Social History of Turkish Coffee

An English traveler by the name of Charles Mac Farlane, who had witnessed some of the most tumultuous years of early Ottoman efforts to reform during the reign of Mahmud II. in Istanbul, made many insightful observations about the cultural texture of an urban life that was undergoing a metamorphosis.

Charles Mac Farlane has completed his travel guide with these words; “The Turks cannot live without coffee.

This conclusion by an orientalist pen made a reference to the traditional image of “The Turk” as a person who pursues his own habits even in the cultural whirlpool of an undergoing life change and who holds the pleasure provided by coffee and tobacco to be superior to every other good thing in this world. At the same time, also a mental portrait of an Oriental who is the sole master of a domain of life of which he is the creator.

This human being, seated cross-legged on a coffeehouse bench as he languidly puffs on his water pipe and sips his coffee, weaves a cultural cocoon harboring a seemingly timeless way of life which is played out somewhere between tranquility and bliss and which cannot be seen with the eye but only perceived by the senses. This delicate cocoon, surrounded by mystical resignation, traditional impassivity and personal scrutiny is a rich anthology of modes of thought and behavior that incorporates the social habits of the civilization to which it belongs.

Coffee Hawker, late 19th.  early 20th century Postcard, Mehmet AKGUL Collection

Social habits make up the core of every civilization. Through the habits that it created. a cup of coffee bridging the worlds of Medieval Islam and post-Renaissance Europe constructed a system of social relationships far more complex than could ever have been foreseen. A great number of traditions and modes of behavior that had not previously existed among them were shaped by forms of socializing brought on by the direct impact of the coffee habit on the cultures dwelling in the Mediterranean basin.

The first to be enthralled by the allure of this dark, hot beverage were the people of the east. Having been led beyond social constraints-such as religion and the need to work for one’s daily bread-that hitherto it would have been unthinkable to overstep. they discovered the possibilities of a new way of life.

Circles of chatting people arrayed around a coffee brazier shaped new philosophies of life that were woven jointly by those who had been captivated by the pleasure imparted by this mystical beverage. From there they formed a network of cultural dissemination that became increasingly more comprehensive, resulting in the launching of a process of socialization that willy-nilly encompassed all elements of society.

By bringing together the diverse elements of society-government officials, clergy. tradesmen and artisans, the pious and the profane-out of their own closed circles and into the common ground of the coffeehouse, coffee mediated the development of a social design to which everyone could contribute his own knowledge and experience. blended with the realities of life. In that respect. the habit that coffee created in the Islamic world may be said to have laid the foundations of a new civil model that was based on socialization.

Coffee Hawker, anonymous, colored•lithography, Galeri Alfa Collection

For centuries, habituating commodities of one kind or another stood at the hub of a universal mechanism which generated a cultural ebb and flow between the Islamic world and Europe, which kept trade routes lively, and which transferred different forms of social mentality from one to the other.

This fact is a product of a complex psychology that reveals for us the both the weaknesses and strengths of human nature. Every age has had its own point of view of a horizon expanding into geographically distant regions for the purpose of satisfying the social desires stimulated by this mindset. The riches of the countries discovered as a result, transformed one by one into consumer goods. produced advantages and prerogatives for social classes that pioneered new lifestyles.

Considered from this standpoint one can say, for example, that the great social desires that were the distinctive marks of the ancient world were incarcerated in a tiny silkworm’s cocoon for silk is one of the oldest examples of conspicuous consumption that determined social levels everywhere in that world from China to Rome. In the medieval world, this tradition was sustained by the lure of spices: the tables of feudal lords became the scene of new tastes created by spices imported from India and the Moluccas as well as of the cultural aesthetic of a governing class rendered privileged by those tastes 3 By the early 17th century however spices had lost their favored charm in Europe. Now it was the turn of coffee to stimulate the passions of a new age’s privileged.

Silk, spices, coffee… All three started out as luxury items exported by the east to the west. Each was enveloped in a cloak of mystique and legend that was transported along with it by the caravans that carried the goods. Each imparted life to international trade while also shaping new forms of thinking and feeling arising from the process of evolving from a rural way of life to an urban one. In the late 15th century, coffee shed the mythological garb that had enshrouded it as a preliminary to its becoming a part of everyday life. The story of how that happened makes up one of the most interesting and colorful pages in the book of the east’s contributions to world history and culture.

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