The history of pipe smoking dates back to roughly 2000BCE. Archeologists uncovered long pipes in Egyptian tombs along side mummies of the pharaohs and the elite class of the time. It is presumed that these individuals were buried with pipes so they could enjoy smoking in the afterlife. Other ancient cultures that enjoyed smoking recreationally were the Celts, Greeks, Roman, and even some of the Scandinavian Nordic tribes. Although these people didn’t have access to tobacco during this era, these pipes were used for smoking opium, cannabis, and other medicinal herbs. These drugs were both used recreationally and medicinally. Hypocrites, the father of medicine in ancient Greece, advised those suffering from chronic pain to smoke medicinal herbs for their ailments.
To the Native cultures of the Americas, tobacco was considered both a sacred and medicinal herb. It’s ceremonial use has said to date back as far as 1500BCE through oral tradition. The Peace Pipe was used to settle differences between individuals, or seal treaties between warring tribes. The original tobacco these tribes smoked is very different from the tobacco of the modern era. The cigarettes and pipe tobaccos of today are comprised of the subspecies of tobacco named “Nicotiana Tabacum”. This species of tobacco has a sweet, mellow flavor and a low nicotine content. The traditional tobacco of Native Americans was “Nicotiana Rustica”. This type of tobacco is extremely harsh and contains eight to fifteen times the nicotine content as Nicotiana Tabacum. Native Americans would prepare rustica tobacco by picking the leaves, wrapping them in bundles, and burying them in the ground for up to six months. This was necessary to allow the tobacco to mellow out and ready the bundles to be smokable. Even after the rustica tobacco was buried, the structure of the peace pipe was designed to mellow and cool the smoke even more. The length of the pipe would vary anywhere from fourteen to thirty inches. This long, narrow chamber would allow the smoke to cool as it traveled down the length of the pipe making the harsh rustica tobacco as palatable as possible.
Tobacco was brought back to the old world in the early 1500’s. It spread like wildfire and reached the far east within a generation or two. Every culture and tradition developed their traditional smoking pipe. In Europe, particularly England and Northern Europe, both the “meerschaum” and “briar” were the pipe style of choice. This was the short, curved pipe that Sherlock Holmes and other Victorian characters immortalized in popular culture. When European settlers made their way to the Americas, the “corn cob” pipe was the choice for these people. These pipe styles were short and stout due to the nicotiana tabacum that was smoked from them. In the far east, the “kiseru” pipe was dominant. This pipe was long and narrow, which resembled the Native American peace pipe. This was because a harsh, Asian adaptive rustica strain of tobacco called “thuoc lao” was consumed in these pieces. Most cultures had some variation of the tobacco pipe made from clay, bones, metals, or woods.
In Iran and the Arabian Peninsula the traditional tobacco pipe is the “medwakh”. This pipe resembles a Native American peace pipe and Asian kiseru but smaller in length and with a smaller bowl. These pipes are used for smoking “dokha”, a high nicotine Arabic tobacco that can be both smooth or harsh depending on the blend. The original medwakhs were simple in design and carved from animal bones. Goat bones and clay were utilized in the past but are rarely seen today.
The modern day medwakh has come a long way from the simple design of the past. They range in size anywhere from four to ten inches in length. Most include a hooked or straight tip providing a symbolic and functional purpose. The tip can be cupped in the palm of the hand to shield a match or lighter in the strong desert winds. The hooked tips are symbolic of a falcon’s talon and the straight tips are symbolic of the tip of a “dhow”, a small Arabic boat used for sailing the Persian Gulf. Although all medwakhs follow this basic design, this is where the similarities end.
Medwakhs produced in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and India are made out of every material and engraved with any design only limited to the crafter’s imagination. The tradition of crafting out of bone is alive and well. Today, beautiful camel bone medwakhs are dyed with a variety of colors and set with Arabic designed brass inlays. Medwakh carved out of elephant ivory are highly prized and fetch a hefty price in specialty dokha shops. Another popular animal based medwakh comes from the oryx, a large antelope species highly adapted to the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. Pipes are carved from the long, twisted antlers of this iconic desert animal. Like the
oryx, the smaller desert gazelle is utilized for it’s antlers as well.
Simpler, cheaper medwakhs are carved from an array of different woods. These pipes are often carved with intricate designs with brass inlays. Hardwoods like African ebony, rosewood, cherry, and different types of Mahogany are fairly common in medwakh making. Softwoods are also utilized as well. Some varieties of softwood utilized are bamboo, varieties of pine, and yew. Medwakhs made of Olibanum, the tree in which frankincense is harvested, can also be found. These are not all the varieties of woods used in this process. Uncommon and rarer woods typically sourced from Africa and Asia are also utilized in crafting the pipes.
Medwakhs made from metals have gained in popularity in the United Arab Emirates and Oman in recent decades. Steel, pewter, copper, and brass are the more common composites. The pipes are typically painted and/or etched to add artistic flare to the design. Some crafters working with high-end vendors take this art a step further. Medwakhs can be found made of precious and semi-precious metals. Pipes made of solid gold and silver are available for those that can afford it. This is seen on the Arabian Peninsula as a status symbol and is typically reserved for royalty or those in the elite class. Those not wishing to spend the money but want the flare can have medwakhs plated with precious metals instead. Platinum and silver plating and wire wrapping is fairly common in this region.
There are a variety of accessories that accompany medwakhs. In the past, the stems of the pipes would gradually taper down to a filterless mouthpiece or tip. This has been the traditional style for hundreds of years. Due to the health concerns in recent decades, the introduction of disposable and replacable filtered tips have become a staple for the medwakh kit. The end of the medwakhs have been adapted to fit cigarette holders that different manufacturers distribute. The filtering material is almost always composed of cotton. Although, multi-stage ceramic and silica bead filters are also available. These different types of filter vary in how much airflow and how material is ultimately filtered out. Dokha tobacco contains no processed fillers or additives, but it does contain a high amount of tar and nictoine. These tips play a crucial role in further cooling of the smoke and reducing the intake of tar and nicotine by up to 60% depending on the style of filter.
The typical medwakh kit is comprised of the pipe, filters, wire or bristle pipe cleaners, lighters or matches, and the dokha tobacco itself. If the dokha is not kept in a separate container, it is usually stored in a “chanta” attached to the medwakh. The word chanta is Farsi in origin and translates to “container or bag”. A small hole is drilled in the end of the medwakh near the bowl. A silver, gold, steel, or brass chain is hung down and attached to the chanta. The typical dimensions of these containers are about one inch in length, one inch in width, and three to four inches in height. A screw cap sits at the top of the chanta where it is attached to the chain and medwakh. Chantas will always match the color and style of the medwakh itself. All these items are kept together in a soft, drawstring pouch or a hard case that is closed by a zipper.
The medwakh has become an iconic symbol of the United Arab Emirates and Oman much like the falcon and dagger to tobacco smokers on the Arabian Peninsula. It has come a long way since the original goat pipes were carved. Although it has kept its similar shape through the centuries, pipes have been modified and perfected to fit the needs of dokha smokers in the region and abroad. There is a medwakh that fits the style and preference of every individual. The medwakh is a very personal and valuable possession in which dokha smokers feel a great deal of pride. This time honored tradition is only becoming more popular in recent decades in this every expanding market of alternative tobacco products.