Nargile or Turkish Water Pipe – 500 Years of Smoking Tradition

The Turkish water pipe or nargile (sometimes also called a hookah or hubble-bubble) has been around for centuries. Contrary to popular belief, it is not an instrument to smoke hashish or any other drug. The only products used are different flavors of (Turkish) tobacco. There is nothing shady about this 500 year smoking tradition. It’s just a great way to slow life down and relax.

Nargile History in a Nutshell

Although the water pipe is an established feature of Turkish culture, it originated in India by emptying a coconut and dipping in a straw. In the 16th century, the pipe – called nargile in Turkish – found its way to the Ottoman Empire. The better quality ones were ceramic, but glass bowls are more common. The nargile became popular in the 1700s, at the height of the Ottoman Empire. It even became a status symbol towards the end of the Ottoman Empire. Smoking with the sultan was considered the highest honor.

With the arrival of cigarettes during World War II, smoking the water pipe briefly became less popular. But the late 1990s marked the revival of nargile. Nowadays, you’ll notice young adults, both men and women alike, enjoying its calming vapors.

Know Your Nargile

Today’s water pipe has four characteristic parts:

  • gövde – the body, a glass bottle which is half filled with water
  • marpuç – the long flexible hose that connects the bowl to the smoker
  • ağizlık or sipsi – the (detachable) mouthpiece atop the tube
  • lüle – the small cup-shaped bowl to hold the tobacco

These are the basic elements. In time however, nargiles became real objects of art. The bottles come in different colors and graceful shapes, the flexible hoses are often embellished with embroidery or woven handicraft art (holding the owner’s initials), and the plastic mouthpiece may be of fine porcelain or the more popular precious amber.

What to Smoke

In the old days only plain tobacco was used; however, now a variety of aromatic tobaccos are available. So the first thing you’ll have to do when you enter a nargile café is choose a flavor. Water pipe tobacco (tömbeki) can be quite strong and gets its flavor from preparation with various fermented fruit juices.

Apple (elma) is a classic, but I encourage you to try other flavors too. There are many fruit and herb varieties such as strawberry (çilek), banana (muz), peach (şeftali), mint (nane) and many more. My personal favorite is the distinctly odd cappuccino.

Nargile Dos and Don’ts – How to Smoke

Each person in your group will be given a plastic mouthpiece (sipsi). The staff will prepare your water pipe for you, no need to worry about that. He’ll put the tobacco of your choice on the tray, and supply hot coals. He will also wander about and tend these coals periodically.

Once everything is ready, place a mouthpiece atop the hose and start enjoying. But please keep these rather strict rules of etiquette in mind:

  • draw in smoke gently, don’t take deep drags like you do with a cigarette
  • smoke in a well-ventilated place because of carbon monoxide hazard
  • never light your cigarette from the coals, this is considered very bad manners
  • always keep the nargile on the floor, never put it on an elevated level
  • don’t hand the hose to the next user, just lay it against the side or on the table, the other person will pick it up when he or she is ready
  • don’t spoil the relaxing and leisurely atmosphere by being loud. If you’re making more noise than the bubbles, you’re ruining it for everyone

Nargile cafés are places to talk and sip coffee, tea or fruit juices quietly, between puffs. Keep in mind that smoking a water pipe takes somewhere between one and two hours.

Places to Smoke Nargile

You’ll find the highest concentration of water pipe cafés in Tophane, hence its nickname Nargile Central. In most of the cafés there visitors can enjoy tree-shaded gardens. Three out of four places listed here are located in Tophane, while the first is located in Çemberlitaş.

  • Erenler Nargile – This café is located at Çorlulu Alipaşa Medresesi in Çemberlitaş. It can hold up to 200 people and of course has a garden. Besides plain and aromatic nargile, you can also enjoy an array of teas and soft drinks. It is open from early morning until 02:00.
  • Nargilem Kafe – This café sits next to Nusretiye Mosque with a nice garden. However, do also check out the inside with its attractive decoration and ceiling engravings. Both plain and aromatic tobaccos are available, as well as various kinds of tea and strong Turkish coffee.
  • Erzurum Nargile – This is one of Istanbul’s oldest nargile cafes, and was previously located under the old Galata Bridge. Just before the turn of the century the bridge needed renovation, so the café moved to Tophane. Like other nargile cafés in Tophane, it is open 24 hours a day. It also provides hookah services to tourist groups.
  • Can Nargile – This Tophane café is relatively new to Istanbul nargile scene. They serve aromatic tobaccos, strong coffee as well as some Turkish snacks. The cafe is open 24 hours a day.

Most establishments obey the smoking ban and have their nargiles positioned outside.