Lying to the east of Marrakech, Bab El Debbagh provides entrance to one of the oldest districts of the city, the tanneries. Of all of the 19 gates that puncture the red pisé-cement ramparts of Marrakech, Bab El Debbagh is the only one to be named after a craft, demonstrating the historic importance of the leather trade throughout the city.
The tanners are said to have been the first to settle in Marrakech during the city’s formation and the tanneries still stand in the same location thousands of years later, at the city’s most easterly point. The original tradesmen chose this location for two reasons: as the tanneries were distanced from the centre of the city, so that the smell did not affect the central residential areas, and so that they were close to the seasonal waters of the Oued Issil river, as water was needed in the tanning process.
The tanning process itself, as with many traditional practices in Morocco, is deeply embedded with symbolism. Indeed, there are a number of competing legends and myths concerning the gate. One such legend suggests that 7 virgins are buried at the foot of the gate, and that women who desire a child should offer them henna and candles. Another story claims that the Tanners Gate is inhabited by Malik Gharub, a genie who led a failed revolt against Sidna Suleyman, the Black King, only to be condemned to tan a cowhide for eternity.
Bab El Debbagh not only functions as a gateway into the city, but it is also the start point of our ‘Leather and Tanning’ Medina walk, a curated tour which traces the significance of the historic leather industry across Marrakech’s old town. If you would like to find out more about the free MarrakechRiad app, the ‘Leather and Tanning’ walk or any of our other Medina walks then our Riad staff would be happy to help.
The traditional process for tanning leather is undoubtedly smelly, yet this smell is a small price to pay for witnessing such a unique and interesting interesting sight.; where else would you get the chance to see the men tread and rinse skins in mysterious liquids and dyes before scraping and stretching the hides using traditional techniques. Although it is possible to see the tanneries without a guide, it is a lot easier with; it is important to agree a price first and beware of excessive demands.
For the price of a guide you should also be gifted a sprig of mint to hold to your face to mask the smell. However, here at Marrakech Riad we would like to give you a taste (thankfully, not a literal taste) of the traditional Tanning process so you can witness the Marrakesh tanneries without the need for mint and without haggling for a guide.
Step 1 – Iferd
The traditional process of tanning leather, as witnessed in the Marrakech Tanneries, begins with soaking the skins in a fermented solution of pigeon poo and tannery waste, known as iferd. The hide ferments I the iferd for 3 day in the summer and up to 6 days in the winter before they are squeezed out and left to dry. The process of tanning skins is symbolic: according to tanners, this first step of the tanning process is where the skin eats, drinks and sleeps before being ‘reborn’ from the water.
Step 2 – Lime and Argan-kernel pits
After fermenting in the iferd, the skins are squeezed out and put to dry. Hair is scraped off before the skins go into a pit of lime and argan-kernel ash. This is a good example of how Moroccan society functions as an economical, environmentally friendly society, making sure very little goes to waste and reusing byproducts of other industries. This lime and argan-kernel both lasts 15-20 days in the summer and 30 in the winter, working to remove any remaining flesh and hair to prepare the skin for the tanning products.
Step 3 – Qasriya
After being washed, the skins spend 24 hours in a qasriya, a round pit of ye more pigeon poo and water. At this stage the skin becomes thinner and stretcher. At this qasriya stage, the skin is said to receive naks, a spirit.
Step 4 – The Tanning process begins
Then begins the actual tanning process. The skins are scraped with pottery shards and beaten with alum, oil and water in preparation to receive the dye. Traditional tanners only ever use plants to dye their leather – that is, roots, bark, seeds and fruits. The solution depends on the type of hide used – cow, camel, goat, sheep – and the colour the leather will be dyed. For example, the infamous yellow babouche is traditionally made using pomegranates!! The dye is a applied by hand, as it has always been, before the skin is left to dry out in the hot Moroccan sun.
Step 5 – A Smooth Finish
Finally, the skins are repeatedly stretched between two ropes to make them smoother and more flexible. This traditional process is difficult work and is only carried out by the younger, more able-bodied men. This treading stage is said to give the skin life again and thus leather is born to be created into handcrafted thus leather products including travel bags and satchels, poofs, babouche slippers and more.
Here at Marrakech Riad we strongly advice you visit the Marrakech Tanneries during your visit to the red city so you can witness the unique, traditional process for yourself. You can find the Marrakech tanneries at the beginning of our ‘Leather and Tanning’ Medina walk which guides across the ancient city revealing the secrets of the traditional trades. If you would like to find out more about the free MarrakechRiad app, the ‘Leather and Tanning’ walk or any of our other medina walks, then our Riad staff would be happy to help.
It is surprisingly common to keep chickens in the Marrakech Medina, they are fed on scraps and kept mainly for eggs. When I first started visiting Marrakech regularly five years ago there were a particularly fine looking group of Andalusian hens that used to scratch around at the top of the well known Derb Semarine running from the Marrakech Museum to the main square. Unfortunately the shop where they ‘lived’ now sells Western Perfumes and he Andalusians are long gone.
I visited The Tanneries recently to take pictures for the Marrakech Guide on this site and was amused to come accross a chicken, a reminder that the tanners both live and work in the close community there. She even had a chick which can’t have been more than a few days old.
We feel the best way to discover the Marrakech Medina is to hasten slowly and allow time to appreciate the detail of the tapestry of an extraordinary way of life that has been established there for centuries and in many ways remains unchanged. Our Marrakech Riads are your perfect oasis of calm from which to explore.
The famous Marrakech Tanneries are located to the East of the Medina and offer a fascinating opportunity to see an ancient craft alive and well in the twenty first century. The tanners use their skill and judgement to progress animal hides through a succession of processes essentially unchanged from those used by their forbears centuries ago. Many of the tanneries offer guided tours and there are opportunities to purchase finished leather goods at reasonable prices.