Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli is one of a handful of cities in the eastern Mediterranean that was once famed for the production of soap. The product even lent its name to the area’s historic khans, or caravanserais, since the area’s craftsmen were renowned for their soap, which was composed of oil from the area’s abundant olive trees.
The production of soap flourished during Crusader times, and reached its golden age under the Mamluks. The Mamluks built the Soap Khan in 1480, though it was later expanded by the Ottomans.
Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Lawmaker used to receive tributes of soap and sugar from Tripoli, especially “bridal soap,” or round soaps included in wedding trousseaus.
Suleiman’s wife – better known these days through her depiction in the Turkish TV series “The Sultan’s Harem” – is said to have urged the sultan to expand the Soap Khan in Tripoli and to devote its revenues to the upkeep of the two holy shrines in Mecca and Medina.
The production of soap was not confined to the Soap Khan. More than ten major soap factories used to operate in Tripoli, but only three still make the product by hand today. The golden age is long gone, but a handful of producers maintain the tradition, not just to upkeep the city’s heritage, but also as a livelihood.
You can visit Khan el Masriyin (upper floor) in the old Souk of Tripoli where you can watch the only soap maker artist who is still manufacturing soaps in the old traditional way.