Any Moroccan we spoke with asked, “Have you visited the tanneries?”, usually followed by, “If you can find them…” Even other tourists directed us there. The tanneries are located in the Medina, the walled old city, close to the Bab ed-Debbagh gate. If going, ask someone trusted to mark your map, if possible.
If you are lucky when you get to the tanneries, there will be a very knowledgeable and polite Moroccan man there who acts as a guide for tourists. He does not charge but expect (and is well worth) a good tip. Before going inside, he not only offered us sprigs of mint to hold under our noses (!), he explained that there are two sides to the tanneries, Tuareg and Berber. He told us that the Tuaregs tan sheep and goats while the Berber side includes the tanning of camel, cow, and sheep hides.
Whether Tuareg or Berber, the process does not seem to have changed much since medieval times. Knowing that the American Indians used urine to remove hair as part of the hide-tanning process, we were a little surprised to learn that pigeon poop is a major ingredient in the Marrakesh tanneries. Our guide said that tanners may add chemicals and cow urine to the poop. (No wonder the pigeons seem to live a charmed life there…) It is very smelly and an unpleasant assault to the nostrils. We wondered how the workers could tolerate it!
As the tanners removed hides, with hair attached, from the smelly vats, they next pulled or combed off the hair, saving it for another use. The hides were rinsed and then placed out to dry in the warm, dry climate. The tanners seemed to specialize in one hide type or another.
As we came to the gate at the end of the tanneries, we were, of course, directed to a shop full of leather goods—purses, beautiful soft slippers, computer bags, apparel, and more. The colors were brilliant: the rich blue/purple of lapis, earthy green of mint, bright red of poppies, as well as golden yellow, brown, and black. These colors seem to become the color palate of the fashion stylists of Europe every few years, as they were in 2013. (Be certain to be comfortable bargaining before venturing into one of these shops!)
The tanneries are not always open and it is important to know whether they are before venturing that direction. We were fortunate that a young man, a friend of a local acquaintance, was going to work in that direction and walked with us. Always ask at your place of lodging before trusting someone who comes up to you in the streets!