Soaps in Greater Syria

Soaps in Greater Syria

The production of soap is a very old tradition in the region of the Middle East called Bilad al-Sham (the name given to the geographic unit of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and historical Palestine, which was before World War I a subset of the Ottoman Empire. This is a sub-set in a representational way as the Bilad al-Sham was never an administrative Ottoman district). This tradition is based primarily on the growth of olive trees. Whether on the coast or in the hinterland, the centers of soap are all former olives press centers. Soap is primarily a domestic production of the villages, where they used the remains of the oil production. Gradually urban centers of production developed "soap cities." The most famous are Aleppo in Syria, Tripoli in Lebanon and Nablus in Palestine.

Water sources, fruit trees, and an abundance of olive trees: there are many Arab and foreign travelers who were struck by the natural characteristics of Nablus. "The small Damascus," as it was called, was admired for its vegetation, fresh water sources, and was described for a long time, according to Shams al-Din al-Ansari, (died 1327) as a " palace in a garden." (Quoted by Doumani [1995]). The abundance of olive trees made it an important center of olive oil production since at least the 14th century, as evidenced by the words of Ibn Batuta (a famous Moroccan traveler) who died in 1355: "The city of Nablus (...) is a big city with many trees, and abundant rivers, the city of Bilad al-Sham where there are the most olive trees, and the oil made from them is brought up to Egypt and to Damascus."

Long reputed to be a fine product, since as early as the 10th century, Nabulsi soap has been exported across the Arab world and even to Europe. Though the number of soap factories has plummeted from a peak of thirty in the 19th century to only two today, efforts to preserve this important part of Palestinian and Nabulsi cultural heritage continue.

In the 14th century, Shams al-Din al-Ansari al-Dimashqi said of Nablus and its olive oil soap production: "The city of Nablus ... was bestowed by God Almighty with the blessed olive tree. Its olive oil is carried by Bedouins to the Egyptian and Damascene lands, to the Hejaz, and the steppes ... In it a superior soap is produced and sent to the above-mentioned destinations and to the islands of the Mediterranean Sea." Sabon nabulsi was reportedly the soap of choice for Queen Elizabeth of England.

Aleppo (laurel) soap is believed to have been developed in Syria some 2,000 years ago. There are many references to the royalty of antiquity, like Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and Queen Zenobia of Syria, who used Aleppo Soap as their beauty secret.