Known for its leather goods, Marrakech is home to a few tanneries where local families have been employed for generations. In fact, the tanneries have existed since the medina was founded over a thousand years ago. For visitors, the experience is often a sensory overload — smell, colors, and sight — as they watch the men at work using pre-Industrial age techniques. In our latest blog post, we share our tips for visiting the historic tanneries of Marrakech.
The main leather tanneries in Marrakech are located in the Bab Debbagh quarter in the north end of the medina; the location provides access to the Oued Issil river across the busy road (dry in the summer months and flowing quickly in winter months) and is also removed from the city, so it doesn’t bother nearby residents with the smell.
The north end of the medina is a bit difficult to navigate as this area is largely residential, with a few riads popping up. Grab a taxi to either the Place Moukef or Bab Debbagh, where you will see signs pointing to Bab Debbagh tanneries.
For lost wanderers, there is no shortage of ‘faux guides’ who will happily lead you to the tanneries — along with an extra stop to their relatives’ shops for views and to enhance your buying experience. Be aware that guides in Morocco are heavily regulated and are identifiable by their official badge; so if you stumble upon a local ‘guide’, he is putting himself at risk. Nevertheless, he will expect a payment for his services. Twenty dirhams is sufficient for a short visit.
If you want to witness the production process, best to go early in the morning and climb up to the terrace of one of the local shops with a view over the tanneries. It’s at this time that the tradesmen are hard at work separating the skins, soaking them in various vats filled with quicklime and water to begin the treatment process, before placing them in vats to strengthen the leather. Once colored (sadly, artificial coloring has replaced natural dyes including henna and saffron) the skins are placed in a drying vat. Wanderers will often see skins drying on the ground near the Medersa Ben Youssef, not far from where the tanneries are located.
Given the products used in the treatment process, including pigeon dung, the scent can be overwhelming. Many shopkeepers will provide a sprig of mint to help offset the smell as you watch the men at work below in the tanneries (and hopefully spend some time shopping as well).
If the sights and smells haven’t scared you away, the shops here are filled with leather goods prepared in the tanneries; but be ready to haggle. Most of the hides used are goat or sheep, but on occasion you will see cow and even camel. Finally, make sure to smell the bag, shoes, handbag or leather pouf you may be interested in to ensure it doesn’t have a strong smell, which may spoil any hopes of using your purchase.