Wednesday 30 July 2008

Tanneries and water - meandering through Morocco

Morocco is a hot, dry place. We were lucky enough to visit the town of Marrakech last week, and apart from being stunning to look at, it was 40 degrees and chaotic! This latest post is not meant to be a travel blog - there are plenty of them out there - but instead we are going to take a look at some of the science from this most recent trip abroad.


To work in a tannery in Marrakech is to work under some of the harshest working conditions there are. Not only are you exposed to the blazing sun, but you are are soaked in blood, animal bodily fluids and parts, pigeon poo, and get paid appallingly.

But there is some science to the ancient Moroccan tannery tradition.

Legend has it that the tanners are descended from demons who lived under a black king. As they didn't obey his rules, they were condemned to work in the tanneries. They use hundreds of concrete vats to process animal skins which are bought locally in the souks. The skins (mainly sheep and goat although cow and camel are sometimes used - lions are no longer used as they were hunted to extinction in the region around 1900) are treated far differently to the way leather is treated in other parts of the world as the process clings to its ancient traditions. Hair and flesh are removed by soaking the skins in quicklime (Calcium Oxide formed when limestone - calcium carbonate - decomposes) and water. After this, the skins are placed in a vat of water and blood, then separated and rung out, before being coloured using a few natural products:
  • Pomegranate for yellow;
  • Olive oil for shininess;
  • Bark for various colours, presumably brown;
  • Saffron for golden yellow;
  • Henna for red/orange;
  • Poppy for many other colours including white, pink, yellow, orange, red and blue.
The skins are stretched out and left to dry for over 20 days in little piles that look rancid. Pigeon poo is used to soften the leather, and if anyone knows why, I would love to know. Presumably the poo is slightly acidic. Pigeon poo has actually been reported to be quite dangerous, with people almost dying after ingesting it. The poo adds to the smell of the place, with there being large pigeon coups near the top in which you could wade knee deep in the brown-smelly stuff.

Our guide, apart from ripping us off ridiculously, did give us some mint to hold under our noses to mask the smell.

If you want to be a tanner, you need to be born into it, and only men are allowed. Many suffer from arthritis and are forced into an early retirement. And it has been reported that in Bangladesh, half a million people are at risk of serious health issues due to their tanneries emitting toxic chemicals such as sulphuric acid. Not a place I would like to work.


Morocco has a massive water problem. It rains about a third of that in Canberra, Australia, which is considered in severe drought. The average rainfall in a summer month is 3 mm, and there are increasing demands on the scare water-supply by a massive push to increase tourism and reduced rain-fall, presumably due to global warming. The period in which crops woudl grow in the 1960s was about 180 days per year. Now it is 110, and most of the country still live off the land. Add to this food shortages and there will be a problem in the years to come.

It has not always been this way. When Marrakesh was originally settled by the Almoravids, who had lived in the desert all their history, water management was done well. The Almoravids built massive underground piping systems called khettaras which brought water from melted snow from the Atlas Mountains, a few hundred kilometers from Marrakech. It was quite an engineering project, but unfortunately western irrigation techniques, developed in places where there is lots of water, are now being used and water is running out. There are still magnificent oases in Marrakech, such as the Palmeraie and the Majorelle Gardens, but these are irrigated using modern methods.

I took my recording gear to Marrakech, so listen up to the podcast here. You will also here some commentary from the local lads on Australia, east and west coast America, and north and south England, and some of the sounds of Marrakech.

Listen here:

More of my Marrakech photos can be found on my flickr site.

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