette. Our guide told us that the tanneries still use the same natural vegetable dyes to work the leather; poppy flower for red, henna for orange, saffron for yellow, indigo for blue, mint for green.
Everywhere there was movement – from the men dressed in trousers of thick black plastic, who stood in the pits and stomped their feet down hard on the skins below, to the others who carefully carried piles of skins along the edges of the honeycomb of pits, or laid skins out to dry on the rooftops.
There were donkeys trotting slowly, weighed down with leather hides on their backs, and an occasional cat prowling along the edges of the pits.
And in some places, men simply stood and observed.
I couldn’t stop taking photos – couldn’t tear myself away from watching these men work. They were clearly just going about their daily routines, but it was utterly fascinating.
Particularly when I thought that this scene would have looked pretty much the same throughout the last eight hundred years.
Up on the third floor and high above the medina, the sun wasn’t hidden by roof canopies stretched above the alleyways. Without a breeze, it soon grew uncomfortably hot – and yet the smell of urine wasn’t that overpowering.
Maybe I was just in awe at the view behind my bunch of mint.
Behind us, our guide was understandably keen to impress us with all his leather wares. He displayed various sample pieces with a flourish and a casual mention of the price – even holding his cigarette lighter to a few to indicate how inflammable they were.
Eventually I was unwillingly dragged away from my spot at the window and down into the bowels of the building. We’d seen the main tourist draw, but now it was time to pay: walking through endless display rooms filled with bags and satchels, jackets and trousers, shelves stacked high with soft leather slippers.
Which is where I discovered that my friend also had a leather-related achilles heel…
Within minutes the floor was littered with pairs of brightly coloured slippers as she tried her best to bargain a good deal with our guide.
“Outside the tannery, these shoes are made badly. You will get foot diseases – athlete’s foot!”
He was having none of it.
Back on the leather handbag hunt
With a happy friend swinging her bag of new ‘disease-free’ slippers, I had renewed energy for seeking out my perfect Moroccan handbag. I sat in multiple leather shops and made fleeting friendships with a number of salesmen while they plied me with every single piece of their stock.
Except bizarrely enough, the more I craned my neck towards the bags hanging in the rafters of every shop, the fewer bags I found myself actually wanting.
Eventually I somewhat panic-bought a handbag in a small shop down a smaller alleyway, amongst carpets lying in piles on the floor and a mountain of dusty leather bags nestled in the window. The teenage son of the owner eagerly picked up woven cushion covers and deflated poufs and tried to explain why we needed them as well.
I felt like I owed it to Morocco to buy something handcrafted from love and local leather. Or maybe I was just indulging my inescapable lust for for the stuff.
Another perspective on Moroccan leather
Regardless, it was time to head up to the Merenid tombs and the viewpoint across the city that Ahmed had suggested – so, with my new handbag slung over my shoulder, we finally made our way outside the medina, and walked slowly up a flight of stone steps carved into the hill.
When a small herd of sheep cut across our path we stopped and turned, looking out at the crooked rooftops of Fez stretched all across the horizon.
Directly below us, a couple of men were busily laying out animal hides on the grass to dry in the afternoon sun, and I couldn’t help thinking about the sheep happily munching grass beside me. What if they were only weeks away from becoming just like those hides?
All at once, I realised that Fez’s leather industry is a city-wide endeavour. So many Moroccans must be involved in it to keep the whole production going: from the stallholders in the medina, to the men stomping their feet in the tannery vats, to the guys who dry the hides after skinning them.
It goes all the way back along the chain until it reaches the shepherds who raise these animals in the first place.