On an Odiferous Industry
Updated: Nov 20, 2020
In his book Mornings in Mexico*, D.H. Lawrence gave an enlightening description of the tanning industry as carried out by the native Indians. He describes an encounter between himself (presumably) and a fat merchant of leather sandals and his wife, in which the couple regarded with high entertainment Lawrence's complaint of the distinct smell of a pair of sandals. The "leather man" claimed that there was no smell at all. Lawrence, realising in retrospect that for the native there was indeed no perceivable smell or rather that it was merely the smell of a sandal ("You might as well quarrel with an onion for smelling like an onion.") explains the likely reason for the odour, and the reason why the leather man and his wife did not even regard it. He writes that when the Spanish conquistador, Bernal Diaz del Castillo came with Cortez to the great market of Mexico City, he saw rows of small pots of human excrement for sale and noted that the leather-makers who used it for tanning, would sniff the different pots to see which was best. For these connoisseurs of excreta, what we regard as a particularly odious smell was perhaps quite a pleasant one.
Urine was also used to make leather hides pliable and enable the removal of hair. They were then soaked and pounded or kneaded with excrement. This technique was not unique to Mexico, though in many places it was not human waste, but rather the dung of dogs or pigeons. Here lies the origin of the name Dung Gate for one of the city gates of Jerusalem. Indeed the connection between tanning and dung is very admirably connected here, for just a few metres west of Dung Gate is another gate, a medieval one, long out of use, sealed, and only a few years ago excavated and reopened, and its is known as Tanners' Gate. This latter gate does not appear on medieval maps but it is recorded briefly in contemporary written sources.
Judging from the nature of this industry it is not difficult to understand why it was delegated to a very peripheral part of Jerusalem: the open space in the south-east, adjacent to the cattle market and furriers. The westerly winds would carry the unpleasant smells away from the city into the desert, and this was also a convenient location because of the excellent drainage and access to a good water source at the nearby Siloam Pool. When the industry did move into the residential heart of the city in the Ottoman period it seems to have been in order to humiliate the Christian inhabitants. A nineteenth century photograph taken in the Muristan shows a then open field in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This had formerly been part of the Hospitallers' compound, and in the photograph there can be seen row after row of animal hides laid out to dry across the open space. This move seems as if to legitimise the already long established derisive Arabic title for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. At least as early as the twelfth century (Ibn al-Qalanisi) the Muslims had distorted the name from Kanisat al-Qiyama (Church of Resurrection) to Kanisat al Qumama (Church of the Dungheap).
* D.H. Lawrence, Mornings in Mexico and Etruscan Places, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1960, pp. 49-50.