Wednesday, May 4, 2016


Handicrafts are the mainstay of the Moroccan economy, and if you want to see where they come from and how they are made, you will have to subject yourself to what every tourist hates: the high pressure tactics of salespeople. In my mind it's hard to be too critical of that in Morocco, however. Their crafts-oriented culture makes selling their handiwork the primary source of income for many Moroccans. To some extent, tourists need to recognize their skills (which should be preserved for future generations) and support their efforts by buying their beautiful work.

After the rug cooperative, we had a few more visits to places where we could "learn" about (and buy) Moroccan crafts.


The Fes medina is home to three very old leather tanneries. The tannery we visited is located in an open courtyard somewhere in the medina (Don't ask me where). Tourists aren't allowed to wander around in the tannery itself, but they can get excellent views of the action from surrounding rooftops. Of course, no one is going to miss out on an opportunity to "interact" with all the tourists who come to see the tannery, and so leather shops are set up around the perimeter, and tourists must pass through the shops if they want access to viewing spots on the roof.

Hassan took us through Merveilles de Cuir, or "The Wonders of Leather," to the Terrase de Tannerie ( Tannery Terrace) where visits are "free":
We would pay a de facto admission price later.

After climbing three flights of stairs (there are always stairs in Morocco) and emerging at a viewing area, I was handed a sprig of peppermint to combat the stench of the tannery, which I actually didn't think was that bad, but the mint was still a nice touch.

From the roof we could see a series of dye-filled clay vats lined up like the colors in a child's watercolor set. The methods used to cure and dye all kinds of leather (cow, sheep, goat, and camel) have been used for almost 1,000 years in Morocco. 

I was impressed by the tightrope walkers who strolled so casually along the tops of the tubs. Imagine what it would be like to lose your footing!

The skins are first soaked for two or three days in vats of quicklime, water, and pigeon droppings, seen in the photo below. (Now I understand the sprigs of mint. I'm guessing that on a warmer day, this place is toxic.) This caustic mixture eats away at any hair or flesh on the hides and breaks down the tough fibers, making the leather more pliable and getting it ready for the dye. Tanners work the skins with their feet (wearing rubber boots, of course) for up to three hours to knead the hides to the desired softness.

The hair, flesh, and fat scraped from the skins is piled unceremoniously off to the side. Someone told us it is used for stuffing furniture. Ick.

After the hides are cleaned, they are soaked in tubs of dye. No artificial colors are used. Red comes from poppies, blue from indigo, yellow from saffron, orange from henna, green from mint, and brown from cedar wood:

The dyed skins are hung out to dry from the upper stories of surrounding buildings. In the distance of the photo below is the minaret of the Quaraouiyine Mosque, the second largest mosque in Fes and the oldest Islamic structure there (956 AD). I think the green pyramid-shaped roof is the Tomb of Moulay Idriss II:

No machinery is ever used. The methods have remained essentially unchanged since the 14th century.

The view below was interesting, but my eyes kept being drawn out to the city roofs. This shot of the aundry and two satellite dishes on top of a concrete/mud building kind of says it all about the way Moroccans live in both the ancient and modern worlds:

We saw this half-crescent Islamic symbol a lot in Turkey, but not as much here:

After we had watched the dyeing process and looked around the city for a while, we went back into the building, admiring first the skins on the walls:

. . . and then the products made from the various leathers. I made the mistake of picking up and replacing a few items on the way out. That's all it took to get one incredibly aggressive salesman attached to us like a fly to flypaper. After a while he separated Bob and me (the old "divide and conquer" trick) and took Bob into an alcove to "talk." When I tried to go in, he told me to go away, that he wanted "to talk just to the husband."  

I soon realized that if I stayed out of it, I was going to get a purse and wallet out of the experience guilt-free, so I left them alone and wandered around the waiting room. I admired the carved stucco:

. . . and the various leather goods:

I'm not sure who needs a saddle like this, but I noticed them in several shops, so there must be a market for them:

These leather dolls/stuffed animals were fun, but I was afraid to touch one lest Salesman #2 attach himself to me:

At first I couldn't figure out what all these leather trays were, but then it dawned on me that they were unstuffed ottomans, and for the first time I made the connection between these armless, backless seats and the Ottoman Empire. Yeah, I'm slow.

Twenty minutes later . . . score! A goatskin purse and a camelskin wallet are mine:

Scarf vendors are ubiquitous is every tourist area we've been to in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. I had decided they were all made in China and imported for sale. However, there were some unique scarves/runners in Morocco made from a shimmering fabric I hadn't seen in other countries. Our guide told us that the fabric was silk. Silk in Morocco? I thought that was a Chinese thing.

It turns out that Morocco has their own kind of silk, and the center of its production is Fes. The fibers are made not by worms, but by the Moroccan agave plant. The process of extracting the filaments from the spiky arms of the agave, twisting them into very strong thread, dying them, and weaving them into fabrics is--like so many crafts in Morocca--a centuries-old process.

The silk fabric is hand-loomed:

Somehow this brilliant thread . . .

. . . is placed in an old-fashioned weaving shuttle . . .

. . . and is woven through the warp threads by hand to create the beautiful silk fabric we saw all over Fes:

Here is a runner I bought in another shop in the souk. I love the glossy finish:


The final crafts spot we visited was a pottery cooperative. Craft co-ops seem to be very popular in Morocco; it's a way to share space and production costs and draw in more shoppers. I'm sure the big tour buses stop at these places. Lots of room and plenty of things to buy work well for large groups.

We were scooped up right away by a salesman guide, who showed us the dirt that is made into clay:

Gorgeous one-of-a-kind pieces were propped up against each other in a haphazard fashion:

This fellow was working the clay into perfectly symmetrical tagines:

Finished pieces are fired in one of several kilns at the co-op:

Artisans paint intricate designs on pottery pieces. A few tiny pencil dots can been seen on some of them, perhaps dividing the surface into sections, but the design itself is a freehand drawing. It is like drawing a maze, but never having the option of an eraser or do-over:

Looking at these now, I wish I had brought home all of them:

The artist in the background is creating a clock face:

Plates and bowls for sale:

I'm usually a sucker for pottery, but we visited this co-op at the end of a long day. We (and our wallets) were tuckered out.

In addition to the pottery section of the co-op, there is also a tile/mosaic section:

Again all free-hand, the artisans cut the tiles into small shapes for use in mosaics:

I couldn't draw this freehand, much less chisel it out of a clay tile:

The pieces are placed upside-down into a form. As far as I could tell, it was again done without any guiding marks. This is not a paint-by-number craft but one that requires both skill and an incredible visual memory. The piece on the left is part of a fountain like the one on the right.

I'm sure we couldn't ever afford one of those fountains, but maybe a sink like this could some day be in our price range. Hmmm, I have one more bathroom that still needs remodeling . . .

Or how about this gorgeous mosaic on the wall???

I think I need to buy some lottery tickets.


  1. The crafts in Fes were remarkable, but I did get tired of fighting off the salesmen (oh no, here comes another one). We quickly vamooshed the silk shop when we realized we were getting suckered into that one and after the carpet shop and leather shop, the credit card was smoking, so we avoided a purchase in the ceramics shop. But I agree, there are some beautiful mosaics that would be fun in the house.

  2. I think I would have been happy to be suckered into purchasing ALL of these items. Very skilled craftsmen--nice to know some things are still done the old-fashioned way. I don't know how much the purse and wallet cost, but I think you got a great deal!

  3. My father subscribes to Amoco World (a holdover from his trip to Turkey many years ago) and I remember the fascination I had with the upside-down approach to making mosaics. It's interesting to revisit that again with your guide through Shopping World.