Wake up and smell the Chouara tannery.

It’s true what they say, a picture can tell a thousand words. I love looking through my travel photos on Instagram, reminiscing on where I’ve been and what I’ve done. But sight isn’t the only sense to be aroused when travelling…

Sometimes a single smell can bring flashbacks of a time, a place, a feeling, even years after you first smelt it. Some smells will stick with you forever, and when whiffed for only a split second, can conjure up many memories. Psychologists believe that, due to the way our brains interpret odours (which is different to the way they interpret sight, sound and touch), our sense of smell is a lot more successful in triggering emotions and memories.

During my 28-and-a-bit years I’ve absorbed many of these “memory trigger” smells. The smell of a Witch™ tea tree stick always reminds me of a school French exchange to Rennes. The tropical scent of Herbal Essences shampoo when washing my hair always makes me think of holidays in Marbella when I was a teenager. And the dry, sweet aroma of a shisha pipe reminds me of the warm night air, sitting around the pool, chatting with new-found friends in Tunisia.

And then there is the pungent, penetrating smell of urine, rotting flesh and stagnant water. It is the smell of Chouara tannery, and it’s one that cannot be easily forgotten.

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Chouara tannery in the Fez medina.

Fez – the third largest city in Morocco – was founded in the 8th Century, and is now home to over one million people. Moroccans regard it as the intellectual, cultural and spiritual centre of their country. And in 1981, Fez was listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, in recognition of its cultural heritage. The city has a distinct, traditional charm, and much of it has remained unchanged for centuries.

High walls surround the Old Town medina, hiding away and protecting one of the best preserved medieval cities in the world. Pass through one of the beautiful gates into the medina, and you’ll be right inside the heart of the city. The narrow, car-free passages that radiate away from the gates pulsate like veins, as hundreds of merchants and craftsmen sell an assortment of handmade and homegrown products. Dates, fish, spices, copper urns, carpets and musical instruments. Whatever you want or need, you’ll be able to find it here in Fez.

The city is also famous for its leather goods, which are made in one of the three ancient tanneries inside the medina. The largest and oldest is the Chouara tannery, which is over a thousand years old.

Spread out like a tray of beautiful watercolour paints, it is the place where cow, sheep, goat and camel hides are taken to be preserved, dyed, and turned into the hundreds of handbags, jackets and wallets that are sold in the surrounding souks.

Oh, and pouffes. So many gorgeous pouffes (I actually bought the teal one on the right here):

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All these beautiful leather goods are made completely by hand, without the need for modern machinery, with the process pretty much unchanged since medieval times. All this makes a visit to the tanneries an absolute must, if you can bear the smell.

How do Moroccan’s make leather?

To give you an idea, the process begins with the raw animal skins being soaked in a mixture of cow urine, pigeon poop, quicklime, salt and water. Sounds disgusting, but this tried and tested method has been used for over thousand years, so they must be doing something right.

The quicklime helps to remove the hair from the skins, while the acid in the pigeon poop softens the skins. They are kept in this massive vat, which is turned repeatedly by hand:

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After three days of steeping in this concoction, the skins are hauled out and washed, then  draped over the balconies to dry. Yes, the smell is really as bad as you can imagine:

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Once dry, they’re taken inside to be scraped clean. The hair that hasn’t already fallen off is sheared with a super sharp blade, and the leather (because that’s what it is by now), is buffed. Again, all this is done by hand, 100% manpower. This worker let me watch him work for a bit, it was fascinating. By now the smell of urine has been replaced by the stench of sweat. These guys work hard:

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The leather was incredibly soft and very supple. This is all the fur that was scraped off (it looks like pencil shavings):

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These hides are all prepped and ready for dyeing. They are made from camel skins:

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Next comes the dyeing process. All the colours derive from natural products: poppy flowers for red, orange from henna, blue from indigo, and yellow from saffron. Because saffron is expensive though, yellow leather is produced using a small amount of the spice mixed with oil, hand-rubbed directly onto the skins.

Tannery workers plunge the skins into the colour wells, leaving them there for a few days to absorb each hue. Bare-legged men in little shorts and bare feet, then stand thigh-high in the wells, stomping on the skins, swishing them around like a human washing machine.

The wells below were full of blue dye, using different concentrates of indigo to create various shades:

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Once they’ve fully absorbed the dye to the desired intensity, the skins are pulled out and left to dry on surrounding rooftops again, before being moved inside. These goat skins had been dyed using a saffron-oil rub. Leather dyed with saffron is considered the most valuable, and is traditionally used to make pointy-toed slippers called “Babouche”:

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The finished hides are then buffed with oils, to lock in the colour. They’re then trimmed, ready to craft into whatever their final destiny will be: bag, shoe, belt, wallet or pouffe.

These leathers look like they’re all made from the same material, but to touch they all felt very different. The texture depends on what they’ve been made from: camel, sheep, cow, or goat skin.

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As I mentioned, I actually bought a pouffe from the tannery (after haggling a decent price, of course). Once it was safely back in the UK, I had to air it on my balcony for a few weeks, because it absolutely stank. Five months after my trip to Morocco and it does still smell faintly of Chouara, but it’s parked in my living room, being enjoyed by everyone:

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American author Helen Keller once said: “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” I couldn’t agree with her more.

Now, whenever I catch a whiff of that familiar farmyard smell, instead of pegging my nose with my fingers and exclaiming “peeeeww, that stinks!”, I’ll be reminded of my trip to Fez – its the smell of a city steeped in history, tradition and pigeon poo.

39 thoughts on “Wake up and smell the Chouara tannery.

  1. I watched a program about this a few years ago, and yes they mentioned that the smell can be awful! But the end products are amazing aren’t they? I really love the pouffes or anything Moroccan really. It’s on my travel wish list, one day I’ll get there! 😉

  2. I love the smell of leather. Sounds like a very interesting experience for you. I agree that smells can bring back a memory. I’ve had it happen a lot. It really is cool how the brain works when it comes to smells and memories being connected.

  3. Beautiful photos! It looks like a really interesting place to visit. I’ve always wanted to visit Morocco but probably wouldn’t now with a little one. The pouffe looks fab!

    1. Thanks so much for your kind comments Debbie 🙂 It’s a shame you won’t get to visit Morocco soon, but maybe when the babies are all grown up you could visit! x

  4. I personally think it’s fascinating how smells can transport you to the past. You’re right, it’s not all about beautiful places (and photos) but about experiencing it with all the senses.

  5. I love looking back at travel photo’s – it really helps trigger wonderful memories. Love your photos, looks like you had an amazing time

  6. One of my mummy’s favourite bags was a satchel that she picked up in Marrakech. It was camel skin from one of the leather souks and she remembers the smell of the local tannery. Such a fantastic adventure.

    1. Sounds like your mummy is as much a fan of travel as I am! 😛 I hope one day when you’re a little older she can take you to all of the beautiful places she’s been x

    1. Yeah, I can understand that it probably isn’t the best place for vegans and vegetarians – but it is interesting how the craftsmanship hasn’t changed much over thousands of years! x

  7. Wow… I don’t know if I want to try and imagine the smell! You’ve painted a rather smelly picture but certainly looks like an amazing place to visit! We didn’t go to Fez when we were in Morocco but I’d love to explore more of the country if we ever go back.

  8. At least I know what the leather making process smells like now lol. I like that you now associate it with your trip to Fez rather than the farmyard process!

  9. Such a beautiful place… I would love to visit it one day! It’s so good to be able to experience a country with a more cultural view point!

  10. I love how informational and detailed your article is. So many people take photos of this but never, ever talk about the smell. Had no idea.

  11. This was heartbreaking for me to see how animals are exploited when there are so many options like pineapple skin leather and mushroom leather already out in the market. This is a place I would never like to visit and I wish places like this use alternatives for which a life doesn’t have to be skinned for.

  12. smell of urine, rotting flesh and stagnant water???? I’m not sure how I could/would have survived even an hour in that place….but i guess in time, I’ll get used to the smell? how did you find out about the process? Did you interview someone there or did research because that is a very detailed and interesting blog post you wrote there.

  13. Although, by my job, I deal with modern production and engineering it is always interesting to see, how it was done before. I would very much like to get there with my camera and document everything.

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