Modern threat to Syria's ancient Aleppo soap industry

Fri Oct 22, 2010 5:39am EDT
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By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - The deep perfume of olive and laurel oil hangs in the air of old Aleppo, home to an ancient soap industry that has enjoyed a renaissance since the government lifted crippling trade bans in the last five years.

Nestled among the 2,000-year-old labyrinthine streets in courtyard houses and old hotels known as khans, are a handful of workshops that have been making the famed "Savon d'Alep", or Aleppo soap, by hand for hundreds of years.

But the guardians of the old tradition say greedy imitators who have begun marketing cheap industrial soap under the same name are threatening to undermine the brand in lucrative European export markets.

"European consumers are very discerning. They may fork several euros for a bar that has Aleppo written on it but they will not buy Syrian soap again if it doesn't make their skin nice," said Safouh al-Deiri, a Syrian businessman who has been exporting Aleppo soap to France since the 1980s.

Deiri, who lives in Lyon, said Aleppo soap had influenced the development of soap making in Marseilles during the French occupation of Syria and neighbouring Lebanon from 1920 to 1946.

The real soap, nicknamed Aleppo's green gold, is made only from olive and laurel oil, water and sodium palmate, a natural ingredient that hardens the mixture.

The resulting block is cut by hand and left to dry for a period of six months up to three years to make it last longer. The rough look of the soap and the big square bars that weigh almost a quarter of a kilo each are its trademark.

The soap's purity and simplicity -- olive oil is a natural moisturizer and laurel oil a cleanser -- contrast with modern soaps that use everything from pig fat to crushed horse bone, as well as "less noble" oils, such as palm oil or other seeds.   Continued...