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The History of Hookah

"Shisha" - term and etymology

The term "shisha" goes back on the persian word shishe, which means "glass". The turkish word sise means "bottle", and in several arabic dialects it specially names the bowl of a hookah or the whole waterpipe.

Another term for the waterpipe, that is used quite often, is "Nargile". This word is deduced from the persian expression nargile and means coconut. So it describes one of the materials, that the original, indian waterpipe has been made of. Deduced from this term, there are also the words in Sanskrit (ancient indian language) "narikela" and "argila" and "nargila" in certain Syrian and Hebrew dialects. Further used term are goza (Sudanese for "nut"), which is mainly used for small hookahs, as well as the word hookah, which is used in Great Britain and the USA for waterpipe. 

Origin and developement:

The waterpipe and the shisha- tobacco, the way we know them today, has not been invented overnight. The hookah has emerged within a long period of about 500 years as the smoking device with fruity flavour and light smoke, which is so popular today. Originally the hookah comes from the very North of India, to be more precise from the regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat, close to the Pacistan border.

Component parts and smoking ingredients

Primarily, the waterpipe has been manufactured out of coconuts. The hookah bowl consisted of the hard and watertight shell of the coconut, the smoke-stem was made of a hollow bamboo tube. As a kind of hose, they probably used straws or a thinner bamboo tube.
Different from now, they have been smoking complete tobacco leaves, nowadays called "Tömbeki" (Turkish). These have been moistured with water and then rolled up around a stick, to make them a cylindric shape, while a little hollow funnel remained in the middle. The coal, which normally was charcoal from coconut wood, has been put directly on the tobacco leaves.

Golden age of waterpipes

Via Persia the waterpipe reached Arabia between the 16th and 17th century, then reached the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and North-Africa, especially Tunesia and Egypt. In Turkey smoking hookah has been established by Sultan Ahmed I., who was well-known for his pleasure-seeking lifestyle. Some of his followers kept on prohibiting smoking from time to time, because they believed smoking was vicious. So, in the government of Murad IV. several persons per day have been executed for smoking tobacco.

Two Kaya hookahs of different form and sizeAnyway, the waterpipe has emerged in the arabic countries as a cultural good, because as soon as something is prohibited, people badly want to try it. The hookah symbolises a well-balanced lifestyle, hospitality and sociality. Celebrated in coffee houses quite a lot, smoking hookah soon became a social event, to make families and friends meet. To make these events even more special, sweets and cookies have been served, while tea and coffee was consumed.

For these smoking events several rules had to be obeyed. It was not allowed, for example, to light the coal with a candle, and ones own hookah mustn't be positioned higher then the hookahs of others. Violating these rules could have meant the exclusion from the community. Very often, the hookah was a precious family heirloom, passed on from generation to generation. In those days, the top part of the hookah has been developed the way we know it now: With a smoke-stem made of metal, a bowl made of glass and a hose made of leather. The function of a hookah, though, always stayed the same.

Development of hookahs since the 20th century

After the golden age of waterpipes, they became more and more unfashioned at the beginning of the 20th century. Where they first symbolized friendship and sociality, they were now frowned upon being a smoking device of old people - similar to the classical tobacco pipes today in our society - or have been catching dust as a piece of scenery or as a souvenir from last years holiday in Turkey.

Within the last 10 years, the hookah has experienced a renaissance. It has been rediscovered by the young generation of arabic society and became an item of lifestyle. Now smoking hookah is regarded as modern and stylish. And it also has regained the worth of relaxing in a group of sympathic people - nowadays called "Chilling".

In big cities like Dubai and Instanbul, hundreds of hookah cafès have opened within a few years only, where mainly young grown-ups and adolescents meet at night. The nightlives of these cities can not be imagined without those hookah bars. Older generations often sense this as negative, because modern hookah bars are pushing traditional coffee houses aside, in which they partly still smoke this Tömbeki. In the meantime, the trend of modern hookah bars has also asserted itself in Europe and the USA. Many young people smoke hookah regularily or every now and then. In the years 2005 and 2006 we have hade a real hookah-hype, which is, in fact, already slowing down again. 
An explaination about why hookahs became so popular could be, that smoking waterpipe is such a contrast to allday's life, which is getting faster and faster. Smoking hookah means silence, relaxing, having time for thoughts and talks. A feeling, that a quick cigarette between two business dates can't procure.


The text is a free translated extract from the German book "Die Wasserpfeife - Tradition und Jugendkultur" ("The Waterpipe - Tradition and Youth Culture") by Felix B.


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