Israel’s Oldest-known Soap Factory Found in Negev

Workshop found in 1,200-year-old Islamic-period home in Bedouin city of Rahat was one of the earliest known to make solid soap, but using olive oil instead of lard of the swine

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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The Israel Antiquities Authority’s excavation at Rahat, southern Israel.
The Israel Antiquities Authority’s excavation at Rahat, southern Israel.Credit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A soap factory going back 1,200 years has been discovered in the Negev city of Rahat, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Sunday.

The discovery, inside an ancient home of a rich family from the Islamic period, may be one of the earliest in the world for solid soap production, and is certainly the oldest known soap factory in what is today Israel.

The soap-making facility was in the area of an evidently wealthy compound of the Islamic period, today located in the Bedouin city of Rahat in southern Israel. The IAA carried out the excavation with hundreds of volunteers, including members of the local Bedouin community.

As is quite the norm in Israel, it was discovered while preparing the groundworks for a new neighborhood.

To be sure, the concept of personal hygiene and the use of some sort of lavaging aid goes back thousands of years. An ancient Babylonian inscription on a clay cylinder from 2800 B.C.E. – meaning almost 5,000 years ago – describes the manufacture of a sort of soap using fats, wood ash and water.

Participants at the excavation in Rahat included hundreds of young people and studentsCredit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

The Soap History website, meanwhile, notes that we can’t be sure the Babylonian soap was used for laving the body, as opposed to washing wool and cotton in preparation for weaving into cloth and cleaning statues. But we can be quite sure this Mesopotamian mélange was a far cry from the solid bars of soap we know today, explains Elena Kogen Zehavi, the excavation director on behalf of the IAA.

Meanwhile, far, far away in either Western or Central Europe, the Celts were also making some kind of soap – again, not a solid one, says Kogen Zehavi – and so were the Vikings and the Romans. 

One cannot help but imagine them all vigorously scrubbing off the other’s blood from their faces and tunics after their interminable battles, but Kogen Zehavi begs to correct a certain misconstruction about their use of the soap they certainly made. In fact, the manner of its use isn’t clear. The ancient Roman practice for cleansing the body was to wash in water and then anoint their skin with oil, she says, not slather themselves with soap.

In any case, the story that ancient Roman women laboriously laundering clothes in the Tiber River were behind the invention of soap, as animal fats from sacrifices descended from Mount Sapo above them and serendipitously mixed with the clay to produce soap, may have some merit in the local context but certainly not the global one. That legend is widely touted as being the origin of the word soap, but Kogen Zehavi points out that the Celtic word for the product was sipa, which is probably the true origin of the word.

The Nintendo of its day: A Hounds and Jackals board game unearthed in Rahat by the IAA.Credit: Emil Aladjem, IAA

One can certainly postulate that the ancient Romans wouldn’t want to credit their despised, feared enemy, portrayed as hideous dreadlocked savage barbarians, with sanitary innovation, hence the legend about their noble laundry-ladies.

It seems the first solid bars of soap arose thanks to early Arab chemists in the seventh century. They mixed vegetable and aromatic oils with sodium lye, scholars suggest.

Soap, sans pigs

Back with the Babylonians: the fat used in their soap production was likely of animal origin but it seems that a potentially vegan version appeared as early as 1550 B.C.E. in bathing-prone ancient Egypt – using vegetable oils. Possibly they didn’t make purely vegan soaps but always mixed the vegetable oil with animal tallow, as described in a document – the so-called Ebers papyrus – dating from that time. Among the evidence of the ancient Egyptian predilection for cleanliness are legends of Queen Cleopatra's baths into which aromatic herbs were placed.

Holding ancient board for the Windmill gameCredit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority
Playing on the 1,200-year-old Windmill game board found in Rahat.Credit: Emil Aladjem/IAA

As we know, the ancient Romans were also keen on bathing in public baths, not realizing that their seemingly hygienic habit was concurrently spreading parasites among them. Fret not, dear reader: public pools today put enough chlorine into the water to kill those worm eggs. Anyway, what seems to have doomed the Roman Empire wasn’t nematodes and tapeworms but other problems, including their copious predilection for using lead – even after they realized it was toxic.

Anyway, as the Roman Empire ebbed, scholars say, so did the use of soap in Europe of the Middle Ages, only to recover in later centuries.

Here in the Holy Land, meanwhile, we may assume that if the local population had factories devoted to the production of Rome’s famed rotting fish guts sauce, aka garum – which they did – they had soap factories too. This one from 1,200 years ago in Rahat is the oldest found so far.

“We know solid soap was invented in about the ninth century C.E. based on written sources,” Kogen Zehavi tells Haaretz. “But we hadn’t found archaeological evidence of it. We know based on Islamic sources that it was huge in the 10th century.”

The Bedouin city of Rahat in the Negev, southern Israel, where the 1,200-year-old soap factory was discovered by the IAA. Credit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

But there was a key difference between European, Roman and Celtic soaps, and that manufactured in the Islamic world. The others used animal tallow – including pig fat, which is anathema to Muslims. Here, the soap was made using olive oil, which would smell better and was of better quality, Kogen Zehavi avers. No pigs were harmed or even contemplated in the making of this soap. And this workshop in today’s Rahat is the earliest known manufacture of olive oil soap in the land.

Much later ones have been found in Israel, from the Mamluk period and also the Ottoman period.

In fact, the self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller found an Ottoman-period soap factory in a house he bought in Jaffa, which he says he detected beneath a pile of dirt using his psychic powers

When they weren’t making soap

Be that as it may, making solid soap was quite the art and it fits the pattern that it would be found in a wealthy home. Making good soap that cleans, doesn’t reek of the swine or the goat and doesn’t burn the skin requires specific concentrations of olive oil (or other fat), calcium and chemicals such as potash or potassium. The secret recipe and process – which took weeks – would be kept in the family and handed down over generations.

Kogen Zehavi describes being presented with a bar of olive oil soap manufactured by a secret process by a family in Nablus – which has been making and selling it for generations, and still does. It isn’t scented like the fancy bars of rose and lavender soap available in fancy shops or even Palmolive or Dove generics. It smells authentic, she says.

The soap made in Rahat used olives, based on the finds of olive pits in association with the facility, Kogen Zehavi adds. Also, the manufacturers may have taken advantage of a local plant rich in potassium: saltwort (salsola soda), which naturally contains a high concentration of potash. The IAA is in the process of testing residues to identify if indeed use was made of this plant in the Holy Land soap.

Another find at the Rahat site attests that the residents didn’t devote all their time to manufacture and commerce – or at least some of them didn’t. The archaeologists also found a board game, a round limestone board used for a strategy game called The Windmill, reports IAA Northern Negev District archaeologist Svetlana Tallis.

“This game is known to have existed as early as the second and third centuries C.E. [the Roman period], and it is still being played to this very day,” she says.

Near that was another game board to play Hounds and Jackals, aka Fifty-eight Holes – a game possibly invented in Egypt, unlike soap, which spread to other parts of the Mediterranean Basin, including Cyprus, and to Mesopotamia around 4,000 years ago. In Israel, boards for Hounds and Jackals have been found in ancient Megiddo and Beit She’an. At least, in contrast to soap, embarrassed ancient Romans didn’t have to pretend they’d invented it.

The Rahat excavation teamCredit: Emil Aladjem, IAA

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