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1200-year-old soap factory discovered in Israel

Archaeologists in the southern Israeli city of Rahat have discovered remains of a 1,200-year-old soap factory — complete with break room games.

The Israel Antiquities Authority has determined that the factory is likely the oldest one ever found in the country, according to Atlas Obscura, and date it back to the early Islamic period during the Abbasid Caliphate.

The find was the result of a six-month excavation in advance of the construction of a new neighborhood in Rahat, which has seen large population growth due in part to the relocation of Bedouins whose homes the Israeli government ordered demolished During the dig in an ancient home, researchers found what appeared to be a workshop containing olive pits, indicating that olive oil was used in the production of the soap, as well as ovens where the soap was cooked.

“The soap workshop here was identified due to a similarity in plan to workshops discovered in Israel [that date to] the Ottoman period,” Dr. Elena Kogen Zehavi, the IAA excavation director, wrote to Atlas Obscura. “The soap production process was made from a combination of poor-quality olive oil, potash, lime, and water.”

While the layout of the Rahat factory offers clues about the olive oil soap-making process, other items provide a window into the life of a laborer between the baking, cooling and cutting of the cleaning product. In an underground area beneath the house, archaeologists discovered a room containing a limestone board game called “Windmill” as well as pieces of the game “Hounds and Jackals” or “58 Holes,” a game dating back to the Egyptian Middle Kingdom that you might recognize from this scene in “The Ten Commandments.”

“These boards are found in places where people congregate, such as streets, bath houses, oil presses, cisterns, and wells,” IAA archaeologist Svetlana Tallis told Atlas Obscura. “Although in Rahat the boards were found in the living wing, they may have been used by the workshop workers or played with the merchants who would come for the soap.”

Soap manufacturing was a common industry in the region dating at least to the 10th century and many such sites have been discovered in recent years. Perhaps the oddest example came in 2018, when a 19th-century factory dating to the Ottoman period was discovered during the construction of Israeli mentalist Uri Geller’s museum in Jaffa.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].


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