By: Ryan Sigmon
July 1, 2019
The nargile, also called the Turkish water pipe, sheesha, or Hookah, has been a staple in Turkish culture for the past 500 years. When the first tobacco leaves arrived in the Ottoman Empire from America in 1601, during the reign of Yavuz Sultan Selim (r. 1512-1520), the plant quickly spread throughout the region. To smoke this new plant, the locals adopted the nargile, which originated in India, and who’s name comes from the Persian word “nargil,” meaning coconut. This early form of the Nargile was made of a simple coconut shell with a straw in it.
After about 30 years of its use in the region, Sultan Murad IV banned smoking throughout the Ottoman Empire, with the punishment for breaking the law being death. 14 years after Sultan Murad IV banned smoking, officials decided to legalize smoking, seeing as all the ban had done was drive smokers underground. Soon after its legalization, nargiles became an important status symbol. Offering a nargile to an individual was seen as a sign of trust, while withholding it could be seen as an insult. This was taken so seriously that, in 1841, a diplomatic crisis broke out between France and the Ottoman Empire after the Sultan declined to offer the French Ambassador a chance to smoke with him. After years of use, and the establishment of the Turkish republic, the nargile lost popularity due to the advent of cigarettes.
Today the nargile consists of four pieces: body (gövde), top bowl (lüle), tube (marpuç) and mouthpiece (agizlik). The glass body of the nargile is filled with cold water to the half and a metal pipe is placed into it. These glass bodies were mostly crafted in Beykoz district of Istanbul and had beautiful floral designs engraved on them. Some other types of bodies were also made of crystal, silver or porcelain. A long flexible hose is attached to the water pipe. This tube could be embellished with fabrics, embroidery or beadwork. There may even be two tubes attached so two people can smoke from the same nargile. The mouthpiece is generally carved out of amber, meerschaum stone or porcelain. When the smoker sucks on it, he draws tobacco smoke down through the hose and the water so the nicotine is filtered.
Today not just old men, as it was in the past, but also many young men and women, both locals and tourists, smoke nargile in cafeterias or coffee houses around Turkey. Youth culture in Turkey has especially grabbed onto the idea of sitting around the nargile with Turkish coffee or tea, and has caused the nargile to make a comeback. They find that nargile is a wonderful way to connect with friends while taking time out of a busy day to just relax and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. The area of Tophane in Istanbul has even come to be known as “nargile center,” because of its popularity. This comeback has caused nargile coffee shops to sprout up all over Turkey, continuing this wonderful Turkish tradition.