Anyone’s who’s even heard of Morocco will know Marrakech is shoppers paradise. Leather bags, belts and slippers, jewellery, carpets, and crafts are beautifully laid out in the souks and boutique shops to tempt you to reach for your stash of dirhams. But how many of you know about the length process from animal skin to beautiful new embroidered handbag?
Although the most famous tanneries are in Fez, I visited one in Marrakech which was just as impressive (and smelly). I paid the equivalent of a few pounds to a semi-English speaking guide who showed us around and explained what was going on and why. As we entered, we were given a “Moroccan gas mask” – a few sprigs of mint to stiff on as the smell of the tanneries is said to be nauseating. We didn’t actually find it too bad.
The tanners use hundreds of concrete vats to process the skins that are bought on the city’s markets. Tanners were traditionally considered as being on the edges of society.Many of the workers and their families live around the tanneries. Their skills are passed on through the male line.The apprentices are not allowed to perform some of the more difficult tasks, which are reserved for the master craftsmen.Hair is first removed from the skins. The tanners still use techniques dating from medieval times. Legend has it that the tanners are descended from demons who lived under a black king. He condemned them to their vocation for failing to obey his rules. Some workers believe that the tanneries are inhabited by the demons’ spirits.
They are then softened in a nauseating concoction of pigeon droppings.Goat skins are rubbed with pomegranate powder to colour them yellow. Olive oil is then used to make them shiny.Other traditional products, such as bark, saffron, henna and poppy are also used to dye the skins.
The vats used to dye the skins are kept covered during the day to prevent Marrakech’s bright sunlight from affecting the process. Stretched-out skins are left to dry in the sun beside the tanneries, which are located in the Bab Debbagh district, a 15-minute walk from the hustle of Marrakech’s main Djemaa el-Fna square.The tanning process takes about 20 days from start to finish. The leather is sold to craftspeople who make Moroccan slippers, called babouches, as well as wallets, belts and pouffes from the sheep and goat skins. Cow and camel hide is used to make bigger items.
The products are sold a short distance from the tanneries in Marrakech’s famous souks – a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways.