Origins and culture of hookah

January 15, 2021

Image of Karim Khan of Persia smoking shisha tobacco from a hookah pipe

To some people, a hookah pipe is just another way to smoke tobacco, but the cultural significance runs much deeper than you'd expect. Today, smoking shisha tobacco from a hookah pipe is enjoyed by all classes, but originally it was exclusive to imperial, royal and noble ranks. Aside from being a status symbol, sharing a hookah pipe became a symbol of trust; a ritual performed after an agreement or reconciliation between two (or more) parties. It is the unique characteristics of the hookah pipe that makes it perfect for shared smoking: the long tobacco burn time, the (relatively) hygienic mouth piece, the soothing water filtration system, and the flavoured shisha tobacco. Carrying on from last month's blog article about the history of shisha tobacco, we now dig a little deeper into the origins of our favourite smoking apparatus: the hookah / nargileh.

Origins of hookah in India

It is widely believed that the first proper hookah pipe originated in India during the 16th century. Around this time, Portuguese trading vessels regularly carried cargoes of Brazilian-grown tobacco leaves through subcontinental trade routes, along with other tradeable commodities. Naturally, the tobacco was traded at Indian ports and subsequently transported inland to major cities by trade caravans. As the story goes, Emperor Akbar was tributed with some tobacco leaves by the Moghul ambassador Asad Beg. Concerned about the health effects of smoking tobacco through an unfiltered pipe, Akbar's chief physician, a Persian named Abu'l-Fath Gilani, suggested that the tobacco smoke be passed through water before inhalation. A moulded glass vase was procured, and the first hookah pipe was invented.

Origins of hookah in Iran

Also during the 16th century, the Portuguese introduced tobacco to the Persians in Iran. Although the Shah of Iran, Abbas the Great, had made tobacco smoking illegal, it was still heavily traded and smoked amongst the Persian nobility. In order to smoke the tobacco, a device known as the ḡalyān (or qalyān) was used, which roughly translates to “to bubble up” and “the water reservoir of a pipe”. Unlike early Indian hookahs, the water vessels of Persian ḡalyāns were typically made of metal or wood and would be adorned by artistic engravings and inscriptions. Considering that it was a Persian physician who conceived the hookah in India, it is not truly known whether the hookah first originated in India or had already existed in Iran prior to this event.

Origins of hookah in Ethiopia

There are some who believe that the hookah originated in Ethiopia as far back as the 12th century. The remains of water pipes made from coconut shells, animal horns, and pottery were found in Ethiopian caves dating back to between 1100 and 1400 AD. The name nargileh actually comes from the Sanskrit word for coconut, which adds weight to the theory that hookahs were first made from coconut shells.

Cultural significance of hookah

Ever since its creation, the hookah has been symbolic of friendship, trust, respect, pleasure, and relaxation. In royal and diplomatic settings, sharing a hookah pipe with guests was a gesture of good faith, whereas to not offer would be deemed provocative and insulting. It became custom for imperial, royal and noble ranks to have their portraits painted while smoking hookah to signify stature and prosperity. Each country took great pride in the early manufacturing of hookah pipes, calling upon their particular technological advancements, natural resources, and skilled artisans to create unique hookah pipes both functional and magnificent.

As tobacco became more affordable and hookah was introduced to the middle class, families and friends would smoke hookah together from the comfort of home. The hookah functioned as a centrepiece for conversation, with folks drawn to its many qualities. From the home to the street, the hookah made its way to street cafes to be enjoyed in combination with coffee and tea. Nowadays, hookah has spread all over the world and helps bring different cultures together. It is a lasting tradition passed down from generation to generation, and enjoyed by both the young and the old.

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