Wash your hands: the Soaps of Sidon, Lebanon

author photo
Owen Morton
6/8/2020

With the world in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, you’re sure to have heard plenty of advice on how to protect yourself. Face masks, self isolation, social distancing… these are all important, but one of the most vital tips is also one of the most basic: wash your hands regularly. It may have taken something of a back seat in recent government communications, but cast your mind back to March, and you’ll no doubt remember hearing the advice that you should wash your hands for as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday – twice. Recent studies have suggested that regular hand washing could help to curb a pandemic by nearly seventy percent – but also that about thirty percent of people don’t wash their hands after using the toilet. In airports, it’s thought that only twenty percent of people have clean hands. Perhaps it’s no surprise that coronavirus spread so quickly.

Soap

So washing your hands is an important step towards reducing the spread of infection – but have you ever wondered about what you’re actually washing your hands with? We’ve all grown up with soap as a pretty omnipresent substance, so it’d hardly be surprising if you haven’t. If you want to learn more, though, you could do much worse than paying a visit to the idiosyncratic Museum of Soap in the Lebanese city of Sidon.

Lebanon's Sidon Castle © Denis Kabanov/Shutterstock

Sidon

Sidon, or Saida, is a city with a history that stretches back to biblical times, when it was a major port for the Phoenician civilisation. It’s thought to be the place from which St Paul set sail to Rome, while in the Old Testament it receives several mentions as a place of commerce and production of goods. Though cedar timber was the principal product at the time of the Bible, by the 17th century Sidon was beginning to branch out into another industry: soap.

It’s not clear exactly when soap as we understand it today was invented – it could date back as far as 5000 years ago in Babylon – but certainly during the Middle Ages European soap was a nasty and smelly substance derived from animal fats. However, in the Islamic Middle East – particularly Syria – fragrant soap, infused with the scent of herbs such as lavender, was being produced, and it was from this tradition that Sidon’s soap industry developed.

Wall of soap, Museum of Soap in Sidon © Owen Morton

The Museum of Soap

Housed in an elegant 19th-century building that was a soap factory until the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s, the Museum of Soap makes for a surprisingly fascinating visit. Here, you’ll learn about the history of soap production in Sidon and the rest of the Islamic world, traditions and etiquette in the hammam baths, and of course the manufacturing process that turns the raw materials (olive oil, alkali and lime) into a perfect bar of soap. This is a surprisingly lengthy procedure – over the course of several days or even weeks, the ingredients are poured between vessels, boiled in huge copper cauldrons, beaten, boiled again, and poured out. It’s then cut into bars using a tool resembling an enormous rake. You’ll see all this in action on an engaging video presentation, as well as through guided tours, which are available in English, French and Arabic.

The video and tour help to make sense of the museum’s exhibits, which include a wide range of soap manufacturing equipment, positioned around the shallow pits in the this former factory’s floor in which the various stages of the process were carried out. You’ll also find cabinets of soaps in an array of delightful shapes, colours and scents, as well as – perhaps most impressive of all – an enormous wall constructed of hundreds of bars of soap.

The ruins of the Temple of Eshmun, Sidon, Lebanon © Marco Ramerini/Shutterstock

Other attractions

Having visited the Soap Museum, you’ll find Sidon is a friendly town and it’s a slippery slope from there to wanting to stay a little longer. Luckily, as befits a city with such a lengthy and varied history, there are plenty of other sights to detain you while you’re here. The most immediately obvious is the remarkable, well-preserved crusader sea castle that squats in the harbour, accessible only by an 80-metre causeway. Built in 1228 on the ruins of an earlier Phoenician temple, it’s a striking and attractive fortress which offers fantastic views from the top of its tower.

Meanwhile, on the street between the Soap Museum and the sea castle, don’t miss the fantastic Debbané Palace Museum – a remarkable 18th-century Ottoman building, home of the prominent local Debbané family for nearly two hundred years until it was extensively damaged in the civil war. It has now been lovingly restored, with particular attention paid to outstanding period features such as a stone fountain set in a marvellous tiled floor, and an intricately carved cedar wood ceiling. If you’re lucky, the owner may invite you to share a glass of tea and a sanioura biscuit – one of Sidon’s specialities. Just remember to wash your hands before eating.

Top image: Lebanon - Sidon Castle © Denis Kabanov/Shutterstock

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