Turkish Coffee from Mythology to History

In the 16th century, just when the coffee drinking habit had become widespread throughout the Islamic world, the first serious wave of curiosity was sparked about the origins of this intriguing and controversial substance. From the meager hearsay that there was on the subject. a few facts could be gleaned but those facts were shrouded by many dense layers of myth. The task of raising those layers one by one to reach the underlying historical truth was one of the most intractable problems that cultural anthropology and ethnology have ever had to address.

Today we know with absolute and indisputable certainty where the coffee tree originally came from: the high plateaus of southern Ethiopia, where the ancestors of today’s commercially cultivated trees still grow in the wild. Since the earliest times, the local folk of this region have been in the habit of grinding the seeds of this tree into a flour from which they make a sort of bread that was one of the staple foods of the tribes. On this basis, the habit of drinking coffee is not nearly as old as the habit of eating it. And it is precisely here, at the point where coffee was transformed from a food into a beverage, that the mythological adventure of coffee begins. How did that transformation take place? To put it another way, who invented drinkable coffee?

The answer to those questions is provided by a mystical discourse that binds the mythological roots of all the sociocultural phenomena of medieval Islamic culture. There are several versions to the story but all of them associate the discovery of coffee as a beverage with the healing powers of religious figures. According to a story related by Ebu Tayyib el-Gazzi, the first person to brew coffee as a therapeutic beverage was Solomon. On one of his long journeys, Solomon came to a town whose inhabitants were all suffering from an unknown affliction. In a dream, he was commanded by Gabriel to collect the seeds of a particular tree, roast them, and from them brew a th ick beverage that he was to distribute to the sick. The tree of course was the coffee tree. Another version of this story attributes the discovery to Ibn Sina (Avicenna) but. like the first. it does not agree with known historical facts.

Yet another version, which is widely believed to be true even today at the popular level, links the beverage to Islamic mysticism. According to this version , the inventor of beverage coffee was EbQ’I-Hasan Ali eş-Şazeli (d 1258). the founder of the Şazeli order of dervishes. Although the story contradicts itself in a few places. it does account for the widely acknowledged repute of coffee in Sufi circles.6 And by attributing the diffusion of the habit to a holy man who, in his lifetime, traveled all across northern Africa from Morocco to Egypt and whose mystical teachings were propagated along the pilgrimage routes, it provides us with our first clues about how the coffee drinking habit got started and spread.

Coffea Arabica from a 19th centruy book, photo: Goldner, Sipa / leona

Around the beginning of the 15th century. dervishes were certainly drinking coffee for a functional purpose. After his exile to Mocha by Emir Sadedd’in. Ali Ibn Omer eş-Şazeli who died in 1418, introduced coffee to his circle of acquaintances, resulting in the spread of the beverage among members of the order. The main reason why coffee gained popularity in the culture of the mystical orders stemmed from the ability of caffeine to stimulate the mind and fend off sleep. By keeping dervishes alert. especially in the prolonged assemblies where litanies were chanted, it enabled them to experience the feeling of mystical ecstasy more profoundly. At the outset, coffee served such practical purposes as this but in time, it became the creator of a complex system of ceremonies that spiritually complemented the order’s core rituals. What that meant in plain terms was to bind the act of drinking coffee by a series of mystical rules.

At the same time, coffee owes its emigration from Ethiopia and rapid dissemination throughout nearly the entire Near East to the dervish orders. Those orders numbered, as did merchants and soldiers, among the principal representatives of social mobility in the Islamic world and it must be said that of the three, these mystical groups provided the most suitable platform for the spread of coffee for they were organized in such a way as to appeal not simply to those like themselves but also to individuals who came broad segments of the population and who might take an interest in their religious teachings. In other words it was not only the dervishes who acquired the coffee habit but also the people who visited them in their lodges.

They in turn carried the taste for the pleasure that this intriguing substance gave to the human soul with them into a widening succession of new regions. This process continued throughout the 15th century. Radiating from the dervish lodges and spreading along pilgrimage routes, coffee became an integral part of socio-cultural and daily life.

The pilgrimage routes that traversed the Islamic world from north to south and from east to west were also the routes plied by trade caravans and this fact sheds light on the geographical spread of the coffee habit. Looking at it from another angle, that spread also provides us with reliable information about the channels through which the trade in coffee moved. The earliest information we have on this subject is from the 16th century and shows that. by that time at least. coffee had become a staple item of merchants’ stock in trade.

After emerging from Ethiopia, coffee’s first stopping-place was Yemen, From there, it spread into the interior of the Arabian peninsula, In 1511 we find it being prohibited in Mecca – evidence that authorities were already thinking it to be a problem, Following the trade routes. it spread rapidly throughout the Red Sea basin. from which it penetrated the Nile valley and made it to Cairo.

When the Ottomans defeated the Egyptian Mamluks and took control of Cairo in 1517, it’s quite likely that they had what amounted to their first real encounter with coffee in that important trading center. The pilgrimage route linking Cairo to the Holy Cities remained one of the most important arteries of the coffee trade for centuries to come. Another was the caravan route via Damascus that provided the Ottomans with their connections to the Hejaz. The introduction of coffee into the cities of Anatolia was largely thanks to the transit trade taking place along this route.

An Ottoman Coffeehouse, colored lithography, Amadeo Preziosi, Paris 1865, Galeri Alfa Collection

The 16th century should be regarded as the period in which coffee first created the geography of its habituation. The most reliable source of information for this period is provided in “Umdetü’s-safve fi hilli’l – kahve”, a work by Abdülkadir Ibn Muhammed el-Ceziri, who died some time after 1568. According to el Ceziri; the man who first brought coffee to Yemen was Cemaleddin Ebü Abdullah Muhammed Ibn Said, also known as uez-Zebhani (d 1471). While residing in Aden, Yemen’s commercial port. he was closely associated with members of the religious orders and played a leading role in spreading the habit of coffee-drinking. At this juncture however, the lifestyles of those who had become habitues of caffeine as well as their relationships with the rest of society were still quite remote from the view of the general public. The first great wave of public interest in what had been essentially an item of Sufi esoterica was triggered when coffee was banned in Mecca in 1511 by Hayr Bey. The events that took place in that city are worthy of detailed attention insofar as they reflect an underlying mentality that we will see repeated in the prohibitions against coffee that were later to be imposed in Hejaz and in Istanbul

A coffeehouse in Istanbul. engraving. Th. Allom, L'Empire Ottoman... 1840, Paris-London

EI-Ceziri is quite detailed in his account of what took place. The first point that immediately draws one’s attention is the severe reaction of the ulema to the process of socialization which had been generated by confabulatory get-togethers held for the purpose of drinking coffee and which was quite beyond the control of authorities. Orthodox ideology prescribed rules defining the religious and cultural reasons why and places where people might come together in a social context and it strove mightily to control new lifestyles which, as in this case. were prime candidates to slip beyond the boundaries of those rules. Nearly all of the arguments that were developed as religious grounds for prohibiting coffee were, without exception, to be put forward in sUbsequent efforts to frustrate its consumption. Nevertheless the coffee bean was able to fend off its opponents and continue to reign by taking refuge behind the enormous commercial potential that it possessed and the huge revenues that it generated for the state treasury.

Around the same time that coffee was drawing the wrath of the ulema in Mecca, in Cairo it was becoming a fad that was spilling out into the city’s streets and was being openly bought and sold. This suggests that what was once aclandestine stimulant had now become an ordinary commercial commodity. In 1517, Selim I added Cairo to the Ottoman domains. This teeming metropolis had long been the mirror of all the sociocultural, political. and commercial transformations that took place in the eastern Mediterranean and, henceforth, what transpired here would have an impact on the imperial capital, IstanbUl as well.

According to Ibn Abdulgaffar, one of eI-Ceziri sources, coffee was first consumed in Cairo around the beginning of the 16th century by Yemeni students in their section of the el-Ezher medrese, This observation provides us with an extremely valuable clue concerning the social context in which the coffee habit would subsequently become entrenched when it reached IstanbUl. The first point that deserves attention here is the religious nature of the setting in which this coffee was being consumed. The second, is the social profile of the traveling dervishes who would have frequented the school that these students studied and lived in. Both setting and social profile were imported wholesale into Istanbul after the 1550s, where we find coffeehouses which not only neighbor mosques, medreses, and dervish lodges but also, as was the situation in Cairo, whose clientele was drawn overwhelmingly from the city’s middle classes.

In view of subsequent developments, it is ironic that the consumption of coffee in 16th century Cairo should have gotten its start in el-Ezher, a venerable institution that was the very citadel of the ulema. It did not remain confined to the halls of academe for long. From there it was only a short step away to the Kasaba district of Cairo, the city’s commercial center, where it was to muster in new social forces on the historical stage. In 1599 Gelibolulu Mustafa arrived in Cairo again and this gave him an opportunity to set down his observations concerning the changes that had taken place since his first visit in 1568.

The work that he penned during his residence in Cairo was entitled “Halatu’l—Kahire mine’l-adati’z-zahire”. In it, he describes life in a city that is bursting out of its traditional shell as well as its vibrant cultural scene -a scene that was largely created by coffeehouses. In composing his work, Mustafa unquestionably intended to compare and contrast what he saw in Cairo with the coffee and coffeehouse situation that obtained in Istanbul at the time. No detail escaped the attention of this observant and shrewd bureaucrat: but for him, the crucial point was the benefit that the coffee trade would have for the Ottoman fisc. Indeed before very long. the economy of Cairo became the sole Mediterranean representative of a wealth that was generated exclusively by the trade in coffee. Vessels took on their cargoes of raw coffee beans at Hodeida. the chief port of western Yemen on the Red Sea, and transported them as far as Suez where they were offloaded onto caravans that brought them to Cairo. Of the 200,000 quintals of coffee that passed in trade during the 17th century, nearly half of it was sold through Cairo.

Henceforth coffee was to assume a new countenance: -no longer just a pleasant stimulant, it became an actor on a Mediterranean political stage where conflicting private, class, and imperial interests repeatedly came to blows. Local revenue-farmers gained control of the coffee customhouses and were so enriched as a result that they were able to revitalize the old Mamluk aristocracy.

Their new found wealth enabled them to seduce, to their own side, the Janissary forces that should have been looking out for Ottoman interests. So emboldened, they undertook the first acts of rebellion against the Ottoman provincial governor and the centralized system of Ottoman administration that he represented. By 1671 the Suez customhouse, which was the conduit through which that enormous volume of trade was channeled to Near Eastern and Western markets, was under Janissary control. The coffee trade had disrupted the status quo in the Mediterranean and, by doing so, it ultimately delivered a severe blow to Ottoman interests in its southern provinces.

Ottoman Coffee Traders

For all of his perspicacity, Gelibolulu Mustafa Ali could not have guessed that the revolution being wrought by coffee in Cairo would have such dire consequences as this for Ottoman control of Egypt. Nevertheless the shock of the confrontation was so forceful that it was not long before sensitive ears in Europe were picking up its reverberations.

At the outset at least. the interest that the Western world took in coffee was entirely the product of a scholarly or scientific interest. European travelers infatuated with the exotic Orient first encountered coffee in Aleppo and Cairo as did European botanists seeking new plants to add to their collections. Leonhart Rauwolff, an Augsburg physician and botanist. is believed to be the first European to mention coffee in writing. He stopped in Aleppo during his journey through the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire in 1573-1578 and there witnessed “men sitting cross-legged on the floor of a spacious room where they were drinking a hot. dark-colored beverage that was as black as ink.

Rauwolffs travel account was published in 1582 but this initial reference to coffee was to go unrecognized as such for years. Around the same time there was another botanist who made a similar observation. Prospero Alpinus, a Paduan, served for a time as a sort of scientific consultant to Giorgio Emo, Venice’s consul in Egypt in 1580-1583. While doing a survey of the flora of the Mediterranean, he remained in Cairo for a time and there had a chance to examine a coffee tree in the garden of a Turkish official whose name was Halil Bey. In 1592 Alpinus published his De Plantis Aegypti Liber, a book that is regarded as the first scientific reference introducing the coffee tree to Europe. This first assay was followed by the studies of John Chamberlayne, Philippe Sylvestre Dufour, Nicholas de Blegny, John Ray, and Jean de la Roque.

Scientifically interesting as coffee might have been to botanists, as a popular stimulant it still had a long way to go. The stimulating qualities of coffee had first been discovered by eremitic dervishes. The task of proclaiming those qualities to the whole world fell to merchants who all but worshipped them. The 17th century was a period in which the fever of international trade was sustained by the demand for coffee as ships set sail from Amsterdam, Marseilles, and Venice bound for the eastern Mediterranean to reach the sources of the goods that would satisfy a burgeoning market. For Europe, coffee was becoming much more than a scientific curiosity: its discovery by Europeans was transforming it into a new commodity for which there was a seemingly insatiable demand, similar to that for spices in the Middle Ages.

This mysterious beverage, which introduced to the world of post-medieval Europe an exotic culture of pleasure, had the potential to invigorate the by now increasingly moribund trade between East and West by infusing it with the fresh blood that it so desperately needed.

A flotilla of ships of the East India Company that weighed anchor and set out for Yemen in 1610 also initiated the expansion of the traditional map of coffee consumption. The little fleet’s captain, Henry Middleton. played as crucial a role as Prospero Alpinus did in redrawing the boundaries of that map after his ships returned to Europe, their holds filled with sacks of coffee beans. In 1616 the Dutchman Pieter van den Brocke was in Mocha buying up a huge amount of coffee. In a short time, all of Yemen’s ports along the Red Sea were witness to a lively surge in trade, to newly-formed companies seeking to take part in it. and to a new social context created by European merchants doing business with local producers and factors.

The trade was heaviest from March to August. Coffee raised in Yemen’s principal growing regions of el-Harah, Himma, Selba, and Aden was brought by camel caravan to the chief entrepot of Beytu’I-Fakih from which it was then transported down to Red Sea ports such as Luhayyah and Hodeida.

Once in port, the coffee was subject not only to official export duties but also to various exactions imposed by those with the muscle to demand and collect them. After this, the coffee set out on its first seaborne journey up to Suez, from which it was transshipped to Cairo and then to Alexandria. That was the route over which most coffee found its way to Europe.

Ottoman, Arab, and Persian merchants on the other hand usually bought their coffee directly from Beytu’I-Fakih and Jidda was their preferred transshipment point. Yet another route that never completely lost its importance took the coffee into the Persian Gulf and then up the Euphrates.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the coffee trade was one of the principal economic elements that determined European political balances. English, French, and Dutch companies were engaged in cutthroat competition for market share with one another but the wealth that they generated in the process brought about a number of momentous changes in European social and political life.

Once powerful but inflexible trading states that were unable or unwilling to accommodate themselves to the new rules dictated by the traffic in this new commodity fell by the wayside as smaller ones that were clever and quick enough to develop new networks of production and distribution took their places. A good example of the former is Venice. which was one of the richest economies in the world in medieval times but lagged seriously behind its rivals in the coffee trade. Of the latter. the stellar example is Holland. which had the excellent foresight to establish its own coffee plantations in Java and use the coffee that was produced there to undercut the European market by a substantial margin while also causing considerable economic pain for its rivals -especially the English.

Meanwhile the stream of silver from the New World mines had turned into a torrent that flooded into the eastern Mediterranean in search of goods to buy. For the Ottoman fisc, which oversaw the sole major economy in the region. this proved to be a disaster. The affluence of the empire’s Arab provinces was buoyed up by the rising demand for coffee; but for the empire, the abundance of silver money sparked a price inflation that provoked widespread social unrest whose effects were to be felt even in the capital city of Istanbul.

Perhaps the crucial importance of the Dutch experience in the eastern Mediterranean was the demonstration that the monopoly that Yemen had, as late as the 18th century. over coffee could be broken. Henceforth coffee plantations would be established everywhere else in the world where the right climatic and soil conditions obtained, As these new sources came into production in places like Ceylon, Java, the Caribbean, and South America. there was a huge surge in the volume of coffee that was available for trade and consumption.

The first European city in which the coffee habit took root was Venice. where coffeehouses were opening as early as 1615. By 1645. similar establishments had spread all over Italy, The Italians had learned of coffee through travelers who were themselves personally acquainted with Ottoman culture and in that respect they were particularly indebted to Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli and his efforts, Marsigli’s observations on coffee and its culture were published by him in 1685 in a work entitled Bevanda Asiatica Brindata. Some two generations before then, coffee made its first appearance in France in Marseilles in 1644 and immediately thereafter in Lyons. As the habit spread inexorably into the interior of the country at the grassroots level. it was given a complimentary boost from the top in 1669 when Suleyman Agha. the Ottoman ambassador to France. introduced coffee to Parisian society, Coffee received the stamp of approval of the English aristocracy in London in 1650, By that time. a clutch of coffeehouses whose reputation has survived to our own day were becoming landmark features of the city’s social life, London’s experience with coffeehouses followed a course of development different from that of Paris, In the latter city, these establishments became hotbeds of intellectual activity; in the former, they acquired the status of clubhouses that catered to a completely different sort of crowd: the rising English bourgeoisie, Lloyd’s Coffeehouse, which Edward Lloyd opened in Tower Street in 1687, is an interesting example, It started out as a haunt for seamen. They in turn attracted merchants and insurance brokers who had dealings with them and with each other. Eventually what started out as a coffeehouse became L1oyds: the world’s biggest and most respected insurance market.z5 In Vienna, coffee made its first appearance in 1651 but the popular legend that associates the beverage’s introduction to the Ottoman siege of 1683 is still widely believed even today.

All across Europe, coffee arrived in different places at different times, in different ways, and for different reasons but in this process there was one invariable element: coffee was eminently popular with the bourgeoisie that was now coming into its own in Europe’s political, economic, and cultural life. While the Vatican made noises about this rapidly spreading habit, Protestant churches either ignored it as a serious issue or else were inclined to regard coffee as a preferable alternative to what was regarded as the far more harmful habit of alcohol consumption. Protestant culture largely shaped the values of the European bourgeoisie and it proposed a model of a society whose people were hardworking, productive, and alert.

Accordingly it regarded coffee somewhat like a revered champion of a puritanical ethic battling against the baleful influence of “demon rum”. Eventually the coffee habit in Europe became strong enough that it ceased to need the protective wings of the bourgeois class and coffeehouses began successfully playing their role as the productive centers of a multidimensional communications network that enveloped societies’ everyday life.