Hashish, or hash, is a concentrate produced by pressing or rubbing together the resin glands of a cannabis plant to form brick, slab, or rolled pieces. Though hash is popular today, it has a long and fascinating history, if you like legends of assassins, sheiks, and generals from Persia, Egypt, and other exotic locales. Read on to learn more about the history of hash, the original weed concentrate.
Early beginnings of hash use
The history of using cannabis for its anesthetic qualities can be traced as far back as the Neolithic period, approximately 4000 BCE. Hash consumption began a little later in Persia (primarily Iran) and Central Asia (primarily Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). It's likely that hash, like cannabis, traveled the Silk Road out of eastern Asia to the Middle East. Early on it was more likely used as incense than for anything else. Incense, like that produced using frankincense and myrrh, was quite valuable in ancient times. These substances were also resins that had been used as medicine and in religious ceremonies for centuries.
Charas, or resin produced by gently rubbing growing cannabis plants, was the earliest form of hash. But when agriculture came into being, around 9000 BCE in India, woven sieves were developed to separate grains from plants. Those same sieves were used to separate cannabis resin from the rest of the harvested, dried plant, creating the first hash, according to preeminent hash scholar Frenchy Cannolli. Charas is still made, mostly in India, by hand rubbing live plants. Hash is differentiated by the fact that it's sieved, by hand or mechanically, from dried, cured cannabis.
In the ancient world
One of the earliest mentions of hash is in Iraqi alchemist Ibn Wahshiyya's Book of Poisons, written in the 10th century. There are also Muslim texts from the 11th century where religious and secular leaders debated its usefulness. Shortly thereafter, a story of hash consumption was included in the book Arabian Nights. Hash was known and used in what's now Iran and throughout the Arabian peninsula though locals seem to have blamed Mongols and Sufis for bringing the practice to the region.
Then there are the historical legends of the Nizari Ismailis, more commonly known as the Order of Assassins or the Hashishin Assassins. The Assassins, with strongholds in Persia and Syria, were a religious sect formed in the late 11th century, approximately 1090 CE. The name Assassins is “Hashâshīn” in Persian and “asāsīn” in Arabic. Legends exist that the group's founder, Hassan-e Sabbāh (also spelled as Hasan-i Sabbah), consumed hash and provided it to his disciples to instill loyalty to the group. Scholars debate the validity of these tales, arguing that the word “Hashishin” is actually a misnomer. Hassan-e Sabbāh is said to have referred to his followers as “asāsīyūn,” which means "people who are faithful to the foundation [of the faith]."
It's believed the sect was incorrectly referred to as “Hashishin” in the Arabic sense, which means “users of hashish.” It was said that the Assassins were described as being hash eaters and referred to as hashish in a derogatory way by rival sects, and these descriptions weren't based in fact.
Although no archaeological or written record provides clear evidence on whether the Assassins consumed hash as part of their traditions, the legend itself was written around 1210 CE by Arnold of Lübeck. The historical documentation of this legend in the early 13th century does link the geographic region of Persia with hash, as well as providing descriptions of the cannabis concentrate and its effects.
Meanwhile, in 1206 CE Genghis Khan had united the Mongol tribes and moved them from Russia to Persia and Central Asia, taking cannabis and hash use with them.
In the same century, Ibn al-Bayṭār, a scientist born in the modern-day province of Málaga, Spain, described an intoxicating substance from Egypt that he referred to as “hashishah.” The following century, in 1378 CE, a public notice announced that the act of consuming hashish was prohibited by Soudoun Sheikhouni, an Ottoman emir in Egypt. In his edict, he called for the destruction of all cannabis plants and the punishment of anyone using hashish by imprisonment and having their teeth pulled out.
The use of hash continued to gain in popularity in Egypt to the end of its medieval period and throughout its time as an administrative division of the Ottoman Empire, despite prohibitive policies and harsh punishments by authorities.
Once it reached Egypt, the spread continued. Berber tribes from North Africa are said to have introduced hash to one of its modern-day havens, Morocco. Hash production didn't take off in the country for some time though.
Hash in modern times
Hash consumption continued to expand and the primary method of consumption switched from eating to smoking with the arrival of tobacco in the 1500s. During the 18th and 19th centuries, changes to production methods helped increase output and distribution as demand for hash grew.
In 1798, during the French occupation of Egypt, Brigadier General Napoléon Bonaparte outlawed cannabis and hash consumption and ordered the public burning of hash coming into the country. He believed that hash and cannabis use resulted in mental disturbance, overindulgent behavior, and interfered with rational thought. Despite Bonaparte's attempts, his own French troops from the Armée d'Orient as well as a group of scientists, engineers, and artists from the Commission des Sciences et des Arts took hash back to France after serving in Egypt.
Le Club des Hashischins — also spelled “Club des Hashishins” or “Club des Hachichins,” which translates as the Club of Hashish-Eaters — formed in Paris in 1843. The group held monthly meetings at the Hôtel Pimodan, which is the modern-day Hôtel de Lauzun, to experiment with and explore the effects of hash, as there was an interest among the club's members about the possibility that it could heighten their artistry and ingenuity. A number of the participants were part of the Parisian intelligentsia, including famed writers (Alexandre Dumas, Théophile Gautier, Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac), painters (Eugène Delacroix), and other members of Paris' intellectual elite.
Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau, a psychiatric physician, was another notable member of the club who wrote the first publication by a medical doctor about the effects of a drug on the human nervous system. Moreau wanted to learn about treating mental illnesses; he gained a lot of firsthand knowledge about hash from self-experimentation. His book, titled Du Hachisch et de L'aliénation Mentale — Études Psychologiques (Hashish and Mental Illness — Psychological Studies), was published in 1845 and received an honorable mention distinction from the French Academy of Sciences in 1946. The recognition of Dr. Moreau's work helped substantiate and legitimize hash, supporting its possibilities as a medical treatment in the scientific community.
Beginning in the mid-1950s, hippies from Western countries began traveling from the UK, France, Germany, and Italy through Central Asia to India and Thailand on what was called the Hippie Trail or the Overland. A big draw was the easy, inexpensive, legal drugs to be found along the way, including cannabis and hash. In the '60s, Morocco's hash production really took off, in part because of the Hippie Trail.
Hash history is a bit difficult to pin down with certainty. Some sources say the oldest continuous culture of hash production can be found in Afghanistan, the biggest producer of top-notch hashish today. But hash-making still happens in India, Nepal, and other areas where it was born. Morocco and Spain definitely contribute but so do California and other parts of the US. As cannabis legalization has spread, so has cultivation and interest in resin production, including the ancient form popular with Mongols, Persians, and hippies alike, hashish.