MOROCCAN LEATHER TANNERIES
Morocco has long been celebrated for its famous leather tanneries, many of which have been in continuous operation since the eleventh century. In the cities of Marrakech and Fez, those same ancient techniques are employed today to create some of the world’s most prized leather goods.
Visitors in each city are welcomed into the tanneries to observe the process. A mint sprig is commonly held under the nose in an effort to help neutralize the pungent aromas inherent in the tanneries. Hundreds of large stone vats, arranged like honeycombs, are filled with various potions designed to speed along the process of turning animal hides into finished leather. Hides are stripped, rehydrated and then immersed into white vats filled to the brim with an aromatic concoction that softens the material. They are then moved to another set of stone wells that hold an eye-popping array on natural vegetable dyes (think saffron, bark, henna and mint). The hides are manually dipped and stirred in these vats before being laid on the rooftops of the medina to be dried by the sun, followed by a stretching procedure on a wooden frame. The process is extremely labor-intensive, taking an average of 20 days to complete.
Work in the tanneries is physically demanding and often performed in temperatures of 100 degrees or more. The skill is passed down from one generation of the family to the next via the male lineage. Apprentices do a significant portion of the easier tasks, but key roles are reserved for master craftsmen who may have several decades of experience. The finished leather is then distributed throughout the medina to be crafted into babouche (Moroccan slippers), handbags, poufs and other finished goods.