I woke up this morning to a story on the radio that people from Britain are going out to join in the fighting in Syria. No doubt they feel strongly about what is happening there, but it just made me depressed. The news from Syria is bad enough without thinking that my countrymen are contributing to the violence, no matter what their motives. I was particularly sad to hear that there had been heavy fighting in Aleppo.
Aleppo is a place that has a special place in the story of cosmetics and chemistry. It was the centre of a thriving soap industry for many centuries. Indeed Aleppo soap is still famous and much prized for its unique inclusion of oil from the laurel tree. The production of this soap led to a lot of work that took forward science and technology. The first bench chemist whose name we know is Mariah the Jewess, who may well have worked in Aleppo. Her innovations in extraction and distillation techniques are some of the earliest works in both the science of chemistry and the development of cosmetics. The water baths we still use in laboratories are known as Bain Maries in her honour. But she must have been part of a culture of research and development – things like that don’t arise in isolation from the work of one person.
So we have a lot to thank the people of Syria for. I hope the problems there can soon be resolved. Politics and religion seem urgent and important at the time, but ultimately are fleeting things. Who now cares which emperor ruled or which god was worshiped all those centuries ago? But we still enjoy the fragrances and the soaps that Mariah and her compatriots worked so hard to create.
(Thanks to Wikipedia for the image of the laurel leaf – used to make Aleppo soap and the symbol of victory and prosperity.)
Postscript – thanks for all the comments, but particularly to Jean for more about the significance of laurels.)