The Soap Museum

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In the biblical old city souk of Sidon, inhabited since about 5,000 years, stands the old souk from the Mamluk era. Beyond the saffron colored walls of the city souk and its labyrinth aisles, a bit secluded from the hustle and bustle of daily life at the souk, stands a discreet yet elegant white building with green shutters. Guided by the unmistakable scent of sweet soap wafting out well into the alleys, one is led towards the beautiful building of the soap museum situated on El Shakrieh Street. The scent of olive soap embraces the air and perfumes it with the fragrant smell of olives and bay leaves, purifying the air from the harsh sea salt wind that blows from the sea only a few kilometers away.

The Sidon Soap Museum traces the history of soap making in the region, its development and manufacturing techniques. Added to the 13th-century Khan al-Saboun between the 17th and 19th century, the area of the current Soap Museum used to be a soap factory. The factory was active until 1975 and the soap was used for export and to supply the numerous old surrounding hammams (bath houses). During the Civil War, the ground floor housed many refugees and after the war, the building was left in a state of disrepair for many years. Following its restoration in 2000 by the Audi Foundation, it opened its doors as a soap museum, taking visitors on a journey through the history and process of soap manufacturing,

It illustrates the history of soap making in the region, its development and manufacturing techniques. Visitors can see a demonstration of how traditional olive oil soaps are made and learn about the history of the “hammam” (bath) traditions. A historical section of the museum introduces artifacts, which were found during onsite excavation, and which include remains of clay pipe heads dating from the 17th to 19th century as well as pottery fragments.

One may also see various techniques of production widespread from Aleppo to Nablus with their variety of form, perfume and color. As you walk in, everywhere huge towers of soap bars piled up in a special way so the soap can dry, lie like towers adding perfume to the scented air inside. The ingredients used for soap making are olive oil, bay leaf, slasola kali (a plant from Syria), laurel oil, and mi’a (a traditional perfume that is distilled from the resin of styrax – a tree that grows in Hermon and Turkey).

This humble building is Lebanon’s only museum of that most humble yet indispensable of products the art of ‘saponification.’ Although no one really knows when soap was discovered, there are various legends surrounding it’s beginning. According to Roman legend, soap was named after Mount Sapo, an ancient site of animal sacrifices. After an animal sacrifice, rain would wash animal fat and ash that collected under the ceremonial altars, down to the banks of the Tiber River. Women washing clothes in the river noticed that if they washed their clothes in certain parts of the river after a heavy rain their clothes were much cleaner; thus the emergence of the first soap – or at least the first use of soap.

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 at the old souk stands the fragrant soap museum, serene looking, wafting with the essence of soap, quiet, discreet it holds the treasures of yet another production still carried to this day, reminding us of the simplistic uniqueness of our culture, of this land we call home.

Recipe for homemade soap:




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