The Last Soap Factories in Nablus

Text and photos by Miriam Mezzera |  22 de noviembre de 2013

The picturesque towers of soap in the Shakaa factory in Nablus (West Bank). [photogallery, 1/6]

The first stage of making the soap. Water, a sodium compound and olive oil are boiled together in a large vat.

The heavy seal that is used to brand each block of soap.

After having been spread out for days to dry, the poured soap is cut into small blocks which are already branded.

The cubes of soap are collected one by one by the workers.

Building the towers for the correct aeration of the soaps that have just been made.

Ever since the Crusades, Nablus has been famous for its soap made from olive oil and exported all over the Middle East. Some cakes of the soap even arrived in the most refined bathrooms of the European aristocracy. It was in the Ottoman period that this urban industry truly took off in the town. Today only four are still active...

(Jerusalem) – White towers rise up in the vaulted rooms of the old Turkish buildings. They look like towers decorated with ivory, but they are in fact made from soap and are the pride of the families of Nablus that still hand down this ancient tradition from one generation to the next.

Ever since the Crusades, this town in the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank has been famous for its soap made from olive oil and exported all over the Middle East. Some cakes of the soap even arrived in the most refined bathrooms of the European aristocracy. It was in the Ottoman period that this urban industry truly took off in the town. In the early 20th century, there were at least 33 soap factories in the stone alleys of the old city and a whole neighbourhood grew up around Al Masaabin Street, the street of the soap factories.

Today, due to modernity and the Israeli occupation, most of these factories no longer exist. Only four are still active, two of which belong to two important Nablus families. Al-Shakaa and Tuqan, in their old stone buildings, still preserve the tradition of the most expert master soap-makers unchanged.

“The soap that comes out of this factory, about 300 tons a year, even goes to America,” says Abu Majdi, one of the workers at Shakaa, as he wraps the soaps just made, one by one, with rapid movements. “The secret lies in its simplicity: olive oil, a sodium compound and water. No preservatives, no artificial fragrances, but a great deal of patience.”

The process is effectively long and laborious, and requires the work of about twenty people: the sodium compound, water and olive oil are boiled together in a large vat, the gazan. This stage lasts for at least six days and now and again the boiling magma is stirred with a large wooden oar-shaped implement. Then, the mixture is taken to the adjoining rooms in buckets and poured out on the floor, between the majestic stone pillars, where it is left to cool down for two or three days by the air coming in through the large windows, until the soap sets.

After that, skilful hands draw straight red horizontal and vertical lines on the poured soap. A seal is then impressed on every cube, branding them with the mark of every soap factory. Lastly, with a long sharp knife, the workers transform the sheet of soap into small ivory-coloured cubes, which will be stacked up to form the large circular towers at the sides of the room.

The cubes of soap are laid one on top of the other, forming a very special architecture, so that the wind can blow in through the gaps to thoroughly dry out the soap for another few days. At this point the fast hands of Abu Majdi, kneeling in one corner, will wrap one cube at a time, preparing the soap for sale or export.

In a region so rich in olive trees like Samaria, olive oil thus became the basis not only of the diet, but also for this production which became increasingly important over recent centuries - even though in today’s globalized world, the oil used to make the traditional Nablus soap is often bought from Italy.

The uniqueness of a product like this, which is hand-made with patience and passion, remains in any case unchanged. It can be perceived in the smell that impregnates the walls of the old factory, where the workers work in silence, sliding like skaters in a rink and continuing to skilfully build up their towers of soap.

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