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Volume of Production

Far more difficult to estimate is the volume of production, although there is little doubt that output increased significantly. The first reliable set of figures available can be calculated from Bowring’s report on soap production in Greater Syria as a whole (Table 12).

12. Soap Production in the Levant, 1837
City/Town Tabkha
Source: Bowring, Commercial Statistics, p. 19.
Aleppo 200-250
Idlib 100-120
Kilis 10-15
Damascus 100
Dayr al-Qamar 200
Jerusalem, Nablus, Gaza, Lydda, Ramla 500
Latakia, Tarsous, Adana ?

All of the figures in Table 12 are estimates for a good year.[24] Bowring does not mention Tripoli, although other sources cite it as an important soap-manufacturing city.[25] For Latakia, Tartous, and Adana, he mentioned only that they produced “some quantities,” implying that it was not much.[26] Still, it is clear that Palestine was the largest single source of soap in the Fertile Crescent. Unfortunately, Bowring does not distinguish among the cities of Palestine, but there is no doubt that Nablus was by far the largest soap-production center. As Schölch shows, for example, the doubling of soap exports from Palestine during the 1860s and 1870s went hand in hand with the doubling of the soap factories in Nablus.[27] In addition, Nablus accounted for thirty of the forty factories in Palestine during this period.[28]

The few available clues as to the volume of soap production in Nablus are not very helpful, though they bear exploring. One set of figures, for 1842–1843, was found among the Abd al-Hadi family papers.[29] This document contains a list of taxes on soap manufacturers calculated according to the number of tabkhas they cooked that year. In all, 75,240 piasters were assessed on 10 producers who cooked a total of 90 tabkhas. This unusually small number, it must be immediately pointed out, does not include the production of at least two soap factories, both owned by the Abd al-Hadis. The precedent for this practice was set in 1838, when soap producers agreed among each other to assess taxes according to the number of tabkhas except for those produced in the Shaqrawiyya and the Sawwariyya soap factories, both owned by the Abd al-Hadis.[30] The Abd al-Hadis were the most powerful ruling family in Palestine throughout the 1830s, and they obviously used their political clout to exempt themselves from taxes. It is not clear whether any of their allies were also exempted. It is also not clear from the document whether these taxes were calculated for the entire production of that year or only for those batches that, for one reason or another, had not been taxed.

Another major reason why the figure of 90 tabkhas is artificially low is that this document was drafted in 1852–1853: ten years after the fact. Underreporting of both rural and urban production and of the amount of taxes collected were, as one would expect, favorite practices of Nabulsi leaders, because true accounts would leave less in their pockets after they paid the Ottoman government its dues. Also, this document was submitted to the Nablus Advisory Council, whose members, all soap manufacturers, were then embroiled in a battle with the customs officials over taxes on soap production and export.[31] In such circumstances, they would have every incentive to underestimate the true amount of production.

The second figure is from Tamimi and Bahjat’s report in 1917. They estimated that Nablus’s factories produced an average of 400 tabkhas annually.[32] This also might be a low number, because when the authors broke down the production figures on the basis of which family produced how much, they only listed 12 families who, together, produced 317 tabkhas. In any case, the best educated guess that can be made at this time is that the annual volume of production in Nablus increased from roughly an average of 100 tabkhas at the turn of the nineteenth century to approximately 400 tabkhas during the early twentieth century.

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