The Bubbling Charm of the Water pipe

The Turkish tradition of smoking a water pipe (nargile) exists for hundreds of years. It’s a ceremony with special etiquette and accompanies relaxing gatherings.

A long time ago, smoking a water pipe was a frequent occupation in Turkey. Both men and women of all classes practised this tradition. Until the introduction of the cigarette, that is when the bubbling pipe fell into disrepute. But the nargile is currently in the throws of a true come-back.

Smoking a water pipe (nargile) is one of Turkey’s oldest traditions. Throughout the country there are special nargile cafes where people, both men and women, gather to enjoy the bubbling pipe. Plain old ‘harmless’ tobacco is used – often with apple or strawberry flavour. Smoking a nargile can take up to two hours and is a quiet and sociable activity, filled with pleasant conversation.

Origin of the waterpipe

The exact origins of the water pipe remain unknown. Evidence suggests that the nargile was used at similar times in America, the Middle East and Africa. Apparently the first designs of water pipe originated from India or Persia, but these were rather primitive instruments made from coconut. It was the Turks, some 500 years later, who perfected the water pipe by modifying its design and adding a pipe. Since then, the Turkish nargile has changed very little and still serves as the template for modern-day water pipes. They come in all shapes, sizes and colours and sometimes have  beautiful shapes and pictures.

Waterpipe as a Status Symbol

From the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century, the water pipe was an important status symbol for the wealthy upper classes of Ottoman society. You could only fit in if you had a water pipe at home. Better even, if you had designated a special area in your home as smoking room.

In that time, it was also very fashionable for women to have their portrait painted together with their nargile. Its popularity was partly thanks to famous artists of the time, such as Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), and Jean-Leon Gérôme (1824-1904). These so-called orientalists painted exotic pictures of harems, bathhouses and seductive Ottoman women, always depicting nargiles.

Downfall and come-back

When the cigarette appeared, the popularity of the water pipe dwindled. Previously, Turks smoked tobacco using a nargile. But when cigarettes became the new fashion, the water pipe was no longer needed. And with its disappearance, the charm of smoking disappeared too.

However, in the past decade or so, the water pipe has made a true come-back. A new generation of Turks has rediscovered this almost-forgotten custom. You can see it in the multitudes of nargile cafes springing up all over the place, where people from all walks of life enjoy this ancient tradition. The bubbling smoking apparatus and the culture that surrounds it, is growing in popularity in the west too.

How does a water pipe work?

A water pipe has several components:

1) the metal shaft (Gövde) that holds the water pipe together and which houses the glass water reservoir

2) a tobacco bowl (lüle) placed on top of the water pipe and containing the tobacco

3) a long flexible pipe (marpuç), connected to the water reservoir.

4) a plastic mouthpiece (ağızlık). The idea is for everyone to have their own mouthpiece.

A piece of charcoal heats up the tobacco placed in the lüle. The smoke travels down towards the centre of the nargile and bubbles through the water in the reservoir. The water cools the smoke down. The smoke then remains in the water reservoir until someone draws on their pipe and inhales it.

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This article is published in Hello Alanya Magazine March 2007 and updated on 6 March 2017.

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