In the tanneries of Old Cairo, two industries coexist: the production of gelatine and leather, both from the treatment of animal skins. Egypt has a long history of leather tanning and an international reputation that brings in billions of dollars each year. However, the industry’s growth has been stunted by plans for relocation.
This threat has been hanging over the area for years. Successive governments have been trying to relocate the tanneries from Old Cairo to Badr City on the Cairo-Suez Road, some 40 kilometers from Cairo.
Youssef, a factory owner, said many of the businesses would like to relocate. The current tanneries complex suffers from poor sanitation conditions and unreliable access to gas and electricity. Many of the workers suffer from asthma, and Youssef feels that the new, more spacious location would be beneficial to them.
Others who are opposed to the relocation plans feel that they would lose their customers, many of whom they deal with personally at the Old Cairo location.
Whereas the relocation previously failed due to lack of funding, investment by the Italian government has made the move more likely.
Buffalo skins are left in the corner of a tannery. They will be washed in a large wooden drum in which hundreds of liters of water are mixed with chemicals.
A young workman removes a block of gelatine from a water bath. The blocks are sliced before being laid upon enormous outdoor racks that tower above the area.
Mohamed Assan has been working in this area for two years. He makes brushes from the hair of the various animal skins that arrive at the tanneries: buffalo, camel, horse and cow.
Fresh skin arrives at a factory on the back of a truck. These will have any blood and hair removed before the smoothing and other processes begin. These skins could end up being used to make shoes or belts, depending on the animal and the thickness of the leather.
The sliced gelatine is dried in the sun on these large racks and can used to produce wood glue, medicine capsules or confectionery, for example.
A man carries skin that is stretched on a wooden board, which will be hung on a wall outside to dry.
Workers rely on horses to transport most of their goods.
A man removes a skin from a drying board. It will then flattened before being sold to clients.
Skins that have been colored are hung out to dry.
A young boy takes a break inside a workshop, where the skin is stretched by a machine to reach a desired thickness.
Skin is weighed after being delivered from a supplier. One piece of skin weighs about 8 kilograms.
Waleed runs a tannery that specializes in leather.
A horse-drawn cart travels past workshops in the tanneries.
Workmen take a break at a coffeehouse within the tanneries complex.
Magdy Hemdan started to work alongside his father when he was 13 years old, and has been running his own tannery for the past seven years, employing five workers year-round. He says the increased price of meat has affected his business since the demand for animal skins has increased.
Sheikh Magdy Abdel Salaam has been working at a local mosque for the past 10 years. There are about 40 places of worship in the tanneries complex, where he has worked in leather production for 40 years.
Skins dry on boards in the street, and gelatine dries above on the large racks.
Workmen head to their workshops after prayers.