Ottoman-era soap factory unearthed under Uri Geller’s Jaffa museum

Underground chambers, soap making tools found beneath building in ancient port city that will house magician’s exhibition

ottoman era soap factory unearthed
A view of a soap factory dating to the 19th century found during work at the new Uri Geller Museum in Jaffa. (Dlila Bar-Ratson/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Archaeologists have unearthed an Ottoman-era soap factory and a number of large underground vaults in the ancient port city of Jaffa, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Tuesday.

The underground chambers and soap factory, or masbena, were discovered during work on a new museum being opened by Israeli illusionist Uri Geller in Jaffa. Geller said the finds came as electricians rerouted the wiring in the building that will house the museum.

“As the work proceeded, I noticed a pile of refuse on one side. I intuited that there was something hidden there,” he said in a statement from the IAA. “To the surprise of the Israel Antiquities Authority inspectors, an exceptional find was revealed: a factory for making soap.”

An expert on Jaffa archaeology at the IAA said the soap factory was the second of its kind to be found in the port city, which is now a part of Tel Aviv.

Uri Geller Soap Factory Dating to 19thc
Uri Geller poses at a soap factory dating to the 19th century found during work on his new museum in Jaffa on August 14, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

“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,” said Dr. Yoav Arbel.

“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 it was unclear who the factory’s original owner was.

Soap production has a long history in what is now Israel and the West Bank, dating back to the 10th century, the IAA noted, with soap becoming an important export during the Ottoman period to elsewhere in the empire. While Nablus was long the center of local soap manufacturing, other cities such as Jerusalem, Gaza, Lod, and Jaffa also had major soap production facilities.

Unlike in Europe, where soap was made in part from pig fat, soap produced in the area has an olive oil base, allowing its use by Muslims and Jews.


Artifacts found during work on the Uri Geller Museum in Jaffa are seen on August 14, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Artifacts found during work on the Uri Geller Museum in Jaffa are seen on August 14, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Also found at the factory were tools used for soap making. Geller said they will be put on display at his museum when it opens.

Additionally, Geller agreed to a suggestion from former Tel Aviv District archaeologist Moshe Ajami to display in the newly uncovered vaults’ artifacts connected to magic and sorcery, the IAA said, in a nod to Geller’s profession.

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