History of hookah

This article is also available in: Italiano

The hookah is one of the most iconic and well-known objects in the world, with a history that links India, Persia and the Ottoman world. Here you will also find a small parenthesis dedicated to the names and functioning.

Smoking is bad

Before starting, it is essential to clarify that Medio Oriente e Dintorni acts as a source of historical-cultural information and does not intend in any way to encourage the consumption of tobacco and / or other substances present in the article or “smoking”, a practice that in each case leads to health risks. Therefore, I invite you to take this text only as a mere exposition of an element that has always been present in the cultures of the peoples and territories covered by Medio Oriente e Dintorni project. Having made this necessary clarification, I hope you can appreciate the article and discover some more curiosities about this increasingly popular object even outside its countries of origin.

History of the Hookah

Although “smoking” has much more ancient origins within the “Middle East” and the “Islamic world”, the appearance of the first hookah tends to date back to the second part of the 1500s. In that historical period, tobacco first reached turn India and Persia, leading local rulers to devise new methods to fully enjoy this new substance. According to French traveler Louis Rousselet, the first to invent today’s hookah was Persian physicist Hakim Abu-l Fath Gilani, who introduced it to the court of Emperor Akbar, making it an incredibly popular and in-demand object from the very beginning. his reign, contributing to a rapid spread also in the Arab, Persian and Turkish world.

hookah
Karim Khan Zand using his qalyan

In such places the habit of smoking was already historically widespread, the main difference was however that this object was designed specifically for tobacco, a plant that did not exist in these areas, where the consumption of cannabis was decidedly more developed, for the which they preferred to use different techniques such as chilum or sebsi. However, it must be said that the great exploit of this habit came precisely with the introduction of the hookah, which managed to spread more and more in the coffee houses, becoming an iconic element as much as the coffee itself. Initially in Persia, unlike India and Turkey, its consumption, together with that of tobacco, was prohibited, but by Shah Abbas II its use became so widespread that subsequent rulers had artisanal hookahs built with precious glass, such as the the Venetian one, and set up real teams of “hookah workers”. An endless development that has led this object to spread also in Europe and the Americas.

Operation and names

The revolutionary concept at the base of the hookah is to not directly inhale the smoke, making it pass first from the water contained at the base and lightening the smoke, thus making the taste more pleasant. In detail: the tobacco and / or molasses are heated by hot coal placed at its top, so that the vapors released are pulled towards the water container and only then sucked up by the consumer. The introduction of water seems to have been the most ingenious move of Abu l-Fath Gilani, who met the needs of the Mughal emperor to have a “fresh and purified” smoke, as opposed to the stronger and pure one already widespread.

hookah
Istanbul in 1905

Regarding the names there is a big parenthesis, as “Narghilè” is simply the most common term in Italian, but the various populations have many different ways to define this object. In fact, in the Indian sub-continent and in the English-speaking world, the term “hookah” is used above all (the latter should be pronounced “huqqa”), while in much of the Arab world and the former Ottoman Empire, as well as names such as “Narghilè” (نارجيلة), “nagile” and “arghilè” (أرجيلة), the term “shisha” (شيشة) is widespread. In Iran, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine it is known with the name of “qalyan” (قلیان) or “kalyan” (Кальян), while in Uzbekistan with the name of “chilim”, in Kashmir with “Jajeer” and in the Maldives with ” Guduguda “.

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