The earliest recorded evidence of the production of soap-like materials dates back to around 2800 BC in Ancient Babylon. In the reign of Nabonidus (556-539 BCE) a recipe for soap consisted of uhulu, cypress and sesame "for washing the stones for the servant girls". A formula for soap consisting of water, alkali, and cassia oil was written on a Babylonian clay tablet around 2200 BC.
The Ebers papyrus (Egypt, 1550 BC) indicates that ancient Egyptians bathed regularly and combined animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to create a soap-like substance. Egyptian documents mention that a soap-like substance was used in the preparation of wool for weaving.
The word sapo, Latin for soap, first appears in Pliny the Elder's Historia Naturalis, which discusses the manufacture of soap from tallow and ashes, but the only use he mentions for it is as a pomade for hair; he mentions rather disapprovingly that the men of the Gauls and Germans were more likely to use it than their female counterparts. Aretaeus of Cappadocia, writing in the first century AD, observes among "Celts, which are men called Gauls, those alkaline substances that are made into balls, called soap".
A popular belief encountered in some places claims that soap takes its name from a supposed Mount Sapo, where animal sacrifices were supposed to take place tallow from these sacrifices would then have mixed with ashes from fires associated with these sacrifices and with water to produce soap. But there is no evidence of a Mount Sapo within the Roman world and no evidence for the apocryphal story. The Latin word sapo simply means "soap"; it was likely borrowed from an early Germanic language and is cognate with Latin sebum, "tallow", which appears in Pliny the Elder's account.
Roman animal sacrifices usually burned only the bones and inedible entrails of the sacrificed animals; edible meat and fat from the sacrifices were taken by the humans rather than the gods.
Zosimos of Panopolis, ca. 300 AD, describes soap and soap making. Galen describes soap-making using lye and prescribes washing to carry away impurities from the body and clothes. According to Galen, the best soaps were German, and soaps from Gaul were second best. This is a reference to true soap in antiquity.
Solid soap was virtually unknown in northern Europe until the thirteenth century when it started being imported from Islamic Spain and North Africa. By that time the manufacture of soap in the Islamic world had become virtually industrialized, with sources in Fes, Damascus, and Aleppo. A 12th century Islamic document has the world's first extant description of the process of soap production. Mentioning the key ingredient, alkali, which later becomes crucial to modern chemistry, derived from al-qaly or "ashes".
Soap-makers in Naples were members of a guild in the late sixth century, and in the 8th century, soap-making was well known in Italy and Spain. The Carolingian capitulary De Villis, dating to around 800, representing the royal will of Charlemagne, mentions soap as being one of the products the stewards of royal estates are totally. Soap-making is mentioned both as "women's work" and as the produce of "good workmen" alongside other necessities such as the produce of carpenters, blacksmiths, and bakers.
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