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How Aleppo Soap Is Made

Soap story


Soap from Aleppo, Syria

Soap from Aleppo symbolises something special for many people, as it stands for a much older tradition than many of the detergents and washing agents that are in use nowadays. Olive oil and laurel oil are usually fundamental ingredients. Aleppo soap (arab: «sapun ghar») - the literal meaning would be laurel-oil-soap) is boiled with olive and laurel oil. Colourings, artificial flavours, foam stabilisers, perfumes etc. are unfamiliar materials for traditional Aleppo soap boilers for two reasons. One is that they work with traditional formula. And then, their old-fashioned technology doesn´t encourage the blessings of modern chemical engineering, either. The simple, but labour-intensive production manufactures soap which skin friendly and environmentally friendly qualities are widely appreciated. This does not mean that these qualities go without saying, and don´t meet reservations. The EU has banned the use of laurel oil as a cosmetic ingredient, by its 76/768/EWG directive. Laurel oil is suspected to provoke allergic reactions in certain cases.
Savon d'Alep | ABOUT OLIVE OIL | Laurel Soap of Aleppo | Olive, Ghar, Laurel, Alp, Alep, Shampoo, Soap, ALEP-SYRIEWe used to think that these days, there were still about sixty smaller soap factories in Aleppo. As for the really traditional ones however, it really seems to be hardly a dozen by now. This is the more striking, as actually, worldwide interest is in fact rising. It seems unlikely that the small, traditional producers even have a noticable share in the overall output of Aleppo soap. Many producers have moved to the hinterland of Aleppo, and built much larger factories there.

The ratio of olive oil and laurel oil varies from one sort to the other. Usually, Sapun Ghar contains between 2 to 40 per cent of laurel oil, and therefore between 98 to 60 per cent olive oil – as far as oil is concerned. potash is another important part of the formula. Traditionally, the higher the laurel ratio, the more costly the production - and the more valuable the soap. As a soap manufacturer has put it: "Why simply eating rice, when you can have some good meat with it?" The outside of the soap grows darker, as it ripens – provided that it is exposed to some daylight.
Olive oil soap contains rather small amounts of laurel oil, if any. Chances are that it does contain at least a small share, as this is considered an appreciation of the product. Olive oil is used for exports to the EU more commonly than laurel oil soap.

As a rule, the soap boilers in Aleppo work during winter – from November to March of each year. It takes about six to nine months for the products to dry on racks in well aerated arches.


The soap boilers do not tend to be very open about their formula, as their traditional know-how is one of the small family businesses´ big assets - no matter how easily any hobby chemist could analyse a product, anyway. In general: this is how production works:
Savon d'Alep | ABOUT OLIVE OIL | Laurel Soap of Aleppo | Olive, Ghar, Laurel, Alp, Alep, Shampoo, Soap, ALEP-SYRIE olive oil is mixed with soda ashes in boiling tanks (normally industrial soda ashes these days), and boiled with up to 200 degrees C. under constant stirring, until the olive oil splits into glycerine and sodium salt. The adept decides when this process should be considered complete. Shortly before this is the case with Sapun Ghar, laurel oil is added to the hot substance. Even the bigger tanks usually don´t offer more than about 5000 kg capacity for this mixture. The soap mixture is now pumped from the tank to an even ground (often on an upper floor). Here, it is then flattened or smoothed. After the substance has hardened sufficiently, the soap blocks as we know them are cut and, the seal of the producer moulded into it.

The soap pieces may keep their qualities for a number of years, and many people let it ripen further after buying it. For instance, some may store the soap as odor dispensers in garment closets. Thus, the foam gets more fine-pored, the piece of soap gets harder, and the soap will have a longer lifetime in use. Olive oil contains several vitamines - especially vitamine E - and minerals. The olive oil share of these soaps can be up to 100% of the oil, as it has been appreciated for skin care around the Mediterranean for thousands of years. With the use of olive oil, particularly mild soap with dense and fine-pored foam can be made. The hand feels the oil, but no grease comes to the hand.

Aleppo soap and hamam culture go hand in hand. hamam could be translated as "to warm" or "to warm up". Differently from the Northern European Sauna, the body isn´t exposed to strong temperature differences. Hamam is a bathing process at about 50 degrees.
Savon d'Alep | ABOUT OLIVE OIL | Laurel Soap of Aleppo | Olive, Ghar, Laurel, Alp, Alep, Shampoo, Soap, ALEP-SYRIE It starts with a shower, after which the guest goes into the main room - often one with a domelight in the ceiling. Usually, a floor heating and warm stone benches add to the relaxation. A steam bath condition the skin and loosen the dandruff. This helps the work of the bath attendant. He cleans the skin with a glove of rough goat hair and an immense quantity of laurel oil soap. In the end, the guest puts on a bath robe and relaxes in a comfortable room, with some black tea or salty Ayran.


A short general History of Soap

From the beginning of the old phases of the Stone Age, water and sand would do for peoples' hygienic requirements. Hunter-gatherers lived in small groups. When tracking their preys, they simply left their codswallop at their old place. But when people started to settle in the area of what is Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Jordan these days, they faced new challenges. Clothes were now made of animal coats and plant fibres in a pretty labourious way, as killing goats, cattle, and sheep for the mere purpose of using their coats was now considered a waste. During their lifetimes, animals supplied valuable wool, milk - and labour (especially in the case of cattle).
To conserve the cloth, and to keep the clothes lice within bearable numbers, some more tidiness was necessary. Water can remove a lot of stuff from clothes and skin: sand, salt from sweat, or dust, for example. But he removal of adipose just by use of water is either extremely difficult, or just impossible.

Savon d'Alep | ABOUT OLIVE OIL | Laurel Soap of Aleppo | Olive, Ghar, Laurel, Alp, Alep, Shampoo, Soap, ALEP-SYRIEThe Sumerians had some knowledge of chemistry already. They solubilised pot ash in water and thus created base. Potash is ash from plants with a high concentration of potassium. These simple base formula were further developed by adding plant oil, thus creating quite simple loft soaps. In Tello, a small town in Mesopotamia, a 4400 years-old formula for such soap has been found. But if these «soaps» were already used for hygienic or medical purposes remains contended.

From the Sumerian cultural area, knowledge about the manufacture of these remedies reached Egypt and Greece. In Egypt, Soda was found to be a useful washing agent, too. Soda, as a mineral, was extracted from the desert or desiccated salt lakes, or from the process of burning sea plants containing sodium chloride. Obviously, in addition to soda, these ashes contained pot ash, too. Also, some 2600 years-old papyrus contain some evidence that fats or oil had been mixed and boiled with soda.

But it took time, up to the Roman era, before much interest was shown in the cleaning and therefore aesthetic effect of these formula. Up to then, people around the Mediterranean cleaned their skin by rubbing it with olive oil and then removing this oil - plus dust and sweat - with the aid of some kind of sweat scraper. This wasn´t just time-consuming, but expensive, too. Undies as we know them weren´t common back then, and the outerwear was cleaned by urine specialists. That sounds sort of disgusting, but it was probably a lack of pot ash that made this approach necessary. Wood had already become a scarce article, in the ancient world. The basic ammonia replaced the same substance from pot ash. The work was usually done by slaves or impoverished Roman citizens, and the laundry owners became so filthy stinking rich that an envious emperor, Vespasian, wanted to raise taxes on public urinals (which were connected to the laundries by pipelines). That famous quote, pecunia non olet, is supposed to have been coined in this context.

For the free Roman citizens, soap was an exorbitant luxury, and even in the upper classes, probably no one would use these costly cosmetical products for ordinary cleaning or laundry. But then again, some sources suppose that from the second century, soap wasn´t only used as hair fixature or as a bleaching agent, but indeed as a washing agent, too. More likely, it seems, this sort of pomade was meant to help avoid head lice.

It was the Arabs who started boiling larger quantities of oil and base during the 7th and 8th century, thus creating the kind of soap we know. They produced solid potash soap by causticising soda or pot ash with calcium hydroxide, i. e. making it basic. It had now become possible to manufacture soap, which main purpose was its use as bath soap.

Savon d'Alep | ABOUT OLIVE OIL | Laurel Soap of Aleppo | Olive, Ghar, Laurel, Alp, Alep, Shampoo, Soap, ALEP-SYRIEBoth soap and bath houses had become popular in Europe during the Middle Ages. They fell from European grace by the 18th century. The reasons were probably simple enough - and soap and bathing was hardly to blame. After all, bath houses often served as brothels, too. When syphilis came to Europe with the beginning of the modern times, bath houses were blamed for it. Also, protestantism didn´t excel in terms of sensuality, either. Lack of hygiene is often blamed when describing the plagues of the late middle ages. But that is hardly the most obvious explanation. In the case of most infections, hygiene doesn´t play that much of a role. Neither the rat flea as a carrier of the bubonic plague, nor HIV, influenza viruses, pox viruses, yellow fever or malaria mosquitos, nor cholera agents give a damn on hygienic circumstances. In the industrialised countries, plagues lost ground only after people were in the economic position to change their underwear regularly, when drinking water and sewage systems had been modernised, and medical science became what it is today. To make no mistake, there are dirt-based plagues like typhus, or infections like mange, trachoma, impetigo or leprosy. But plagues - let alone pandemics - don´t care about living standards.

By the middle of the 19th century, European laundry was still done the Sumerian way. Wood ash was filled into cloth bags and hung into washing tubs with hot water. What mattered for the laundresses was that they had soft water at their disposal - usually rainwater or surface water, as this reduced the consumption of base, and later of soap.

The boom of the cotton-based textile industry of the 19th century, and slavery in the Southern States, led to an increasing demand for soap. Cotton underwear was easy to be washed with soap. Fats from slaughterhouses and the use of local plant fibres couldn´t cope with this demand. Whaling and overseas plantations had to fill the gap. With input from chemists like Chevreul (France) and Berthollet (who discovered the bleaching and disinfecting effect of chlorine) helped to find economical artificial production procedures.

Soap had become an industrial mass product.

Still, in many households, loft soap was still made at home. Housewives used pot ash, linseed oil, hempseed oil, fish oil, and all that jazz. And just as in the old days, these soaps weren´t just cleaning agents, but cures, just as well. When I was a child, my grandmother (who was born in 1907) applied loft soap to abrasions and other injuries. The base removed sanies and inflammation.

Right in Granny´s year of birth, there was a great innovation in laundry. The first comprehensive washing powder reached the stores. Apart from soap powder, it contained bleaching agents and stabilisers. But the real great leap forward came with mass production of washing machines and spin driers, in the 1950s.



article from: Historische Alepposeife


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