Chouara Tannery in Fez, Perhaps the Smelliest Place in the World

A close perspective of the tannery's pools, where a solution of animal urine and dropping is used to soften the skins

photography by: Omri Westmark

If photographing smell was technologically feasible, reading the following article would be a rather challenging task. Probably the most iconic place throughout Fez, the tannery of Chouara has been manufacturing top-quality leather products using centuries-old techniques since medieval times. While the dyeing process involves the use of incredibly fetid substances, the place's mesmerizing sights worth every bit of unpleasantness.

Located at the heart of Fez’s bustling medina, Chouara Tannery is the largest and oldest among the city’s three operating tanneries. It is not agreed upon when precisely was the tannery established, but most estimates put it anywhere between the 11th to the 16th centuries, making it one of Morocco’s and the world’s oldest tanneries.

 

Apparently, not much has changed in the tanning process since medieval times. The hides of different animals, including camels, cows and sheep are first soaked in a series of honeycombed vats, where a mixture of donkey urine, pigeon droppings, salt and other materials soften and rinse the otherwise stiff skins. In the next step, the processed hides are steeped in a dye solution, made entirely of natural ingredients. In fact, the red and blue hues come from poppy and indigo respectively, while the yellow color originates from either turmeric or saffron.

 

The mind-boggling sights of Chouara’s tanners toiling amid the murky pits is visible from a couple of balconies across the tannery’s surrounding buildings, all of which are aptly home to countless leather shops. If one opts to reach one of those terraces, he or she will most likely face a swarm of tenacious touts who will relentlessly try to squeeze a fee as they harass the helpless tourists and follow every step of theirs.

 

Once you successfully manage to overcome this hurdle, you’ll be greeted with a putrid stench as you’re captivated by the striking scenery. To mitigate the pungent odors, some visitors hold a bundle of mint leaves right beneath their nostrils. For those of you who look for a souvenir, the zillions of shops around the tannery offer a plethora of leather items, ranging from Moroccan babouches, pillows, handbags, traditional garments to even copycats of international brands.

A device used for elongating the hides

photography by: Omri Westmark


Hides of goats and sheep, moments before their initial processing

photography by: Omri Westmark


The tens of solution vats, as seen from one of the surrounding terraces

photography by: Omri Westmark


Yellow-colored skins being dried under the Moroccan sun

photography by: Omri Westmark


Many of the adjacent rooftops are utilized for the drying of hides

photography by: Omri Westmark


A closer glimpse of the smelly pits

photography by: Omri Westmark


The tannery of Chouara, lying amid the dense old medina of Fez

photography by: Omri Westmark


Luckily, the smells aren’t photographable

photography by: Omri Westmark


The jaw-dropping sight of dozens of vats, where tanners soak the hides in

photography by: Omri Westmark


One of the many shops where visitors can find high-quality leather products

photography by: Omri Westmark