Humans have used soap for millennia. Evidence exists for the production of soap-like materials in ancient Babylon around 2800 BC. The soap was produced by heating a mixture of oil and ash from wood and used for washing clothing. The ancient Egyptians used soap as medicine and combined animal fats or vegetable oils with a soda ash substance called Trona to create their soaps.
In the Levant, the ashes from barilla plants (salt-tolerant plants), were used in soap production, known as potash. Traditionally, olive oil was used instead of animal lard, which was boiled in a copper cauldron for several days. As the boiling progressed, alkali ashes and smaller quantities of quicklime were added and constantly stirred. Once it began to thicken, the brew was poured into a mould and left to cool and harden for two weeks. After hardening, it was cut into smaller cakes. Aromatic herbs were often added.
The 2nd-century AD physician Galen describes soap-making using lye (water from ashes) and prescribes washing to carry away impurities from the body and clothes. The use of soap for personal cleanliness became increasingly common in this period. According to Galen, the best soaps were Germanic, and soaps from Gaul were second best.
Alisiva was widely used in Cyprus, as a homemade cleansing product, and a soap. People used to boil water with ash, preferably rainwater, add preferably olive oil and then small quantities of soda. They would bring the mixture to boil, stirring constantly, and when thickened, they would mould it into small squares or balls and let it dry. Even today, we use Alisiva soaps to which herbs and aromas are added.
The ‘Did You Know’ series is made possible with the support of OPAP (Cyprus) and Active Citizens Fund.