Traditional Soap Making Technique

Soap making processes and ingredients did not change much since old ages, especially for the traditional types of soap that revived over the years.

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Nabulsi Soap

Nabulsi soap has three primary ingredients: virgin olive oil, water, and a compound of sodium. Before the introduction of caustic soda in the 1860s, the sodium compound used in its production came from the barilla plant, which grows abundantly on the eastern banks of the Jordan River, not far from Nablus. Large numbers of Bedouins from the Beni Sakhr, Huwaytat, and Adwan tribes would gather barilla from the valleys of M'an, particularly around Salt and Tadmur (Palmyra). In the summertime, the barilla would be placed in towering stacks, burned, and then the ashes and coals would be gathered into sacks, and transported to Nablus in large caravans. In the city, the ashes and coals were pounded into a fine natural alkaline soda powder called qilw. 'Qilw (also transliterated qily) and preceded by the definite article al, is the basis for the English word "alkaline".

Today, qilw is still used in combination with lime (sheed) — which was supplied by the nearby villages of Awarta, Salim and Beit Furik — for the soda solution. To produce the qilw, the barilla ashes are placed into a stone urn and pounded into a fine powder with a wooden pestle.

Made in a cube-like shape about 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) tall and 2.25 by 2.25 inches (5.7 by 5.7 cm) wide, the colour of Nabulsi soap is like that of "the page of an old book." The smell of Nabulsi soap is distinctive, although it is not perfumed.

Aleppo Soap

The main constituents of Aleppo soap are olive oil and laurel oil.

The olive oil used is pressed from the left-overs of prior olive pressings, called "pomace" and is a green color because of the high amounts of chlorophyll (the organic compound which makes all plants green) in the pomace. This oil is used because it is cheap. Upon saponification, the olive oil loses many of its intrinsic qualities; however its high vitamin E content is thought to remain intact through to the finished product.

Laurel oil is very expensive and obtained, through various means, from most parts of the bay laurel tree. It is thought to have high antiseptic and anti-oxidative qualities. It also adds a nice scent to the soap.

The sodium hydroxide used to affect saponification in the oils was formerly obtained from the "salsola kali" plant, also called a tumble weed. The plant was burned to obtain sodium carbonate in the ash, which after a number of processes involving quick lime and water, is made into sodium hydroxide, a strong alkali. Currently, the sodium hydroxide used is obtained through various processes that use sodium chloride from sea salt.

Aleppo 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.[6]

Unlike most soaps Aleppo soap will float in water.

Soap Production hot process

The soap is made in five stages: cooking, laying, cutting, drying and packaging.


Ingredients of oil, water, soda and other igredients are boiled in large bowl called "halla" or "qidra," so that the olive oil can absorb the chemicals. Boiling helps accelerate the process of saponification, the result of the reaction of soda with olive oil. Periodically, workers mix the dough by using a special instrument, a sort of big spoon measuring almost 3 meters long, which in some cases has been replaced by an electric mixer, while adding some water to the mixture in order to reduce the acidity.

The water of Nablus, naturally rich in iron, is the cause of the main characteristic of Nablus soap, which does not melt quickly, and lathers only when dirt disappears.

The hot liquid soap in the copper vat is continuously stirred with a long oar-like piece of wood, known in Arabic as the dukshab. If removed from the vat too early, the solution will not dry well, and if it is overcooked, it will be too hard to cut.


Once the mixture is ready, the head of the team, called "Rayyis," traditionally tasted the soap or crumbled it on his palm to check its texture. When ready, the solution is carried in wooden barrels to a large frame made of wooden planks laid out on the floor into which the solution is poured where it dries for a day. When firm, the surface is smoothed by shaving off the top layer with a scraper.

At this point the soap is a large, flat mass, and it is allowed to cool down and harden for about a day. While the soap is cooling, workers with planks of wood strapped to their feet walk over the soap to try to smooth out the batch and make it an even thickness. The soap is sampled by mouth to make sure the Laurel and olive oil are the right consistency.


Strings dusted with powder are then stretched across at regular intervals and later removed so as to form lines on top of the soap, which is then cut into pieces along those lines, with a sharp metal blade. Each piece of soap is stamped with a metal seal (representing each respective company's trademark) attached to a wooden hammer, and then cut by a team of three to four workers specialized in this task.  


The cubes of soap are then stacked in tall conical, hollow structures and scholarly pyramids called "Tanana.'', leaving spaces between each piece of soap so that they continue to dry properly (for two to three months for Nabulsi soap and one year for Aleppo soap).

While it is aging, the soap goes through several chemical changes. First, and most importantly, the free alkaline content of the soap (the alkaline which did not react with the oil during saponification) breaks down upon slow reaction with air. The moisture content of the soap is also reduced, making the soap hard and long lasting. And lastly, for the Aleppo soap the color of the outside of the soap turns a pale gold, while the inside remains green.


Soap is packaged by a third team of workers in a paper bearing the brand of the soap factory. These workers pack an average of 500 to 1000 bars of soap per hour.
Not all of the soap produced is individually wrapped in paper. It is often exported in stiff sacks designed to minimize friction between the soap cubes so as to maintain their weight and shape for the long trips to surrounding countries in the region such as Egypt,
Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf.



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