Museum builders uncover 19th century soap factory in Jaffa

Surprise discovery at future Uri Geller Museum is second Ottoman-era soap factory found in the vicinity, evidence of a once-thriving industry.

The furnace that was used to prepare the soap in the factory discovered in Jaffa. Photo by Dlila Bar-Ratson/IAA
The furnace that was used to prepare the soap in the factory discovered in Jaffa. Photo by Dlila Bar-Ratson/IAA

Workers stumbled upon a 19th century soap factory while rewiring an Old Jaffa building that will house a museum dedicated to Israeli spoon-bending illusionist Uri Geller.

Fortunately, inspectors from the Israel Antiquities Authority were already on site, as was Geller himself.

“We were amazed to uncover a large chamber with moulded recesses,” Geller said. “As the work proceeded, I noticed a pile of refuse on one side. I intuited that there was something hidden there. To the surprise of the Israel Antiquities Authority inspectors, an exceptional find was revealed: a factory for making soap.”

The soap factory unearthed in the Ottoman structure in Jaffa. Photo by Dlila Bar-Ratson/IAA
The soap factory unearthed in the Ottoman structure in Jaffa. Photo by Dlila Bar-Ratson/IAA

Yoav Arbel, a Jaffa expert with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), said this is the second facility of its kind to have been discovered in Jaffa, an ancient port city that is part of the Tel Aviv municipality.

“The site was well preserved and included troughs for mixing raw materials for the soap, a large cauldron, a hearth, water cisterns and underground vaults that were used for storage. This find allows us to reconstruct the manufacturing process, and to draw comparisons with similar factories where the traditional manufacturing process has been perpetuated to this very day,” Arbel said.

The Jaffa factory dates from the Ottoman period, when locally made olive-oil soap was exported to regions throughout the empire, especially Egypt. Other places where soap was produced on an industrial scale are Nablus (Shechem), Jerusalem, Gaza and Lod.

Another Jaffa soap factory was active until 1948 in a large vault beneath the Jaffa Museum. The newly discovered one has nearly identical equipment, notes the IAA.

Former Tel Aviv District archaeologist Moshe Ajami suggested turning the underground vaults into display areas for ancient items associated with sorcery. Geller agreed, and that project is slated to get under way once the museum opens at 7 Mazal Arieh Street.

The Uri Geller Museum also will exhibit unique items and gifts collected and received over the years from famous personalities such as Picasso and Einstein, and a Cadillac covered with around 2,000 spoons that once belonged to celebrities.

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