When you step out of the car in Saida, the coastal town some 50km south of Beirut, you tread on very ancient ground indeed. Together with Byblos and Trye, Saida was the third most important Phoenician city state and has seen wealth as a sea port and trading point as well as the conquest of many civilizations from the Persian to the Romans to the Cruisaders and the Ottomans.
Such multi cultural history has left its traces and a visit to Saida is a must for history fans like myself. Approaching on the road from Beirut the first thing you see is the Cruisader Castle of the Sea, located on an islet and built in the 13th century by the Knights of St. John. As far as cruisader castles go, this one is not very big but quite well preserved and it’s nice to walk across the narrow causeway, enter through the wooden gate and climb up a tower to enjoy a fantastic view over the Mediterranean.
Of course, I couldn’t by pass the castle, but what I had really come to visit was the extraordinary medina of the old town of Saida. It’s different from all other souks and medinas I have visited in the Middle East and Morocco, because it’s entirely enclosed. A maze of vaulted alleys and walkways connects the different parts of the old town, higher levels are sometimes reached by ladders and shops and workshops are tugged into niches.
You better mind your head, because cables are hanging overhead and you sometimes wonder how people might be able to identify which cable leads where should there be a problem. And this is also where the first sweet smells waft out from the many bakeries which produce the crisp break called Kakka, consumed as a snack all day long.
I had come in search of a very particular place I had heard about: The Olive Soap Museum. I took a few wrong turns, but finally found it on El Shakrieh Street in the middle of the Medina.
For centuries, the building was the location of a soap factory which was erected and modified on many levels. Thanks to the Audi family of Beirut, the structure has been restored and transformed into the thematic museum which documents the long history of outstanding soap in Saida. You enter through the glass doors and are immediately enveloped in the sweetest smells of the soap. The ingredients used here are olive oil, slasola kali, a plant from Syria, laurel oil and mi’a, a traditional perfume which is distilled from the resin of styrax, a tree which grows in Hermon and Turkey.
You meander through the many levels of the factory and can observe the different stages which are involved in soap making. Beautifully lit show cases exhibit the different molds in which the soap is pressed and towers of soap bars are everywhere which are piled high in an elaborate pattern to facilitate ventilation to dry the soap.
The gift shop downstairs is simply irresistible. Soap in many forms and shapes, gift baskets, perfumes, essences, I could have bought everything. I loved the baby gift baskets and the soap shaped in the form of the traditional clogs worn in a hammam and a tarbouche.
Next to it is a cafe where I enjoyed a Lebanese coffee before plunging back into the vaulted maze which is the extraordinary medina of Saida. I have put the soap I bought into my drawers and every time I change my clothes I’m reminded of the sweet smells of Saida.