There is a man carving patterns on marble plaques on the main streets of Fes. Another carves little wooden spoons out of his small shop in Essaouira. A small group of women weaves carpets out of a small cooperative in Chefchaouen.
Wherever you go in Morocco, you will find people engaging in age- old artisanal traditions. Each one has a history behind it that many visitors never fully grasp. Below we have labeled a few places where you can get a closer look at the practice behind crafts you will see spilling from shops all over Morocco.
Located in the heart of Fes, past streets lined with overflowing shops, and through the winding maze-like alleys that make up the innermost part of the medina, the Chouara tannery has sat nestled for nearly a thousand years. The Chouara tannery is not only the oldest tannery in Morocco, it is the oldest tannery in the world.
Generations of tanners have come and gone, passing on this ancient practice through the years. Young men are born into this line of work. Fathers have passed on these practices to their sons one generation after the another.
Aesthetically, the site is as impressive as it is historical. The Chouara tannery is famous for the photographs taken of its massive vats of dyes lined up row after row. Seen as a collection of various shades of whites, browns, oranges and reds, the scene carries a harsh beauty that will remain with you long after you leave Fes.
The smell will hit you before you catch sight of the tannery itself. The process of tanning leather, when you get down to it, is a dirty and overwhelmingly pungent process. Leather hides are soaked in large vats containing pigeon dropping, limestone, and water to soften them before they are then moved to vats where they soak in natural dyes. Its no surprise that tour guides will give you sprigs of mint to mask the odor.
But the smell, however unpleasant, is part of the reason why the experience is so remarkable. Raw authenticity defines the tanneries. You can see it on the unflustered faces of the workers who easily run between the vats, working the leather with their feet and sifting through these vats, the liquid up to their thighs. The reality is not adjusted for visiting eyes. Unlike the streets lined with brightly colored shops all dressed up for tourists, this process is unpolished and very real.
Experience the authenticity of the Chouara tanneries. As tanned leather is Morocco’s largest artisanal export, it is possible visit multiple tanneries in Marrakech or Fes. But between the aesthetic of the scene to the historical richness of the scene, visiting the Chouara Tannery is an unparalleled experience. You have to see it to believe it.
TETOUAN ARTISAN SCHOOL
Many of Morocco’s artisanal practices are in danger of dying out, which is why the Royal Artisan School in Tetouan, a small city in Northern Morocco, teaches students specific artisanal skills. Students learn practices such as mosaic work, plaster carving, ornamental woodwork, weaving, and much more.
Students between 8 and 17 years of age spend four years studying their trades before graduating and going on to continue their traditional crafts.
A tour through the school will allow you to walk through classrooms where students work on various types of artisanal work. You will see students embroidering with their teachers, laying mosaic tiles under close direction, observing the carving techniques of experts in the artisan trade. Each classroom offers a unique look behind the surface of each of the products you see on the street.
The school itself was built in the traditional riad style, with classrooms surrounding a large garden that makes up the school’s inner courtyard. In addition to the gardens and classrooms, the tour will lead you through the school’s beautiful showroom, where you can observe the crafts in their final state.
Though factories have taken over the production of so many of the products we find in stores today, at the Royal Artisan School you can see that the Moroccan style of handmade craftsmanship has not died out.
WOOL DYING IN MARRAKECH
If you walk through Marrakech’s souks, you will find a variety of brightly colored fabrics and scarves. This is not unusual. The same can be said in many countries all over the world. However, in Marrakech you can go beyond the simple purchase of a scarf and see aspects of the creation process.
While there are many artisanal practices that you can observe in Morocco, in Marrakech it is worthwhile to stop in the dyeing district to take a look at how dyers take wool and cactus silk and turn it into these brightly colored fabrics you see lining the streets. Tucked into a small clearing between tightly packed buildings, the wool dyeing district is bursting with color.
As you enter the wool dyeing district, you will begin to see bundles of string hang from bamboo poles overhead. At the center, steam pours out into the street from dark rooms where men submerge skeins of string into large vats of boiling dye. These black rooms stand in stark contrast against brightly lit shops overflowing with every imaginable color of scarf.
Take a tour of the district and the men will show you the different powdered dyes set out in bowls on the street and lead you to the terraces where you can look out over the wool hanging to dry in the sun. Even if you merely stop by on your way through the souks, the aesthetic beauty of the area makes the detour is well worth your time. Once you observe the dyeing process, you will see Marrakech’s shops, its rugs and scarves, in a whole new light.
Wherever you find yourself in Morocco, you will run into traditional artisanal practices. From people weaving baskets in overflowing shops to old men braiding long strings to use for embroidery, these practices offer a look into both historical cultural crafts and modern day life in Morocco that you will not find on tours of monuments and palaces. Stop in to see a few of these practices while on a custom tour of Morocco and the items you bring home will become something more than your average souvenirs.