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For a whiff of Marrakesh life the old way, the tanneries are a real eye-waterer, not least because of the smell of acrid pigeon excrement, which provides the ammonia that is vital to the dyeing process. The method relies on natural dyes such as wild mint, saffron, cinnamon, and henna. Six hundred skins sit in a vat at any one time, resting there for up to two months amid constant soaping, scrubbing, and polishing. Goat and sheep skins are popular among Berbers, while Arab dye-masters rely on camels and cows and tend to use more machine processes and chemical dyes.
Thirteen tanneries, mixing both Berber and Arab elements, are still in operation in the Bab Debbagh area in the northeast of the medina. Simply turn up at Rue de Bab Debbagh and look for the tannery signs above several open doorways to both the right and left of the street. To visit one of them, just pop in and the local manager will offer you mint leaves to cover the smell, explain the process, and guide you around the vats of dyes. In return he'll hope for a healthy tip to share with his workers; this is a dying art in a poor dyeing area, so the more you can tip, the better.
Finding the rue de Bab Debbagh can be frustrating; it's easier to approach via taxi from outside the ramparts and be dropped off at Bab Debbagh, or to ask an official guide to include the visit as part of a set itinerary. Once in the vicinity, you'll be inundated with offers from would-be guides to take you to there and who will then ask for money. Solo travelers should exercise caution.
- Location: Medina
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