An Aleppo Tradition is Revived in Paris as France's Own Soapmakers Duel

When the ongoing war put an end to Samir Constantini's plan to open his own factory in Aleppo, he began to make soap in the Syrian tradition on the outskirts of Paris. Is it still Syrian? France has its own bubbling controversy.

By Julie Al-Zoubi
Jan. 4, 2017 12:20 UTC

Syrian soap­maker Hassan Harastani was forced out off Aleppo by years of bru­tal war dur­ing which the city’s famous Aleppo soap became one of the casu­al­ties.

The maze of alley­ways which once made up the ancient city of Aleppo used to house some 60 soap fac­to­ries before it was reduced to rub­ble. The dis­tinc­tive fra­grance of olives and lau­rel which once wafted from the soap fac­to­ries pro­duc­ing Aleppo’s Green Gold’ have long been over­pow­ered by the stench of smoke and rot­ting rub­bish.

We make it here the same way we make it at home: there’s olive oil, lau­rel leaves, water-only nat­ural ingre­di­ents.- Hassan Harastani

Samir Constantini a Franco-Syrian doc­tor and busi­ness­man began import­ing Aleppo soap to France in 2004. His plan had been to open a soap fac­tory on the out­skirts of Aleppo with Harastani. When the ongo­ing war pre­vented this Constantini resorted to open­ing a fac­tory in Santeny, 30 km from Paris. The Syrian soap mak­ers sell their Aleppo Green Gold under the brand name Alepia online and from a shop in Angers.

Constantini is adamant that Aleppo soap pro­duced in France is still Syrian. If a top French chef opens a French restau­rant in New York it remains French cui­sine, not New York cui­sine. It’s the same for the soap. It is made by the mas­ter soap­maker Harastani and is, there­fore, proper Aleppo soap,” he insisted.

Harastani agreed: We’ve been mak­ing Aleppo soap for 3,500 years — well before Jesus Christ. We make it here the same way we make it at home: there’s olive oil, lau­rel leaves, water-only nat­ural ingre­di­ents.”

We could no longer go to the fac­tory because of the shelling and kid­nap­pings,” said Harastani, who is deter­mined to keep the Aleppo soap­mak­ing tra­di­tion alive. Harastani now pours the tra­di­tional soap mak­ing secrets passed down by his father, into bub­bling caul­drons of olive oil and lau­rel oil which morph into Aleppo soap on French soil.

Samir Constantini and Hassan Harastani

The Syrian soap indus­try was already under threat before Aleppo’s soap fac­to­ries were destroyed by shelling. According to Syrian busi­ness­man Safouh-al Deiri who has exported Aleppo soap to France since the 1980’s, cheap imi­ta­tions were being passed off as gen­uine Aleppo soap as long ago as 2010.

France’s own iconic olive oil soap, Savon de Marseille, is cur­rently embroiled in its own bit­ter bat­tle. Two rival groups of Marseille soap­mak­ers are in a legal fight over what con­sti­tutes gen­uine Marseille soap. Relations between the war­ring soap­mak­ers have dis­in­te­grated to the point that the rivals will only com­mu­ni­cate through a third party.

The Association of Makers of Savon de Marseille (AFSM) led by lux­ury cos­met­ics com­pany L’Occitane is demand­ing the right to add per­fumes to the soap and insist­ing the soap is given a geo­graph­i­cal indi­ca­tion (GI), as is granted to wines and cheeses to dis­tin­guish them from cheap imports.

Traditionalists have formed their own asso­ci­a­tion, the Union of Professionals of Savon de Marseille (UPSM). Their aim is to pro­tect the orig­i­nal recipe and they insist that true Savon de Marseille can only be pro­duced by arti­sanal soap­mak­ers from the Bouches-du-Rhone region of France.

Savon de Marseille

In true soap opera’ style the fate of Savon de Marseille will be decided by the French gov­ern­ment. If granted a GI, Savon de Marseille will become the first man­u­fac­tured item to obtain the stamp which is cur­rently exclu­sive to food and drinks.

One French cos­met­ics com­pany not get­ting into a froth over the con­tro­versy is La Maison de Savon de Marseilles. The company’s range includes tra­di­tional Marseille soap, scented soaps and Aleppo soap. They credit Aleppo soap as being the pre­de­ces­sor of Savon de Marseille, stat­ing on their web­site Originally Marseille soap was inspired by a soap that had existed in Syria for thou­sands of years, Aleppo soap, which is a mix of olive oil and lau­rels.’

Aleppo soap which is believed to be the world’s old­est soap is attrib­uted with keep­ing Cleopatra’s skin clean and silky. Europe was intro­duced to Aleppo soap in the 11th cen­tury by The Crusaders.


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