Tobacco’s 300-year history in Greece

Tobacco’s future role in the world economy could not have been predicted when Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal, first introduced it to Europe by sending tobacco dust to Catherine de Medici in 1560 as a cure for her migraines. Until then, Nicotiana tabacum had been a sacred plant to native Americans and the smoking pipe was considered a sacred object, essential in the tribes’ councils. The discovery of America signaled the beginning of tobacco use in Europe and resulted in tobacco acquiring a dominant role in some countries’ economies despite church objections, the conservative attitudes of the era, prosecutions and even jail sentences. The pipe quickly became a personal item of daily use for people of all social classes in Greece. About 2,000 pipes found near Thessaloniki during excavations by the Ninth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities have shed some light on the short history of tobacco smoking in Greece. The pipes, dating from the 17th up to the 19th century, are currently held by the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, which is planning to put them on display in the near future. Archaeologist Panayiotis Kabanis used them in his 10-year research for his soon-to-be-published book, «Terracotta Smoking Pipes from Thessaloniki: 17th-18th Century.» Tobacco, which was first introduced to Thessaloniki by French merchants at the end of the 16th century, was initially cultivated in the Axios River valley and then spread to the rest of the Ottoman Empire. Smoking soon became a habit, despite its prohibition upon pain of death by Sultan Murat IV in 1633. It was also the cause of fires in wine and coffee shops, such as the one that destroyed half the city of Serres in the 18th century. Sultan Mustafa III eventually gave the tobacco trade monopoly to the Royal Treasury so as to end the prosecution of smokers. During the 18th century, pipes imported from Constantinople, Asyut in Egypt, and Varna in Bulgaria, as well as European workshops reached the inhabitants of Thessaloniki. The pipe was not merely used for pleasure, but also as a means of indicating one’s high social status. While the pipes of the poor were rather plain, those belonging to wealthy people were often works of art, ornately decorated and even gold-plated. Different craftsmen were required for the various stages of pipe-making, namely goldsmiths, jewelers and other artisans. It is noteworthy that special gardens were maintained for the cultivation of aromatic trees which provided the wood for the pipe stems. «Pipe-making comes closer to the art of goldsmiths and silversmiths than to that of potters,» concluded Kabanis from his research. The pipe bowl, called a loulas from the Turkish word lule, in which the tobacco burnt, was usually made out of terracotta, although stone, wood and metal were also used. The loulas was first given its shape using stone, wood or metal casts and was then decorated by specialized artists. One or two servants were usually responsible for carrying the long pipe stem, lighting the pipe and for adding new tobacco, as well as keeping the pipe clean. The stems, the length of which varied from 1-4 meters, were made out of the branches of cherry trees, jasmine, orange trees or lemon trees which provided an additional aroma to the smoker when inhaling. In contrast to the number of terracotta bowls, few pipe stems have survived to this day and those which have can be found at Topkapi Museum in Istanbul and in the Benaki Museum in Athens. The mouthpieces of the stems were mostly made out of amber, but also out of marble, bone, ivory and gold-plated enamel. Some, especially on women’s pipes, were decorated with semiprecious stones and coral. Due to the vast number of varying decorations, pipes are considered small works of art. During the 17th century, when tobacco was still expensive and not easily accessible, pipes were small and rather plain. When, toward the end of the century, the semicircular type of pipe made its appearance, pipes became larger and their decoration more ornate. That type of pipe prevailed until the middle of the 19th century. «Out of the hundreds of smoking pipes that have survived to this day, very few bear any similarities between them,» says Kabanis. «They have all sorts of carved decorations, usually geometric patterns blended with nature motifs, namely flowers, small trees, sunrays, water drops, pine cones, seashells, circles and triangles just to mention a few. Some of these compositions seem to have been inspired by Islamic architecture, while others are gold-plated and some even bear additional silver ornaments.» The round-shaped base for the loulas prevailed from the middle of the 18th century and remained prominent until the beginning of the 19th. It was mostly produced in Paris, where it was presented as an Eastern fashion. The long and thin loulas, as well as short, thick and ornamented ones became popular from the beginning of the 19th century and were used until the early 20th century. Although the port of Thessaloniki was a key point for tobacco trade in the Mediterranean, no traces have so far been found of any pipe-making workshops in the city. A well-known Turkish traveler only mentions two cities with such workshops, namely Yiannitsa and Thebes. In Europe, although the first pipe-making workshop was founded in England in 1575, from the 17th century pipe workshops were transferred to Gouda in the Netherlands. The first loulatzides guild (makers of the loulas) was founded in Sofia in 1604, while cities like Varna and Burgaz became famous for their loulas makers, according to English traveler Dr John Covel. During the 18th and 19th centuries, pipe workshops in Constantinople and Asyut in Egypt were very prominent, until the industrial revolution brought about the replacement of those old, cumbersome pipes with more modern ones.