Tanneries, a Colourful Spectacle
The medina of Fes houses three ancient tanneries that tempt flocks of tourists to explore these traditional leather workshops. Their courtyards with vibrant basins filled with dye, are like a water colour palette of Vincent Van Gogh providing a beautiful spectacle. Marrakesh and other Moroccan towns once contained their own tanneries but due to the pungent odour of the dyes they have mostly been moved out of the walled town centres and been rebuilt elsewhere and hence have lost their charm. Fes remains one of the few cities where the original workshops can be viewed still today.
Avoid the Tourist Traps
The Chouawra Tannery, the largest and most famous in Fes, has a reputation for being over crowded with groups, some even call it a tourist trap due to the persistent guides and vendors trying to cheat money out of the curious visitors by charging them a fee to take a look at the tannery or selling them overpriced leather goods from the surrounding shops.
Passing Through the Souk
While I had been keen to explore this legendary tannery, we decided to explore one of the smaller tanneries in Fes, the Ain Azliten. It lies well hidden in the Northern part of the medina and is rarely seen by most tourists. Thankfully our lovely host at Riad Dar Gnaoua drew us a map to find the entrance. Winding through the warren of alleys, passing through residential areas with kids playing football and the heart of the medina, and passing through the souk, lined with Moroccan handicraft shops, we ignored the attempts of teenagers to lurk us somewhere else by their persistent and annoying shouts that we were heading the wrong way, thankfully we had been warned of these attempts and thus were able to ignore them and find out own way.
The Sheepskin Tannery
Finally, taking one of the main arteries through the medina, Rue Talaa Kbira, we stumbled onto the sheepskin tannery, on the corner of Rue Bouhaj. Dyed and cuddly, natural sheepskins grazed the entrance to the otherwise bustling tannery. Stepping inside the courtyard, we could see piled high the remnants of the fluffy animals, including cut off hooves and legs. Workers were hard at work, cleaning the sheepskins and discarding any unwanted animal remains. Watching the tanners, we were approached by a local guy, offering to show us to the Ain Azliten Tannery, his English was surprisingly good and he did not seem to be so pushy like some of the other people who had tried to help in Morocco in the past.
Setting Foot Into Ain Aizliten Tannery
He led us out of the sheepskin tannery, down along the narrow alley of Rue Bouhaj where he briefly stopped at a tiny shop to collect some fresh mint. Handing the mint to us, he told us to use it against the unfamiliar stench of the tannery, that is well known and advertised. Entering through a narrow doorway that might have just as well been to a riad or locals house, he explained that we had set foot onto the premises of the Ain Aizliten Tannery. Weirdly, the smell that reached our sensitive noses was far less pungent than we had anticipated, perhaps the mint had been a waste of few dirhams. The smell comes from the ammonia released by the basins when they tip pigeon poo collected from the medina walls into the coloured water to tan the hides.
Getting Close Up to the Dye Basins
To our right we saw a small cubicle belonging to the guard of the tannery. Our guide asked us to make a small donation for the workers to the guard, equal to an entrance fee. Shortly after we stepped out onto the centre of the tannery, the courtyard dotted with dye basins that I had been keen to discover. Unlike Choura Tannery, where you are only allowed to watch the spectacle from one of the surrounding balconies (unless you pay a hefty fee) we were straight down where the action took place. The guide told me to be careful due to the slippery surface and let me get a close up of some of the basins.
A Century Old Tradition
Ain Azliten Tannery had recently undergone renovations, improving the working conditions and living quarters of the workers. A large number of the dye basins had received concrete walls, however there were still a few of the old, tiled bowls among them. The darker colours lay protected under the balconies, shaded from the sunlight to stop the dyes from loosing their colour. The guide explained the animal hides were still processed according to century old tradition, using cow urine, pigeon poop and natural dye. However there have been rumours that these ingredients have been replaced over the last few years for cheaper chemicals and colours.
Mesmerizing to Watch the Tanners at Work
Whatever the case may be, it was mesmerizing to watch the tanners, some bare feet, others protected by protective rubber boots and dungarees, working, immersed in the dye filled holes. Taking the stairs up to the balcony, surrounding the entire courtyard, we got a better overview of the action below. The basins appeared like multi-coloured honeycomb from this angle. The railings of the balconies were used to dry the leather skins, some glowing blood red, others a golden yellow. Yellow leather used to be solely worn by men, I am sure western women would not approve of such a sexist statement…
Meeting the Tanners
The small cells along the balconies provide the tanners with workspace away from the stifling sun for most of the year. Above these rooms the workers have their primitive sleeping and living quarters, some even share the space with others. Generally the tanners welcomed us warmly, smiling and proudly showing off their hard work. We were even allowed to touch some of the dried leather, soft to the touch like a babies skin.
I could have spent hours watching them and taking photos but the guide said he wanted to show us something else and we left the tannery at the back entrance, where we entered an area of small shacks, home to an array of second hand shops and handicraft workers. In one of the shacks Jerome was fascinated by a drum maker, using the processed leathers to construct traditional Moroccan drums, some were even fashioned with ray skins. I was more interested in the animal skins laid out to dry in the sun on the sloping hillside behind the workshops like giant puzzle pieces, they added colourful spots to the otherwise barren landscape. It also served as a great viewpoint over the sprawling medina and onwards, with the mountains in the background.
Moroccan Second Hand Furniture
Upon leaving Ain Aizliten and the workshops we discovered stalls filled to the brim with intricately carved wooden doors, weathered windows with coloured glass panes and other Moroccan furniture and other abandoned building treasures. A true treasure trove for anyone wanting to renovate a house in Morocco or abroad.
Get a Real Insight Into the Tanning Process
We thanked our guide and gave him a generous few dirham for our tour through Ain Ailiten Tannery. We were glad to have chosen first a visit to this small, hidden tannery in the Fes Medina. We appreciated it even more after being able to compare it to the Choura Tannery, which we would visit a few days later. Any visitor wanting to get a real insight into the hundred year old tradition of the tanneries in Morocco and to get close to its workers should make Ain Aizliten a priority place to visit in Fes.
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