Genel Bilgiler

Sabunun Tarihi – Halep’ten/Halep’e Defne Yolculuğu

صابون الغار

Laurel soap, or Aleppo soap, is one of the oldest soaps in history, and the most ancient examples of the intangible heritage spread in Syria in general and in the city of Aleppo in particular, goes back to more than hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. Despite the great cultural importance of the laurel soap industry in the Syrian heritage, the sources that date or mention the laurel soap industry are very few compared to the high importance that this industry holds historically, culturally and globally.

History of soap making – a preface from historical soap documents about its relationship with Aleppo laurel soap 

There are no documented sources recognizing the first time that soap was made in general, and laurel soap in particular. The first literary mention of soap dates back to the Sumerian civilization. Inscriptions (1) were found on a Sumerian tablet with cuneiform writing, the content of which came in the name of the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna, known to the Babylonians, Akkadians and Assyrians as Ishtar: “I used to bathe – I used to wash myself with soap.”. 

The first recipe for soap making came on Babylonian inscriptions in the year 2800 BC, and then on a Sumerian clay tablet in 2500 (2) BC: “Soap is made by heating a mixture of oil and wood ash,” as the recipe was used to clean woolen clothes.

British historian Reginald Campbell Thompson, who studied ancient Assyrian inscriptions, described an ancient Babylonian invocation: “May the tamarisk purify me, where its leaves grow high, may the palm tree, which repels every wind, free me, may the mescal plant, which fills the earth, free me, may the pinecone, which is full of pine love, free me.” He explains that the soap recipe in invocation depends on three elements: the alkaline substance, salt and pine gum, and the alkaline substance derives from the tamarisk plant, which is widespread in the countries of the Mediterranean basin in particular.

In his book, “The Dictionary of Assyrian Plants” (3) Campbell also gave a definition of the word “akhlo” from the Akkadian language (3000 BC), which means the frying solution that is used when making soap. It is the Syrian Anabasis Syriac, used in the manufacture of Aleppo laurel soap.

It is reported that in the era of the Babylonian King Nabo Naid (approximately 550 BC), the composition of soap making (4) was based on three new ingredients: ash – cypress oil – and sesame oil. The cypress tree is especially widespread in the Levant. 

The Egyptian Ebers Papyrus (1500 BC) stated that the ancient Egyptians used soap to treat diseases, and in its manufacture, they relied on mixing vegetable and animal oils with alkali soda ash (5), which is known as kostic, and is considered an essential ingredient in the manufacture of laurel soap.

The Levant (the historical designation of what is known today as the Middle East – especially Syria) relied on olive oil (6) in its soap making. Once it starts to thicken, the mixture get poured into a mould, let cool and firm, then cut into small cubes. 

In Kitab al-Asrar by Abu Bakr al-Razi (864 – 923 AD) came many recipes for soap making. (7)


The history of the laurel plant – a historical peculiarity in the north and the Syrian coast 

The first mention of the laurel plant dates back to the ancient Greek civilization, specifically from the Greek poet Parthenius (8), who was the first to talk about the myth of the Gods Apollo and Daphne in the first century BC. But the most famous version of the myth was given by the Roman poet Ovid in the 8th century AD, commonly known as the Metamorphoses.

The legend tells the story of the god Apollo when he saw the child Eros, the god of love, straightening the strings of his arrow, and he told him sarcastically that throwing arrows is the task of men like Apollo and not children to eliminate enemies. Eros, enraged by Apollo’s comments, decides to make Apollo bitter, and shoots him with the golden arrow, which makes the sufferer fall in love with someone deeply. Then he shoots the counter-arrow, at the nymph Daphne, which makes the person despise the other so much. As a result of the love spell, Apollo fell madly in love with Daphne, who at the same time hated Apollo so much, and Apollo kept chasing her, trying to make her fall in love with him. Daphne decided to get rid of Apollo at all costs, so she turned to her father, Benes, the god of the river, who turned her into a laurel tree in order to save her from the pursuit of Apollo. This is the reason why the laurel is called in many languages of the world as “Daphne”, after the myth of Apollo and Daphne.

Later, laurel leaves began to be used to honor the winners of the Pythian Games, one of the famous Four Hellenistic Games, in honor of Apollo who initiated it by killing Python, since laurel is mainly associated with Apollo. (8)

In the Roman civilization, the myth of Apollo and Daphne also appeared with the common difference between the Greek gods and the Roman gods. The laurel was also presented as a sign of victory and immortality. Later, the laurel began to be closely associated with the emperors, the first of whom was Emperor Augustus, who planted two large laurel trees in the entrance of his house in Rome. (9) And after him, Emperor Trabius Caesar wore a laurel wreath in bad weather, for the popular belief that laurel protects its holder from thunder strikes because it does not burn easily in fire. (10)

The original home of the laurel plant, laurus noboilis, is the Mediterranean basin, and it spreads in the north and the Syrian coast, in areas such as Kassab, Idlib and the village of Ain al-Ghara, which bears the name of the laurel plant.


How, then, did Laurel soap originate in Aleppo? An analytical study with dated documents 

As the case with soap originally, there is no accurate documentation of the first time Aleppo laurel soap was made and used. 

The city of Aleppo is considered one of the oldest inhabited cities in history, as many civilizations succeeded it, such as Aramaic, Assyrian, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic. The first mention of the city of Aleppo goes back to the cuneiform tablets discovered in the Kingdom of Ebla (3500 BC) (11) and the inscriptions of ‘Ur’ in the Akkadian civilization (3000 BC), when it was known as (Hal), (Aba) or (Arman) (12). The great importance of Aleppo derives from its location at the crossroads of many trade routes since the second millennium BC. (13)

If we look into the aforementioned historical documents on the history of soap making, we find that the city of Aleppo was inhabited and adjacent to the civilizations between Mesopotamia, such as the Sumerian Kingdom, which had the first documented tablet making of soap (2500 BC) through the use of oil and wood ash (alkaline), and The Akkadian Empire, who described the alkaline substance for the manufacture of soap and washing. Alkaline, meaning AlShannan in Arabic, is a plant widely spread in Syria, of which species is the Syrian Al-Shannan in particular.

There are no accurate documents showing whether the soap industry moved from the city of Aleppo to the surrounding kingdoms and empires, or whether it moved to Aleppo, through the trade routes. As soda was first mentioned in the ancient Egyptian papyrus, it is possible that it was also transported to Aleppo by trade routes, and was sometimes used in the manufacture of Aleppo laurel soap. It is rumored that laurel soap was a luxury and a royal privacy, as it was used by Cleopatra, the Macedonian queen of Egypt (51-30 BC) and Queen Zenobia, the queen of Palmyra (267-273 AD).

Subsequently, the documented soap industry was transformed in the era of the Babylonian King Nebu Naid, to include 3 components: ash, cypress oil and sesame oil. If we look into this composition, we find that it is considered very close to the Aleppo soap manufacturing process, in regard to the different plants used in parallel. The ash that came in all the different historical recipes mentioned, represents the alkaline substance. It is likely that the cypress oil was replaced by laurel oil, because the laurel plant is widespread in northern Syria in particular, such as Aleppo, Idlib and some other Syrian regions. The great importance of laurel was conveyed during the rule of Aleppo by the Roman and Hellenistic states, which sanctified the laurel plant.

As for sesame oil, it is very likely that olive oil was the ideal ingredient for use, given its very wide spread in the city of Aleppo, in addition to its great properties. It is also possible that this recipe passed from Aleppo to Babylon, with the replacement of the elements with what is appropriate and widespread within the geographical environment of Mesopotamia. And we see that the way in which the soap industry in the Levant was described above is exactly the way in which Aleppo laurel soap is made since its first manufacture until today. (20)

Eventually, the laurel soap trade spread from Aleppo to neighboring regions such as other countries of the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and Mesopotamia. Then laurel soap spread to East and South Asia, and finally to Europe after the influence of the successive civilizations ruling Aleppo and the passage of trade convoys through it, in addition to the impact of the Crusades. Europeans later on transformed the soap industry and produced their own formulations inspired by Aleppo laurel soap, especially in France, Spain and Italy in the seventh century AD. (14)

In his book, Jean Sauvaget documented the great economic importance of the soap operas and baths in the commercial income of Aleppo during the reign of the Ayyubid sultans (590 AD). (13) Perhaps the development in the soap industry during the era in which the Muslims ruled Aleppo was due to the great interest of Islamic civilization in building baths, considering them to be facilities of equal importance to the importance of building palaces. (15) The soap industry developed so that it could be sold in a private market that was known as the old mobile market (646 AD), and the number of soap factories increased dramatically to reach more than 20 markets in 653 AD. The soap trade began to flourish and Aleppo laurel soap was exported to far places. (13)

The soap industry returned to the fore again during the era of the Ottoman Empire, when the soap industry became a private one with large factories (828 AD). The revenues of the Aleppo treasury from the soap trade amounted to 10,000 francs during the reign of Yusuf II Al-Ayyubi. (16) The Ottoman treasury imports from Aleppo in terms of weight of oil and soap amounted to more than 40,000 francs (17). It was also mentioned that the people  of Aleppo of all sects and religious backgrounds contributed in soap manufacturing, and there were about 15 soap factories working on soap from December to May, as the yearly amount of production reached 400 cooks, each weighing approximately 3500 KG. Maintaining authenticity and trust, the Aleppo soap trade was more successful than any other region. (18)

Within the old city of Aleppo, there is a khan dedicated to soap merchants, bearing its name and called Khan al-Sabun. It was built in the Mamluk era around 1492, located between the Great Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo and between Khan al-Wazir. In Aleppo there is also an avenue called Al-Masaben (Soap Factories), between Suwayqat Hatim and Suwayqat Ali, in which there were 128 houses, from which oil wells used to emerge due to the process of soap manufacturing. (19)



(1) The first mention of soap on the inscriptions: Ali Al-Shawk – Al-Hayat – 1998 

(2) The first recipe for soap making: A book on making perfume, cosmetics and soap – H.Butler – 2000 

(3) R.C Thompson – Dictionary of Assyrian Chemistry and Geology – 1936 

(4) Gypsum, salt and soda in the chemical technology of ancient Mesopotamia – Martin Levy – University of Chicago Press – 1958. 

(5) Surfactants in Consumer Products – Jürgen Valbe – 2012 (6) Amnon Cohen – Economic Life in Ottoman Jerusalem – Cambridge University Press – 1989 

(7) Abu Bakr Al-Razi – The Book of Secrets in Medicine and Chemistry 

(8) L. Lightfoot, tr. Parthenius of Nicaea: Poetic Parts and Erōtika pathēmata – 1999 

(9) Annette Gizek – Botanical Myths: Botanical Traditions from Ancient Greece and Rome – 2014

(10) Suetonius – Book of Galba 

(11) Britannica Concise Encyclopedia 

(12) Farid Juha – A translation of a book studying the expansion of a Syrian city from its inception until the middle of the nineteenth century – Jean Sauvaget

(13) WHC UNESCO – Ancient City Of Aleppo 

(14) Cleaning Institute – SOAPS & DETERGENTS HISTORY 

(15) Ibn Khaldun – AlMukaddimah – 1377 

(16) Ibn Shaddad – AlDar AlMountakhab – Sauvaget 

(17) The Turkish National Archives – Omar Lutfi 

(18) The Golden River in the History of Aleppo, Part One – Kamel bin Hussein bin Mustafa Bali Al-Halabi (Al-Ghazzi) – 1853 

(19) The Golden River in the History of Aleppo, Part Two – Kamel bin Hussein bin Mustafa Bali Al-Halabi (Al-Ghazzi) 

(20) Developing Markets for Agrobiodiversity – Alessandra Giuliani – 2007