Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ottoman Coffee: Love and Hate

Coffee Houses in Ottoman Empire
The Arabs contributed a lot to the expansion of people’s knowledge about the dark beverage that is coffee. From the Kaffa province of Ethiopia, to the cultivation of coffee in Yemen, the Arabs caused the spread of coffee through the far reaches of the Islamic world. In the 14th century, it would expand further and would find its way to the courts of Europe. However, the spread of coffee was not without bitterness, the controversy of coffee having the same effects of alcohol was still not over.

The arrival of coffee to the capital of the powerful and wealthy Ottoman Empire had several versions. However, what was certain was that the invasion of Yemen in 1536 by the Ottoman Turks would certainly lead to the arrival of coffee to Istanbul. A story states that the governor of Yemen, Ozdemir Pasha brought some roasted coffee beans to court of the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The introduction to the sultan would led for the craze of the court over coffee. Another story states that the arrival of coffee to Istanbul was credited to two Arab traders, Schems of Damascus and Hekin of Aleppo. The two traders arrived in Istanbul to make a living by opening a small coffee house in 1554 named Kivan Han, in the Tahtakate District. Coffee shop became popular with the locals and many more opened across the city and throughout the Empire. The Sultan took notice and after on took a sip and liking of the drink as well. 

Suleiman  the Magnificent
Coffee certainly became popular with the Sultan’s court. A new important court position was made because of coffee. The position of chief coffee maker or kahvecibasi was made. The position serves the purpose of brewing coffee for the Sultan. The position proved to be very powerful in the shadows. As the personal coffee maker of the Sultan, the chief coffee maker could have some intimate discussions with the leader of the Ottoman Empire. Thus trust was built and the Sultan, as some record tells, could lead a chief coffee maker into a very high position such as the Grand Vizier.

The Turks do love their coffee. They developed some new ways to brew their perfect cup of caffeine. One method involves the roasting of the beans on fire and then grinded and slowly mixed into a boiling water. In addition, the Turks made a new pot called cezve. The cezve was a long handled small pot usually made of brass, but if wealth was part of the life, it could be made of gold or silver. The cezve would be placed over the fire and brew the coffee on it. 

Murad IV
However, the spread of coffee to the Ottoman Empire was not without any problems, troubles, and controversies. In Mecca, Islam scholars were debating whether coffee was intoxicating as alcohol and should be ban. Kha’ir Beg, the governor of Mecca tried to ban the substance. As coffee reach Istanbul, so as the debate of its effects on man reached the capital. In 1580, during the reign of Sultan Mehmet III, coffee was declared forbidden and all coffee houses were shut down, due to the reason that roasted beans were carbonized like wine and so it was not allowed to be consumed.  During the reign of Sultan Murad IV, a ban was once again placed on coffee. However, the reason was not merely religious but political. During the 17th century, the Grand Vizier Koprulu Mehmed Pasha visited a coffee house in Istanbul incognito. To his shock and uproar, the coffee shop was not just a place to wine but a place of learning. As the Arabs called coffee houses as School of the Wise, ideas and knowledge spread. Including ideas were, however, seditious and could be dangerous to the absolute rule of the Sultan. To stop the spread of such dangerous ideas, the Vizier banned and closed coffee houses in Istanbul. Nevertheless, coffeehouses outside Istanbul continued to flourish and eventually the ban was useless. However, the Sultan wanted to ban coffee throughout the empire. He then ordered that anyone caught drinking coffee would be punished severely and even with death. He even ordered bags of coffee to be thrown to the Bosporus Strait to make his point. 

Later on, the ban became worthless as demand continued to rise. In addition, the luxurious and extravagant lifestyle of the Sultans became more and more expansive. New source of income was needed. Because of the high importation of coffee, the Sultan Suleiman II decided to allow coffee to be traded once again. He imposed tariffs upon the beans so to increase the revenue of the government. 

With the Turks knowing coffee, and the Empire close to Europe, the stage was set for the spread of coffee throughout the world. Thanks to the Turks, Venetians, Dutch, and other Europeans took notice of the dark beans. But the greatest contribution of the Turks was giving its famous name. The word given by the Ottoman Turks to coffee was Kahwe. Later on, when other Europeans knew about coffee, they adopted and corrupted it and gave it the name café.

See also:

Boyar, E. & Kate Fleet. A Social History of Ottoman Istanbul. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 

Kia, M. Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire. California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011. 

Pendergast, M. Uncommon Grounds: the History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World. New York: Basic Books, 2010. 

“The History of Turkish Coffee.”  Turkish Coffee World. Accessed March 29, 2014.

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