Israel’s most ancient soap making workshop has been exposed in recent weeks at an excavation site run by the Israel Antiquities Authority inside a wealthy home of the Islamic period (approximately 1200 years ago), in the Bedouin city of Rahat.
Over the last six months, hundreds of youth and adults have been employed at the large archaeological excavation managed by the IAA, including local Bedouin residents, university students and students in pre-military preparatory study programs.
The excavation was supervised by Dr. Elena Kogen-Zehavi, with the help of Dr. Yael Abadi-Rice and Avinoam Lehavi. Its goal was to reestablish the connection between the community and local history. The excavations were carried out in new neighborhood developments in Rahat, initiated by the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev.
The production of olive oil soap is mentioned in writings since the 10th century CE and has been a significant industry in the region from the Middle Ages and until the early 20th century. During the soap-making process, olive oil was used as the base material, mixed with ashes produced by burning salsola soda (saltwort) plants, which contain potash and water. The mixture was cooked for about seven days, after which the liquid material was transferred to a shallow pool, where the soap hardened for about ten days until it could be cut into bars. These were piled for additional drying, and the final product was ready after an additional two months. The site at Rahat features facilities associated with this industry. The IAA’s researchers obtained samples from the finds, to identify the materials used in the production process.
According to Dr. Elana Kogen Zehavi, the IAA excavation director, “This is the first time that a soap workshop as ancient as this has been discovered, allowing us to recreate the traditional production process of the soap industry. For this reason, it is quite unique. We are familiar with important soap-making centers from a much later period – the Ottoman period. These were discovered in Jerusalem, Nablus, Jaffa, and Gaza.”
According to Svetlana Tallis, IAA Northern Negev District archaeologist, “One of the underground spaces of the wealthy building contained another exciting finding, shedding light on the daily life of the inhabitants – a round limestone game board used for a strategy game called the “Windmill.” This game is known to have existed as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE (the Roman period), and it is still being played to this very day.” Nearby, a second game board known as “Hounds and Jackals”, or “Fifty-eight Holes” was also found. This game was first played in Egypt and it spread to other parts of the Mediterranean basin and to Mesopotamia around 2000 BCE. In Israel, it has been discovered in ancient Megiddo and Tel Beth Shan. It was played by two players throwing dice or sticks that determined the number of places to move with each throw. The goal of the game seems to have been a specific point on the board.
According to the mayor of Rahat, Fahiz Abu Saheeben, “The excavation has revealed the Islamic roots of Rahat. We are proud of the excavation and happy that it took place in cooperation with the local community. We enjoy good relations with the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev and we hope to construct a visitors’ center that tourists and the local community will be able to enjoy.”