From elixirs of worship for mystics to hotbeds of rebellion and spaces of idea exchange, coffee and coffeehouses brew up a story befitting their legendary status.
That familiar aroma with the mystical quality of being able to pull you out from a spell with the most devious and captivating of fragrances, has a profound history. If it weren’t for the Sufis, the coffee beans could still have been limited to Ethiopia, or Yemen at best. Still, when the magical beans were actually passed on to our mundane world, they mostly ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The increased socialisation that came with the coffee culture did not just make the coffeehouses - kahvehane - a fertile ground for ideas, but also a cradle of conspiracies.
Coffee was new to the world, and so was the coffee culture. Istanbul got its first coffeehouse by 1555, and by 1570, Istanbul already had 600.
The growth was indeed magical. But so was the charm of the new coffee culture. The aroma was an invitation to think, reflect and question.
People started to spend significant time in what were socially more acceptable alternatives to taverns in an overwhelmingly Muslim society. Musicians played music, storytellers told stories, some played games, some gossiped, but the mutinous plotted conspiracies too.
Among others, the coffeehouses had caught Janissaries’ fancy, who started to go there often. As the coffee culture came to be associated with free and somewhat rebellious thinking, the Janissaries’ frequenting them was not something the Sultan could have ignored.
Back in the 14th century, the Janissary corps was commissioned as special guard to the Sultan in the Ottoman Empire. But it had grown in influence over time, and now represented a threat to the Sultan himself.
Sultan Murad IV (r. 1623-40) who remembered the execution of his brother, Osman II, by the Janissaries in a rebellion, banned coffeehouses in 1633, on the pretext that they had often been the source of disastrous fires.
Historians, however, have pointed out that the real aim of the law was the threat of a rather metaphorical fire - namely, another rebellion. Some, on the other hand, contend that it was for religious reasons as the Sultan did not like these places of idleness and indulgence.
Whatever the rationale, this was not the first ban on coffeehouses in the Empire, but did stand out for its harshness. The coffeehouses in Istanbul were demolished and the violators of the ban, who were found having coffee - and even tobacco, a rather thornier issue for religious reasons - were punished with death.
The coffeehouses in Istanbul were still closed after over a decade of Sultan Murad IV’s death in 1640, lying “as desolate as the heart of the ignorant”, in the words of Katib Celebi.
With the passage of time, however, the laws got relaxed. Who was to stop the coffee, after all? The aroma of the dark brew returned to the streets of Istanbul and the coffee culture thrived for the next few centuries.
But over time, more and more coffeehouses came to be owned by the Janissaries themselves. So when the reformist and headstrong Sultan, Mahmud II (r. 1808-1939) took the daring step of dismantling the Janissary corps, coffeehouses were again shuttered. Not only did the state want to sever this source of income for many of them, but also feared they could become the launching pads for a reorganisation and resurgence of the troublesome corps.
As the Janissary threat waned, coffeehouses started to reopen, never to be closed in the Empire again. But this time, the state had learned a lesson. It was just a matter of time until the palace would use coffeehouses to their advantage.
Beginning in Sultan Abdul Mecid’s reign (1839-1861), informants of the palace spread everywhere keeping an eye on what, besides coffee, was actually brewing in the coffeehouses. Thus, in a significant turn of events, the erstwhile hotbed of conspiracies got transformed into an apparatus to keep a check on the public's pulse.
Because of a virtually omnipresent intelligence, and with the dawn of the printing press, these cafes morphed into powerhouses for sharing of news, views, and satire. Criticism of the state did not go beyond satire. An artful narrator would read the newspapers and magazines out loud to those who could not, or simply did not want, to read. Thus, conversations in coffeehouses now began to become relatively more grounded.
No wonder, when coffee from the Empire reached the West, the coffeehouses came to be known there as ‘penny universities’. Whether in Istanbul or London, the coffeehouses served as places for educated exchange in the midst of an inspiring aroma.
Coffee in Turkey today
Hardly anyone narrates legends anymore, or reads the newspaper to others - at least in urban Turkey today. But the tradition of small talk over coffee - or relatively recently, çay - lives on. In Istanbul, for one, alongside the chic private cafes that adorn its beautiful land- and seascape, the government-sanctioned Kiraathane - literally places of learning - with their dedicated libraries, offer opportunity for socialisation and learning at once.
You can teleport yourself into a book to 400 BC, over a cup of çay or kahve to bring your imagination to life. The origins of the Kiraathane can be traced back, again, to Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1494-1566) who ordered special books for coffeehouses - so that people didn’t waste time.
In addition to the traditional cafes serving the emblematic Turk Kahvesi - recognised as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO - Turkey has over 500 branches of Starbucks, which makes the country second only to the United Kingdom within Europe.
With a rich history of its own Turk Kahvesi, such a large number of the foreign coffee cafés is somewhat remarkable, not least because the Turk Kahvesi is one of the most authentic tastes in the coffee-verse.
According to experts, one explanation for the exceptional success of Starbucks in Turkey may be its ability to capitalise on the already established coffee culture in the country and target the new generation. For the hipper young people in Turkey now, the instant European alternatives to the Turk Kahvesi are chic, quicker to prepare, and suit their taste buds perhaps equally well.
In search of its soul
The obligations of express-paced modern life have reduced coffee to a kind of fast food. This, for coffee, and for us, the lovers of the beverage, is indeed heartbreaking. While speed may be valuable, coffee seeks a deeper meaning - thanks to its mystical roots.
The most frequently used reference to the history of coffee is ‘Mocha’ - yes, that smooth creamy delight with a dash of chocolate we all love. But did you know that Mocha, originally was, and remains, a port in Yemen, that was at the heart of the early coffee trade?
It is in Yemen that the extraordinary beans were first brought from Ethiopia, just across the Red Sea, a few miles away from the Port of Mocha, from where they eventually got popularised. Like much else that is connected with love and compassion, it is the Sufis that are credited to have sprung life into this hitherto undiscovered treasure, opening the gates of the blessed aroma to the world around the 15th century.
While tracing the name of the person responsible for the eventual popularisation of coffee is difficult, the feat is sometimes attributed to Shaykh Ali ibn Umar al-Shadhili. No wonder, coffee is sometimes referred to as the Shadhiliye in Algeria to this day.
But, another account connects coffee to Abu Bakar al-Aydarus, a pious Sufi Shaikh and poet, who is even said to have written a poem eulogising coffee. He recommended the beverage to his followers. The entrancing aroma with the unifying quality of being able to awaken the head and heart at once, facilitated the Dhikr - remembrance for tryst between the soul and the spirit, as such.
Whosoever got to coffee first, what is largely agreed by historians is the role of the Sufis in the eventual diffusion of the enlivening aroma into the mundane world.
So the next time you decide to treat yourself with a rich cup of coffee, take a break from the outside world and let its blissful elan take over. The mystical connection of the beans may be your gateway to the sea of love and tranquil within yourself. From a deep silence, I can hear an echoing chant, “What you seek, is seeking you.”
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