The mysterious origins of the hookah (narghile)

Dakka Pipe with Wooden Stem

Several hypotheses on the birthplace of narghile must be taken into account. They concern Europe, America, India, Persia and Africa. Those who try hard to write the official history of tobacco mention an American origin for the latter and a European one for the transmission of its use modes, as the common pipe, the chibouque or even narghile. Such an argument states that the Europeans would have taught Asian and African peoples how to smoke, particularly through the pipe. A consequence is that cannabis would have been inhaled, neither in Europe, nor in Africa, nor anywhere else, before the arrival of tobacco.

The hypothesis of an American origin arose from the crossing of speculations on ways tobacco was used through gourds in America and from deep studies as those conducted at the beginning of the century by a scholar named L. Wiener. The latter asserted that tobacco smoking would have been imported from America to Africa several centuries before the arrival of Europeans. I. Van Sertima enriched such a contribution by endeavouring, in his turn, to show that African men certainly lived in America before the discovery of this last continent and brought to theirs smoking behaviours like the use of pipes.

The Indian (Asia) track lacks sources. So, here, let us restrict ourselves to quote only two authors without proceeding with the discussion. J. A. Frank freely asserts that "two thousand years before the discovery of tobacco, it seems that a water pipe called Dhoom Netra, filled with aromatic and medicinal herbs, and also very probably with drugs, was smoked". G.Gercek states, without supporting facts, that narghile was born in India and that the artefact benefited from the addition of innovative elements as the bowl and the nozzle when it reached the Ottoman Empire.

The Persian origin is particularly upheld by B.M. Du Toit through ethnographical surveys in southern Africa. The researcher was interested in the origin of dagga (cannabis) and repeatedly reports the use of the "dakka" water pipe. From contemporary Iran, a researcher named Hasan Semsar ascribes the invention of narghile to the "Persian genius", ex-nihilo, without providing with more details on the emergence of such an innovation in smoking manners.

The possibility of an African origin for narghile has been submitted by specialists as A. Dunhill and J.E. Philips. The first of both considers the "dakka" water pipe used by the "Hottentots" (Khoikhoin), living in the South of the continent, as the precursor of narghile. As for the second scholar, his research was based on a detailed and technical discussion, particularly about undertaken excavations and dating problems posed at Hyrax Hill in Kenya, Sebanzi in Zambia, Engaruka in Tanzania and in other places of the African continent.

Antelope Horn Pipe: Lake ShirwaTo sum up, the social use of narghile, on a large-scale, can be fixed as simultaneous with the emergence of the public coffee-house and the adoption of tobacco. Today, the hypotheses we have kept, on account of their pertinence and relevance, ascribe a South African, Ethiopian or Persian origin to the pipe. A European origin is also defended by historians of tobacco. These last ones consider that narghile would be a form adopted by the American pipe in the Mediterranean region, in Africa or in Asia, after the spreading of the latter by the Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Should they continue in a systematic way, the archaeological excavations undertaken here and there in southern and oriental Africa throughout the twentieth century, could indeed come up with the definitive evidence of the use of water pipes on this continent well before the critical and symbolic threshold year 1600 represents for the upholders of the European hypothesis. The case of this Ethiopian cave where water pipe bowls were discovered, and where the smoked use of cannabis in the fourteenth century has been confirmed by chemical methods, undoubtedly constitutes a step forward.