Nabulsi soap (صابون نابلسي, sabon nabulsi) is a type of castile soap produced only in Nablus in the West Bank. An olive oil-based soap, it is made up of three primary ingredients: virgin olive oil, water, and a sodium compound. Those who make the soap are proud of its unique smell, which they see as a sign of the quality and purity of its ingredients.
Long reputed to be a fine product, Nabulsi soap has been exported across the Arab world and Europe since the 10th century. Although the number of soap factories has declined from a peak of thirty in the 19th century to only two today, efforts to preserve this important part of Palestinian and Nabulsi cultural heritage continue.
It is in the city of Nablus, however, that the tradition of olive oil soap-making evolved into a major industry and an art. For centuries, olive oil has been the most important product made in the villages of the Nablus region, and Nabulsi soap the most important manufactured commodity of the city.
In the 14th century, Sheikh Shams al-Din al-Ansari al-Dimashqi said of Nablus and its olive oil soap production: "The city of Nablus ... was bestowed by God Almighty with the blessed olive tree. Its olive oil is carried by Bedouins to the Egyptian and Damascene lands, to the Hejaz, and the steppes ... In it a superior soap is produced and sent to the above-mentioned destinations and to the islands of the Mediterranean Sea." Sabon nabulsi was reportedly the soap of choice for Queen Elizabeth of England.
In the 19th century, olive-based villages in the core hill areas of Jabal Nablus were fully integrated into the networks of urban merchants causing the soap industry in the region to undergo a remarkable expansion. Some thirty soap factories in Nablus manufactured tons of soap for various regional markets, though the largest importer was Egypt and its military. By the early 20th century, Nablus was the largest soap producer in the Fertile Crescent, a region that spans present-day Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon and parts of Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, south-eastern Turkey and south-western Iran. In 1907, for example, the city's factories produced 4,992 tons of Nabulsi soap, accounting for 55% of all soap production in Palestine, and 24% of all soap production in Syria and Palestine. It was the soap industry that gave Nablus its reputation as one of the most important manufacturing centers in Palestine at the time.
John Bowring wrote of Nabulsi soap in the 1830s that it is, "highly esteemed in the Levant," and Muhammad Kurd Ali, a Syrian historian, wrote in the 1930s that "Nablus soap is the best and most famous soap today for it has, it seems, a quality not found in others and the secret is that it is unadulterated and well produced."
An analysis of Nabulsi soap conducted by the British Mandatory authorities at the London Institute in 1934, found that the soap consisted only of natural materials and no harmful chemical materials. According to Rawan Shakaa, whose family owns one of the two Nabulsi soap factories still in operation, owners are proud of soap's purity and wonder how anyone could stand to work with and use leftover animal fat, as is common in the production of regular soaps.
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 Bani-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) 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. The lime is spread in a shallow pit and soaked in water until the water evaporates and the remaining dry substance is then rolled and crushed into a fine powder. The two powder mixtures (the qilw and sheed) are combined, together with hot water from a copper vat, in fermentation pits. The hot water absorbs the chemical content and seeps into identical, deeper pits below the above ground fermentation pits. As the water becomes sufficiently concentrated, it is added back into the copper vat so that the olive oil can absorb the chemicals. To produce one batch, this cycle is repeated about forty times over eight days. 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. Determining whether the soap solution is ready is done by smelling it, after dipping the dukshab into the vat. 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. When firm, the surface is smoothed by shaving off the top layer with a scraper. 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.
The cubes of soap are then stacked in tall conical, hollow structures from floor to ceiling, leaving spaces between each piece of soap so that they continue to dry properly. The drying process can take between three and twelve months. 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.
The soap industry has shrunk considerably over the last 100 years as a result of a series of man-made and natural disasters, which include a 1927 earthquake that devastated large parts of the Old City of Nablus, and major Israeli military incursions into the city's historic quarter during the Second Intifada that destroyed several soap factories. Only two soap factories out of the dozens that operated in the 19th century continue to produce Nabulsi soap today.
Of the two surviving Nabulsi soap factories, one is operated by the Touqan family. Commenting on the effect of the West Bank closures imposed by Israel since the Intifada's outbreak in 2000, the general manager at the Touqan factory said in 2008 that, "Before 2000, our factory used to produce 600 tons of soap annually. Due to the physical and economic obstacles we face now because of the Israeli occupation – and especially the checkpoints – we produce barely half that amount today." According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the cost of transporting goods has increased ten-fold since the closure regime was put into place. The complex system of checkpoints and road blocks throughout the West Bank often separates suppliers from producers and workers from their workplaces.
Nabulsi soap continues to be sold in shops throughout Nablus and the West Bank, and can also be found in Jordan, Kuwait, and Arab-Israeli cities such as Nazareth. The soap is commonly used with a loofah in homes and hammams throughout the Levant.
Initiatives have also been launched to preserve this part of Nablus' cultural heritage. The once-defunct Arafat soap factory has been restored and converted into a Cultural Heritage Enrichment Center, that includes exhibition spaces, a research center, and a model of a traditional soap factory that produces small batches of soap according to the age-old methods. Nabulsi soap is also being marketed in the West by local non-governmental organizations as a way to fund other local community initiatives.