The Beauty of Soap Making

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A pinch of coarse sea salt.

A dash of rosemary.

A bit of olive, almond, and coconut oil.

Blend together, put over fire, and stirred for about two hours.

Simple yet beautiful, the art of soap making

Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli is one of a handful of cities in the eastern Mediterranean that was once famed for the production of soap. The product even lent its name to the area’s historic khans, or caravanserais, since the area’s craftsmen were renowned for their soap, which was composed of oil from the area’s abundant olive trees.

History records show that soap products in Tripoli were in great demand and the rate of their exportation could be compared to that of silk and sugar. Books also show that Europeans were introduced to soap and to its health benefits after the crusades campaigns. The product played such a significant role in Lebanon and the region that it was present in mythological tales. It was said that Adonis used to offer soaps scented with herbs to his lover Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love. These unique handmade soap blends were considered prized gifts all over Europe. It was olive oil, the soap’s principal ingredient, that gave it its medicinal properties, and the infusion of natural scents that made it so popular.

The production of soap was not confined to the Soap Khan. More than ten major soap factories used to operate in Tripoli, but only three still make the product by hand today. The golden age is long gone, but a handful of producers maintain the tradition, not just to upkeep the city’s heritage, but also as a livelihood. In Tripoli, the soap factory is called ” Al-Masbaneh ” .

The Khán as-Sáboun (Soap Khan) was built at the beginning of the seventeenth century by Yusuf al-Saifi, pasha of Tripoli. Originally it was intended to serve as a military barracks to garrison Ottoman troops and it was purposely built in the center of the city to enable the pasha to control any uprising. It is a large imposing rectangular structure with two story-arcaded corridors running around a fountain courtyard. The outer walls had a number of loopholes and arrow slits for defense purposes. In front of the building was an arched portal, flanked by stone benches for the pasha’s guards. A white marble plaque commemorates the building of this splendid military barracks of Tripoli.

During the battle of Anjar, which took place on Oct. 31,1622, Yusuf Pasha was taken prisoner. When Tripoli fell to Fakhreddin, the Ottoman soldiers fled to join his routed forces in Syria. Fakhreddin’s army occupied the barracks briefly but in the following years the building stood empty. The inhabitants of Tripoli thought this was a great waste so they sent a petition to Deir Al-Qamar, the residence of Fakhreddin, requesting that the building be turned into a soap factory and a warehouse. From that day onwards, the Ottoman barracks have served as Tripoli’s flourishing Soap Khan, famous for its olive oil-based soap.

the Khan turned the coastal city into a soap hub. There were a number of families in the soap business at the time, and the Hassoun family was one of them. At the time, the work was divided by gender, sort of like hunters and gatherers: women created the recipes from herbal blends, and men manufactured it. But what makes the Khan el Saboun’s soap so unique is the secret recipes that define the mixture of the herbs and oils, as well as its scent.

The Badr Hassoun Family continues to make olive oil-based soap as they have for the last centuries, continuing a 600 year old tradition. Some historians acknowledge, that chemists from Tripoli were the first to process soap. Traditionally, a bride was given an assortment of scented soap, before leaving for her husband’s house. Soap was considered a symbol of purity. However, when this tradition began to die out, so did the soap makers.

Making soap is labor intensive as well as time consuming. First, the olive oil must be boiled and stirred in a large cauldron for six hours. Then certain ingredients are added to the oil and heated briefly until the oil is turned into a soft paste. At that point, perfumes and natural colors are added. The hot mixture is left to cool overnight before being cut into a variety of shapes. In the old days, the “attar”, perfumer and “ashab”, herbalist worked together to prepare medicated soaps infused with herbal remedies. Essential oils were mixed with medicinal herbs to make special soaps, which treated dandruff, acne, eczema and hair loss.

As you walk into this imposing beautiful architecture that opens up to a beautiful courtyard centered with a water fountain adorned by the blue sky above, the soap factory doesn’t look like a factory at all. In fact, it looks like a big, traditional Lebanese stone house, overlooking a huge field of olive trees. That’s where they use their olive oil from, as well as other main ingredients such as rosemary, lavender, green tea, and peppermint. Other ingredients are brought in from different parts of the world, like India, Egypt, Sudan, and France, depending on what it is.

Each room is meant for different parts of the process. The ingredients are mixed carefully, according to very specific recipes, which have been improved over time. Walking into one of the rooms, large squares of soap are wrapped in plastic and left to breathe on the floor. In a corner, two young boys carefully cut another giant soap bar. One of the boys slices every piece of soap by hand, and the other stamps each piece with the Khan al Saboun emblem, banging on each bar with what looks like a gavel. In another corner, a woman stirs a blend of oils in a big pot, while another fills it in bottles. Another man mixes coarse sea salt with rosemary to make a body scrub.

It all begins with the olive: either extracted from olive stone pulp, or made from olive oil, it was traditionally boiled in a large metal cauldron for six hours and stirred continuously for consistency. Nowadays, soap manufacturers use caustic soda and salt to help with the consistency and cut the boiling time to almost half. Specialty ingredients — rosemary, lavender, mint and rosewater, frequently homegrown — are then added. The infusion is then left to congeal until it is ready to be cut. This is traditionally done with a knife, and the soap is either cut into blocks or shaped into a ball.  It is then left to air-dry for a few weeks. Every step of the process varies slightly from one manufacturer to another, and while techniques have evolved through the centuries, it is the recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation that are the pride of every soap-maker.

There are two kinds of olive oil soap, known as baladi, or local soap: the green variety, which is extracted from olive stone pulp, and the white variety made from olive oil. The traditional method of production is simple, requiring only a large metal vat, a heat source, salt, and caustic soda. It’s a traditional industry that bears the city’s heritage, provides jobs, and also is a supporter of the local olive industry.

Nonetheless, with the arrival of the industrial revolution and after the end of World War I, the traditional Lebanese soap was no longer able to compete with the mass production of industrial soap, which was cheap and came in various scents. At the time, Lebanese soap makers were only able to produce 21 different types of soaps, perfumes and creams, all based on three main combinations known as the Trabulsiya, the Sultaniya and the Malakiya. Today more than 2,000 products can be found at the Tripoli soap factory. The comeback falls into a worldwide trend of returning to traditional and natural products, especially when it comes to cosmetics and medicine.

As you walk into this beautiful structure with its water fountain mirroring the skies above and the whiff of rosemary, olive oil, and rose fills the air that seems to engulf you, a certain melancholy will behold your heart, knowing that this has always been the scent of Lebanon, a scent of nostalagia, of roses, and rosemary, of tradition, and craftsmanship that has been fought of by few and taken for granted and neglected by many.

To Tripoli, to khan el saboun, to the Badr Hassoun Family, to Lebanon, to its scented fragrant air!

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3 thoughts on “The Beauty of Soap Making

  1. I’m a soap maker born and bred in Brooklyn NYC who after reading this post has developed a strong desire to visit Lebanon! Thanks for the history.

    Like

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