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.
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.
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.
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