Legend has it, that none other than infamous Queen Cleopatra of Egypt was among those who trusted in the effectiveness of Aleppo soap, or ‘sapun ghar’ in Arabic. Syria’s “green gold” is said to be the oldest soap in the world, with some of its traditional manufacturing processes dating back thousands of years. The hand-made soap gets its name from the city of Aleppo, located in Northwestern Syria, where it is manufactured in ancient underground tracts.
The soap’s special attribute is its natural quality; Aleppo soap is an entirely organic product. In comparison to most conventional Western soaps, which contain dozens of different ingredients or even chemicals, the ‘sapun ghar’ has a simple and natural constitution. The two main components are moisturizing olive oil and cleansing laurel oil. Add water and lye, and the list of ingredients is complete. While the composition of the soap remains rather simple, the intended purpose of usage varies considerably. Aleppo soap may be used for washing, shampooing and shaving, as well as against acne, wounds, insect bites or allergies.
In order to get some insight into this multifunctional Syrian treasure, I spoke to the Al Machout family running “Zhenobya”, a business importing and selling Aleppo soap in Germany. We discussed the soap-making process, the benefits of going organic and what the current Syrian crisis means for their business.
Can you tell us more about how Aleppo soap is produced?
Aleppo soap can only be made in the cooler seasons- from approx. November until March. Firstly, the olive oil is mixed with water and lye and is heated to up to 200°C. Then we add the “special ingredient”- the laurel oil. Once the mass of soap has reached the appropriate consistency, it has to cool down over night. Then it is poured over the factory floor. After that, the workers walk over the bulk of soap with wooden “shoes” strapped to their feet to cut it into pieces, as well as to distribute the mass evenly. Aleppo soap can be compared to a good wine; the older it is, the better. This is why the soap has to mature at least six months before we can sell it. By means of oxidation, the soap’s colour turns from green to pale gold. On the inside, however, it remains green.
Why should consumers choose this organic soap over conventional soaps?
There is a reason why Aleppo soap is the oldest soap in the world. People buy into the cultural aspect, as well as the health aspect. I believe that people in Europe are sick of using chemistry on their skin, and having to go from one product to another, and then another. This is why they are coming back to nature. There are increasing sales of this traditional soap in Europe, so we must be doing a good job.
However, customers of other brands of Aleppo soap should be careful. Due to the soap’s increasing popularity, some manufacturers want to cut costs. They might use more water and less olive oil, for example. What really matters is the natural composition- the percentage of olive oil and laurel oil.
Can your soap be labeled as a Fairtrade product?
Yes, this is definitely the case- although we don’t have a certificate. No one is being exploited in the production process. We know the people who manufacture the soap in Aleppo personally, which is a big advantage. Moreover, there is no child labour involved. The manufacturing process is an old Syrian tradition, and its knowledge is passed from one generation to the next. Therefore, some local youths or young adults sometimes participate in the soap-making process. Occasionally they help press the soap with their feet, as you can see in the pictures, because they are just the right weight. Usually one of their relatives runs a soap factory, and that is the reason they help out. This is how it has always been, and how the “know-how” is passed on.
How has the political situation in Syria affected your business?
It has slowed down business a great deal. Production is running at 20% at the moment. As a result, there is a shortage of products on the market. When a buyer contacts us to order 100 bottles of shampoo, we ask him to order less instead because we do not want to run out of supplies. You have to bear in mind that it takes six months to make the soap, and ingredients are expensive. Consequently, people are less willing to take risks.
Of course this is not only affecting us in terms of business, but also personally. We know many people in Syria and have relatives there. Our showroom in Stuttgart has a donation box, but this is only a small step in trying to help the Syrian people. As a company we are currently thinking about donating 5% of all our profits. We truly hope that the situation in Syria will improve in the near future.
Many thanks to Daniel and Nawras Al Machout.
Products from “Zhenobya” can be purchased here