The ancient tanning pits of Fez, Morocco
The tanning pits of Fez have changed little since the 11th century. Follow your nose to find one of Morocco’s most extraordinary sights.
You’ll smell the famous leather tanning pits of Fez long before you see them.
The combination of thousands of animal skins and the solution used to treat them create an aroma that is acrid, unmistakable and somewhat overpowering.
Chouara tannery is largest of the three tanning pits of Fez, and the oldest. Leather has been tanned here since in the 11th century. The methods haven’t changed.
First the skins of cows, sheep, goats, and camels are first placed into stone vats containing a mixture of water, limestone and pigeon droppings.
The limestone removes hair from the skins. The acid in the pigeon droppings softens the hides.
Three days later the skins are removed and washed.
A colour is then chosen and the leather placed in the appropriate vat of dye.
There are different days for different colours. Each colour is created from natural ingredients like henna, indigo and pomegranate powder.
The pits are surrounded by three-story mud brick buildings. Most house leather shops, many with viewing platforms.
You’ll be offered a sprig of mint to stick up your nose to try and block out the smell as you look out across this medieval work pit.
You’ll notice signs saying ‘Free Viewing Platform’ but nothing comes free.
The shop owners will expect you to look at the leather goods on sale, maybe even but something.
At the very least, they’ll want you to give them a tip.
You’ll find plenty of guides offering to take you into the pits too.
For as little as 10 MAD (£0.85), you’ll be able to peer into individual vats and watch the whole back-breaking process up close.
The tanners often get waist-deep in the solutions, so expect to get splashed.
A word of warning: the stench is even stronger here. And your guide will probably ask for another 10 MAD as a tip.
The pit at Chouara was renovated in 2006. Some of the stone vats were restored and a more efficient draining system put in place.
Some of the surrounding buildings were given a lick of paint as well, and for a while the pit looked freakishly pristine and new.
Thankfully, the tanning solution and dyes soon took their toll and Chouara looks – and smells – like it always has.
And remains one of the most extraordinary sights in Morocco.
How to visit the Chouara Tannery in Fez
Address: Rue Talaa Kebira, Fez, Morocco
Google Map: Chouara Tannery
Note that the tannery sits in the heart of Fes El Bali, an ancient walled medina full of narrow lanes, many of them unmarked and unnamed.
Finding the tannery can be tricky, even using Google Maps. There’ll be no shortage of young guys offering to show you the way.
Whether you take up their offer is a personal choice, but know that even if they offer their services for free they will still expect a ‘tip’. And they’ll get a commission too if you buy anything from the leather shop they will inevitably take you too.
Our advice is to use Google Maps to get you as close as possible to the pits.
And then follow your nose!
Main image: A worker in the Chouara Tannery in Fez (© Parker Hilton/Unsplash)