Hookah has a long and rich history transcending geography and cultures. The history is more fascinating if you travel back in time to the origin of the smoking pipe, which is apparently the predecessor of medieval hookah and the contemporary shisha.
The First Hookah
The modern world is interconnected in real-time. Every significant development is recorded and we usually have some irrefutable evidence. The medieval world was different. It is nearly impossible to verify who invented, made, or used the first hookah.
One account tells the story of Hakim Abu’l-Fath Gilani, the court physician of Akbar, the Mughal Emperor of India throughout the latter half of the 16th century. The folklore says that Gilani invented the hookah, and it became popular following Akbar’s patronage. The hookah became commonplace among the royalties and noble families of the era.
However, there are other folktales. Hookah was already a smoking device in 15th century India. The device was more like a smoking pipe, a cruder version of the hookah. The smoking pipes made of wood, copper, or brass were used by the common folks, from laborers to traders.
This origin story is unsurprising because the concept of smoking pipe and using it dates back to 2000 B.C. in Egypt. In Europe, archeologically recovered pipes have been dated back to 500 B.C. Smoking pipes have been made from various materials: reed, wood, copper, brass, animal bones, and clay or ceramic.
The Evolution of Hookah
Hookah’s growing popularity in South Asia, the undivided Indian subcontinent to be precise, coincided with the booming glass manufacturing industry in the region following its expanding trade with the British East India Company. Soon, hookah found its way to Persia.
By the 16th century, hookah had found patronage among Persian royalty. In the 17th century, hookah spread throughout the Middle East to Egypt and Turkey. The popularity of the concept and practice boosted hookah’s expanding presence to Central Asia, too.
The 17th and 18th centuries witnessed phenomenal transformations of the humble hookah. Artistic craftsmen started to make brass hookahs with special embellishments. The royalties, noble families, and elite members of the erstwhile societies throughout the Middle East transformed hookah into a status symbol. Thus, the craftsmen incorporated royal insignias and other symbols representing the empires into the design, form, and embellishments of their hookahs.
Hookah’s Socio Cultural Significance
In Persia, Egypt, and Turkey, hookah became a sociocultural activity. By the 19th century, hookah had reached the masses. The smoking device was now in most homes, community centers, inns, and cafes.
People would smoke hookah as a pastime, for pleasure, and to unwind. Friends would hang out while sharing a hookah. Community members would gather for meetings and discuss pertinent issues while smoking. The heads of families would welcome their guests with some hookah. Offering a hookah had become a custom in Persia, Egypt, and Turkey. Not offering or rejecting a puff was deemed offensive.
The Modern Hookah
The modern hookah has remained largely unchanged in its basic form and function. There is a glass base, a stem or pipe, a tray or charcoal holder, a clay bowl for the shisha tobacco or flavor, a hose with mouth tip, and grommets. Charcoal burners and heat management devices have also been around for a long time. The modern versions are more efficient.
It is interesting to note that hookah did not mark its presence in Europe, Britain, or in the United States, despite its phenomenal popularity throughout South Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia, and some parts of Africa. The delayed advent of hookah in the west could be attributed to the widespread use of cigarettes.
In the US, chewing tobacco, snuff tobacco, smoking pipes, and cigars were already popular by the 18th century. The 19th century introduced Americans to cigarettes. The convenience of cigarettes along with the high nicotine content of the tobacco at the time made them immensely popular.
Smoking cigarettes became common by the time of the Civil War and remained popular through the World Wars, and until the late 20th century. It was only after scientists and doctors established the causal relationship between cigarettes and cancer, among other health ailments, when smokers started to look for alternatives.
Hookah was right here when people sought a substitute. With very little nicotine content and available in a plethora of flavors, hookah or shisha shot to fame in many parts of the country. Hookah became vogue in Europe and the United Kingdom at around the same time.
Hookah in the 21st Century
Today, hookah is both a personal habit and a sociocultural phenomenon. Dozens of companies have hundreds of shisha tobacco flavors. There are scores of different types of hookahs ranging from mini versions to super large editions. Hookah is now integral to the way of life for millions of people around the world.