Reviving Tripoli’s Soap-Making Tradition
Published Monday, November 5, 2012
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.
The production of soap flourished during Crusader times, and reached its golden age under the Mamluks, according to local historian Khaled al-Tadmuri, who heads Tripoli municipality’s heritage and antiquities committee. The Mamluks built the Soap Khan in 1480, though it was later expanded by the Ottomans.
Tadmuri noted that Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Lawmaker used to receive tributes of soap and sugar from Tripoli, especially “bridal soap,” or round soaps included in wedding trousseaus. Suleiman’s wife – better known these days through her depiction in the Turkish TV series “The Sultan’s Harem” – is said to have urged the sultan to expand the Soap Khan in Tripoli and to devote its revenues to the upkeep of the two holy shrines in Mecca and Medina.
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.
Badr Hassoun is a soap-maker who contributed to the revival of the Soap Khan and traditional soap-making in the city. He attributed its decline to a combination of industrialization and decreased olive cultivation, which prompted soap-makers to replace olive oil with substitutes like animal fat.
“The traditional soap industry in Tripoli lost its spirit and value,” he lamented.
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.
Hassoun insisted that traditional soap “is better for you than modern soap, because it does not contain animal fats or chemicals. That makes it good for the skin. It helps treat many conditions, including fungal infections, allergies, dandruff, and other things. “
He said that he managed to keep his venture going, and become Tripoli’s best-known soap producer, by avoiding what he described as a common mistake among soap-makers. “What helped me preserve my business is selling my soap products directly to customers, and not letting the big wholesale traders control the price,” he explained. His products are currently sold in around 200 outlets, only four of which are in Lebanon, the rest spread around the world.
Hassoun takes pride in having helped revive the industry in Tripoli, but stressed that it still needs more governmental support. “It’s a traditional industry that bears the city’s heritage, provides jobs, and also is a supporter of the local olive industry,” he said.
Hassoun’s firm makes 1,200 varieties of products out of olive and other oil extracts, using natural dyes for color. The staff includes his sons, who learned the trade by experience, one of whom obtained a chemical engineering degree to aid his soap-making.
Hassoun noted that the solid and liquid soaps, perfumes, lotions, and other products he makes are pricey due to the high cost of the natural raw materials. Some varieties of soap cost more than ten times as a much as industrial soap, making it unaffordable for most people.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.