The ancient tanneries of Marrakech are the perhaps crude, but very functional industrial areas where animal skins are put through the stages of a process called “tanning”. Essentially, it is where animal skins undergo the transformation from raw animal to workable leather.
For many years, the tanneries have been an attraction for visitors who wish to learn more about the process of creating leather; as well as the industry in Morocco. Unfortunately in more recent times, the tanneries have become the subject of several negative reviews online. A quick google search of “Marrakech tanneries”, will surely give you copious terrible accounts of the experiences other travellers have had. These experiences and reviews are undoubtedly off-putting for other’s planning to holiday in Marrakech; but we would implore people to not be afraid of venturing into the tanneries, provided they read this article first!
Throughout history, the tanneries of Marrakech have remained the same in an architectural sense, but have dramatically changed in their infrastructure. Once owned exclusively by several families; the houses surrounding the tanneries were only inhabited by the men who worked in the industry, along with their wives and children. Nowadays, many of these houses have become co-operatives and leather shops, in an effort to keep up with the tourist industry within Marrakech.
We recently visited one of these co-operatives, Chez Hassan Berbere. Hassan (known locally and by friends as Hassan Berbere) is the over-all owner of the house in which this co-operative was established. The house and the rights to the use of the tannery, were passed down to him by his father who had been a tannery worker all of his adult life. In an effort to create more income for his community, Hassan established the co-operative set up. The house comprises of two shops stocking a variety of leather goods from belts to babouche, poofes to purses, as well as two terraces with fantastic views over the tanneries and beyond (you can even see the backdrop of the Atlas mountains).
We decided to take a tour with Mohammed Al Hala, one of the members of the co-operative. He had a really relaxed and friendly approach to showing us around, as well as being very knowledgable and well versed in English. He told us that he likes to take a “no pressure” approach to showing people around, as he understands that it is very problematic for people to be hassled. He explained that for him, it is very important that the visitors first and foremost feel that they have learned something from their tour. His motto is “If someone arrives smiling, they should leave smiling”, that way when they recall the experience they will be encouraged to return and bring their friends.
To begin our tour, Mohammed guided us up to the terrace viewing point. Through a large window, we were able to get a decent birds-eye view of the tanneries; and looking out beyond the tannery we could see the beautiful red hues of Marrakech, with dotted palm trees and a backdrop of the Atlas Mountains. This makes for a great photo opportunity, so be sure to bring your camera along!
Following this, we headed downstairs to the entrance of the tannery. At the door, Mohammed handed us a generous handful of mint leaves and instructed us to crush them and hold to our nose. This proved to be very effective in masking the stench coming out of the tannery pots – but we did visit on a cool day (a hot day would likely be significantly stinkier)!
Mohammed gave a clear, step-by-step description of the process of creating leather from start to finish. We saw a demonstration of the raw skins (with hair) being rubbed in sea salt to clean off any bacteria. The sodium chloride in sea salt is a powerful anti-bacterial substance and so this is a very effective, natural cleansing routine. Removing the bacteria means that the skins will not rot or go mouldy once they’re used as leather.
The skins are then coated in a thick paste made from water and powdered limestone (‘jia’ in local dialect). They sit coated in this paste for 15 days, which improves elasticity of the skin so that it can be stretched into whole pieces of leather, without tearing.
A natural ammonium chloride solution is made by a fairly unpleasant technique. Pigeon droppings are left in a vat of cold water for several days, to create a liquid solution in which the leather is soaked. We already know that pigeon droppings contain uric acid, because we can see the effect it has on our cars! This ammonium chloride solution (although stinky) is the best option in terms of not leaving a foul smell on the leather. It serves as a natural bleaching agent to take the natural colour out of the skins, in order for them to be dyed later. We found several dogs and cats were taking a rest on the edge of the large ammonia filled vats, clearly the odour wasn’t unpleasant to their senses!
The skins are then hung out to dry, before the hair and flesh is removed with a sharp scraping tool. The pieces are then stretched by hand and sold by the kilo. The leather is not dyed in the tanneries, but many pieces are taken to the dyers souk (named Bab D’bah).
After our tour, we were given a sweet Moroccan tea to enjoy and had an opportunity to browse the shops. Mohammed showed us examples of products made from different kinds of leather. It was really interesting to be able to feel the difference in quality of leather from a range of animal skins; including sheep, goat, cow and camel leather! We didn’t ever feel under pressure to make a purchase, but with so many beautiful items on offer it is difficult to resist. We even felt that we wanted to leave a tip with Mohammed, for the tour and his time.
After the tour, Hassan explained that he has a long term aim to expand the co-operative. The house next door belongs to his sister, and she would like to be able to convert her place into a business alongside her brother. Due to the large production of leather in Marrakech, it is necessary for them to also compete in the tourist industry to make a fair living wage. He hopes that visitors will be encouraged to find his place and take a tour of the tanneries, as for him it is very important that this industry is kept current and alive.
You can find Chez Hassan Berbere on the “leather route”, by using our FREE Marrakech Riad Travel Guide app.
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