Life in the Leather District

Moroccan leather, and more particularly the Fassi leather in Fez, has for centuries been highly prized as among the finest in the world and is often exported to Europe. One type of leather, a soft goatskin used mainly in bookbinding, is simply known as ‘morocco’.

It’s claimed that tanning leather in Morocco goes back several millennia, and at the medina tanneries, little has changed since medieval times. Donkeys still labour through the narrow streets carrying skins to dye pits, which are still constructed to traditional designs (with the addition of modern ceramic tiles). Tanners are organised according to ancient guild principles, with workers typically born into the job. Unfortunately, health and safety principles are similarly old-fashioned, and health problems among the workers in the medina tanneries, who are knee-deep in chemicals all day, are not uncommon.

However, there are numerous modern tanneries in and around the Ville Nouvelle where current technology is used to produce the leather that is so sought after, and that minimises damage to the environment and the workers' health.

Rank odours abound at the medina tanneries, and the delicate tourists who come to view the work will often be offered a sprig of mint to hold to their noses to take the edge off the pong (rain also dampens the smell). Major components in processing the skins here are pigeon poo, salt and lime (the latter accounts for the whitish colour of the processing pits); more delicate ingredients such as indigo, saffron and poppy are added later for colour.

The Fountains of Fez

It seems like you can barely turn a corner in the Fez medina without coming across a seqqâya (public fountain) – Fassis have historically had something of an obsession for them. It was largely the Almoravid (1061–1147) and Almohad (1147–1248) dynasties that were the great water engineers. To supply their cities with water they diverted rivers, created lakes and constructed vast canal systems. While they did this across the country, fountain construction reached its zenith in imperial Fez.

There are well over 60 public fountains inside the medina. Along with the hammam, they are usually located near the neighbourhood mosque. Many were paid for by princes and wealthy merchants. Some of these fountains are simple basins against a wall. The majority are beautifully decorated structures of coloured tiles, often under a canopy of intricately carved wood. One of the finest is the Nejjarine fountain. Built in the 18th century, it features zellige (colourful geometric mosaic tilework) and stucco that form patterns as delicate as lacework.

A few fountains are still used for water collection and washing by their neighbourhoods; at most, the water supply has been cut as houses gain their own water supply.