Coffee and Coffeehouses in the Ottoman World
As early as the beginning of the 16th century, coffee was already one of the most distinctive elements of the Ottoman way of life, A social model that had constructed its own unique personality stone by stone upon a system of values that incorporated a rich folklore and a detailed etiquette emerged as a result of a series of socio-cultural transformations in everyday Ottoman life that coffee had been the cause of. In that respect coffee meant much more in Ottoman cultural life than simply something that was to be drunk.
In the implicit history of coffee in Ottoman society one comes across evidence of every single point of conflict which that society incorporated: those in power versus their opposition, city versus countryside, mysticism versus orthodoxy, and more, Because so much of that history went unrecorded and transpired far from view, we can see only the results of events and not the details of their causes. Even still. what we can see gives us precious clues about our social identity. Ottoman coffee culture is partly a folk wisdom into which were blended superstitious beliefs; but it also represented a capacious view of life that could transcend the medrese horizon. In the mansions of the eminent, it was a regulator of etiquette and civility; in dervish lodges. it was a mediator that led one to mystic
fulfillment; in coffeehouses. it was a centripetal force that drew people from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures into conversation. Thanks to the process of socialization that it fostered. This beverage brought about changes in areas where numerous “top-down” attempts to reform failed. By enabling people to discover the values shared in common by different ethnic and confessional communities, coffee swept away many a false barrier that stood in the way of a lifestyle that was evolving naturally from the traditional to the modern.
Considering that coffee had such an important impact on everyday life. we must ask ourselves how its history in Ottoman society got started and what were the stages through which it passed to develop such a rich heritage for itself. In seeking answers to those questions. we also discover a string of problems extending before us and demanding to be resolved.
The first point that needs to be stressed is that. at the beginning of the 16th century when the coffee habit began to spread, the regions of Egypt and Hejaz to which the habit was then confined were Ottoman domains. That is a historical and geographical fact and any assessment made on that basis leads us to the incontrovertible conclusion that coffee-drinking first became widespread in the Ottoman territories. The real question that we need to address here however is how and why a sociocultural phenomenon that was originally limited to a remote southern part of the
empire became a part of the everyday life of the center of political power.
Certainly the first Ottomans to encounter the captivating coffee bean must have been hajjis making the pilgrimage to the Hejaz region. The hajj caravan routes for their part a fundamental role in the spread of the coffee habit. Throughout the Ottoman period. the most heavily traveled route was the one linking Istanbul to Mecca by way of Damascus. To a considerable degree. the socio-cultural constituencies of the hajj caravans that plied this route provide us with clues as to the social strata in which the coffee habit first established itself and became popular. The social profile of these hajj caravans was largely made up of two basic elements: the tradesmen and artisans that might be considered the middle class of their day on the one hand and. on the other. the groups that made up the upper class. especially the kalemiyye (“those of the pen”. the literati in other words but also government clerks etc) and the ilmiye (the ulema). To this profile we must also add the members of the military convoys that accompanied the caravans for protection. Yet another important social group to be added to the picture are the mendicant/traveling dervishes whose movements were not confined to the hajj season. Around the turn of the 16th century. these dervishes played crucial roles in the cultural communications between Anatolia and other parts of the Near and Middle East. Those of those of the Kadir-i and Rlfa-i sects were especially influential in maintaining links with Hejaz while the and dervishes were the principal driving forces of a cultural ebb and flow through a broad region extending from Egypt to the Balkans. This being so, although we do not know for certain who the first people to introduce coffee to Istanbul were. it is safe to assume that they must have been members of these groups. It is safe because we know for a fact that members of the very same groups had pioneered the spread of the coffee habit in the Yemen and Hejaz regions earlier in the 15th century.
Another thing that we are certain of is that coffee was already a familiar element of life and society at court and in the homes of the ulema as well as in dervish lodges during the first half ofthe 16th century, well before the first coffeehouses opened in Istanbul and became a part of the city’s everyday life. What those coffeehouses did was to foster. at the neighborhood level. the spread of a culture and habit that hitherto had been more limited in its social pervasiveness.
The first Istanbul coffeehouse on record was opened in 1554-55 in the district of Tahtakale. Its proprietors, two merchants of Arab origin, were Hakem of Aleppo and Şems of Damascus. The selection of as the location for the first coffeehouse was probably based on a shrewdly taken decision. for in the 16th century, Tahtakale was already noteworthy as one of the city’s most important commercial districts. Located immediately behind the Egyptian Bazaar and within easy reach of the landing places along the Golden Horn in Eminonu, Tahtakale was where all the economic resources necessary to keep Istanbul supplied with food were marshaled,
The social topography of the district consisted of tradesmen and artisans and even in those days Tahtakale was more of a place to do business than it was one to live in. The human potential of Tahtakale was made up of merchants, of seamen, and of traveling performers and entertainers who had come from allover the empire to do business in Istanbul and who circulated over, around, and through their local counterparts as well as a lower-class culture of boatmen, porters, bakers, menials, and day-laborers.
The customers of Istanbul’s first coffeehouse must certainly have been drawn from these groups and especially from the lower classes, whose way of life was to become a permanent fixture of such establishments in Ottoman times. Just as the Ottoman chroniclers did, the historian Joseph von Hammer also made an enumeration of the underclass groups that hung out in Istanbul’s coffeehouses and reached similar conclusions. 3D The cultural milieu of Tahtakale however was unusual to say the least and it would be a mistake to generalize its customer profile to that of all Istanbul coffeehouses.
When we look at this social phenomenon a bit more closely we see that the members of this underclass were largely shunned by the various introverted neighborhood units that formed the core of the city’s social life. It was an essentially vagrant class whose members lived from hand to mouth and who laid the foundations of a extroverted cultural scene in the coffeehouses that sprang up not only in Tahtakale but also in other harbor areas of the city, such as those extending along the axis joining Kasımpaşa, Galata, and Tophane. Much later in the 19th century, the coffeehouses that were frequented by the men of the city’s fire brigades also became a colorful adjunct of Istanbul’s everyday life. As such, they represent an interesting instance of cultural continuity in which an archaic heritage was being sustained in an identical urban landscape.
The intense interest in coffeehouses was not of course limited exclusively to the segments that were excluded from more refined society. Society as a whole embraced these institutions, proliferating them at the neighborhood level. The reasons why the first neighborhood coffeehouses opened their doors provide us with some valuable clues about how traditional ways of life underwent a transformation; at the same time, they give us a better insight into the logic of the prohibitory measures to which authorities were to have recourse in the face of that transformation.
There was a close relationship between neighborhood coffeehouses and another important social institution -a religious one. In traditional Ottoman settlement patterns, the local mosque formed the nucleus around which new districts of grew up and the residents of a neighborhood were automatically the members of the mosque’s congregation. When the local coffeehouse became a customary place to which one could repair between prayer times and have a cup of coffee while perusing through books relating the exploits of heroes or the deeds of the pious or else engaging in bull sessions on current events, it was providing a setting for the conduct of a different sort of socio-cultural activities.
Now there were two quite distinct venues in which a neighborhood’s daily life could be played out: one religious, the other worldly. Each represented quite different social values that quickly became the opposite poles of every social disagreement and it was this fact more than anything else that spurred ulema ideologues into action to have the coffeehouses shut down. The crucial reason for this of course was that insofar as they were the representatives of a worldly frame of reference. local coffeehouses threatened to erase the socially determined and accepted boundaries of traditional life. Up until the 16th century. the distinctively Ottoman way of life consisted of the socio-cultural expression of an introverted world that was contained within a system of boundaries whose social values were sharply defined by a morality of one’s duties and whose apexes were the mosque, the place of business, and the home. A home was needed for one’s family life: a place of business was necessary to earn one’s living: and a mosque was essential to perform one’s duty to God. And a local coffeehouse? That was a place which, for the first time. offered ordinary folk the prospects of a way of life that lay somewhere outside these basic needs in an area whose boundaries had not been drawn by society’s code of morals. People drawn together by its appeal discovered kindred spirits who shared the same needs and thus initiated a process of socialization that was quite beyond the control of central authority. Gelibolulu Mustafa Ali draws for us a broad picture of the cultural landscape and of the coffeehouse frequenters hailing from diverse segments of society that dwelt in it. Towards the end of the 16th century there began a series of decrees banning the consumption of coffee and ordering the closure of coffeehouses in Istanbul. The justifications proffered were always reasons of religious law but in fact one can see in them simply the efforts of a political authority whose sole aim was to curb the runaway development of a process that was infiltrating every segment of society.
When did Ottoman political authorities first notice that such an uncontrolled process was going on? To answer that question, we need to take a closer look at the reign of SOleyman I. This sultan’s reign, which began in 1520 and ended in 1566, was a period in which all the traditional institutions that were to be characteristic of Ottoman urban life completed their developmental stages, in which sociocultural standards pertaining to ways of thought and life were crystallized, and in which all the social mechanisms that were to define a typical “city-dweller” began functioning coherently. Economic and political growth fuelled and was fuelled by demographic mobility while the channels of cultural communication among all the social classes that took part in everyday life were activated. The process of socialization gained speed in the empire’s major cities in the Balkans and Anatolia but nowhere more so than in the capital. Istanbul. As one might expect. the impact of this process on Ottoman society manifested itself in many different ways and provided fertile ground in which new forms of social behavior could sprout and grow. It was during Suleyman’s reign for example that the tradition of outings to public places makes its appearance in Ottoman cities.34 These excursions gave society a chance to venture into the outside world and enter into a cultural territory the scale of whose horizons was substantially broader than that of the local neighborhood. At the same time however, a series of “messianic” movements of a religious nature were distracting political authorities and causing them such discomfort that they found it quite necessary to impose certain rules circumscribing various aspects of people’s everyday lives. In a period of such intricately linked social processes. what sort of logic could authorities advance to frustrate the changes in society that were perceived to be taking place because of the coffee habit? Predictably. the ru les that got laid down were dictated by religious law.
The Ottoman ulema’s approach was to advance the same religious arguments against coffee that had been propounded by the Mecca ulema years before. The gist of that argument was the opinion. unanimously upheld by the ulema, that substances that had been “roasted to such a degree that they had been turned to coal” were harmful to human health and therefore proscribed. Exactly who it was who transformed this conventional wisdom into the text of a written opinion and when it was promulgated as the first Ottoman prohibition banning coffee are matters of some dispute for the evidence is contradictory. A widely believed story has it that Sheikulislam Ebussuud Efendi issued a fatwa concerning the sinking. in port. of a ship carrying a cargo of coffee to Istanbul in 1543.36 That does not square with the facts of history because Ebussuud Efendi didn’t become sheikulislam until 1545. so he clearly could not have issued any fatwa banning coffee in 1543. Furthermore the years of Suleyman’s reign were when the coffee drinking habit was newly becoming an entrenched part of Istanbul’s city life.
The first coffeehouse opened in 1554 and SUleyman died in 1566. In less than a decade and a half. Istanbul’s populace had become acquainted with coffee but the places where it was drunk had not yet been recognized as hotbeds of political opposition. Furthermore it is a known fact that the sultan enjoyed this newfangled beverage himself and even instituted a new office -that of chief coffeemaker-whose tenant was a member of the sultan’s personal retinue at Topkapi Sarayi. In view of these and similar facts and of Suleyman’s own taste for coffee. it would probably be more accurate to date the ban on coffee that is included among the collected fatwas of Ebussuud Efendi to the reign of Suleyman’s son and successor. Selim II (1566-1574).39 By then the ulema would have had time to focus their attentions on the socio-cultural ramifications that the coffee drinking habit had or might have for city life.
That ban. whenever it was imposed. served as the precedent and also provided the legal grounds for the much stricter prohibition decreed in 1633 by Murad IV. There is much evidence however that the view that coffeehouses were places to be distrusted took shape among the ulema and in court long before that date however. During the procession of the guildsmen that was held at the Hippodrome in 1582 on the occasion of the circumcision of Prince Mehmed. the oldest son of Murad III (1574-1595). members of the coffeehouse operators’ guild complained before the sultan that their establishments were being raided by “kavasses. who smashed their cups and bound them hand and foot and beat them.” This event, which is recorded by Gelibolulu Mustafa Ali. tells us that, by the end of the 16th century. there was a substantial number of people in Istanbul who were making a living by operating coffeehouses. It also suggests that the guildsmen thought they had a chance to improve their lot by laying their complaint in public before their sovereign. In the event, it seems to have backfired: the very next year, a decree ordering the closure of all coffeehouses was promulgated.
The reign of Murad III was a time when the ulema as a whole was quite split on the Subject of prohibiting coffee and its members held diametrically opposite views. The diversity of social opinion that obtained among the ulema became a battlefield that was to remain hotly contested in the Ottoman bureaucracy until the middle of the 17th century. Bitter. rancorous debate was the rule of the day in which the “high moral ground” was defended by the Kadizadeli group. Whose members rallied around the ideas of Birgivi Mehmed Efendi. against most of the rest of the ulema for whom the realities of everyday life were the touchstones. This was a politically complex time in which the ideology of the ulema was beginning to undergo a metamorphosis and it was at thisjuncture that Sheikulislam Bostanzade Mehmed Efendi issued a fatwa which was in favor of coffee and which effectively repealed its prohibition. The fatwa was cast in the form of fifty-two rhymed couplets written by the sheikulislam in response to a query of twelve rhymed couplets posed to him by Iştipli Emin Efendi.(42) Interesting in its own right, Bostanzade Mehmed’s fatwa was also so comprehensive that it effectively put an end to all arguments -on religious grounds at least-concerning coffee among the ulema. On the other hand, the social ferment taking place in coffeehouses continued to be a political problem. In the “new era” inaugurated by Bostanzade’s fatwa of 1592, the attentions of authorities were henceforth to be focused upon the political dimensions of coffee and coffeehouses. In the reign of Murad’s successor, Mehmed III (1595-1603), this politicization transformed coffeehouses into centers of opposition to central authority of every sort: disgruntled medrese students, ousted bureaucrats, tradesmen and artisans suffering from economic distress. Janissaries ticked off at their officers and/or the government… All played key roles in turning coffeehouses into hotbeds of political opposition during these years. As venues in which anti-establishment criticism was freely and openly aired, exchanged, and elaborated upon, coffeehouses were becoming a serious threat in the eyes of authorities43 A new process of socialization had been introduced to Ottoman urban life and culture, one that had a decidedly political cast to its discourse: and no sooner did it begin to criticize the manner in which the state was being run than it was countered by Murad IV’s famous edict ordering the closure of all coffeehouses in 1633.
In terms of its avowed purpose that order was a failure and the futile violence waged to enforce it produced deep scars in society’s memory that remained for a long time. Be that as it may, the real issue that deserves attention here is the ideology, represented by the Kadlzadeli group, which underlay the 1633 prohibition. This ideology. which was formulated from the early 17th century on in Istanbul particularly by theologians who were of provincial origins, scrutinized everything through a lens that viewed every innovation in everyday life as a pernicious heresy. This had the effect of placing the ulema -and with it. the court-at the very center of a process of social degeneration. The adherents of this ideology found the wellspring of their ideas in Tarikat-I Muhammediyye -’The Mohammedan Way”-a work by Birgivi Mehmed Efendi. Garbing themselves in cloaks of orthodoxy woven from the collective medrese syllabus as expounders of Islamic law, they developed an extensive source of support for themselves through the sermons they delivered in Istanbul’s mosques. While there was much that the Kadızadelis were opposed to, the principal target of their wrath was mysticism and especially anything that smacked of Sufism, Their very first success was to have a ban imposed upon the religious ceremonies held in dervish lodges -particularly the serna performances of music and dance that were the hallmark of the Mevlevis.
Having racked up that victory, they next mounted a campaign against coffeehouses, repeatedly hammering home the theme that the consumption of coffee and tobacco was canonically forbidden in Islam. Mehmed Efendi, who went by the name Küçük (“Lesser”) Kadlzade, was especially violent in his criticism of tobacco, which constituted the proximate grounds for Murad IV’s ban of 1633. The immediate effects of the edict on Istanbul’s coffeehouses were disastrous but before long they were being mitigated and then completely undone by “speakeasy” coffeehouses that sprang up in out-of-the-way places. After Murad’s death in 1640, the ban ceased to have any impact whatsoever on everyday life. Authorities for their part abandoned the effort to shut such establishments down, preferring instead to develop mechanisms that would keep them under surveillance and control.
The lesson that the 17th century Ottoman experience with coffeehouses teaches is the futility of prohibitions and coercion in the face of social habits. There are many reasons why coercive measures will fail but the principal one in this case is closely associated with the economic value that habit-forming goods with a strong consumer appeal can command in the marketplace and the collective resistance generated by efforts to frustrate traffic in them. The trade in coffee was an important source of livelihood for a substantial number of people and it made a considerable contribution to the empire’s economy. It also provided a steady stream of revenues to the treasury in the form of tax-a fact that authorities could not have been ignorant of.
Evliya Çelebi writing around the middle of the 17th century. notes the existence of some two hundred commercial enterprises engaged in the coffee trade. That is rather more than the numbers he cites for other guilds and is evidence of a considerable volume of business. Even in the 16th century. the economic potential that would transform Istanbul’s coffee wholesalers into a powerful middle class was being shaped by the transit trade in coffee moving through Egypt. The Egyptian Bazaar in those days was the hub through and around which Istanbul’s coffee trade moved. Ships lying alongside at Eminbno discharged their cargoes of coffee beans. which were taken to warehouses (called tahmis) nearby. After being roasted, the beans were ground in government supervised mills and then sold to retailers.
The activities of storage. roasting. and grinding were carried out by the Tahmisçi guild under the supervision of Janissaries. On the evidence of complaints about fraud and other improprieties. the indiscipline and decay from which the Janissary corps began to suffer in the 18th century appears to have infected the Tahmisçi guild as well. Coffee beans brought into the government-controlled mills to be ground were adulterated with things like roasted chickpeas and hazelnuts. The result. sold as pure coffee. generated unmerited profits for the Janissary overseers. which they came to regard as their right.
If the inhabitants of Istanbul were being deprived of a decent cup of coffee, it was not entirely the fault of rapacious Janissaries however. Trade routes rendered insecure by years of warfare and several years of depressed output cau5ed coffee prices to soar and made it almost obligatory to “extend” such pure coffee as was available by adulterating it.
There were other problems as well. One was a tax evasion scam that appeared in the 18th century. As was the case with many other economic enterprises, the government farmed out the collection of revenues owed to it on the trade in coffee. In order to avoid paying to the treasury the taxes that they collected from importers, tax-farmers took to having cargoes of coffee discharged in ports in the Vicinity of Istanbul and then proceeded to move the goods surreptitiously into the city. By the end of the 18th century this practice had become so egregious that the reigning sultan, Selim III. introduced a series of measures to prevent it.
The tahmis system and the tax-farming associated with it were abolished. In their place. a salaried government officer was made responsible for coffee the importation of coffee and for the collection of revenues on it. His actions were in turn subject to the supervision of a four-man commission representing the interests of the coffee-dealers’ guild. Another tack that was later taken was the introduction of what might be called a “chain of surety” in which Egyptian Bazaar coffee merchants. stewards, and wholesalers were held successively responsible for the actions of one another.
The thrust of such efforts was to install auto-control mechanisms that would prevent irregularities. Their effectiveness and success are questionable however for the complaints of Istanbul’s inhabitants concerning the quality and availability of coffee seem never to have abated.
The key cultural transformations that were reshaping the socialization of Ottoman everyday life from the 16th century onward fanned out from the empire’s cities into its villages through the medium of coffeehouses. which serve as settings that provide us with opportunities to observe. sometimes in minute detail. the ways in which diverse social structures. professional groups. and even social classes took part in everyday life. A coffeehouse was, first and foremost. an expression of the va lues system of the social context to which it belonged. That values system. encompassing as it does beliefs. rules of etiquette. and cultural consumption habits. also made up the cores of the different lifestyles represented by different coffeehouses, especially in urban settings. Is it possible to develop a typology of the different ki nds of coffeehouses that shaped everyday Ottoman life while remaining within a common sociocultural base?
There is certainly a wealth of cultural and historical material available from which such a typology can be developed and not just in Istanbul but in nearly all Ottoman cities. Looking at that material as a whole and the cultural base on which it is to be set. our first observation is that there were two distinct categories into which coffeehouses can be divided. The first of these is the “neighborhood coffeehouse” and the second the “guild coffeehouse” .
Neighborhood coffeehouses were the most commonly observed socializing venue in Istanbul as well as in the cities of the empire’s Anatolian and Balkan provinces. Looking at the example of Istanbul and the distribution of these establishments. we encounter an extensive communications network and system for the conveyance of cu ltural information that encompasses the whole city with nodes located in every district. In the traditional form of Ottoman urban growth and development, the core unit of settlement was the mahalle, a word that can be translated as “district”, “ward”, “quarter” or “neighborhood” In a very real sense. the notion of the Ottoman mahalle corresponded to a Christian parish insofar as it defined a unitary district whose inhabitants generally attended the same house of worship (in the case of Muslims. the mosque) that was the center of everyday life. Indeed the local coffeehouse was intimately linked with the local mosque. In Ottoman neighborhoods. this association was dictated not by topographical considerations but rather was the produce of a common organizational model incorporating different social functions. The local mosque and coffeehouse were located near one another, often side by side.
The people who made up the mosque’s congregation and those the coffeehouse’s clientele were virtually identical. The local coffeehouse was where issues of any kind that were of concern to the neighborhood were discussed. It was because of this attribute that neighborhood coffeehouses assumed the function of a two-way channel of communication in which the decisions of “higher ups” were passed on to the public at large, to be reflected upon and deliberated on the one hand and through which the reactions and opinions of the community might be conveyed to authorities on the other.
A neighborhood coffeehouse was typically a single story wooden structure, It was located on a small square that was planted with trees and around which were also clustered the neighborhood’s mosque, cemetery, fountain, and shops. It was located such that anyone passing by could easily see it-and be seen. Inside there was a single common area called or meydan in which to sit. A notable feature of Anatolian coffeehouses especially was a small vestibule called pabur;/uk in which patrons removed their shoes before entering and put them on when leaving -exactly as was done in the mosque. The meydan had a wooden floor and arrayed around it were low wooden divans (kerevet) on which one sat cross-legged. In one corner of the room was a small hearth (ocak) where the coffee was brewed and the establishment’s paraphernalia were kept. The corner immediately opposite it was usually called the başşedir-literally the “head divan” seats of honor that were reserved for distinguished guests as well as for local worthies and the Iike.
This was where the neighborhood’s elders. imam. leading tradesmen and artisans, medrese instructors. and those who held or had held positions in the civil service assembled, These corners served as the centers of cultural output in neighborhood coffeehouses, The başşedir represented the highest point of the coffeehouse hierarchy and was where issues pertaining to city life, to government. and to local affairs were given voice in keeping with the traditional civilities governing discourse and enveloped in the social cocoon that it defined. The exchange of information among different professions. lifestyles. and ways of thinking also took place within the cultural world of that cocoon.
Another cultural reference point of the neighborhood coffeehouse was the counter from which the coffeehouse’s owner or operator worked and which served as the center of the establishment’s administration, The little hearth was surmounted by a yaşmak, a chim ney hood that was elegantly decorated, and was flanked on either side by shelved recesses called delik or do/ap in which cups were stored. Quite frequently there would be another cabinet containing barbering paraphernalia and a rudimentary first-aid kit. Barbering as an independent profession among the Ottomans first appeared in the late 18th century in coffeehouses and it was subsequently to become an important feature of guild coffeehouses.
Neighborhood coffeehouses were not just places to sip coffee and chew the fat: they also served as a public reading room (predominantly religious works and popular epics) and a game room, Concerning the latter, European travelers visiting Istanbul in the 16th and 17th centuries are in agreement that the favored games were chess and backgammon and that the card games that were so popUlar in Europe were then completely unknown in Turkey.(60) Within this general typology of neighborhood coffeehouses, there were also details that were dictated by the religious communities of the patrons, In Muslim neighborhoods for example. coffeehouses frequently served sherbets and cool drinks as well as coffee. In Christian ones. coffeehouses sometimes had the nature of a tavern in which alcoholic beverages were served.
The second general type of coffeehouse one observes in Ottoman cities consists of establishments that catered to the members of a particular guild (esnaf). As might be expected. Istanbul’s guild coffeehouses were concentrated in the city’s main commercial districts such as Beyazit. Aksaray. Eminonu. and Uskudar. Each did service as a kind of guild hall and the existence of a separate coffeehouse for each guild is a reflection of the guild system under which trades and crafts were organized during the Ottoman period. Guild coffeehouses clustered most thickly in the vicinity of the Covered Bazaar and around the landing-places along the Golden Horn. In addition to serving as the “official address” of the leaders of a particular guild. they also provided a setting in which guildsmen could engage in a professional and social dialogue.63 In addition. by serving as places where one could be certain of finding porters. boatmen. carpenters. or whatever other trade or craft one might be in need of. these coffeehouses were in close communication with Istanbul’s bazaars and businesses. It was in such coffeehouses that the current economic situation and problems of the marketplace were discussed and the conservative character of a guildsman’s ideology that represented the middle-class values of the city was shaped. In that respect. guild coffeehouses may be regarded as the strongholds of the conservative reaction against court-driven efforts to modernize Ottoman society.
Towards the end of the 17th century. there was a completely different -and eventually more sinister-manifestation of the conservatism which prevailed in guild coffeehouses and which was embodied in “Janissary coffeehouses”. At the outset. these establishments were similar to guild coffeehouses with the exception that their clientele were drawn from the members of a particular Janissary regiment. (They were also exempt from having to pay a tax for which other coffeehouses were liable. a situation symbolized by the hanging of a scimitar outside.) Eventually however they turned into dives run under the supervision of the Janissaries who policed Istanbul’s streets. Concurrent with these developments was a process in which the Janissary corps was rapidly ceasing to be an effective military force and was becoming instead a burden to society. The customs and settings of the Janissary coffeehouses was shaped by a rebelliousness towards established order compounded with a form of Bektaşi mysticism that had been inherited from the old days. The synthesis that defined the cultural world of the Janissary coffeehouses was to survive after the bloody suppression and abolition of the corps in 1826. albeit with a number of important differences. in the “fire brigade coffeehouses” of later years.
The ceremony marking the opening of the Janissary coffeehouses represents one of the most colorful aspects of old Istanbul folklore. Various aspects of the Bektaşi sect also pervade the everyday life of these coffeehouses. The mystical terminology and ritual of Bektaşi dervishes was adopted almost wholesale for the establishments’ personnel. locations. and activities -so much so that it would not be amiss to regard each of these coffeehouses as a sort of Bektaşi lodge, The facts certainly bear such a supposition out. Until 1826. the overt activities of the adherents of the Bektaşi sect were substantially confined to the Janissary corps’ barracks and to a few genuine lodges located outside the city walls, Yet from the 18th century onward. the sect and its influence in Istanbul grew by leaps and bounds, The only logical candidates available to support this growth were the Janissary coffeehouses.
If these coffeehouses were hotbeds of defiance. it was a defiance of a conservative urban middle class against changes taking place in an accustomed way of life. It was only natural therefore that they should have become the centers of rabid opposition to the topdown reformist efforts of the Ottoman court that began with the reign of Selim III (1789-1807). Grumbling about how newly introduced taxes were being squandered by high-living government officials. dire predictions that the rumors pertaining to the introduction of a “new model army” heralded the approach of Judgement Day. and similar gossip and baseless rumors were the grist that was ground over and over in the mills of coffeehouse discussions.66 When Mahmud II’s reforms were getting under way, it became more and more obvious to authorities that these establishments were the centers from which opposition to innovation was being disseminated and the notion of eliminating their influence gained steady ground at court. It is no accident that. when Mahmud II (1808-1839) abolished the Janissary corps and ordered its suppression, the coffeehouses associated with the corps were also raided and demolished as well.
Another subcategory of specialist coffeehouse in old Istanbul was the minstrel coffeehouses. These establishments were frequented by folk poets and musicians who had come to Istanbul from the countryside as well as by those native to the city. From the standpoint of the segments of society from which they were drawn and the moral va lues to which they subscribed. they had much in common with both Janissary and guild coffeehouses a fact implicitly recognized in their placement within the guild system. From the 16th century onward. folk minstrels(aşık) who nourished by urban culture but with a strong inclination towards rural folk literature produced a body of semi-mystical poetry and lyrics that shaped the cultural world of the minstrel coffeehouses in Istanbul as well as in many other cities and towns.58 Imposing their individual personalities upon the otherwise anonymous structure of folk literature. these minstrels developed a much beloved repertoire that was enriched with songs. ballads. and lays.59 Drawing its power from roots extending into myth and legend. this repertoire bridged the social gap between city and countryside and served as a channel of communication between both. In that respect. the minstrel coffeehouses became forums in which the newcomers to the city could make themselves heard while ordinary people of every stripe voiced their feelings and thoughts about current events.
In Istanbul. the minstrel coffeehouses clustered most thickly in the district of Tavukpazan. which is close to the Covered Bazaar. long the city’s most vibrant commercial scene. Sharing a cultural base in common with Istanbul’s tradesmen and artisans. the Tavukpazan coffeehouses were places that were frequented by Janissary-background poets such as Kayıkçı Kul Mustafa. Uskudarli Aşk-I and Galatali Huseyin Aga who gave performances in them. As Tanzimat (1839-1876) modernization and reforms took hold however. the minstrel coffeehouses, which were also confronted by economic difficulties, gave way to yet another type: the semaf coffeehouse. Semaf is a term used for a musical form much favored by minstrels in folk music and one of its meanings is “traditional”. These coffeehouse were a form of fire-brigade coffeehouse (an extension of the Janissary heritage) that remained open during the month of Ramazan and in order to have a better understanding of the culture that they represented. it is necessary to turn briefly to the fire brigade coffeehouses first.
In addition to policing the city’s streets. the Janissary corps also provided IstanbUl’s fire-fighting services. When the corps was abolished in 1826, so too was its organization of fire brigades. That a city as notorious for its disastrous fires as Istanbul could do without firemen was unthinkable of course and before long a new brigade organization was set up whose members were recruited from among unmarried young men who were newcomers to the city and lived mostly in hostels and inns in the city’s harbor district.
Although it was effective in some areas, this organization failed to become city-wide at the neighborhood level for the reason that traditional neighborhood culture adamantly resisted the intrusion of such young unmarried rowdies into its midst. There developed instead a system of local fire brigades that was based on individual neighborhoods. whose residents supplied their own brigades with men and resources, This model, which emerged during the reign of Abdulmecid (1839-1861), proved to be quite a success, It experienced its golden age during the reign of Abdulhamid II (1876-1909), These neighborhood based brigades of fire fighters were joined in 1868 with the, by then. somewhat less rambunctious organization of municipal firemen. New firehouses to accommodate them were constructed at key points around the city and it was around these buildings that the fire brigade coffeehouses began to sprout. Although t.he cultural scene of these coffeehouses was a ruder version of what had existed in the older Janissary and minstrel coffeehouses. the resulting subculture gave birth to the semaf coffeehouses that were operated exclusively during the month of
From a socio*cultural standpoint. these traditional coffeehouses witnessed the passing of the Janissary/guildsman clientele of the Tavukpazan minstrel coffeehouses and its replacement by a much less genteel group. The change was a reflection of what was taking place in society as a whole and had an impact on the culture that the traditional coffeehouses represented as well. where the language employed was closer to that of the vernacular and the approaches to music and entertainment showed clear signs of breaking away from traditional values, The language employed in the Janissary-guild coffeehouses for example had been metaphorical in style and mystical in content: in the post-Tanzimat period it was supplanted by the slang and cant of an urban subculture,
The only thing that did not change in fact was the importance attached to ritual. In the traditional coffeehouses one observes an approach to programmed entertainment inspired by European chantants and theatrical performances. The programs began in the evening after the supererogatory Ramazan service in the mosque and lasted all night until the pre-dawn meal. The program began with a band playing. on traditional musical instruments. a piece resembling a European march and was followed by polka-like pieces. When the establishment was sufficiently filled with customers, the program proper would begin with lively dance tunes followed by a restrained sort of vaudeville that involved singing. musical performances. and some light comedy
After the deposition of Abdulhamid II and the reestablishment of constitutional government in 1909. the web of traditions that had taken shape in these coffeehouses began to unravel. It disappeared entirely in the 1920s. when the old-style fire brigades that provided it with its social base were relegated to history. Its end was also hastened by the increasing irrelevance of many of the traditions unique to Ramazan and especially by the cultural eclipse of the Şehzadebaşı-Direklerarasi entertainment district of Istanbul in the face of the ascendant star of Beyoglu.
Tanzimat-period coffeehouses were like stages on which were most clearly reflected the agitation in social values that was wrought by the ongoing conflict between traditional culture and modernization. Coffeehouses in which public storytellers regaled audiences marked the end of one line of development; so too did hashish/opium coffeehouses and coffeehouses that catered to Ottoman intellectuals. Each addressed a perceived need of their day76 To the truly perceptive however. it was clear that traditional coffeehouses of whatever stripe were no longer capable of satisfying modern requirements. One of those who saw this was Ahmed Midhat Efendi, a representative of the more conservative strain of Tanzimat modernization. It was he who made Beyoglu’s Café Crystal a cultural landmark on a social horizon that stretched as far as the Republic. In doing so, he also wrote the epilogue of the traditional coffeehouse culture of the East.