Hookah Origin: Culture and History
Smoking hookah has been a tradition for hundreds of years. This new and traditional practice of smoking tobacco helped make tobacco smoking a common and widespread practice across India, the Middle East, and North Africa.
But many hookah smokers, particularly those in the Western world, have little knowledge of the history and culture behind hookah smoking. Some hookah smokers feel okay not knowing the details and simply saying that “hookah has a history.”
Well, we here at MOB Hookah believe that having a good understanding and appreciation for the history of hookah leads to a more pleasurable and authentic experience.
Here is a beginner’s guide to the culture and history of hookah.
Where Did Hookah Originate?
This is not as straightforward of a question as it might seem. There are three competing stories about the origins of hookah, each of which claims a different location as the nexus of hookah as we know it today.
What we do know is that hookah is a practice that started somewhere in the Eastern world, and was originally designed for the nobility and aristocracy.
The three potential origins of hookah and the smoking of shisha are India, Iran, and Ethiopia.
While we may never know the true origin of the hookah, and where it popped up first, we do know a few things for sure. The traditions and history of hookah are tied deeply into Indian and Middle Eastern culture. Less complicated water pipes have been around for thousands of years, and sometime around the 16th century, thanks to the influx of tobacco from the Portuguese, there was an advancement that led us to the hookah of today.
The Indian Origins of Hookah
It is believed that hookah may have originated in the 16th century in India, during the Mughal rule of the Indian subcontinent. Throughout the 16th century, Portugal dominated trade with the Indian subcontinent, and regularly imported tobacco grown in Brazil to the Indian subcontinent.
From there, as the story goes, traders brought the tobacco from the port cities into the mainland. Tobacco began to grow in popularity, and eventually Emperor Akbar was given some tobacco by an ambassador.
Emperor Akbar’s chief physician was concerned about the emperor smoking tobacco unfiltered, as even then physicians knew that there were significant health risks associated with smoking tobacco. The chief physician, named Abu'l-Fath Gilani, posited that smoking the tobacco filtering the smoke through water would make it a safer option.
He then helped to create and commission a water pipe through which the tobacco would be smoked — creating the hookah.
The Iranian Origins of Hookah
While the Indian origin story is often credited as the most credible of the origin stories of hookah, Iranian historians have a strong claim as well.
During the 16th century, the Portuguese were trading their vast amounts of Brazilian tobacco with the Persians in Iran, too. While by the 16th century, Abass the Great, the Shah of Iran, had made tobacco smoking illegal, the nobility and aristocracy of Iran were still avid smokers.
The Iranians were smoking from something called a qalyan — which loosely translates in English to “bubble up.” Qalyans were typically made of wood or metal, with no glass vase holding the water separately.
Furthermore, chief physician Abu’l-Faith Gilani, who introduced the hookah pipe to the Emperor of India, was a Persian. Perhaps he introduced the Emperor to the pipes he was familiar with in Persia?
The Ethiopian Origins of Hookah
Others believe that hookahs were first popular in Ethiopia because the remains of water pipes made from wood and coconut husks have been found in caves in Ethiopia. Some of these remains are thought to be from as far back as the 11th century.
How Hookah Spread and Grew Over Time
While the origins of hookah may be lost to history and we may never know exactly where and how hookah originated, we know a bit more about how hookah has spread and grown throughout time since its inception in the 16th century.
The 17th Century: Wide Held Acceptance
During the 17th century, as hookah spread and grew in popularity throughout Persia, smoking tobacco became less taboo and more acceptable. In fact, hookah smoking became somewhat of a status symbol, especially with the nobility and aristocracy of Persia and India. A new field of work popped up — that of the hookah servant, a servant specifically tasked with maintaining and providing hookah for the nobility.
The 18th Century: Expansion to Turkey
It wasn’t until the 18th century that hookah finally found its way into Turkey, where it quickly became a cultural obsession. The Turkish were quick to realize that they could improve upon the early hookah designs, and were the first to ornately decorate their water pipes with political and religious markings.
Hookah became an important symbol of trust. After political dinners or meetings it was common to see the hookah and shisha come out. It became a symbol of trust and friendship to offer a visitor a hookah, and turning down such a request could have dire consequences on the relationship.
The 19th Century: Into Egypt
In the 19th century hookah continued to spread farther east and south, reaching northern Africa and becoming incredibly popular in egypt. It was during this time in the 19th century in Egypt where tobacco was mixed with molasses or honey, and combined with other flavoring agents like lemon, watermelon, and other fruits.
Egypt was also the first place to have their version of a hookah lounge. As hookah grew in popularity across all classes and peoples in Egypt, hookah clubs and lounges opened up to host people from all backgrounds to enjoy hookah together and socialize.
The 20th Century: A Global Spread
Throughout the 20th century, hookah spread across the globe, as international travelers from the Middle East and India brought their traditions with them. Meanwhile in the traditional homelands of hookah, the traditions only grew deeper, stronger, and more widespread.
The 21st Century: America Discovers Hookah
Hookah has only very recently been in the United States in the grand scheme of things. While hookah had been in the US for a long time, in the 21st century American manufacturers finally took a crack at crafting hookahs and shisha tobacco. They brought new advancements to the designs of hookah and mass manufacturing, as well as creative new flavors of shisha for Western palettes.
Which leads us to today, where hookah is finding widespread popularity amongst young adult Americans who see hookah as a way to socialize and enjoy friendship. It is also a way for the globally minded to connect with the traditions of another part of the world and enjoy some facets of new cultures.
Hookah History Takeaways
While we may never know the true origin of Hookah, we do know quite a bit.
Whether hookah originated in India, Syria, or Ethiopia, the hookah spread globally from India to the Middle East into Africa and beyond from the 16th century throughout the 19th.
Hookah was and still is today an important cultural tradition in the Middle East and India, where hookah stands as a symbol of trust and friendship.
Smoking hookah is a wonderful way to experience the cultures and traditions of the Middle East while enjoying time with friends and making connections with friends yet to come.
As hookah has grown and spread it has only become more and more inclusive, and we here at MOB Hookah think that is something to be celebrated.