Hookas – The Ancient Art of the Middle East

Hookas – The Ancient Art of the Middle East

Source: Antika, The Turkish Journal of Collectable Art, February 1986 Issue: 11
By: G?ºnay Gercek

Throughout the ages, human beings have shown a special interest in intoxicating substances, and derived pleasure in delving into other worlds in their experiments with the new materials of this type which they have discovered. For this purpose, they have felt the need for a variety of devices. One of these devices is the hooka, also known variously as hookah, water pipe and hubby-bubbly. hookas were first used five centuries ago and they are a device still employed today-though not very commonly. Research conducted indicates that they were first used in India.

Born in India, the hookas spread to the countries of the Near East, East Asia, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, North and East Africa, and all the way to the Ottomans. In each country it has been subjected to various changes, and finally assumed its present form. Called various names in each country where it is employed, the term is in fact of Persian origin.

Since very early times, the Indians have been raising hemp and employing such plants as medicines. Originally only its seed was used to obtain cannabis oil, but with time, the qualities of the plant’s leaves were discovered and they were exploited in the production of intoxicants, thus leading to the discovery of hashish.

Thus drug was originally employed as a powerful anaesthetic, but with the admixture of other plants and spices, a sort of paste was produced and by eating it they made it a pleasure and habit to delve into a dream world. Not being satisfied with this, they attempted to obtain the drug in its pure form, for which purpose they felt the need for various devices. It was the hookas which arose as the natural result of those desires.

The precursor of the hooka is the narcil, a type of coconut which grows commonly in India. The inner meat of this nut was removed and the shell was pierced, following which a straw was placed inside, the resulting “device” being the first simple form of the modern hookas. It was from the name of this nut that this primitive device was also called narcil.

Subsequently the device reached Egypt by various routes where its form was somewhat changed. For example, the body was made from a gourd rather than from a coconut shell.

Although the name narcil was still adopted, owing to differences in pronunciation the /?ß/ sound was read as a/g/ and thus the word became entrenched as nargile, or hookas.

The Persians saw this device and liked it, and they developed it even further, adding a number of parts. The body, which originally consisted of a coconut shell and then a gourd, they made into a porcelain flask, and instead of the straw, they added a soft and flexible part which resembled a hose and which was mucn more practical. They called this part marpic, which in Persian means “snake coil.”

Around that time, tobacco was discovered and with the beginning of its use as an intoxicant, the Persians experimented with the substance. For this purpose, they developed a tray to be placed above the body which would hold the tobacco. Made of bronze to ensure its strength, this tray was given the name ser, which means “head”. It was also the Persians who first made use of the type of tobacco known as t??mbeki.

The Arabs also made use of the hookas. Nevertheless, they employed it in its primitive form, which is to say, using the coconut shell. Hookas with bodies of coconut shell, long wooden heads, set on iron stands and with hoses sewn from thick cloth were in use in Syria and the Yemen.

The arrival of the hooka among the Ottomans took place at quite a late stage. Although there is no specific date indicated, it would be correct to state that it was used after the introduction of tobacco into the country. At this point I believe there is value in taking a look at the establishment of coffee houses in our country.

There were no hookah bars among the Ottomans until the reign of Sultan S?ºleyman the Lawgiver. We learn from the history of Pe?ßevi that one was first opened in 1554. According to this history, someone by the name of Hakem from Aleppo and a nobleman by the name of _ems from Damascus opened a shop at “Tahtelkale” (modern Tahtakale, presently a commercial district of Istanbul), thus laying the foundations for the first coffee houses. Initially places frequented by people referred to as the “rabble,” coffee houses subsequently became places where doctors of law, theologians, and the upper classes met and talked while drinking coffee. With time, the quality of these places fell and became increasingly degenerate, and being regarded as haunts of idlers, they were subjected to vigorous prohibition during the reign of Murat III.

This prohibition continued up until the reign of Mehmet III, but since people could not be prevented from attending such places, even if only in secret, the prohibition was abolished at the end of his reign. It was during these years that tobacco entered the country. Tobacco, arriving from England in ships, was first sold as a drug, but with the subsequent discovery of its intoxicating properties, it began to be used exclusively for that purpose, since its consumption that way was more enjoyable. Thus, on the basis of all these facts, it would not be wrong to state that the use of hookass took place in the 17th Century.

The Ottomans made hookas according to their own tastes, and made them more useable. For example, above the “head” they placed a bowl the “head” they placed a bowl of baked clay and they added a mouthpiece to the portion of the hose which entered the mouth. The body they made of glass, crystal, rock-crystal, porcelain and even silver. To the heads, which they made of brass and silver, they added a pipe holder which were decorated at their extremities with plant motifs and carvings.

There were considerable differences in terms of manufacture and decoration between the hookas employed by the ordinary people (the “commoners”) and by the upper classes (the “greats”). In particular, the jewelled hookas decorated with precious stones and manufactured to order for the palace are worthy of acclaim.

The hookas used among the people were quite plain, while some were manufactured with two or three hoses and used by several people simultaneously.

For the date of use of hookas, whose employment began during the Ottoman period, it will be helpful to mention the entry into the country of glass, on account of the use of that material in the bodies. Glass gained particular value and great developments took place in the glass industry in the 16th to 18th Centuries. Indeed, the renown of glassware manufactured in Istanbul extended outside the borders of the country.

Glassmaking assumed the aspect of a branch of the arts during the reign of Murat II, and during the reign of Mustafa III, it was taken under the protection of the Palace. Nevertheless, since crysatl could not be obtained by chemical means in our country during this period, all the valuable Palace glassware of the time was made to order in Bohemia.

Towards the end of the 18th Century, the manner of obtaining cut crystal by chemical means was discovered. Thanks to craftsmen who were brought from abroad beginning with the reign of Mahmut I, its manufacture in our country began and crystal were of great beauty and desbign was produced.

During the reign of Selim III during the 19th Century, a Mevlevi by the name of Mehmet Dede set up a workshop in Beykoz, a place where the famous Beykoz glassware was made. Though following these workshops, which from time to time ceased activity and from time to time were open under the protection of the Padishahs, a glass factory was established at Pa_abah?ße in 1899 by a Jew by the name of Saul Modiani, it was unable to compete with the glassware being then imported from Europe and halted production. The first glass factory in the modern sense was established at Pa_abah?ße on the orders of Atat?ºrk in 1934 during the Republic period. The most beautiful of the hookass used during the ottoman period were those made at the Beykoz workshops.

To give a complete definition of a hooka, one could say that it was a device which permitted the smoking of a type of tobacco known as t??mbeki by means of eliminating excess nicotine by passing the smoke through water. T??mbeki or Persian tobacco, is a type originating in Iran and which is used only in hookass. The leaves and stalks of this tobacco are picked together, and after being subjected to special processing is made usable. T??mbekiis not chopped like tobacco, but is broken up by hand. A good quality of t??mbeki was at one time grown in our country in the regions of Hatay and Konya.

The use of hooka and the smoking of tombeki consists of several sections; the pipe, the head, the body, the hose, and the mouthpiece.

The pipe, is outside the hooka located at its highest pint, and is a plate with holes in it made of potters clay. Since the tobacco was also burned here, this was also referred to as ate_lik or fire pan.

During the Ottoman period, pipe making assumed the aspect of an important branch of the arts, and there were even special pipe markets in Tophane. Good quality potter’s clay the color of coral was worked her, and beautiful pipes of every size were made here. It is possible today to see in the Ankara Ethnographic Museum, examples of pipes remaining from ages past which are gilded, decorated, and glazed.

The head was a piece between the pipe and the body. It was made of hard materials in order for it to be resilient. The upper portion was shaped so as to hold the pipe, and this part was decorated with carvings. The head was general made of brass, coper, or bronze. Very special ones were made of silver. Near the point where these are connected to the body, there is a nipple-like protrusion onto which the hose was attached.

The hooka bottle, or body, most often was in the form of a pitcher with a narrow neck and broad belly. Though originally made of a coconut shell and even from gourds, these were subsequently made of glass, china, ceramics, porcelain, rock-crystal, and metals, including silver. The decorations on the hookas bottles made of crystal and cut glass during the Ottoman period are separate masterworks of art in themselves. Nowadays, only plain, ordinary glass is employed, and no attention is given to decoration.

The hooka bottle contains water, and there is a thin hose descending from the pipe. Thanks to this hose, the smoke coming in is cleaned somewhat in the water and at least some of the nicotine from the Persian tobacco is eliminated. The hose is a flexible tube capable of being bent every which way and is attached to the nipple-like protrusion on the upper portion of the head connected to the body. This serves to conduct the smoke cleansed in the hookas bottle to the mouth.

The most beautiful of these hoses were made in the Ottoman period, and in the 19th Century, their manufacture assumed the aspect of an art, at that time, there was even a special market for them alongside the Egyptian Bazaar, at the approach to the district of Mahmut Pa_a. Here, colourful hookas hoses were manufactured from sheepskin leather. The leather was cut in strips two fingers wide, and after being glued, these were wrapped around an iron rod then tied with thin wires. After drying, the rod was pulled out, thus producing the hookas hose. Since this leather did not keep its resiliency for long periods of time it is difficult to find hookas hoses nowadays. Today, they are made entirely of plastic and they are decorated with various strips of cloth or velvet.

The mouthpiece was attached to the end of the hose and was the part placed in the mouth and sucked upon. In the past, only amber was used to make these mouthpieces, and their manufacture was a separate art. The part of the mouthpieces, and their manufacture was a separate art. The part of the mouthpiece actually placed in the mouth was a thumb-shaped knob. The best mouthpieces were in the form of large sweet water grapes, and were given the name “goat’s teat”. These thickened towards the middle, tapered off towards the end, and were made of amber. At one time, the mouthpieces made of reddish amber were the most esteemed. Nowadays, these mouthpieces do not receive the importance they deserve, and plastic has assumed the place of amber.

Though hookas are used today, they have lost their former importance. Since their use, preparation, and transportation are not very practical, they are used by very few persons for pleasure. Nowadays, one sees them being smoked with pleasure in shoreside coffee houses along the water.

2 thoughts on “Hookas – The Ancient Art of the Middle East”

  1. I was given an old brass hookah which stands a couple feet tall.It has floral decal along with some prehistoric fish circling the base.The stem appears to be wood with custom silver wrap around it.I have no idea what era this may be from.Any advice would be appreciated.thanks!

  2. Wow Clint, you really found an old post here! I’m quite happy. To anwer your question,to find out the value and time of the hookah’s making you’d have to take it to a number of different metal antique stores. Each will tell you something different, but you will get a general idea. About smoking a brass hookah. I have done very much research on this, and a few hookah smokers who are also metal workers such as welders or artists in metal give sources for not doing it, since brass is poisonous. Heating it also. They mention copper hookahs and the fact that we drink from copper water pipes but haven’t you ever been told not to drink hot water from the faucet? So..how are we to understand that some of the best pots and cookware are copper? Some copper is good for us, and it can slowly build up in our systems into the liver IF we are gradually using too much, but that is hard to do. In the case of a copper hookah used very often? Most likely bad in the long run as it will build up poison in the liver. ALL OPINIONS though said that brass was no good as a hookah , was often used as decoration or just killed the smoker. Until 100 years ago people didn’t live to more than 50 or so and 200 years ago it as around a life expectancy of 36. Some probably died young from smoking the dreaded brass hookah and never knew why. Or even knew what a liver was doing in their body.
    Clint, welcome aboard!
    Hookah 1


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