Of sea, souk and soap

Aima Khosa finds much to delight the traveler in the streets of the coastal Lebanese town of Saida (Sidon)

Of sea, souk and soap
Soap is such an ordinary object of daily use that it is easy to forget it was once an invention, a novelty. These days soap is just another essential commodity on our supermarket shelves, a thing which keeps us clean and refreshes us while we go about our lives. Besides being intimate, our relationship with soap is also essential and like most close relationships: it is easy to take for granted. After all, it is hard to feel strongly about an item which can be found in bathrooms and kitchens of almost every household. A charming building in the old souk of Saida (Sidon), Lebanon’s third largest city, however, helps one rediscover the place of soap in human history and the classical charm of cleanliness.

I was not thinking about soap when I arrived in Sidon as I travelled and experienced Lebanon, but I was definitely in need of it after spending a large portion of my morning walking up and down the hills of south Lebanon.

A view of the inside of the Soap Museum

Saida became an important centre for the production of soap during the Ottoman era

We had arrived in Sidon primarily to see the famous Sea Castle, an imposing crusader fortress built by Knights of St John in the 13th century. This impressive coastal fortification was part of the network of castles built by the Crusading lords who arrived on the Levantine coast from Europe – today part of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey.

Saida itself became an entity known as the Lordship of Sidon after Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem, captured it in 1110 and incorporated it into the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.

A collection of some of the seals used by soap-makers in history

Eventually, of course, the Castle fell to the Muslim counter-attack and was destroyed on two occasions – once by the Mamluk dynasty and soon afterwards again by the Mongols. Nevertheless, what survives today is an impressive structure, doubtless worked on during the long Ottoman rule after the 16th century.

As I explored the great hall, I could almost vividly picture how Crusader Lords might have sat there as they plotted, planned and feasted, with the grand stone walls festooned with their colourful heraldic banners.

Outside the castle we came across Ottoman-era cannon placed on the causeway that leads to the entrance of the fortifications. These cannon, we were told, were a much-loved part of life in Ottoman-era Saida. They were used, apparently, to signal the timings for sehri and iftar during Ramazan. Later, I was told, the Lebanese military took over the much-loved tradition of signaling Ramazan timings with more modern artillery pieces.

A meal by the sea, Saida

The Sea Castle of Sidon

After spending an hour at the castle, I was exhausted and hungry. “No problem,” said Tariq, our guide. “We go to the Saida’s souk. Lots of food there.” He took us to the outer edge of the souk where there were dozens of restaurants serving freshly caught fish and seafood to families sitting under a huge white tent and smoking sheesha. After consuming a delicious meal of fried fish, shrimps, rice and fatoush, I began feeling sleepy and hoped to ask Tariq to take us back to our hotel in Beirut. “But you must see the souk properly,” he insisted. “You will really like it.”

And with that, he led us to the souk proper – a labyrinth of narrow alleys housing thousands of tiny shops that stretches between the Sea Castle and the Castle of St Louis. The scene under the vaulted souk is from another time: perhaps similar sights and sounds greeted Salahuddin al-Ayubi (Saladin in the West) in 1187 when he liberated the city on his victorious advance towards Jerusalem. But if Salahuddin could travel through time and see the market today, I thought as I took in the sights and sounds around me, he might not recognise many of the objects on sale. One could buy anything here – hardware, wood work, shoes, furniture, groceries, freshly prepared food and even lingerie. It was hard to resist shopping here because almost every item could be purchased at a lesser cost than in Beirut. After buying a marvelous little Turkish coffee pot made of copper and some beautiful little finjans to go with it, we continued strolling down Rue Al Moutran, a tapered street filled with vendors selling replicas of ancient Phoenician figurines, glittering prayer beads and Arabian sweets.

In Ottoman-era Saida, the times for sehri and iftar were signaled using cannon

A view of the souk

Suddenly, Tariq stopped in front of a nondescript door with a simple sign which read Musee du Savon (Museum of Soap). “You will really like this,” he said, as he opened the door and led us inside. As soon as I stepped in the stone building, my nose picked up a scent most familiar. I could not describe the fragrance (I still can’t) but I could certainly feel its effect on me. My muscles began to relax and the tiredness which had taken hold of my body began to fade away. The more I inhaled, the better I felt, as if I had just stepped out of a long, refreshing bath.

“What is this place?” I asked, as I stared at a small fountain in the centre of the room.

“The Soap Museum!” Tariq said gleefully. He could barely contain his delight at being here, although he told us he visited the place often. Perhaps the scent wafting to the lobby from the main hall had the same rejuvenating effect on him. My husband and I started giggling with delight at the idea of being in a place preserving the history of the most mundane object we could think of.

The author, standing near a doorway typical of Ottoman-Arab architecture

Although Tripoli, another Lebanese city, boasts of being the center of traditional soap-making industry, Sidon has the country’s first museum, courtesy of the Audi Foundation, dedicated to the craft. The 13th century stone building initially served as a hammam and in the 19th century, with the introduction of modern manufacturing infrastructure and a greater global demand for soap, it was converted to a factory.

Saida became an important centre for the production of soap during the Ottoman era, although the Levantine tradition of soap production stretches all the way to Aleppo in Syria.

A documentary for visitors depicts the journey of soap from ancient hammams to modern homes through the factory. With tools and raw material around me and the scent of the final product dousing my senses, I could suddenly visualise various stages of traditional soap production, including the preparation of a paste of olive oil, bay leaf and slasola kali (a plant from Syria), the process of liquefaction, drying, cutting into bars and final drying prior to packaging and marketing. Until this moment, I had never thought about soap in such detail, nor had I fully appreciated its role in revolutionising human hygiene.

The museum has been constructed on two levels. The first level showcases items, raw materials and tools, traditionally used for soap production. In the basement, a gigantic wall of numerous square soaps occupies one end of the main chamber. Here on the floor, it appeared as if soap manufacturing workers had just walked off on a break. A pair of shoes worn by ancient soap makers and their cutting tools were arranged on the floor as a simple tribute to their labour. Towers of soap bars, piled high in an elaborate pattern to facilitate ventilation to dry the soap, are all over the room and there is a great variety of form, perfume and colours for the visitor.
Beautifully-lit shelves carried various designs used by soap manufacturers of this region to imprint their product and so distinguish it from that of competitors

Farther down, the history of soap branding was on display; beautifully-lit shelves carried various designs used by soap manufacturers of this region to imprint their product and so distinguish it from that of competitors. As I stared at these designs, my wandered to the time when I was a child. My mother would bathe me in a yellow-tiled bathroom and while she shampooed my hair, she would let me play with the soap. Sometimes it was a Lux soap from Pakistan, at other times, she used Dove. I remembered tracing my fingers around the soap’s logo as a child, feeling the lathery surface of this mysterious object melt at my touch. Now, I was staring at molds used centuries ago for branding soaps. I could picture the soaps that were produced and supplied to the world from this region and I felt like a child again, yearning to touch these beautiful designs. I thought of all the children through the ages, asking myself if they had felt the same sense of wonder I felt when I was first learning about the importance of soap in everyday life. Suddenly, I felt very privileged to be here, finally finding closure to a childhood mystery.

Now I understood how soap was invented and how it had travelled through time and great distances to reach me.

The museum has an enchanting café in a courtyard, typical of the Mediterranean region, which also sells books and locally-produced treats such as figs in syrup, preserved goat cheese, orange-blossom water and a boutique that sells soap and bath products. Needless to say, I returned to Pakistan with lots of olive oil based soap and a whole new appreciation for the wonder and long history associated with items that we often overlook in the mad rush of modern life.

The author works as an editor for Vanguard Books and tweets at @aimamk