Earliest soap factory in Israel, discovered in Negev, shows seeds of early Islam
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ArchaeologyFind lets scholars recreate ancient soap production

Earliest soap factory in Israel, discovered in Negev, shows seeds of early Islam

In accord with Muslim roots, 1,200-year-old industrial soap factory uses olive oil as its base, as opposed to lard found in soaps of Europe of the same era

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • High school student Jenny Vasiutin holding the 'Windmill' game board, found during IAA excavations in Rahat, a Beduin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    High school student Jenny Vasiutin holding the 'Windmill' game board, found during IAA excavations in Rahat, a Beduin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • A game board called 'Hounds and Jackals,' or '58 Holes,' found during IAA excavations in Rahat, a Beduin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    A game board called 'Hounds and Jackals,' or '58 Holes,' found during IAA excavations in Rahat, a Beduin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • The 'Windmill' game board in Rahat, a Beduin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    The 'Windmill' game board in Rahat, a Beduin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Israel Antiquities Authority excavation of the earliest soap factory in Israel, in Rahat, a Beduin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Israel Antiquities Authority excavation of the earliest soap factory in Israel, in Rahat, a Beduin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Israel Antiquities Authority excavation of Rahat, a Beduin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Israel Antiquities Authority excavation of Rahat, a Beduin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)

A team of Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists and local high school youth working in the steamy Negev Desert have uncovered Israel’s first identifiable soap factory, dating to 1,200 years ago, in the Beduin city of Rahat. The fact that the soap was made of olive oil is an indication of Islam’s influence in the region even as it started making roots in Israel.

“This city has [deep] Islamic roots and we are proud of these roots,” said Mayor of Rahat Fahiz Abu Saheeben in an IAA Hebrew-language video.

The olive oil soapery arose during the Abbasid period, archaeologist Dr. Elena Kogen-Zehavi told The Times of Israel. The Abbasids were among the early Arab rulers who brought Islam to Israel. The soap was a valuable export commodity, and made its way to Egypt and other Arab lands, she said.

The key to the production of this soap is olive oil as its fatty base, as opposed to the pig fat used in Europe of the same period, which is anathema to Islam.

Aerial view of Rahat, a Beduin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Arab conquest of the Holy Land took place in 636, but Islam only became the majority religion in the ninth century. An earlier 2019 excavation in Rahat has shown, however, that Islam came early to this region of the Negev. IAA archaeologists uncovered a rare, very early rural mosque, dating to circa seventh-eighth century CE. It is one of the earliest known examples in the world.

A very early mosque dating from circa the 7th to 8th centuries CE is being excavated near Rahat, July 2019. (Anat Rasiuk/Israel Antiquities Authority)

The new find of industrial soap production was uncovered in a large pillared structure that the archaeologists believe belonged to a wealthy family who made its living by soap production, local sales, and potentially even export. The harsh desert conditions, including wind and dust storms, made good personal hygiene a necessity, not just during today’s coronavirus, said Kogen-Zehavi in the IAA video, but also 1,200 years ago.

High school students at the Israel Antiquities Authority excavation of the earliest soap factory in Israel, in Rahat, a Bedouin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)

For millennia, Kogen-Zehavi told The Times of Israel, residents of the Middle East and elsewhere used olive oil in their hygienic practices. She said that while bathing is documented in Babylonian and Greece records, the concept was entirely different. Rather than washing up with a soapy lather, these ancient peoples would anoint themselves in oil, which was scraped off their bodies.

The industrial production of soap only truly began in the Middle Ages in Europe, she said. While Christians could use lard, which was easier to manipulate, making olive oil into hard cakes is much more complicated. The expertise in producing this olive oil soap is carefully guarded until today and passed from generation to generation, said Kogen-Zehavi. A modern olive oil factory in the Arab city of Nablus continues the meticulous ancient methods.

Israel Antiquities Authority excavation of the earliest soap factory in Israel, in Rahat, a Bedouin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to the IAA press release, the Rahat complex includes all the facilities needed for the making of olive oil soap. Additionally, researchers were able to obtain organic samples that allowed them to identify materials used in the production process.

The archaeologists found that to make this special soap, olive oil was used as the base and mixed with ashes from the saltwort plants, which contain potash and water. “The mixture was cooked for about seven days, after which the liquid material was transferred to a shallow pool, where the soap hardened for about 10 days, until it could be cut into bars,” according to the press release. The bars were then dried for a further two months, prior to export.

Israel Antiquities Authority excavation of Rahat, a Beduin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)

“This is the first time that a soap workshop as ancient as this has been discovered, allowing us to recreate the traditional production process of the soap industry. For this reason, it is quite unique. We are familiar with important soap-making centers from a much later period – the Ottoman period. These were discovered in Jerusalem, Nablus, Jaffa, and Gaza,” said Kogen-Zehavi in the press release.

Mayor of Rahat Fahiz Abu Saheeben said in the press release that he was pleased “the excavation has revealed the Islamic roots of Rahat.” The dig took place in cooperation with the IAA, the local Bedouin community and the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev, ahead of the construction of a new neighborhood in Rahat. “We hope to construct a visitors’ center that tourists and the local community will be able to enjoy,” said Abu Saheeben.

High school students at the Israel Antiquities Authority excavation of the earliest soap factory in Israel, in Rahat, a Bedouin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Assuming the community center is built, in addition to possible souvenirs of ancient olive oil soap, visitors will be able to play one of the two ancient games discovered in an underground chamber at the site.

One of the board games is called the Windmill, a game of strategy known from excavations from the Roman period in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The second is a board game with dice or sticks called Hounds and Jackals or 58 Holes, which was played in early Egypt and spread to the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia in circa 2,000 BCE, according to the press release.

The ‘Windmill’ game board in Rahat, a Bedouin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)

It is the first time that archaeologists have found such games in the early Islamic period, said IAA’s Avinoam Lehavi in the video.

The games “shed light on the daily life of the inhabitants,” said IAA Northern Negev District archaeologist Svetlana Tallis.

A game board called ‘Hounds and Jackals,’ or ’58 Holes,’ found during IAA excavations in Rahat, a Bedouin city in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
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