The soap makers of Aleppo are reviving ancient traditions

Production of 'green gold' offers an economic lifeline for the Syrian city

A growing demand for organic products has made Aleppo’s soap highly sought-after. Muhammad Damour for The National
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An exquisite aroma of olive and laurel oil greets visitors at the historic Zanbali building in old Aleppo. Here, millennia-old techniques continue to flourish in the finest soap-making industry in the world, against all odds.

Noura Rahmouni, 30, meticulously stirs a cauldron of oil, water and sodium palmate. “They call [the soap] green gold, it's part of the fabric of Aleppo," she says.

Speaking to The National, Rahmouni, who remained in Aleppo throughout the darker times, is surrounded by industrial-grade machinery and spectacular oceans of the distinctive green substance.

They say Cleopatra used soap from Aleppo and that wouldn’t surprise me
Aktham Abrash, Alepine soap maker

“We have developed this industry," she says. "It was slow during the war and now we are returning to recycling natural soap through modern machines. We re-grate the soap and can even add scents like oud, incense, jasmine etc, we create it to the highest level.”

Aleppo’s green gold is one of the brightest lights in a dim economic climate – it is among the city’s hottest exports, as demand for quality soap has soared in recent years.

“The benefits are many, of course, of which it treats many skin diseases, including allergies and eczema in particular," Rahmouni says. "Its first medicine is laurel soap that purifies the skin and cleans it deeply. It is one of the most important products that people use.”

The laurel oil in Aleppo soap is obtained from a tree that grows in mountains in cold climates. It gives fruit every year and the oil is obtained by boiling the fruit.

Ever since Alepine soap was first discovered in the West and exported to Europe by returning Crusaders in the 11th century, it has been in demand. And in contemporary times, the all-natural, organic mixtures used have increasing appeal.

After the mixtures are prepared, the soap is made and set to dry for an extended period, from six months to three years. The process of isolating each piece of soap is particularly eye-catching.

Wseem Mazen Zanabli, 29, comes from one of the five established soap-manufacturing families in Aleppo. He uses a special cutting machine to slice through the mass of green soap – the bearings for the machine are made manually, as is everything else in this industry.

“The meticulous process [of cutting] guarantees an enduring product, the soap has a distinctive rough appearance and the square bars weigh nearly a quarter of a kilogram each," he tells The National.

He puts the appeal of the soap down to its purity and simplicity, describing the product as “superior in every way” to international products, which use chemicals and questionable ingredients, including crushed horse bone. The growing demand for organic and natural products has propelled Aleppo’s handmade soap into a sought-after market in Europe.

Zanbali says the methods and techniques used in the process go back several generations. “Aleppo was one of the most important trading hubs on the Silk Road and that’s why we were able to develop this type of craftsmanship," he says.

“Aleppo soap is a cornerstone of traditional Syrian skill. Our soap is made using only olive oil and laurel oil, in Aleppo. These two main ingredients give the soap its beneficial properties for the skin.”

Aktham Abrash, 45, makes soap in the Zanbali workshop. He says, as do many others, that the industry is a much-needed boon in difficult times.

“We suffered in the war and then the devastating earthquake," he adds. "Our ability to make the soap both logistically and financially became difficult. Sourcing the materials and the ingredients is tricky and the facilities to make them were either taken over by the militants or were in areas that were unsafe and dangerous.

“This is one of the biggest features in Aleppo’s traditions, it’s a handicraft where things are made by people and with love, the production of it relies on experienced manual labour, from every detail, the oil to the design to the product itself.

“It's saved our lives to an extent as the economic situation is bad, prices are high, people are struggling, it's good to see something doing well here. When you try the soap here, you won't use anything else. They say Cleopatra used soap from Aleppo and that wouldn’t surprise me.”

The process often takes a painstaking length of time – months or years – to go from mixture to marketable product. But Lealaure is the final creation. A well-boxed, premium soap for exports to the European and Gulf markets; an essence of something special from a city that has faced disaster after disaster. The revival of the soap industry provides a glimmer of hope.

Yet the struggles have been continuous; new machinery and a constant lack of electricity are negatively affecting production, and with the Syrian pound at an all-time low to the US dollar, costs are through the roof. Despite the difficulties, Rahmouni plans to stay in Aleppo and further increase production of the product, hoping that the industry gathers more momentum.

“The goal of developing this industry first is our objective, especially around the world, teaching the new generation is vital,” she says.

“I started to use commercial soap and I found it was harmful to my skin. So I developed the idea for scented laurel soap in contemporary forms so that the newer generations accept it and the heritage maintains its sustainability. I think I’m the first young girl to work here in this industry, so that makes me happy.”

Updated: March 22, 2024, 6:02 PM