One of the Ottomans' favorite vices: Smoking

One of the Ottomans' favorite vices: Smoking

One of the Ottomans favorite vices: Smoking

The Spanish introduced tobacco to Europeans around 1518 from the Americas but the first references to the commercial sale of tobacco in Ottoman sources are dated to between 1598 and 1606.

If modern-day governments and people are having difficulty putting a stop to smoking you can be sure it hasn’t been the first time in history that a campaign was launched to stomp out cigarettes. Consider the campaign Sultan Murat IV (r. 1623-1640) started sometime after 1631 against the use of tobacco, alcohol and coffee.

Sultan Murat IV was eleven when his father, Ahmed I, died. Until he reached puberty, the empire was ruled by his mother as Valide Sultan and her advisers. The situation continued to deteriorate with a revolt in Anatolia, extensive corruption and a rebellious Janissary corps. The Safavid rulers of Iran invaded the Ottoman Empire in the East. The sultan personally led the attack against the Persians in the East, defeating them and recapturing Baghdad in 1638.

One of the major debates that arose prior to and during Murat’s reign involved the perceived decline of the Ottoman Empire and its suspected causes. The decline started with the end of the reign of Kanuni Sultan Suleyman in 1566, although it wouldn’t be apparent for another 50 years. One of the important figures in this debate was Koçi Bey who was originally from Albania and studied in the palace school before he served as an adviser to Murat. He prepared two reports proposing reforms which would, in his opinion, return the empire to the glory years it had enjoyed under Suleyman while dealing with the unrest that was brewing at that time. His proposals consisted of a smaller army with better discipline, stronger leadership and the elimination of corruption. These recommendations in Koçi Bey’s treatise of 1631, a year in which the Janissaries attacked Topkapı Palace and secured the execution of the Grand Vizier, particularly suited Murat’s temperament, although he could not enforce them immediately.

In search of smokers

It was only after his defeat of the Persians in 1638 that Sultan Murat could turn his attention fully to implementing reforms. He apparently took the issue so seriously that he would disguise himself and walk the streets of Istanbul in search of men smoking. If he found any, they would immediately be executed. Anyone found with a pipe bowl on his person would also be executed. Two years later the sultan was dead, most sources saying of cirrhosis of the liver, since he was known to be addicted to wine. (It would be interesting if one day some researcher went through the archives to determine just how much was spent on wine at the palace.)

The three main addictive substances that Sultan Murat IV blamed for contributing to the decline of the empire were coffee, alcohol and tobacco, none of which we would consider as causes today. But it wasn’t just these three items; it was really the coffeehouses that upset the sultan. The Ottomans had no newspapers and had to rely on word of mouth for information and what better place to acquire information than the local coffeehouse. It served as a gathering place for men with time on their hands, the unemployed, soldiers on leave, travelers, street sellers and the like. It was just the place where men could incite each other to revolt.

Alcohol was always available among minorities in the Ottoman Empire, but coffee and coffeehouses did not appear in Istanbul until the middle of the 16th century. The use of tobacco spread much faster. The Spanish introduced tobacco to Europeans around 1518 from the Americas but the first references to the commercial sale of tobacco in Ottoman sources are dated to between 1598 and 1606. Tobacco most likely arrived in the 1570s on a private basis, perhaps brought in initially by an unidentified British man called Cil in Turkish (possibly Gyles in English). Tobacco was initially sold as a medicine against every type of illness.

Fire caused by tobacco

The first Ottoman firman (decree) against the use of tobacco appeared in 1609, showing that smoking it had spread from the larger cities into surrounding towns and villages. According to research conducted by Dr. Fehmi Yılmaz, the reason given for issuing the firman was the amount of time it took to smoke tobacco that kept men from working as well as it causing illness and raising the number of deaths. Moreover the city’s buildings were constructed of wood for the most part and fires frequently broke out. The fire of 1633 was specifically blamed on tobacco. Other firmans followed in 1610, 1614 and 1618, demonstrating that smoking tobacco could not be stamped out. Cultivating the tobacco leaf also spread because it was more profitable to sell it than some more traditional crops, thus upsetting the established food chain.

Katip Çelebi (1609-1657) wrote the “Mizanü’l-haqq” (The Balance of Truth) in 1656 just after the grand vizier of the time tried to stamp out a Sufi order that endeavored to rationalize matters instead of engaging in mysticism. In his work, Çelebi discusses smoking tobacco and drinking coffee, taking a rational approach against forcing people to abandon customs that were rooted in history.
Çelebi points out that trying to enforce firmans against smoking only succeeded in driving people to smoke at home since it was too dangerous to do so in public.

As for smoking tobacco being an innovation – and the door had been closed to innovation centuries earlier – Çelebi comes down on the side of this being an innovation since even the word did not exist in Adam’s time. He further states that tobacco is mekruh, a word that in canon law means “not forbidden by God but looked upon with horror and disgust.” (Redhouse Dictionary) Although he concedes that the scent of tobacco smoke and the tobacco leaf are not unpleasant, the taste it leaves in one’s mouth is. For all of that and other reasons, he concludes by suggesting that it’s simply best to let everybody do what they want to.

De facto legal

Although the firmans against smoking were never rescinded, Yılmaz has pointed out that it became de facto legal to smoke tobacco when the government began to impose a tax on it in 1688. And smoking among the Turks has continued ever since.

Smoking did produce one of the minor arts, fashioning the bowl of the pipe (lüle) in which one put the tobacco. It is known that this started in the 1600s at the same time that tobacco was introduced. In Istanbul, the artisans who produced these were located primarily in the Tophane region.

There once were some many workshops there that a street was named after them – Lüleci Hendek Arasta St. The pipe bowl was made from particularly fine red or white sand. Later the artists branched out into other types of decorative ceramics including the use of gems on their works. One of the last practitioners of this art, Murat Ires, will be showing his work at the Beyoğlu Municipal Art Gallery from Nov. 20 to 1 Dec. 1.