In Syria, it used to be nearly impossible to walk down the streets without being engulfed by the fragrant aroma of laurel wafting from the corridors of soap factories and cobblestone alleys. Widely considered to be the first soap ever made, Aleppo soap is a centuries-old formula revered by people from all over the world for its soothing benefits and scent. Created in large batches, the all-natural soap is produced by mixing sodium hydroxide, laurel oil and olive oil in piping hot water. Once the mixture cools down, it is cut into thick bars and stamped and stacked into rows, left to dry for nine months before it is ready to be used. A favorite of Cleopatra and Queen Zenobia of Syria, the gentle formula can be used on the face, body and hair, and is tolerated by those with the most sensitive skin. But, like so much else, the ancient cleanser has become a victim of the wars ongoing in the northwestern Syrian city.
Fortunately, a number of niche beauty brands and independent soapmakers are ensuring the preservation of the age-old trade of mixing olive oil, laurel oil and lye, passed down from generation to generation. “Besides the fact that it’s a beauty recipe that I didn’t want to go to waste, I purposely named [my] soap after the city because I want to use commerce to dialogue with people. I want them, when they see the name Aleppo, to just think of the city,” says Reem Al Khalifa, founder of organic Bahraini beauty brand Greenbar Inc., of her liquid rendition of the yellow-hued soap.
Some beauty brands have even improved the livelihood of displaced Syrians, who are tasked with producing the soap. Elham Montazeri, founder of Los Angeles-based Balthazar and Rose, employs a Syrian Soap Master who, like many, was forced to flee the war-torn country, to produce the brand’s Savon d’Alep. Additionally, a percentage of the proceeds go to Syrian refugees via charity organizations. Similarly, the Karam Foundation—a non-profit organization devoted to helping refugees rebuild their lives—sells soap bars handmade by displaced women in Damascus.
For ways to help, you can donate directly to the Jesuit Refugee Service; help supply refugees across the globe with basic necessities via the UN’S refugee agency, UNHCR; support Doctors Without Borders, who provide medical aid to war-torn countries; or donate directly to Muslim Aid to provide provisions, medical supplies and fuel for local families and hospitals in Syria.