In 2015, the artist Iris Andraschek started an ongoing project on the so called Aleppo Soap. The knowledge of the traditional production process and composition of olive oil, laurel oil and soda has been passed on for many centuries and can therefore be considered a cultural heritage. The cultural memory of the ingredient laurel dates back to the Roman antiquity as Ovid describing Daphne’s metamorphosis into a laurel tree illustrates.
When encountering the soaps during her residence in Istanbul in 2015, Andraschek was wondering how this traditional work was kept alive despite the war in Syria, which caused the destruction of Aleppo and its citizens’ migration. Her research brought her to Gaziantep—a town in Turkey close to the Syrian boarder—where a producer of traditional Aleppo Soap had relocated his factory. Successively continuing her research, the artist went to Antakya in December 2017 to be present at the harvest of laurel and to see the production of laurel oil.
A multiplicity of artworks emerged out of this research on site – drawings, photographs and installations with soaps, mosaics, videos. Notably, Andraschek considers the research process an essential part of the artwork. While videos and photographs seem like common media for documentation, Andraschek tries to challenge the claim of objective representation by also creating drawings, as they reflect the artist’s handwriting more directly. The drawings are portraits of people she encountered during her travels and to whose stories she listened. Thus, the Aleppo Soap project is an open-ended series of works in various media.
A Han (Khān) is a building in islamic countries that was used by travellers, mostly salesmen, and their mounts as accommodations. Characteristically, a Han is structured around a courtyard. The many rooms, which are separately reachable from the courtyard, were used for sheltering the mounts and storing the trading goods. On the first floor, the rooms were commonly structured along a corridor and used by the travelling tradesmen for housing or as business offices.
The Büyük Valide Han, built in 1651 near the covered bazar, is the biggest of its kind in Istanbul. To this day, it is a lively place as artisans use the historical rooms as their workshops. One of the 210 rooms—room 53—has been used for contemporary art exhibitions, performances, site specific installations, seminars and workshops for some years now. In autumn 2019, it hosts Iris Andraschek’s installation “sapun ghar”. The choice for this special location was made due to the artist’s interest in art in public spaces (which many former projects like “where do the borders go?” prove).
In places like the Büyük Valide Han, an unplanned encounter with art as well as with historical spaces used by diverse people is possible. Furthermore, places with history add a layer of meaning to the artworks installed therein unlike a white cube exhibition setting would do. The Han erected in the middle of Ottoman Istanbul was a place for travellers and tradesmen for centuries; a place where people from different regions and of different cultures came together under one roof—a political, social and religious centre. The history of the Han as a place of exchange and movement reflects the wide-ranging story of the Aleppo Soap.
Although the project’s content are people’s personal stories or the story of a small factory, it also hints on universal matters: borders, colonialism, displacement of people and of local traditions… The war in Syria caused the destruction of Aleppo and endangered cultural heritage of material as well as immaterial kind—the Aleppo Soap is a symbol for this upheaval.
The installation at Büyük Valide Han consists of Aleppo Soaps placed in a way that is recalling the ground plan of Aleppo´s historic bazar quarter (Souq El Medine) which was destroyed during the war. Also part of the installation is the video “Sapun Ghar“ (20 min, 2016) that follows the process of producing the soap in Gaziantep. (Franziska Niemand)
Aleppo Soap absent from Aleppo
“Those Absent from Aleppo” was the name of the work by Serdar Korucu who told about Armenians of Aleppo and Armenians’ Aleppo. In his work, on one hand, Korucu was helping us to see the societal conflicts that lead the country to the civil war and the horror of the war through the eyes of Armenians. While, on the other hand, he was shedding light into the memory of genocide and a return-without-return or deterritorialization for Armenians.
Iris Andraschek’s installation about the Aleppo Soap, exhibited in Büyük Valide Han largely makes one think about being “absent from Aleppo”. Because, although the production knowledge about Aleppo Soap traditionally produced from olive oil, soda and laurel oil over the centuries has reached today through intergenerational transmission, the soap itself is no longer produced in Aleppo. Hence, Aleppo Soap is absent from Aleppo.
That is indeed the very reason that took the Austrian artist Andraschek to research this soap. The artist, who first came across the Aleppo Soap in 2015 at the Spice Bazaar in İstanbul, defines the soap as something “archaic, transtemporal”.
“When I asked the shopkeeper what was the soap on which Arabic words were written, he told me that it was Aleppo Soap. He further explained that he had only 100 because of the war in Syria and that he did not know whether we would be able to get more of them or not. That drew my interest. When I started to do some research, I came across the special and interesting history of the Aleppo Soap; I learned about its unique production process. I tried to find contacts to get more information about the masters who made theses soaps and their stories. How did the war influence this special soap, how did it affect its production? I wanted to learn this.”
When the devastating war was ongoing in Aleppo, Andraschek’s research took her to the factory in Antep, the border city of Turkey, wherein a forcefully displaced Syrian was producing Aleppo Soap. The artist, who continued her research, further went to Antakya in December 2017 in order to see the laurel harvest and the production of laurel oil. As can be understood from the artists’ road map, one of the places in which the Aleppo Soap is produced is now Turkey, a part of the war in Syria.
While the artist created drawings, photos and videos along her research since 2015, she also produced an installation with Aleppo Soaps, reminding the ground plan of the historical Aleppo Bazaar, which is now destroyed because of the war. This installation is currently exhibited in Büyük Valide Han. Furthermore, a video named “Sapun Ghar” that narrates the soap production in Antep is being displayed in the Han.
Büyük Valide Han, which is one of the most spectacular buildings in İstanbul, exactly in Çakmakçılar Yokuşu mentioned by Evliya Çelebi in his Seyahatnâme (Book of Travels) had been used as a political, social and religious centre in addition to its commercial function. Franziska Niemand, the curator of the exhibition, describes that the Han had been a refuge for people from many cultures from many different geographies and she draws attention to the contact that the multicultural and hybrid history of this spectacular building is creating with the hybridity of Aleppo Soap. Andraschek, in her turn, explains the reason why this installation of Aleppo Soap is taking place in Valide Han, rather than in a gallery or in a similar place:
“Büyük Valide Han had been a commercial centre in the past, and today it is the place for craft workers and shopkeepers. Han is an ideal place for Aleppo Soap which has been a quality product of commerce. Furthermore, Valide Han continues to be a lively place serving both a museum and a production space despite its long history. This is extraordinary and very much appropriate for this project.”
The streets paced in Eminönü, the stairs to climb once you come to the Han and finally whatever being felt with the sound flowing through the ears to reach the exhibition show that Andraschek is right. Yesterday and today is intertwined over there; it is a historical space welcoming the encounter.
During my visit, one of the masters in the Han was also present in the exhibition. When he was exploring Andraschek’s Aleppo installation, he pointed to the soap installation, which reminded a map and he said, “right there. I was right beneath of the minaret. I passed through right from that street…”
Andraschek’s work forces one to think about the Aleppo Soap and Aleppo where it was produced, the war and those that have been displaced by the war. And the artist does that through the most unforgettable thing: the scent. Isn’t the scent – coincided in the past or encountered for the very first time – the most recollectible or the most unforgettable thing even if it is displaced, forcefully migrated or even further, destroyed? The artist takes us from the present to the past and from the past to the present thanks to the historical tissue and spirit as well as the unique scent. While doing this, she also expresses her hope for the future: “Sometimes it feels absurd to me to call it ‘Aleppo Soap’ when it is not being produced in Aleppo. But not giving up this name also implies the hope that one day it will return there, to its own place.”
(Bekir Avcı; Originally published in Turkish at https://gazetekarinca.com/2019/10/halepsiz-halep-sabunu-bekir-avci/)
 For a relevant piece see:
 Bkz: Refugees restore the glory of Aleppo soap from Turkey
 You can have a look at the relevant section about Büyük Valide Han in Karin Karakaşlı’s “Hanlar Hamamlar” serie in Turkish: