The Journey of Hookah From an Emperor’s Court to Your Lounge

Sep 20 , 2022

The Journey of Hookah From an Emperor’s Court to Your Lounge

The most significant period of the early modern era is the Age of Discovery or Exploration. The oceanic and transcontinental voyages that started in the 1400s began changing the planet like never before, eventually transforming our world into the globalized society we have today.

The origin of hookah dates back to those times when Christopher Columbus was trying to find a sea route to India, and instead sighted and landed on a few Caribbean islands that are now a part of the Bahamas. 

Columbus still thought it was India, which remains the origin story of why the Indies, currently West Indies, are called so, and the source of naming the indigenous people of the New World as Native Americans. Columbus didn’t find his way to India in his lifetime. Nor did he ever set foot in what is now the United States of America. But others found routes to India and to the US.

The Emperor Wants To Smoke

What Columbus failed to achieve was accomplished by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. He was the first European to find a sea route to India. Long story short, the Portuguese arrived in India and established trade relations.

Over the course of the next century, throughout the 1500s that is, the Portuguese traded almost everywhere, from Brazil to India. The Dutch were doing the same. One of the many goods that were traded at the time was tobacco. 

The smoking device was called hookah. The word hookah is Hindustani, an Indian dialect that combines Hindi and Urdu languages. But the origin of the word hookah is the Arabic ‘huqqa’, which means a jar. Since the base to hold water is essentially a jar, huqqa was a fitting name.

Likewise, shisha means ‘glass’ in many languages, including Arabic, Hindi, Persian, and Urdu. Since the base of the hookah was made of glass, the word shisha also became synonymous with the smoking device.

The Aristocrats Want To Smoke

Since hookah was endorsed by the emperor, the entire royalty and most of the aristocrats of India in the 17th century wanted to smoke tobacco using the majestic device. 

At the time, hookahs weren’t the desktop variants that we are familiar with today. Hookahs were grand, not only because they were large but also due to the detailing and ornamentation. All the rich people wanted their prized and unique hookah to showcase their status and wealth.

As hookah began to spread from India to Persia and throughout the Middle East, the aristocrats were not the only ones that wanted to smoke. Everyone who had tried tobacco grew fond of the hits, and people wanted to enjoy a hookah. Of course, these hookahs weren’t as grand.

The Sociocultural History of Hookah

By the end of the 18th century, hookah was already an integral part of the sociocultural habits of people in many countries, including India, Persia (Iran), Turkey, etc. Gradually, hookah found its way to Africa, Europe, and Russia. But hookah was no longer a privilege of the elites.

The common Egyptians and Turks smoked hookah at cafes, in their courtyards, and whenever a celebration or social gathering would take place. Likewise, newer as well as smaller versions of hookahs were developed that let go of the ornamentation to focus on functions or mechanisms.

Even today, you will hear about classic, handcrafted, or traditional Egyptian hookah bowls. This conventional design was developed during the 19th century when hookah was a daily pastime of Egyptians. But it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century when hookah came to the US.

The Evolution of the Modern Hookah

The modern hookah started to gain popularity in the late 20th century and early 2000s, when globetrotting tourists got to experience the shisha in India and the Middle East. People wanted to enjoy the flavors, and not just the nicotine in cigarettes. This was also when cigarettes were frowned upon due to their adverse effects on health, particularly the concerning carcinogens.

Thus, we had the evolution of the modern hookah, complete with washable silicone hoses, new bowls, diffusers, heat management devices, purge valves, and many such cool features. Today, we even have quick-light charcoal, albeit many people prefer the natural variants.