Uri Geller Bends Dirt Pile, Finds Ottoman-era Soap Factory in Israel

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
Uri Geller (wearing a white T-shirt, closely cropped dark hair, smiling) holding up a pottery vessel from the Ottoman soap factory
Uri Geller holding up a pottery oil or water jug from the 19th-century Ottoman soap factory he found in the building he bought to house his museum in JaffaCredit: Dlila Bar-Ratson
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

While visiting the site of the future Uri Geller Museum in Jaffa, the self-proclaimed Israeli psychic who famously claims to bend cutlery with his mind noticed a pile of rubble and garbage that turned out to contain the remnants of a 19th century soap factory dating to the Ottoman era.

“I felt psychically that there was something under the dirt, in the ground,” Geller told Haaretz. “I got the Israel Antiquities Authority’s permission to get rid of the rubble and stones and the dust, and lo and behold, we discovered an ancient soap factory.”

It isn’t the first soap plant to be found in the Old City of Jaffa, it’s the second, but the other one definitely doesn’t come with the biggest spoon in the world, so there’s that.

Geller returned to Israel after 48 years abroad and moved to the Jaffa, a seaside town whose occupation goes back to the dawn of history: in 2016 archaeologists found the signs of a previously unknown Canaanite revolt against Egyptian overlords 3,100 years ago.

Uri Geller explains about his future museum in JaffaCredit: YouTube

Back in real time, a year ago a realtor showed Geller a nearby edifice from the time of the Ottomans (the Turkish empire spanning the 14th to early 20th century). The building featured sturdy stonework arches and foundations that could go back a thousand years.

“I said wow,” Geller told Haaretz. “I couldn’t believe what i was looking at.” And he bought the building to house his museum.

Being spacious but antediluvian, the building needs work done before the museum can go up. Such as having electricity put in. That is the context of Geller’s eureka moment with the debris, which happened a few weeks ago, he says.

“As the work proceeded, I noticed a pile of refuse on one side. I intuited that there was something hidden there,” Geller says.

Because this whole story involves renovation of an old Ottoman structure in an ancient city, the IAA had been supervising the project from its get-go, says spokeswoman Yoli Schwartz.

Troughs of the 19th-century Ottoman soap factory found in Jaffa, in Uri Geller's future museumCredit: Dlila Bar-Ratson

“The site was well preserved and included troughs for mixing raw materials for the soap, a large cauldron, a hearth, water cisterns and underground vaults that were used for storage,” says Dr. Yoav Arbel, a Jaffa expert with the IAA. The entire manufacturing process could be discerned from the finds. In fact some mom & pop operations still make soap much the same way today, he added.

Descending a ladder into the underground rooms uncovered in Uri Geller's future museum in JaffaCredit: Dlila Bar-Ratson

As for the Uri Geller museum, he’s building it himself to showcase treasures he's been collecting for 50 years, including paintings by Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol; and artifacts from Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. “I lived in New York for 10 years and was surrounded by these people,” he told Haaretz.

Among the museum’s unique offerings will be his Cadillac, which the Israel Museum in Jerusalem exhibited for a year, Geller says. It isn’t that he bent its fender with his mind, it’s that the car has 2,000 spoons on its body, which belonged to famous people from the emperor Napoleon to John F. Kennedy to Golda Meir and Yasser Arafat, Geller says, “most of which I bent with my mind, and others which I obtained at auction.”

Asked when the museum will open, Geller thinks probably in about a year.

“I have a lot to fix up – the lighting, air conditioning, the floors,” he says. “Also we’re building the biggest spoon in the world, 18 meters long, weighing 8 tons, which will be in the museum courtyard.”

The giant spoon will attract tourists by the hundreds of thousands, Geller predicts: “Everybody will want to have their photo next to an 18-meter spoon. We will take a picture of the spoon from space. I have friends in NASA and among the cosmonauts.”

Maybe he’s onto something. In 2017 about 3.6 million tourists visited Israel. This year is breaking records too. They could probably use a new attraction.

The furnace that was used to prepare the soap in the Ottoman-period building, 19th centuryCredit: Dlila Bar-Ratson

Lavage not in lard

How did Geller find the long-lost factory? It isn’t on any particular record:  the IAA says it has no idea who it used to belong to.

It is unarguable that the Holy Land is riddled with archaeological remains and the Old City of Jaffa would be too. If there's a building in a city, there's probably something older underneath it, and so on, until one reaches the bedrock.

But he is, Geller explains, psychic. “In the late 1960s I worked for the Mossad, and they didn’t understand how I did what I did,” Geller says. Mossad contacted the CIA, which was keenly interested in his powers and took him to Langley, Virginia for testing, he says.

A year ago the CIA released secret documents and footage of him, he says, which he has posted on his website and says they “basically validate” his powers. He gives a concrete example other than misshapen spoons and the soap factory: “They wanted to see if I could find tunnels that North Korea dug into South Korea,” and he did, Geller says.

Asked if he’s ever encountered anybody who has powers like his, Geller answered, “I think all humans and animals have some kind of intuitive powers in their minds. I basically developed it more.” His mother was not surprised at his psychic prowess because she hails from the Freud family, he said. Perhaps he means that they are not strangers in that clan to the powers of the mind over matter.

As for that soap factory, the medieval Holy Land developed quite a line in soap based on olive oil, rather than lard.

The earliest record of the industry goes back to the 10th century. Some was sold locally but much was exported, not least to Islamic regions – the Ottoman empire and Egyptian market, where products made from pigs could not be sold. European soap might well contain pig fat. Holy Land soaps are made using olive oil, soda ash, water and lime. No pig products.

While the previous ownership of this newly discovered factory in Jaffa is unknown, the first is known to have belonged to the Damiani family, which operated in a large vault beneath the Jaffa Museum. It closed its doors in 1948, and isn’t open to visitors but can be glimpsed from a vantage point on Mifratz Shlomo Street, the IAA says. It adds that the two factories have much the same equipment.

Making soap wasn’t a gig. The mix would be controlled by experts and the ingredients would be cooked in large cauldrons for seven to 10 days. Then the liquid soap would be poured onto lime-covered surfaces to cool and solidify for another 10 days. Then it could be cut into bars onto which the factory logo would be embossed. Only after two months’ more drying would the soap be wrapped for sale.

During a consultation at the museum site, Geller accepted the idea of former Tel Aviv District archaeologist Moshe Ajami that the underground vaults be used to display ancient items of sorcery, the IAA reports. The soap factory artifacts will be displayed at the Uri Geller Museum when it opens at 7 Mazal Arieh Street.