Masbanet al-Far

Masbanet al-Far is an old stone structure located near the southern corner of the Lod city market, west of the Church of St. George and the al-Omari Mosque. The structure belonged to al-Far family that left the town of Lod during the War of Independence (1948). After the war, the structure was expropriated by the Israeli Government according to the Absentee Property Law and today is managed by the State of Israel.

Masbane’ is the Arabic term for a traditional olive oil soap factory. Some of these factories also included olive-oil presses to which farmers brought their olives. We are not sure if Masbanet al-Far included this facility as well (for a description of the olive oil extraction press here. [Description is in the Hasuna Oil-press])

The lower-grade olive oil from the oil-presses was used in the soap industry. Most of soap products used in traditional societies were based on oils, and in the Mediterranean these oils were naturally olive oils.

During the production process, the olive oil, along with sodium hydroxide and fragrant herbs, was poured into a large metal vat in which it was cooked. After an extended cooking process, the oil was poured onto smooth floor surfaces to create a layer 5-7 cm. thick.  The sodium hydroxide would then slowly solidify the liquid oil. When the oil is ‘leather-hard’ it was cut into 5 x10 cm. bars, using large rulers and long and sharp knives (like the machetes of the rain forests). After that, a wide-headed hammer-stamp with an emblem and the name of the masbane’ was used to stamp the soap bars; one worker would have walked between the bars, his back bent, stamping each one of them at a very fast rate, until thousands of bars would have been stamped.

After stamping the bars, they would be taken off the surface and piled up in a round tower about a meter in diameter, which would rise to a height of more than 2 meters, with each row a bit narrower than the one below it, to maintain its stability.  The bars of soap would be left for several days like this, until they hardened completely.  After drying, each bar would be wrapped in paper that had been stamped with the masbane's name. This job was left for the women, who had the patience and accuracy to pack the thousands of bars.  The packed bars were placed in a wooden crate that was called "box" during the British Mandate period (not unlike the crates used to pack the Jaffa oranges from country’s groves).  The crates were sent out to the markets, where the soaps were sold.  

Many years after this industry had almost completely died out, there has been a renewed demand in recent years for natural soaps made using traditional methods, though probably better scented than the soaps manufactured in the al-Far and other similar factories in Lod and other parts of the country.

The masbane’s structure was built in many stages, using various construction techniques. The floors were paved several times, one on top of the other. The last stage was paved with tiles, and should probably be dated to the British Mandate. Although lacking historical and archaeological data, we assume the structure was built during the 19th century, possibly at the beginning of it. The vaults’ construction technique is very rare in Palestinian architecture, as they were built using storage jars. The use of long, thick bottle-like jars is a known phenomenon in Palestinian architecture, as they are characterized by their longitudinal strength (like a chicken egg). Using these jars helped to reduce the mass of the vault, while maintaining its strength. The builders of Masbanet al-Far, on the other hand, used storage jars which, although relatively thick, had a lower resistance to stress.

The structure was examined by the conservation engineers of “Yesodot” (‘Foundations’ in Hebrew) of the Israeli Institute of Archaeology, and was found to be in a poor physical state. The structure suffers fractures, deformations, and collapsed vaults, mainly due to the lack of maintenance over the years.  The construction stages of the structure can be distinguished, with the earliest one built using careful building techniques and beautifully hewn ashlar stones. Later additions include coarser ashlars, and not-as-meticulous techniques. These sections were probably covered with plaster and were not exposed as they are today. During the most recent stages of the building, probably during the British Mandate, the structure was reinforced using concrete castings; this conservation method is not acceptable today.

The plan of the structure is still not completely clear – it seems that its north-eastern section, which contains a large vat, was used for cooking oil and preparing the liquid soap. A round pillar to the west of the vat is made of stone, and was the chimney of an underground furnace located under the vat. A staircase positioned north of the pillar was used to access this furnace. Other underground spaces are found in the southern and western sections of the structure. The function of a round stone basin found in the latter section is still unclear.

According to the Ancient Lod Development Plan prepared by the Israeli Institute of Archaeology, the structure of Masbanet al-Far will be restored in order to preserve and present its original soap production facilities, as well as to allow the use of the structure for modern enterprises like commerce, restaurants, cafés, etc. The planned structure of Lod’s city market is supposed to be situated on the empty square next to masbanet al-Far. The masbane structure can therefore serve the thousands of visitors to the market, and function as a link between the market and the main attractions of Ancient Lod.