Hookah Origin and History: Everything you Should Know

Written by Jacob - Hookah Enthusiast

03.09.2021

Most people out there see hookah smoking as merely an entertaining social activity, something to do on a Saturday evening with friends. The fact is, it is way more than that. The cultural origins of the hookah are rich and go back to many centuries ago, when it was regarded as a bonding experience, a sign of social status, and more.

Today we will explore the history and origin of hookah, because knowing it will enrich your experience and will add a deeper meaning to an otherwise fun activity. So buckle up and let’s go down memory lane.

What is the meaning of hookah?

Hookah is known by many names across the world: shisha, nargile, huka, okka, kalyan, goza, ghelyoon, etc., though “hookah” is the most wide-spread and used naming for this smoking device. The term “hookah” originates from “haqqa”, which means “jar, bottle” and “hollow, cavity” and is a result of the colonization of British India back in the early 19th century. In the US, many people incorrectly use the word “shisha” but it refers to the bottom part of the hookah that contains the water – the glass base.

 

The hookah itself is a single- or multi-stemmed smoking device that uses heat produced by special hookah coals to extract smoke from flavored tobacco of various types. The resulting fume is passed through the water basin to purify before it is inhaled by the smoker. The hookah is then passed to another person to smoke, thus creating a bonding experience between them.

History of hookah (17th and 18th century)

So who started the whole hookah thing? The earliest discovered mention of the hookah belongs to a Persian poet who referred to it as ḡalyān. However, most people believe that it originates in India because there are records of it being invented by the physician of Akbar in the 16th century.

The hookah device with a glass bottom, the one that we know and use today, was developed in India at a time when glass manufacturing in the area began. At that time, high society representatives also began smoking tobacco and the ritual became a highly popular activity amongst them.

The hookah design was developed further during the 17th century when woodworkers started to create new pipe designs. A new, dark tobacco leaf called Ajami gained popularity amongst smokers and hookah started to become an available activity even amongst commoners.

Indian man smoke Indian shisha

Hookah evolution – 19th to 21st century

During the 18th century, the hookah was introduced in Turkey where people continued to further develop its appearance. Blacksmiths replaced the old and dull design with intricate brass elements and decorated the pipe with symbols of royalty and religion, despite hookah not being a religious artifact itself.

A true symbol of status, hookah was regarded as an essential activity during royal and business dinners and diplomatic meetings. It had become so ingrained in the culture, that it was regarded as a sign of trust, and not offering to smoke was considered extremely rude.

The tradition continued to spread all throughout the 19 century, especially in the Middle East and Egypt. A new form of tobacco, Mu’Assel, was developed. It was a mixture of tobacco and honey or molasses. This marked the beginning of flavored tobacco. Later on, mint, melon, dried lemon, and grape were mixed in with the tobacco leaves to add even more flavor.

This is also the period when the first hookah cafes were established. The ritual of smoking hookah was further developing into a social act that is designed to strengthen the bonds between people. It was seen as a great way to relax, socialize and unite people.

Hookah on the floor

The hookah managed its way to the U.S. in the early 20th century as modern technology promised to improve the quality of the experience. The period saw a surge in tobacco flavors, as more and more unusual tastes were created to satisfy the needs of the growing market.

Hookah culture today

Presently, the hookah culture is even more embraced across the world. It is still a way to show respect and to strengthen bonds with friends and family as it was in the past. The hookah community grows stronger by the day, as more and more people discover its ability to bring people together, no matter their race, religion or political stance.

While deeply rooted in tradition, the practice of smoking shisha has developed and spread, and today, you can purchase hookahs freely in most smoke shops and some gas stations in the US. A wide variety of tobacco brands and hookah accessories are available as well. Additionally, hookah bars and lounges have grown in popularity all across the country.

Bunch of hookahs

In the US, however, some states and cities have banned indoor smoking, which has forced hookah businesses to either switch to non-tobacco mixtures or to close altogether. Special permits are required to operate and sometimes conditions such as earning a percentage of revenue from alcohol or tobacco must be met.

Hookah smoking rules and etiquette

With time, some hookah traditions were left behind, while others are still being practiced by the hookah community. For example, hookah etiquette is quite transformed in our modern days. In the past, though, the experience looked like this:

 

  • The hookah has to be on the floor not on the table – traditionally, the hookah was placed on the floor and not on a platform. This stems from the idea that the hookah’s purpose is to be of service, so putting it on a sort of “pedestal” was considered improper. Today, most hookah lounges try to adhere to that tradition but it isn’t always possible, so people have become much more flexible with their hookah experiences.
  • Never offend your hosts – it goes without saying that you should avoid offending your hosts and be mindful about their rules, no matter if you are in another country or just another home. Know their customs, their traditions, and make sure to always be polite.
  • Rotation is always clockwise – you know that it’s your turn when the person on your right has completed their turn and placed the hookah hose down. When you complete yours, do not pass the hose to the left but place it down as the previous person. In some parts of the world, passing the hose directly to the person is considered rude.
  • Do not pass the hose with the mouth tip side – when passing or placing the hose, make sure that the mouth tip points away from that person. This is an old custom that is still being practiced in some parts of the world, so make sure you don’t break the hookah etiquette.
Hookah on the floor

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