Ottoman Smoking Pipes in Bilad ash-Cham

An increasing interest in pipes as archaeological objects has developed over the last twenty years, affecting the whole Mediterranean basin. Thanks to an international mobility grant from the Institut Français du Proche Orient, a study of the pipes of Bey 012, the Church of St George, a site excavated at the end of the 1990s by Leila Badr, BEY 125 and of the Soap Museum of Saida has allowed the acquisition of new knowledge on pipe production in the Bilad ash-Cham focusing on Beirut, Saïda, Damascus and Aleppo. This article compares these new data with previously published data in order to put local production into context and thus question the economic relations of Greater Syria with the Empire and its different regions.

History of Tobacco, Its Introduction and Consumption

Tobacco cultivation began in South America in the 5th millennium BC. The plant is a member of the solanacea family, the most widely consumed of which, nicotinia rustica and nicotania tabacum, were named by Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal in the second half of the 16th century (Barbier 1861: 14). According to Simpson, the earliest evidence of tobacco at the Ottoman court in Istanbul dates back to 1576 (Simpson 2011: 61). Tobacco was introduced by English sailors in Istanbul, Turkey and the Levant around 1599 or by Portuguese in Egypt in 1606 according to the Arab author Al-Ichakee (De Vincenz 2016: 118). Tobacco was not then a commodity for the common people but reserved for a wealthy elite. Its consumption was initially medicinal, as it was said that the plant also helped to stay awake and to cure various pains. However, it quickly became an addiction.

Tobacco consumption was soon banned for men and women by Sultan Ahmet I (r. 1603-1617), and then prohibited by the religious authorities in Mecca, who considered that people smoked too much and did not concentrate enough on their work (François et al. 2012: 487). Production was then banned again by Murad III (r. 1574-1595) and punished by death by Sultan Murad IV in 1633, following fires that destroyed more than one fifth of Istanbul (Süngü 2014: 8). In 1646, a new decree by Sultan Ibrahim officially authorised its consumption, combining it with taxation of imports and exports, producers and merchants, with legalisation around 1720 by a fatwa issued by the Mufti of Damascus, al-Shaykh ‘Abd al Nabulsi (Grehan 2006: 1364). The practice concerned the vast majority of Ottoman men and women, of all social conditions.

From the mid-17th century onwards, this new fashion spread rapidly in the public space but also in the cafés, emerging establishments where men met to drink coffee, recently introduced from Yemen into the Empire. Cafés were new places of socialisation. Before their creation, Ottoman men had few places to develop their social life. Subsequently, as Lamartine explains, cafés remained one of the only means of communication, except for the mosque (Lamartine 1843: 10). The cafés were little appreciated by the imperial authorities as they seemed to be the centre of the propagation of rumours and to favour meetings organising revolts and mutinies (Simpson 1995: 18).

Pipes are the only material evidence of this consumption, and also one of the most frequently discovered objects on the sites of Ottoman occupation.

Locally Produced Pipes

White clay pipes seem to be a Levantine production (François et al. 2012: 505), but the exact workshops have not yet been identified. They can be found in Damascus and Aleppo. The clay is white to light grey, with little or no inclusions, relatively coarse and without slip. The type is most recognisable by its extensive decoration, especially of trees. It is a type that is found a lot in the Levant, but also in Egypt and Saudi Arabia (Pradines 2004: 281-291). If the presence of these pipes in Egypt can be purely economic, the presence in Arabia can be explained by the passage through Damascus for the Hajj pilgrims (Simpson 2012: 190-208; Bouzigard & Saidel 2012: 122-123). Trade at this stage was particularly important. This type is not very present in the Beirut corpus with only 6 examples, but about 61 are present in Saida.

Fig. 1. White clay pipes

Fig. 1. White clay pipes, two from Damascus, one from Beirut (Nolwenn Guedeau, Véronique François).

The city of Beirut seems to have its own manufacturing workshop. Indeed, 30% of the nearly 150 pipes found in the excavations in Beirut studied by the author have the same clay, many with the same shape and surface treatment. The clay is grey in the core, light beige inside and out, relatively fine, with some white inclusions, and with a light beige slip. This type does not seem to have been exported in a significant way, only a few similar objects are found in Saida and they do not seem to have been identified elsewhere.

Fig. 2. Beirut pipes

Fig. 2. Beirut pipes, two from Beirut, one from Saïda (Nolwenn Guedeau).


White painted pipes, swirled fabric, have been found in northern Iraq (Matney 1997: 85). They are mainly made of relatively coarse beige paste with some black and white inclusions. They have a special surface treatment with a dusky red undercoat and the addition of a white swirling paint. This use of paint for pipe decoration is not known in the productions of the Ottoman Empire. The white swirl paint is found on a wide variety of pipe shapes. The quality of the paint is generally good and fine. They are believed to date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Timothy Matney explains that they were still being bought in northern Iraq in the first half of the 20th century (Matney 1997: 16). As far as we know, except in Iraq, these pipes have only been found in Damascus, Syria (François et al. 2012: 505).

Fig. 3. Swirled pipes

Fig. 3. Swirled pipes, one from EHAS Survey, two from Damascus (Soroosh Zarifian Yeganeh, Véronique François).

The workshops in the Tophane district of Istanbul were particularly active in the 19th century and exported the pipes everywhere in the Empire (De Vincenz 2016: 115). They produced very good quality pipes made exclusively of red clay, very fine, with some white inclusions. The slip is of the same brilliant red colour. The shapes vary in the bodies found in Turkey, but are very homogeneous in the other provinces of the Empire. These objects are considered to be of a higher quality and may have belonged to a higher class of society. This type can be found notably in Damascus and Aleppo, and they are relatively well represented in the context of Saida and Beirut (François et al. 2012: 505).

Fig. 4. Pipes from Tophane

Fig. 4. Pipes from Tophane, two from Beirut, one from Damascus (Nolwenn Guedeau, Véronique François).

Sebiel type pipes are common across Iraq but where they were made is unclear, but also in Iran according to the Online Exhibition Catalogue of the Amsterdam Pipe Museum. They have an orange-beige paste, very fine without any inclusions. The surface treatment is an orange to red slip. They are extremely decorated with stamps and incisions representing geometric and floral motifs. On rare specimens, epigraphic seals have been found, but it has not been possible to read them. They are thought to date from the 19th and early 20th century. Only one specimen has been found in Saida. Sebiel pipes are rare and not widely exported and this discovery is particularly interesting. We notice that the surface treatment, without the characteristic red slip, is less well done than the pipes produced and discovered in Iraq. It could therefore possibly be a copy.

Fig. 5. Sebiel pipes

Fig. 5. Sebiel pipes, one from Saïda, one from Muqable, Iraqi Kurdistan (Nolwenn Guedeau, Soroosh Zarifian Yaganeh).

Discussion and Conclusion

Although the archaeological contexts of the finds in Lebanon are not very clear, the pipes recently studied by the author in Beirut and Saida are particularly interesting when looking at the assemblage. For the first time, a local production is discovered, which seems to have been exported only to the nearby region (Saida). This new information allows us to reconstruct the economy of the local communities within the Empire. Thus we notice that the two cities of Beirut and Saida show a great economic proximity with Syria, but also with Turkey. It is very interesting to see that despite the geographical proximity, very few pipes from Beirut has been found in Saida. Damascus and Aleppo, seems to have a greater openness with the different regions of the Empire such as Egypt, Iraq or Saudi Arabia.

The Bilad ash-Cham region thus produced its own objects, but was also open to imports. The question of import is particularly important in these different contexts. Indeed, imports into Greater Syria, like the two Iraqi examples, are quite few. It is therefore difficult to know whether the object was imported, produced on site, was a gift or whether the person who consumed it was possibly foreign.


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Pour citer cet article : Nolwenn Guedeau, "Ottoman Smoking Pipes in Bilad ash-Cham", Les Carnets de l'Ifpo. La recherche en train de se faire à l’Institut français du Proche-Orient,, le 7 février 2022. [En  ligne sur]

N. Guedeau

After a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in oriental archaeology at the University of Poitiers, Nolwenn Guedeau is now a research associate at the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies. She is a doctoral student under joint supervision of the University of Bonn (Germany) and the University of Aix-Marseille. Her doctoral research in Ottoman archaeology focuses on the tobacco industry and consumption in the Ottoman Empire under the supervision of Bethany J. Walker (Islamic Archaeology Research Unit) and Véronique François (LA3M). She is notably engaged as an archaeologist and ceramologist in Iraqi Kurdistan and Saudi Arabia.

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