Tavla players and observers in a coffeehouse
From the lens of Berggren, 1875
A Cup of Coffee - A Special Memory of 40 Years
Yapı Kredi Publications

Coffee Goes to Arabia

When the Ethiopians discovered coffee, they were preoccupied at that time with expanding trade with the Arabs across the narrow strip of the Red Sea. In the Sixth Century when the Ethiopians conquered Yemen and governed for closed to fifty years, it is very likely they started coffee plantations there. The Arabs adopted this stimulating drink. (According to legend, Mohammed said that under the stimulating effects of coffee one could fell 40 riders from their horses and possess 40 women.) They started to cultivate the trees next to the mountains using the irrigation channels they built and they named it “kahwa” which means wine in Arabic and from which the word “coffee” derives.

Formerly the Arab Sufi dervishes would drink coffee in order to make it easier to remain alert during evening prayers. Though coffee is regarded as having been for medical or religious purposes at first, eventually it came into daily use. In the homes of the wealthy, rooms were set aside exclusively for coffee-drinking rituals. As for the people who lacked such a luxury, “coffee houses” became widespread. In the late 15th Century, Muslim pilgrims turned coffee into a profitable trade good by introducing it into the Islamic world of Iran, Egypt, Turkey and North Africa.

Along with its rising popularity in the 16th Century coffee became notorious as a problematic social drink. Many different powers decided that people in coffeehouses were getting into too much entertainment. Ralph Hattox wrote in his notes on the history of Arab coffeehouses that the coffeehouse owners were disregarding all kinds of unacceptable entertainments from gambling to improper and illegitimate cases of promiscuity in their establishments.

When the young ruler of Mecca Khair-Beg heard that satirical poetry about him was circulating in the coffeehouses, he decided just as the Koran forbids wine so must coffee be forbidden and religious, legal and medical advisors must also not allow it. Therefore the coffeehouses of Mecca were shut down by the law.

This edict lasted only until the coffee-drinking Sultan of Cairo heard about it and canceled it. However, other Arab administrators and religious leaders throughout the 1500s decried coffee drinking. For example, fearing that an eruption of civil unrest would arise over a fight on this issue, Köprülü, the Chief Vezir of İstanbul, closed down the city’s coffeehouses. Anyone caught drinking coffee was beaten. Those caught a second time were put in a leather bag and thrown into the Bosphorus. Despite all this, many people drank their coffee in secret until the ban was lifted.

Why, despite so much pressure, did these former Arab populations stubbornly contınue to drink coffee? Coffee’s addictive quality is one explanation of course, but there are others. Coffee provides a delightful way to stimulate the mental capacities and feel more energetic. In one elaborate social ritual the coffee is brought up to the boil three times in a little ibrik (a long-handled copper container). Before the coffee preparer pours this thick, dark liquid into the cups he carefully dispatches some of the foam into each cup. Coffeehouses bring people together for discussions, entertainment and business activities and give rise in equal share to agreements, poetry and confrontation. Coffee had become so important in Turkey that it even provided women with a reason for divorce.

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