Photo story: the souks, tanneries and timeless leathercraft traditions of Marrakech

Moroccan tanneries are renowned for their quality and craft, and nowhere is the deep-rooted heritage of leatherwork better experienced than the Red City. The story of Marrakech’s leather-making tradition embodies the city’s thriving cultural identity.

Thursday, August 6, 2020,
By Nico Avelardi
A tannery worker handles a large hide, after two weeks of macerating it in limestone mixed ...

A tannery worker handles a large hide, after two weeks of macerating it in limestone mixed with water. The skin is now ready for the next step of the process, where it will be scraped and gradually refined.

Photograph by Nico Avelardi

Located around the edge of the Medina, Marrakech’s open-air tanneries are a living postcard of the city’s age-old leather-making tradition. Here, skins are tanned solely using natural elements before being taken for dying. Visiting the tanneries feels like a glimpse into the past. Little has changed in this industry; the same techniques have been used here since medieval times. 

The number of vats available and workers employed in the medina’s biggest tannery allow for a vast quantity of hides to be processed, leading the local production of both small and large skins.

Photograph by Nico Avelardi

A worker scrapes residue off a hide. This step of the process is time consuming and needs due care, as it strips the leather from all the unnecessary excess parts.

Photograph by Nico Avelardi

A worker in the process of placing hides in a pit for natural colouring. A range of organic elements are used according to the intensity of tint that needs to be achieved.

Photograph by Nico Avelardi

Tanning is hard labour, carried out entirely by hand. First, the raw skins are washed with salt, before being coated in a thick paste made from limestone to make them supple. After two weeks, the hides are immersed in huge vats of bird droppings, then left to dry. Finally, the tanners scrape away any remaining hair before the skins are sold on to local dyers and crafters.

Tanners scraping a large skin. The team works in close harmony, going through this laborious task with phenomenal ease. Precision is second nature to them.

 

Photograph by Nico Avelardi

A worker scrapes off a tanned hide (the final stage of the process) with a traditional bladed tool. It’s a very physical task that will finish off the leathers, making them ready for trading.

Photograph by Nico Avelardi

The maze of alleys beside the Ben Youssef Mosque heaves with workshops, where the processed, dyed leather is transformed into a variety of goods. The place is alive with industry: sewing machines thud away in the background, workmen hammer at hides with wooden tools, and the tea and coffee vendor calls out, pushing his trolley through the busy, twisting lanes. All this activity — both inside and outside the workshops — makes this corner of the Medina one of the most fascinating places in the city.

An artisan crafting in his workshop. The traditional wooden tool is used to seal off glued leather sections, before they’re sewn together to make up the finished product.

Photograph by Nico Avelardi

Leather shoulder pouch and bum bags for sale in an artisan workshop. Some of the craftsmen sell their creations directly to the public, in addition to taking commissions from leather merchants, which are then sold in the souks of the medina.

Photograph by Nico Avelardi

Marrakech’s beguiling souks are the nation’s largest: a complex network of narrow passageways, packed with all kinds of goods. The traditional markets are mainly organised according to the products sold or the specific trade, and Marrakech’s leather souk commands a large, busy corner of the Medina. Here, merchants tout the wares of local craftspeople, selling everything from babouche slippers to embroidered satchels. Getting lost in these bustling alleys while admiring the local craftsmanship is a unique experience.

One of the main lanes of the souks. The bustling activity, the many products on sale, the local characters and the rays of light falling through the sun covers make it a fascinating place to explore, tapping into all the senses.

Photograph by Nico Avelardi

Handmade leather shoes on display in one of the stalls in the souk. Footwear is crafted to a high standard using a wide variety of skins and colour finishing.

Photograph by Nico Avelardi

Published in the July/August 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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