Chouara Tannery in Fes is one of the most iconic sights in Morocco. Operating since time immemorial, it is one of the largest tanneries in the country where animal skins and hides are processed in order to make leather for human use.
I have wanted to see Chouara Tannery for a very long time. Well, it must have been almost 20 years ago when I first came to know about the Chouara Tannery in Fes (or Fez). A lady of about sixty who travelled with an organized group tour to Morocco showed me some beautiful pictures which went beyond any imagination. This is how that very day I decided that sooner or later I’d have to go to the Chouara Tannery in Morocco. And finally, here I am!
What is a tannery in Morocco?
So, to recap, a tannery in Morocco is a place where animal skins and hides are stripped of hair, degreased, salted, and soaked in order to stop decomposition. Then, they are made soft and dyed to create beautiful leather items.
What makes a tannery in Morocco even more attractive is the fact that animal skins and hides are manually processed. The fact that the process is still the same as it has been for generations makes the tanneries one of the attractive things to see in the country.
A tannery in Morocco is composed of numerous stone vessels filled with a vast range of processing liquids and dyes which when seen from the surrounding terraces looks like a tray of watercolours. Only men are involved at the leather tannery in Morocco. They work under the hot sun, standing waist deep in dye pots, and yes, in poor hygienic sanitary conditions. A tanner earns approximately 2500 dirhams per month.
Commonly the tanneries are built on the site of water sources because a lot of water is needed to work the leather.
A bit of history about the Tanneries in Fes.
The history of Fes goes all the way back to the late 8th century AD and historical sources say that the leather work in Fes was a major industry even in the city’s early history. At that time there were a total of 86 tanning workshops in the city, which later, from the 13th to 15th century, became around a hundred. This number continued to be expanded but without ever losing their original characteristics.
There are now 3 main ancient leather tanneries in Fes, and Chouara Tannery is certainly one of the best. It is not to be missed if you are visiting Fes. Actually, I could almost say that that the Chouara Tannery must be on your list of things to do in Morocco, even if you are not landing straight in Fes.
Something about the 3 main tanneries in Fes.
The three tanneries that are still active in Fes are Sidi Moussa, Ain Azliten, and the focus of this article, Dar Dbagh al-Chouara, meaning “the tanning house”. They all are currently functioning as large-scale cooperatives with their own administration.
Sidi Moussa Tannery is also called Guerniz Tannery. It is located in the heart of Fes el-Bali, the historic medina of Fez in the Guerniz neighbourhood, near the Zawiya of Moulay Idris II and the Nejjarine Museum. Historically, the Sidi Moussa Tannery specialized in treating cow skins. Along with the Chouara Tannery, Sidi Moussa Tannery is considered one of the oldest ones in town even though it’s lesser popular. Sidi Moussa Tannery was renovated in 2015.
Ain Azliten Tannery is the smaller one located in the Ain Azliten neighbourhood on the northern edge of Fez El Bali. Also Ain Azliten Tannery has recently undergone renovations, improving the working conditions and living quarters of the workers. A large number of the dye basins have been replaced with concrete walls, however there were still a few of the old tiled bowls among them. If you hate massive tourism sites, then Ain Azliten Tannery might be the right place for you because it’s not very crowded.
Both Guerniz and Ain Azliten are very fascinating, but the most beautiful Tannery in Fez remains the Chouara Tannery. It is the largest and the oldest one.
Chouara Tannery is at the edge of the medina in an area with easy access for vehicles. So if you don’t want to walk, the easiest way to reach it is by taxi. I went for this second option and on my way back I walked. The Chouara Tannery is reputed to be the oldest tannery in the world, and the site has not changed since the 11th century. Unlike the other leather tanneries in Fez, Chouara Tannery is astonishingly photogenic. It’s a popular place to visit for two main reasons: it’s one of the most fascinating and eye-catching sights in Fez, but it’s also the best place in the whole of Morocco to buy Moroccan leather items.
Tip: If it is your first time in Fez, it’s easy to get lost in the medina. It can become very hard to locate these tanneries, so it might be necessary to find a local to reach the place. In this case, make sure they are taking you to the place you want. You have to pay attention. It is pretty hard for the first timers in Fez to identify the tanneries, and since locals get a small commission when the tourists buy leather products in Fez, they try to take you to the involved sellers. Since the tanneries have more or less the same layout, they take advantage.
It happened to me that when I asked for directions to the Chouara Tannery, they took me to the Guerniz Tannery. Fortunately, I remembered that the pictures I had seen previously were different from the location they took me to. So, I could insist in order to get to the one I wanted.
How To Visit the Chouara Tannery in Fes.
Even though you may be able to smell the tannery before you arrive, it is hidden away. Since it’s surrounded by buildings on all four sides (workshops/shops and housing), you should know that there is only one way to visit the Chouara Tannery: You need to get to the terraces of these buildings to get to see the tannery.
Almost every shop/workshop has a terrace overlooking the tannery because they need the terrace for their leather processing. Commonly all of them offer beautiful views of the tannery.
And, because it is a good way to capture the interest of tourists in order to later sell them some leather items, almost everyone allows you to freely enter their shops/workshops to reach the terrace.
Well, they say visiting Chouara Tannery is free. Yes, it’s true, but know that the moment you set foot there, you’ll be constantly asked for money from everyone you encounter. And the shopkeepers? Since their main purpose is selling leather items, they will insist, and they hardly let you exit their shop until you buy something. If you are not interested in buying their products once in the shop, climb the stairs all the way up to the terrace, take some good photos, enjoy the visit, and leave the shop without saying much to the sellers. I suggest you give some Dirhams (expect to pay around 20 – 50 MAD for a tour) to the guy who guided you through. If instead you intend to buy, bargain till it’s half the price. Goods are really overpriced in the shops near the tannery.
My friend Katrina and I paid € 50.00 per head to go down close to dye pots to see the working processes and to get a real insight. I know, that was a big amount of money!!! At first we tried to negotiate, but they didn’t want to lower the price because they assumed it wasn’t possible. As they said that the money was divided among the numerous associations of the Chouara Tannery, it got to the point where we decided not to insist. We both wanted to try this experience so bad. So we paid. After all, this has been on my bucket list for years. I’ll also tell you that it was such an educational experience. Although the rainbow colours from the terraces made the location amazing, I was really shocked to learn what actually goes on inside at the Chouara Tannery.
Anyway, know that if I could go back to the Chouara Tannery, I would definitely pay this amount again to get close to the dye pots to see the men at work.
Tourist Trap at the Chouara Tannery.
Since the Chouara tannery in Fes is one of the main tourist attractions in Morocco, it goes without saying that even those landing elsewhere in the country, at some point during their vacation, come to visit the Chouara tannery. So, this is a nest for scams in Morocco. Before buying, always take your time to decide and make sure that you go through all the shops or at least most of them. The more you explore, the more appealing products and prices you’ll see. Don’t let yourself be convinced by the first high-pressure man you encounter.
I’m making this point because we were fooled by the first man who tried to sell us something. We bought some argon cream bottles for 50 Dirham each in one of those shops down close to the dye pots which we found for ten Dirham later at the Jemaa El Fna Square in Marrakesh.
Get ready for the smell.
If you haven’t already heard, all the tanneries in Fes have a very unpleasant smell, due to the pigeon poop and cow urine they use for the leather tanning process. When you get close to the area, you’ll start to smell the tannery even before you see it. It is pungent.
But upon arrival, the first seller who will invite you to enter his shop will offer you a sprig of mint which helps to overcome the stink a bit if you keep it close to your nose.
Leather Tanning Process at Chouara Tannery.
As I already mentioned, not only have the physical structures of the Chouara Tannery in Morocco been left intact, but it’s also said that the techniques used haven’t changed since ancient times. The leather tanners still carry out their work completely by hand, without the aid of modern machinery.
Since there is no machinery involved and it is all done manually, the tanning process in Chouara Tannery takes days, sometimes even weeks. It depends on the type of animal skin or colour etc.
Once the animals (sheep, cows, goats, and other such animals) are slaughtered and skinned, the hides are soaked and superficially cleaned.
The hides are first soaked in a mixture of cow urine, water, and salt. This mixture helps to break down the tough leather, to loosen the fat, flesh, and hair on them. The hides are soaked for two to three days after which tanners remove excess hair fibes and fat in order to prepare the hides for dyeing.
The hides are then soaked in another set of vats containing a mixture of water and pigeon poop. Pigeon poop contains ammonia that acts as softener that allows the hides to become malleable so that they can absorb the dye. The tanner uses his bare feet to knead the hides for up to three hours to achieve the desired softness.
Then they are dried in the sun.
The hides are then placed in dyeing pits containing natural vegetable dyes, such as poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow). Other materials used for dyeing include pomegranate powder, which is rubbed on the hides to turn them yellow, and olive oil, which will make them shiny. Once the leather is dyed it is hung up to dry.
The finished leather is then sold to craftsmen who create slippers, jackets, poufs, footrests, skirts, shoes, and belts as well as wallets, handbags, furniture, and other leather accessories. Many of these products make their way into the European markets.
Important things to know about the Chouara Tannery in Fes
- Get ready to say no over and over again, and the moment you decide to buy, always negotiate. Buying leather goods in Fez can be cheaper if you are a good negotiator. The prices they give tourists are outrageous.
- It is not necessary to hire a guide to visit the Chouara Tannery in Fez. Just enter the shops and ask for a free tour, and the salesperson will give you the rundown on how the hides are treated and which dyes come from which plants. But if you feel more comfortable with hiring someone, then you can ask your hotel to arrange for a licenced tourist guide. However, you should be aware that having a guide doesn’t mean having his support when you are scammed, because they help each other to scam the tourists.
- If you are not interested in leather items, know that they will try to sell you something else for which Morocco is famous : argon beauty products, lanterns, carpets, and so on.
- Sometimes in order to be able to sell, some of them become arrogant and aggressive. For this reason, you may end up purchasing some of the Moroccan goods in the shops. However, I would also add that while they may scare you, they are not dangerous. So, avoid buying if you are really not interested.
- The opening hours of the Chouara Tannery largely depend on the shops’ opening hours, which are normally open daily from around 8 am to 7 pm. You may find that on holy days in Morocco and during Ramadan time, the shops may be closed at certain hours for prayer.
- If you wish to get a closer look at the tannery, you can go inside the tannery. Even though the amount you pay for this is pretty high, entering the tannery is an experience that I would suggest to everyone who loves photography and history. The tanning process is really very interesting.
- Entering the tannery in Fez and taking a look from above are two different things. One doesn’t replace the other.
- You also have to know that the guides/tours will gain commission from your purchase, so the shops will bump prices to compensate for that.
- The guide will explain that skins are processed according to centuries-old tradition. I mean using cow urine, pigeon poop, and natural dye. However, there are rumours that these ingredients have been replaced nowadays with cheaper chemicals and colours.
- Tanneries are commonly very hidden, so to help you find them you may need a local. Know that this always comes with a small cost. No one will give you directions for free.
Is the Chouara Tannery worth visiting?
The Chouara Tannery in Fes feels very touristy, and this definitely is the down side of this experience. But let me say that it leaves no one indifferent. It will truly take you back in time.
This way of working no longer exists and it is something that you will see only there, in Fes. Obviously, for reasons I have already mentioned above, I won’t suggest this place to animalists or to those who are particularly picky. You need to get a bit outside of your comfort zone, so you have to figure out whether it’s worth it to you or not.
The Chouara Tannery in Fez, along with the Pink Lake in Dakar and the Hindus River Life in Varanasi are certainly among the most fascinating and eye-catching sights I ever had the privilege to see. But I personally love everything that takes me out of my daily life.