29 May 2014

Aleppo soap: War threatens an ancient tradition

Aleppo soap - widely considered to be the first soap ever made - is popular across the Middle East and far beyond. But the intense fighting is making business in Syria's second city all but impossible - and the soap's future is uncertain. 

"Soap has always been an important industry in Aleppo", says Julia Gonnella, the curator of the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. "It was a merchant's town and soaps, silks and brass were traded in the bazaar, which was really the heart of the city."
The soap factories were tucked away inside Aleppo's souk, she says. Traders would sell their wares in "khans" or courtyards in the market.
Before the violence began in Syria, there were up to a dozen established soap-making families - like the Fansa and the Zanabily families, and Andoura's mother's family, the Aftars.

One of Nabil Andoura's earliest memories is making soap with his grandmother.
She was from a family of traditional Aleppo soap-makers and she handed down a closely-guarded recipe that hadn't changed for generations - "not for centuries" Andoura says proudly.
Made from mixing oil from laurel (bay) trees with olive oil and soda, Aleppo soap uses no chemicals or other additives.
First introduced to Europe by the Crusaders in the 11th Century, demand for the intensely moisturising, all-natural product has soared internationally in the last 10 years.

But last month, after two years of fighting in Syria, Andoura was forced to flee.
"It was a difficult decision to leave, very difficult. But it was simply too dangerous to stay," he says.
"A person like me - I am 56 years old - I've lost everything. I lost my hard work. I lost my history."
Andoura started his own company, Noble Soap, 17 years ago. He grew it into a business worth $10m, exporting to the US, Europe, Japan and China.
Each bar takes almost a year to make. Andoura used to buy the laurel oil directly from villages outside Aleppo, but as demand increased he had to travel further afield - to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast and Antakya in Turkey - to obtain the quantities he needed.
Olive groves, however, were still plentiful in Aleppo, and November and December were spent collecting olive oil from local trees. Production, when the oils were boiled and mixed, usually took place in the winter months.
The mixture was then poured on to a flat surface, like a shallow swimming pool, and then cooled and dried for almost seven months. The resulting block of green, roughly-cut fresh soap was cut and branded with the maker's stamp.

Original article: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22541698  

Soon to be available, Olive oil soap with 40% Laurel Oil as made in Aleppo, made in Turkey.

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