Coffee Houses in the Ottoman Empire

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The intense controversy provoked by the growth of coffee consumption throughout the Ottoman empire became one of the intellectual and literary obsessions of the sixteenth century. Coffee, increasingly secularized, became a powerful social force, in that people now had a reason to be out at night other than the performance of their religious duties. Traditional patterns of hospitality were broken as the coffee house started to replace the home as a place of entertainment; strangers could meet and converse, and men of different stations in life could be found sharing the beverage. In addition, of course, coffee by its nature was a powerful aid to intellectual dispute and clarity of thought, as well as providing the means whereby debate could be prolonged into the night. These factors combined to make coffee potentially subversive in the eyes of not only the religious authorities, but the secular ones as well. The increasing assertiveness of the Ottomans in the Red Sea trade, their possession of Yemen and, in 1555, parts of coastal Ethiopia, gave them greater access to the coffee entrepĂ´ts that sustained the coffee habit that had spread throughout the empire and beyond to Persia and the Moghul empire. Coffee had truly been adopted as the drink of Islam. But it was Constantinople, capital of Suleiman the Magnificent's empire, that witnessed the great flowering of Ottoman coffee culture.

Introduced by two Syrian merchants, Hakim and Shams, in 1555, coffee drinking in Constantinople took off so quickly that by 1566 there were six hundred establishments selling coffee, from splendid coffee houses to the humblest kiosk. The best were located in tree-shaded gardens overlooking the Bosporus, with fountains and plentiful flowers, and provided with divans, hookahs, carpets, women singers hidden behind screens, storytellers, and conspicuously beautiful 'boyes to serve as stales [prostitutes] to procure them customers'. The coffee was brewed in large cauldrons, and might be flavoured with saffron, cardamom, opium, hashish, or ambergris, or combinations thereof. Opium and hash were smoked widely, along with tobacco. As there was no restaurant culture at the time in 'unhospitall Turkie', the coffee house was, other than the reviled tavern, the only place to meet friends outside the home, discuss politics and literature, play backgammon or chess and perhaps gamble. Foreign merchants seeking trade, newly qualified lawyers seeking clients, and provincial politicians seeking advancement would all congregate there. The coffee house was an integral part of the imperial system, providing a forum for the coming together and dissemination of new ideas, just as it was to do later in Europe. On the domestic level, the Sultan and other wealthy householders employed a special official, the kaveghi, to take care of all coffee matters. The Sultan's coffee service (both animate and inanimate) was naturally the most sumptuous: golden pots on golden braziers were held on gold chains by slave girls, one of whom gracefully passed the finest porcelain cup to the Sultan's lips. While the cares of state were thus soothed in the seraglio, wives of lesser mortals could legitimately claim the lack of coffee in the house was grounds for divorce.

Other cities of the empire did not necessarily emulate the splendid coffee houses of the capital. Those of Cairo quickly attracted a low-life reputation as they were filled with 'dissolute persons and opium eaters', and were used for the procurement of boys. Which is to say that they were in essence very similar to the coffee houses of Constantinople, but less beautiful and the clientèle more conspicuously seedy. Because of their vicious reputation, the knives came out for the Constantinople coffee houses in 1570, with the clerics taking the lead role, spurred on by the fact that the mosques were emptying. The same issues were dusted down: whether coffee was an intoxicant, whether it was charcoal and thus forbidden, and whether the coffee houses were dens of iniquity. As it happened, the coffee houses were prohibited, but merely went underground. In the meantime, street coffee vendors continued to ply their trade. The interplay between secular laws imposed by the Sultan and the religious law of Shariah left scope for intervention by both sides in the coffee debate according to their particular needs at any time. Even when it was classed with wine by decree in 1580, its consumption was so widespread that there was no alternative but for the authorities to turn a blind eye, and eventually religious opposition was countermanded.

pp. 53-55 Black Gold: A Dark History of Coffee by Antony Wild (2005)

Image retrieved from Historum on August 16, 2014.

Ottoman empire, coffee house, cafe, 16th century, art, Turkey