Chapter III: EARLY HISTORY OF COFFEE DRINKING -- All About Coffee, by William H. Ukers

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Chapter III


Coffee in the Near East in the early centuries—Stories of its origin—Discovery by physicians and adoption by the Church—Its spread through Arabia, Persia and Turkey—Persecutions and intolerances—Early coffee manners and customs

The coffee drink had its rise in the classical period of Arabian medicine, which dates from Rhazes (Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya El Razi) who followed the doctrines of Galen and sat at the feet of Hippocrates. Rhazes (850–922) was the first to treat medicine in an encyclopedic manner, and, according to some authorities, the first writer to mention coffee. He assumed the poetical name of Razi because he was a native of the city of Raj in Persian Irak. He was a great philosopher and astronomer, and at one time was superintendent of the hospital at Bagdad. He wrote many learned books on medicine and surgery, but his principal work is Al-Haiwi, or The Continent, a collection of everything relating to the cure of disease from Galen to his own time.

Philippe Sylvestre Dufour (1622–87)[22], a French coffee merchant, philosopher, and writer, in an accurate and finished treatise on coffee, tells us (see the early edition of the work translated from the Latin) that the first writer to mention the properties of the coffee bean under the name of bunchum was this same Rhazes, "in the ninth century after the birth of our Saviour"; from which (if true) it would appear that coffee has been known for upwards of 1000 years. Robinson[23], however, is of the opinion that bunchum meant something else and had nothing to do with coffee. Dufour, himself, in a later edition of his Traitez Nouveaux et Curieux du Café (the Hague, 1693) is inclined to admit that bunchum may have been a root and not coffee, after all; however, he is careful to add that there is no doubt that the Arabs knew coffee as far back as the year 800. Other, more modern authorities, place it as early as the sixth century.

Wiji Kawih is mentioned in a Kavi (Javan) inscription A.D. 856; and it is thought that the "bean broth" in David Tapperi's list of Javanese beverages (1667–82) may have been coffee[24].

While the true origin of coffee drinking may be forever hidden among the mysteries of the purple East, shrouded as it is in legend and fable, scholars have marshaled sufficient facts to prove that the beverage was known in Ethiopia "from time immemorial," and there is much to add verisimilitude to Dufour's narrative. This first coffee merchant-prince, skilled in languages and polite learning, considered that his character as a merchant was not inconsistent with that of an author; and he even went so far as to say there were some things (for instance, coffee) on which a merchant could be better informed than a philosopher.

Granting that by bunchum Rhazes meant coffee, the plant and the drink must have been known to his immediate followers; and this, indeed, seems to be indicated by similar references in the writings of Avicenna (Ibn Sina), the Mohammedan physician and philosopher, who lived from 980 to 1037 A.D.

[Pg 12]

Rhazes, in the quaint language of Dufour, assures us that "bunchum (coffee) is hot and dry and very good for the stomach." Avicenna explains the medicinal properties and uses of the coffee bean (bon or bunn), which he, also, calls bunchum, after this fashion:

As to the choice thereof, that of a lemon color, light, and of a good smell, is the best; the white and the heavy is naught. It is hot and dry in the first degree, and, according to others, cold in the first degree. It fortifies the members, it cleans the skin, and dries up the humidities that are under it, and gives an excellent smell to all the body.

The early Arabians called the bean and the tree that bore it, bunn; the drink, bunchum. A. Galland[25] (1646–1715), the French Orientalist who first analyzed and translated from the Arabic the Abd-al-Kâdir manuscript[26], the oldest document extant telling of the origin of coffee, observes that Avicenna speaks of the bunn, or coffee; as do also Prospero Alpini and Veslingius (Vesling). Bengiazlah, another great physician, contemporary with Avicenna, likewise mentions coffee; by which, says Galland, one may see that we are indebted to physicians for the discovery of coffee, as well as of sugar, tea, and chocolate.

Rauwolf[27] (d. 1596), German physician and botanist, and the first European to mention coffee, who became acquainted with the beverage in Aleppo in 1573, telling how the drink was prepared by the Turks, says:

In this same water they take a fruit called Bunnu, which in its bigness, shape, and color is almost like unto a bayberry, with two thin shells surrounded, which, as they informed me, are brought from the Indies; but as these in themselves are, and have within them, two yellowish grains in two distinct cells, and besides, being they agree in their virtue, figure, looks, and name with the Bunchum of Avicenna and Bunco, of Rasis ad Almans exactly: therefore I take them to be the same.

In Dr. Edward Pocoke's translation (Oxford, 1659) of The Nature of the Drink Kauhi, or Coffee, and the Berry of which it is Made, Described by an Arabian Phisitian, we read:

Bun is a plant in Yaman [Yemen], which is planted in Adar, and groweth up and is gathered in Ab. It is about a cubit high, on a stalk about the thickness of one's thumb. It flowers white, leaving a berry like a small nut, but that sometimes it is broad like a bean; and when it is peeled, parteth in two. The best of it is that which is weighty and yellow; the worst, that which is black. It is hot in the first degree, dry in the second: it is usually reported to be cold and dry, but it is not so; for it is bitter, and whatsoever is bitter is hot. It may be that the scorce is hot, and the Bun it selfe either of equall temperature, or cold in the first degree.

That which makes for its coldnesse is its stipticknesse. In summer it is by experience found to conduce to the drying of rheumes, and flegmatick coughes and distillations, and the opening of obstructions, and the provocation of urin. It is now known by the name of Kohwah. When it is dried and thoroughly boyled, it allayes the ebullition of the blood, is good against the small poxe and measles, the bloudy pimples; yet causeth vertiginous headheach, and maketh lean much, occasioneth waking, and the Emrods, and asswageth lust, and sometimes breeds melancholly.

He that would drink it for livelinesse sake, and to discusse slothfulnesse, and the other properties that we have mentioned, let him use much sweat meates with it, and oyle of pistaccioes, and butter. Some drink it with milk, but it is an error, and such as may bring in danger of the leprosy.

Dufour concludes that the coffee beans of commerce are the same as the bunchum (bunn) described by Avicenna and the bunca (bunchum) of Rhazes. In this he agrees, almost word for word, with Rauwolf, indicating no change in opinion among the learned in a hundred years.

Christopher Campen thinks Hippocrates, father of medicine, knew and administered coffee.

Robinson, commenting upon the early adoption of coffee into materia medica, charges that it was a mistake on the part of the Arab physicians, and that it originated the prejudice that caused coffee to be regarded as a powerful drug instead of as a simple and refreshing beverage.

Homer, the Bible, and Coffee

In early Grecian and Roman writings no mention is made of either the coffee plant or the beverage made from the berries. Pierre (Pietro) Delia Valle[28] (1586–1652), however, maintains that the nepenthe, which Homer says Helen brought with her out of Egypt, and which she employed as surcease for sorrow, was nothing else but coffee mixed with wine.[29] This is disputed by M. Petit, a well known physician of Paris, who died in 1687. Several later British authors, among them, Sandys, the[Pg 13] poet; Burton; and Sir Henry Blount, have suggested the probability of coffee being the "black broth" of the Lacedæmonians.

George Paschius, in his Latin treatise of the New Discoveries Made since the Time of the Ancients, printed at Leipsic in 1700, says he believes that coffee was meant by the five measures of parched corn included among the presents Abigail made to David to appease his wrath, as recorded in the Bible, 1 Samuel, xxv, 18. The Vulgate translates the Hebrew words sein kali into sata polentea, which signify wheat, roasted, or dried by fire.

Title Page of Dufour's Book, Edition of 1693 Title Page of Dufour's Book, Edition of 1693

Pierre Étienne Louis Dumant, the Swiss Protestant minister and author, is of the opinion that coffee (and not lentils, as others have supposed) was the red pottage for which Esau sold his birthright; also that the parched grain that Boaz ordered to be given Ruth was undoubtedly roasted coffee berries.

Dufour mentions as a possible objection against coffee that "the use and eating of beans were heretofore forbidden by Pythagoras," but intimates that the coffee bean of Arabia is something different.

Scheuzer,[30] in his Physique Sacrée, says "the Turks and the Arabs make with the coffee bean a beverage which bears the same name, and many persons use as a substitute the flour of roasted barley." From this we learn that the coffee substitute is almost as old as coffee itself.

Some Early Legends

After medicine, the church. There are several Mohammedan traditions that have persisted through the centuries, claiming for "the faithful" the honor and glory of the first use of coffee as a beverage. One of these relates how, about 1258 A.D., Sheik Omar, a disciple of Sheik Abou'l hasan Schadheli, patron saint and legendary founder of Mocha, by chance discovered the coffee drink at Ousab in Arabia, whither he had been exiled for a certain moral remissness.

Facing starvation, he and his followers were forced to feed upon the berries growing around them. And then, in the words of the faithful Arab chronicle in the Bibliothéque Nationale at Paris, "having nothing to eat except coffee, they took of it and boiled it in a saucepan and drank of the decoction." Former patients in Mocha who sought out the good doctor-priest in his Ousab retreat, for physic with which to cure their ills, were given some of this decoction, with beneficial effect. As a result of the stories of its magical properties, carried back to the city, Sheik Omar was invited to return in triumph to Mocha where the governor caused to be built a monastery for him and his companions.

Another version of this Oriental legend gives it as follows:

The dervish Hadji Omar was driven by his enemies out of Mocha into the desert, where they expected he would die of starvation. This undoubtedly would have occurred if he had not plucked up courage to taste some strange berries which he found growing on a shrub. While they seemed to be edible, they were very bitter; and[Pg 14] he tried to improve the taste by roasting them. He found, however, that they had become very hard, so he attempted to soften them with water. The berries seemed to remain as hard as before, but the liquid turned brown, and Omar drank it on the chance that it contained some of the nourishment from the berries. He was amazed at how it refreshed him, enlivened his sluggishness, and raised his drooping spirits. Later, when he returned to Mocha, his salvation was considered a miracle. The beverage to which it was due sprang into high favor, and Omar himself was made a saint.

A popular and much-quoted version of Omar's discovery of coffee, also based upon the Abd-al-Kâdir manuscript, is the following:

In the year of the Hegira 656, the mollah Schadheli went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Arriving at the mountain of the Emeralds (Ousab), he turned to his disciple Omar and said: "I shall die in this place. When my soul has gone forth, a veiled person will appear to you. Do not fail to execute the command which he will give you."

The venerable Schadheli being dead, Omar saw in the middle of the night a gigantic specter covered by a white veil.

"Who are you?" he asked.

The phantom drew back his veil, and Omar saw with surprise Schadheli himself, grown ten cubits since his death. The mollah dug in the ground, and water miraculously appeared. The spirit of his teacher bade Omar fill a bowl with the water and to proceed on his way and not to stop till he reached the spot where the water would stop moving.

"It is there," he added, "that a great destiny awaits you."

Omar started his journey. Arriving at Mocha in Yemen, he noticed that the water was immovable. It was here that he must stop.

The beautiful village of Mocha was then ravaged by the plague. Omar began to pray for the sick and, as the saintly man was close to Mahomet, many found themselves cured by his prayers.

The plague meanwhile progressing, the daughter of the King of Mocha fell ill and her father had her carried to the home of the dervish who cured her. But as this young princess was of rare beauty, after having cured her, the good dervish tried to carry her off. The king did not fancy this new kind of reward. Omar was driven from the city and exiled on the mountain of Ousab, with herbs for food and a cave for a home.

"Oh, Schadheli, my dear master," cried the unfortunate dervish one day; "if the things which happened to me at Mocha were destined, was it worth the trouble to give me a bowl to come here?"

To these just complaints, there was heard immediately a song of incomparable harmony, and a bird of marvelous plumage came to rest in a tree. Omar sprang forward quickly toward the little bird which sang so well, but then he saw on the branches of the tree only flowers and fruit. Omar laid hands on the fruit, and found it delicious. Then he filled his great pockets with it and went back to his cave. As he was preparing to boil a few herbs for his dinner, the idea came to him of substituting for this sad soup, some of his harvested fruit. From it he obtained a savory and perfumed drink; it was coffee.

The Italian Journal of the Savants for the year 1760 says that two monks, Scialdi and Ayduis, were the first to discover the properties of coffee, and for this reason became the object of special prayers. "Was not this Scialdi identical with the Sheik Schadheli?" asks Jardin.[31]

The most popular legend ascribes the discovery of the drink to an Arabian herdsman in upper Egypt, or Abyssinia, who complained to the abbot of a neighboring monastery that the goats confided to his care became unusually frolicsome after eating the berries of certain shrubs found near their feeding grounds. The abbot, having observed the fact, determined to try the virtues of the berries on himself. He, too, responded with a new exhilaration. Accordingly, he directed that some be boiled, and the decoction drunk by his monks, who thereafter found no difficulty in keeping awake during the religious services of the night. The abbé Massieu in his poem, Carmen Caffaeum, thus celebrates the event:

The monks each in turn, as the evening draws near,
Drink 'round the great cauldron—a circle of cheer!
And the dawn in amaze, revisiting that shore,
On idle beds of ease surprised them nevermore!

According to the legend, the news of the "wakeful monastery" spread rapidly, and the magical berry soon "came to be in request throughout the whole kingdom; and in progress of time other nations and provinces of the East fell into the use of it."

The French have preserved the following picturesque version of this legend:

A young goatherd named Kaldi noticed one day that his goats, whose deportment up to that time had been irreproachable, were abandoning themselves to the most extravagant prancings. The venerable buck, ordinarily so dignified and solemn, bounded about like a young kid. Kaldi attributed this foolish gaiety to certain fruits of which the goats had been eating with delight.

The story goes that the poor fellow had a heavy heart; and in the hope of cheering himself up a little, he thought he would pick and eat of the fruit. The experiment succeeded marvelously. He forgot his troubles and became the happiest herder in happy Arabia. When the goats danced, he gaily made himself one of the[Pg 15] party, and entered into their fun with admirable spirit.

One day, a monk chanced to pass by and stopped in surprise to find a ball going on. A score of goats were executing lively pirouettes like a ladies' chain, while the buck solemnly balancé-ed, and the herder went through the figures of an eccentric pastoral dance.

The astonished monk inquired the cause of this saltatorial madness; and Kaldi told him of his precious discovery.

Now, this poor monk had a great sorrow; he always went to sleep in the middle of his prayers; and he reasoned that Mohammed without doubt was revealing this marvelous fruit to him to overcome his sleepiness.

Frontispiece from Dufour's work Arab Drinking Coffee; Chinaman, Tea; and Indian, Chocolate

Frontispiece from Dufour's work

Piety does not exclude gastronomic instincts. Those of our good monk were more than ordinary; because he thought of drying and boiling the fruit of the herder. This ingenious concoction gave us coffee. Immediately all the monks of the realm made use of the drink, because it encouraged them to pray and, perhaps, also because it was not disagreeable.

In those early days it appears that the drink was prepared in two ways; one in which the decoction was made from the hull and the pulp surrounding the bean, and the other from the bean itself. The roasting process came later and is an improvement generally credited to the Persians. There is evidence that the early Mohammedan churchmen were seeking a substitute for the wine forbidden to them by the Koran, when they discovered coffee. The word for coffee in Arabic, qahwah, is the same as one of those used for wine; and later on, when coffee drinking grew so popular as to threaten the very life of the church itself, this similarity was seized upon by the church-leaders to support their contention that the prohibition against wine applied also to coffee.

La Roque,[32] writing in 1715, says that the Arabian word cahouah signified at first only wine; but later was turned into a generic term applied to all kinds of drink. "So there were really three sorts of coffee; namely, wine, including all intoxicating liquors; the drink made with the shells, or cods, of the coffee bean; and that made from the bean itself."

Originally, then, the coffee drink may have been a kind of wine made from the coffee fruit. In the coffee countries even today the natives are very fond, and eat freely, of the ripe coffee cherries, voiding the seeds. The pulp surrounding the coffee seeds (beans) is pleasant to taste, has a sweetish, aromatic flavor, and quickly ferments when allowed to stand.

Still another tradition (was the wish father to the thought?) tells how the coffee drink was revealed to Mohammed himself by the Angel Gabriel. Coffee's partisans found satisfaction in a passage in the Koran which, they said, foretold its adoption by the followers of the Prophet:

They shall be given to drink an excellent wine, sealed; its seal is that of the musk.

The most diligent research does not carry a knowledge of coffee back beyond the time of Rhazes, two hundred years after Mohammed; so there is little more than speculation or conjecture to support the theory that it was known to the ancients, in Bible times or in the days of The Praised One. Our knowledge of tea, on the other hand, antedates the Christian era. We know also that tea was intensively cultivated[Pg 16] and taxed under the Tang dynasty in China, A.D. 793, and that Arab traders knew of it in the following century.

The First Reliable Coffee Date

About 1454 Sheik Gemaleddin Abou Muhammad Bensaid, mufti of Aden, surnamed Aldhabani, from Dhabhan, a small town where he was born, became acquainted with the virtues of coffee on a journey into Abyssinia.[33] Upon his return to Aden, his health became impaired; and remembering the coffee he had seen his countrymen drinking in Abyssinia, he sent for some in the hope of finding relief. He not only recovered from his illness; but, because of its sleep-dispelling qualities, he sanctioned the use of the drink among the dervishes "that they might spend the night in prayers or other religious exercises with more attention and presence of mind.[34]"

It is altogether probable that the coffee drink was known in Aden before the time of Sheik Gemaleddin; but the endorsement of the very learned imam, whom science and religion had already made famous, was sufficient to start a vogue for the beverage that spread throughout Yemen, and thence to the far corners of the world. We read in the Arabian manuscript at the Bibliothéque Nationale that lawyers, students, as well as travelers who journeyed at night, artisans, and others, who worked at night, to escape the heat of the day, took to drinking coffee; and even left off another drink, then becoming popular, made from the leaves of a plant called khat or cat (catha edulis).

Sheik Gemaleddin was assisted in his work of spreading the gospel of this the first propaganda for coffee by one Muhammed Alhadrami, a physician of great reputation, born in Hadramaut, Arabia Felix.

A recently unearthed and little known version of coffee's origin shows how features of both the Omar tradition and the Gemaleddin story may be combined by a professional Occidental tale-writer[35]:

Toward the middle of the fifteenth century, a poor Arab was traveling in Abyssinia. Finding himself weak and weary, he stopped near a grove. For fuel wherewith to cook his rice, he cut down a tree that happened to be covered with dried berries. His meal being cooked and eaten, the traveler discovered that these half-burnt berries were fragrant. He collected a number of them and, on crushing them with a stone, found that the aroma was increased to a great extent. While wondering at this, he accidentally let the substance fall into an earthen vessel that contained his scanty supply of water.

A miracle! The almost putrid water was purified. He brought it to his lips; it was fresh and agreeable; and after a short rest the traveler so far recovered his strength and energy as to be able to resume his journey. The lucky Arab gathered as many berries as he could, and having arrived at Aden, informed the mufti of his discovery. That worthy was an inveterate opium-smoker, who had been suffering for years from the influence of the poisonous drug. He tried an infusion of the roasted berries, and was so delighted at the recovery of his former vigor that in gratitude to the tree he called it cahuha which in Arabic signifies "force".

Galland, in his analysis of the Arabian manuscript, already referred to, that has furnished us with the most trustworthy account of the origin of coffee, criticizes Antoine Faustus Nairon, Maronite professor of Oriental languages at Rome, who was the author of the first printed treatise on coffee only,[36] for accepting the legends relating to Omar and the Abyssinian goatherd. He says they are unworthy of belief as facts of history, although he is careful to add that there is some truth in the story of the discovery of coffee by the Abyssinian goats and the abbot who prescribed the use of the berries for his monks, "the Eastern Christians being willing to have the honor of the invention of coffee, for the abbot, or prior, of the convent and his companions are only the mufti Gemaleddin and Muhammid Alhadrami, and the monks are the dervishes."

Amid all these details, Jardin reaches the conclusion that it is to chance we must attribute the knowledge of the properties of coffee, and that the coffee tree was transported from its native land to Yemen, as far as Mecca, and possibly into Persia, before being carried into Egypt.

Coffee, being thus favorably introduced into Aden, it has continued there ever since, without interruption. By degrees the cultivation of the plant and the use of the beverage passed into many neighboring places. Toward the close of the fifteenth century (1470–1500) it reached Mecca and Medina, where it was introduced, as at Aden, by the dervishes, and for the same religious purpose. About 1510 it reached Grand Cairo in Egypt, where the dervishes from Yemen, living in a district by themselves, drank coffee on the nights they intended to spend in religious devotion. They kept it in a large red earthen vessel—each in turn receiving it, respectfully, from their superior, in a small bowl, which he dipped into the jar—in the meantime chanting their prayers, the burden of which was always: "There is no God but one God, the true King, whose power is not to be disputed."

A Bouquet of Ripe Fruit

A Bouquet of Ripe Fruit

Flowers, Fruit, and Leaves

Flowers, Fruit, and Leaves


[Pg 17]

After the dervishes, the bowl was passed to lay members of the congregation. In this way coffee came to be so associated with the act of worship that "they never performed a religious ceremony in public and never observed any solemn festival without taking coffee."

Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Mecca became so fond of the beverage that, disregarding its religious associations, they made of it a secular drink to be sipped publicly in kaveh kanes, the first coffee houses. Here the idle congregated to drink coffee, to play chess and other games, to discuss the news of the day, and to amuse themselves with singing, dancing, and music, contrary to the manners of the rigid Mahommedans, who were very properly scandalized by such performances. In Medina and in Cairo, too, coffee became as common a drink as in Mecca and Aden.

The First Coffee Persecution

At length the pious Mahommedans began to disapprove of the use of coffee among the people. For one thing, it made common one of the best psychology-adjuncts of their religion; also, the joy of life, that it helped to liberate among those who frequented the coffee houses, precipitated social, political, and religious arguments; and these frequently developed into disturbances. Dissensions arose even among the churchmen themselves. They divided into camps for and against coffee. The law of the Prophet on the subject of wine was variously construed as applying to coffee.

About this time (1511) Kair Bey was governor of Mecca for the sultan of Egypt. He appears to have been a strict disciplinarian, but lamentably ignorant of the actual conditions obtaining among his people. As he was leaving the mosque one evening after prayers, he was offended by seeing in a corner a company of coffee drinkers who were preparing to pass the night in prayer. His first thought was that they were drinking wine; and great was his astonishment when he learned what the liquor really was and how common was its use throughout the city. Further investigation convinced him that indulgence in this exhilarating drink must incline men and women to extravagances prohibited by law, and so he determined to suppress it. First he drove the coffee drinkers out of the mosque.

The next day, he called a council of officers of justice, lawyers, physicians, priests, and leading citizens, to whom he declared what he had seen the evening before at the mosque; and, "being resolved to put a stop to the coffee-house abuses, he sought their advice upon the subject." The chief count in the indictment was that "in these places men and women met and played tambourines, violins, and other musical instruments. There were also people who played chess, mankala, and other similar games, for money; and there were many other things done contrary to our sacred law—may God keep it from all corruption until the day when we shall all appear before him![37]"

The lawyers agreed that the coffee houses needed reforming; but as to the drink itself, inquiry should be made as to whether it was in any way harmful to mind or body; for if not, it might not be sufficient to close the places that sold it. It was suggested that the opinion of the physicians be sought.

Two brothers, Persian physicians named Hakimani, and reputed the best in Mecca, were summoned, although we are told they knew more about logic than they did about physic. One of them came into the council fully prejudiced, as he had already written a book against coffee, and filled with concern for his profession, being fearful lest the common use of the new drink would make serious inroads on the practise of medicine. His brother joined with him in assuring the assembly that the plant bunn, from which coffee was made, was "cold and dry" and so unwholesome. When another physician present reminded them that Bengiazlah, the ancient and respected contemporary of Avicenna, taught that it was "hot and dry," they made arbitrary answer that Bengiazlah had in mind another plant of the same name, and that anyhow, it was not material; for, if the coffee drink disposed people to things forbidden by religion, the safest course for[Pg 18] Mahommedans was to look upon it as unlawful.

The friends of coffee were covered with confusion. Only the mufti spoke out in the meeting in its favor. Others, carried away by prejudice or misguided zeal, affirmed that coffee clouded their senses. One man arose and said it intoxicated like wine; which made every one laugh, since he could hardly have been a judge of this if he had not drunk wine, which is forbidden by the Mohammedan religion. Upon being asked whether he had ever drunk any, he was so imprudent as to admit that he had, thereby condemning himself out of his own mouth to the bastinado.

The mufti of Aden, being both an officer of the court and a divine, undertook, with some heat, a defense of coffee; but he was clearly in an unpopular minority. He was rewarded with the reproaches and affronts of the religious zealots.

So the governor had his way, and coffee was solemnly condemned as thing forbidden by the law; and a presentment was drawn up, signed by a majority of those present, and dispatched post-haste by the governor to his royal master, the sultan, at Cairo. At the same time, the governor published an edict forbidding the sale of coffee in public or private. The officers of justice caused all the coffee houses in Mecca to be shut, and ordered all the coffee found there, or in the merchants' warehouses, to be burned.

Naturally enough, being an unpopular edict, there were many evasions, and much coffee drinking took place behind closed doors. Some of the friends of coffee were outspoken in their opposition to the order, being convinced that the assembly had rendered a judgment not in accordance with the facts, and above all, contrary to the opinion of the mufti who, in every Arab community, is looked up to as the interpreter, or expounder, of the law. One man, caught in the act of disobedience, besides being severely punished, was also led through the most public streets of the city seated on an ass.

However, the triumph of the enemies of coffee was short-lived; for not only did the sultan of Cairo disapprove the "indiscreet zeal" of the governor of Mecca, and order the edict revoked; but he read him a severe lesson on the subject. How dared he condemn a thing approved at Cairo, the capital of his kingdom, where there were physicians whose opinions carried more weight than those of Mecca, and who had found nothing against the law in the use of coffee? The best things might be abused, added the sultan, even the sacred waters of Zamzam, but this was no reason for an absolute prohibition. The fountain, or well, of Zamzam, according to the Mohammedan teaching, is the same which God caused to spring up in the desert to comfort Hagar and Ishmael when Abraham banished them. It is in the enclosure of the temple at Mecca; and the Mohammedans drink of it with much show of devotion, ascribing great virtues to it.

It is not recorded whether the misguided governor was shocked at this seeming profanity; but it is known that he hastened to obey the orders of his lord and master. The prohibition was recalled, and thereafter he employed his authority only to preserve order in the coffee houses. The friends of coffee, and the lovers of poetic justice, found satisfaction in the governor's subsequent fate. He was exposed as "an extortioner and a public robber," and "tortured to death," his brother killing himself to avoid the same fate. The two Persian physicians who had played so mean a part in the first coffee persecution, likewise came to an unhappy end. Being discredited in Mecca they fled to Cairo, where, in an unguarded moment, having cursed the person of Selim I, emperor of the Turks, who had conquered Egypt, they were executed by his order.

Coffee, being thus re-established at Mecca, met with no opposition until 1524, when, because of renewed disorders, the kadi of the town closed the coffee houses, but did not seek to interfere with coffee drinking at home and in private. His successor, however, re-licensed them; and, continuing on their good behavior since then, they have not been disturbed.

In 1542 a ripple was caused by an order issued by Soliman the Great, forbidding the use of coffee; but no one took it seriously, especially as it soon became known that the order had been obtained "by surprise" and at the desire of only one of the court ladies "a little too nice in this point."

One of the most interesting facts in the history of the coffee drink is that wherever it has been introduced it has spelled revolution. It has been the world's most radical drink in that its function has always been to make people think. And when the people began to think, they became[Pg 19] dangerous to tyrants and to foes of liberty of thought and action. Sometimes the people became intoxicated with their new found ideas; and, mistaking liberty for license, they ran amok, and called down upon their heads persecutions and many petty intolerances. So history repeated itself in Cairo, twenty-three years after the first Mecca persecution.

Coffee's Second Religious Persecution

Selim I, after conquering Egypt, had brought coffee to Constantinople in 1517. The drink continued its progress through Syria, and was received in Damascus (about 1530), and in Aleppo (about 1532), without opposition. Several coffee houses of Damascus attained wide fame, among them the Café of the Roses, and the Café of the Gate of Salvation.

Its increasing popularity and, perhaps, the realization that the continued spread of the beverage might lessen the demand for his services, caused a physician of Cairo to propound (about 1523) to his fellows this question:

What is your opinion concerning the liquor called coffee which is drank in company, as being reckoned in the number of those we have free leave to make use of, notwithstanding it is the cause of no small disorders, that it flies up into the head and is very pernicious to health? Is it permitted or forbidden?

At the end he was careful to add, as his own opinion (and without prejudice?), that coffee was unlawful. To the credit of the physicians of Cairo as a class, it should be recorded that they looked with unsympathetic eyes upon this attempt on the part of one of their number to stir up trouble for a valuable adjunct to their materia medica, and so the effort died a-borning.

If the physicians were disposed to do nothing to stop coffee's progress, not so the preachers. As places of resort, the coffee houses exercised an appeal that proved stronger to the popular mind than that of the temples of worship. This to men of sound religious training was intolerable. The feeling against coffee smouldered for a time; but in 1534 it broke out afresh. In that year a fiery preacher in one of Cairo's mosques so played upon the emotions of his congregation with a preachment against coffee, claiming that it was against the law and that those who drank it were not true Mohammedans, that upon leaving the building a large number of his hearers, enraged, threw themselves into the first coffee house they found in their way, burned the coffee pots and dishes, and maltreated all the persons they found there.

Public opinion was immediately aroused; and the city was divided into two parties; one maintaining that coffee was against the law of Mohammed, and the other taking the contrary view. And then arose a Solomon in the person of the chief justice, who summoned into his presence the learned physicians for consultation. Again the medical profession stood by its guns. The medical men pointed out to the chief justice that the question had already been decided by their predecessors on the side of coffee, and that the time had come to put some check "on the furious zeal of the bigots" and the "indiscretions of ignorant preachers." Whereupon, the wise judge caused coffee to be served to the whole company and drank some himself. By this act he "re-united the contending parties, and brought coffee into greater esteem than ever."

Coffee in Constantinople

The story of the introduction of coffee into Constantinople shows that it experienced much the same vicissitudes that marked its advent at Mecca and Cairo. There were the same disturbances, the same unreasoning religious superstition, the same political hatreds, the same stupid interference by the civil authorities; and yet, in spite of it all, coffee attained new honors and new fame. The Oriental coffee house reached its supreme development in Constantinople.

Although coffee had been known in Constantinople since 1517, it was not until 1554 that the inhabitants became acquainted with that great institution of early eastern democracy—the coffee house. In that year, under the reign of Soliman the Great, son of Selim I, one Schemsi of Damascus and one Hekem of Aleppo opened the first two coffee houses in the quarter called Taktacalah. They were wonderful institutions for those days, remarkable alike for their furnishings and their comforts, as well as for the opportunity they afforded for social intercourse and free discussion. Schemsi and Hekem received their guests on "very neat couches or sofas," and the admission was the price of a dish of coffee—about one cent.

Turks, high and low, took up the idea with avidity. Coffee houses increased in[Pg 20] number. The demand outstripped the supply. In the seraglio itself special officers (kahvedjibachi) were commissioned to prepare the coffee drink for the sultan. Coffee was in favor with all classes.

The Turks gave to the coffee houses the name kahveh kanes (diversoria, Cotovicus called them); and as they grew in popularity, they became more and more luxurious. There were lounges, richly carpeted; and in addition to coffee, many other means of entertainment. To these "schools of the wise" came the "young men ready to enter upon offices of judicature; kadis from the provinces, seeking re-instatement or new appointments; muderys, or professors; officers of the seraglio; bashaws; and the principal lords of the port," not to mention merchants and travelers from all parts of the then known world.

Coffee House Persecutions

About 1570, just when coffee seemed settled for all time in the social scheme, the imams and dervishes raised a loud wail against it, saying the mosques were almost empty, while the coffee houses were always full. Then the preachers joined in the clamor, affirming it to be a greater sin to go to a coffee house than to enter a tavern. The authorities began an examination; and the same old debate was on. This time, however, appeared a mufti who was unfriendly to coffee. The religious fanatics argued that Mohammed had not even known of coffee, and so could not have used the drink, and, therefore, it must be an abomination for his followers to do so. Further, coffee was burned and ground to charcoal before making a drink of it; and the Koran distinctly forbade the use of charcoal, including it among the unsanitary foods. The mufti decided the question in favor of the zealots, and coffee was forbidden by law.

The prohibition proved to be more honored in the breach than in the observance. Coffee drinking continued in secret, instead of in the open. And when, about 1580, Amurath III, at the further solicitation of the churchmen, declared in an edict that coffee should be classed with wine, and so prohibited in accordance with the law of the Prophet, the people only smiled, and persisted in their secret disobedience. Already they were beginning to think for themselves on religious as well as political matters. The civil officers, finding it useless to try to suppress the custom, winked at violations of the law; and, for a consideration, permitted the sale of coffee privately, so that many Ottoman "speak-easies" sprung up—places where coffee might be had behind shut doors; shops where it was sold in back-rooms.

This was enough to re-establish the coffee houses by degrees. Then came a mufti less scrupulous or more knowing than his predecessor, who declared that coffee was not to be looked upon as coal, and that the drink made from it was not forbidden by the law. There was a general renewal of coffee drinking; religious devotees, preachers, lawyers, and the mufti himself indulging in it, their example being followed by the whole court and the city.

After this, the coffee houses provided a handsome source of revenue to each succeeding grand vizier; and there was no further interference with the beverage until the reign of Amurath IV, when Grand Vizier Kuprili, during the war with Candia, decided that for political reasons, the coffee houses should be closed. His argument was much the same as that advanced more than a hundred years later by Charles II of England, namely, that they were hotbeds of sedition. Kuprili was a military dictator, with nothing of Charles's vacillating nature; and although, like Charles, he later rescinded his edict, he enforced it, while it was effective, in no uncertain fashion. Kuprili was no petty tyrant. For a first violation of the order, cudgeling was the punishment; for a second offense, the victim was sewn in a leather bag and thrown into the Bosporus. Strangely enough, while he suppressed the coffee houses, he permitted the taverns, that sold wine forbidden by the Koran, to remain open. Perhaps he found the latter produced a less dangerous kind of mental stimulation than that produced by coffee. Coffee, says Virey, was too intellectual a drink for the fierce and senseless administration of the pashas.

Even in those days it was not possible to make people good by law. Paraphrasing the copy-book, suppressed desires will arise, though all the world o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes. An unjust law was no more enforceable in those centuries than it is in the twentieth century. Men are humans first, although they may become brutish when bereft of reason. But coffee does not steal away their reason; rather, it sharpens their reasoning faculties. As Galland has truly said: "Coffee joins men, born for[Pg 21] society, in a more perfect union; protestations are more sincere in being made at a time when the mind is not clouded with fumes and vapors, and therefore not easily forgotten, which too frequently happens when made over a bottle."

Characteristic Scene in a Turkish Coffee House of the
Seventeenth Century
Characteristic Scene in a Turkish Coffee House of the Seventeenth Century

Despite the severe penalties staring them in the face, violations of the law were plentiful among the people of Constantinople. Venders of the beverage appeared in the market-places with "large copper vessels with fire under them; and those who had a mind to drink were invited to step into any neighboring shop where every one was welcome on such an account."

Later, Kuprili, having assured himself that the coffee houses were no longer a menace to his policies, permitted the free use of the beverage that he had previously forbidden.

Coffee and Coffee Houses in Persia

Some writers claim for Persia the discovery of the coffee drink; but there is no evidence to support the claim. There are, however, sufficient facts to justify a belief that here, as in Ethiopia, coffee has been known from time immemorial—which is a very convenient phrase. At an early date the coffee house became an established institution in the chief towns. The Persians appear to have used far more intelligence than the Turks in handling the political phase of the coffee-house question, and so it never became necessary to order them suppressed in Persia.

The wife of Shah Abbas, observing that great numbers of people were wont to gather and to talk politics in the leading coffee house of Ispahan, appointed a mollah—an[Pg 22] ecclesiastical teacher and expounder of the law—to sit there daily to entertain the frequenters of the place with nicely turned points of history, law, and poetry. Being a man of wisdom and great tact, he avoided controversial questions of state; and so politics were kept in the background. He proved a welcome visitor, and was made much of by the guests. This example was generally followed, and as a result disturbances were rare in the coffee houses of Ispahan.

Adam Olearius[38] (1599–1671), who was secretary to the German Embassy that traveled in Turkey in 1633–36, tells of the great diversions made in Persian coffee houses "by their poets and historians, who are seated in a high chair from whence they make speeches and tell satirical stories, playing in the meantime with a little stick and using the same gestures as our jugglers and legerdemain men do in England."

At court conferences conspicuous among the shah's retinue were always to be seen the "kahvedjibachi," or "coffee-pourers."

Early Coffee Manners and Customs

Karstens Niebuhr[39] (1733–1815), the Hanoverian traveler, furnishes the following description of the early Arabian, Syrian, and Egyptian coffee houses:

They are commonly large halls, having their floors spread with mats, and illuminated at night by a multitude of lamps. Being the only theaters for the exercise of profane eloquence, poor scholars attend here to amuse the people. Select portions are read, e.g. the adventures of Rustan Sal, a Persian hero. Some aspire to the praise of invention, and compose tales and fables. They walk up and down as they recite, or assuming oratorial consequence, harangue upon subjects chosen by themselves.

In one coffee house at Damascus an orator was regularly hired to tell his stories at a fixed hour; in other cases he was more directly dependant upon the taste of his hearers, as at the conclusion of his discourse, whether it had consisted of literary topics or of loose and idle tales, he looked to the audience for a voluntary contribution.

At Aleppo, again, there was a man with a soul above the common, who, being a person of distinction, and one that studied merely for his own pleasure, had yet gone the round of all the coffee houses in the city to pronounce moral harangues.

In some coffee houses there were singers and dancers, as before, and many came to listen to the marvelous tales, of the Thousand and One Nights.

In Oriental countries it was once the custom to offer a cup of "bad coffee," i.e., coffee containing poison, to those functionaries or other persons who had proven themselves embarrassing to the authorities.

While coffee drinking started as a private religious function, it was not long after its introduction by the coffee houses that it became secularized still more in the homes of the people, although for centuries it retained a certain religious significance. Galland says that in Constantinople, at the time of his visit to the city, there was no house, rich or poor, Turk or Jew, Greek or Armenian, where it was not drunk at least twice a day, and many drank it oftener, for it became a custom in every house to offer it to all visitors; and it was considered an incivility to refuse it. Twenty dishes a day, per person, was not an uncommon average.

Galland observes that "as much money must be spent in the private families of Constantinople for coffee as for wine at Paris," and relates that it is as common for beggars to ask for money to buy coffee, as it is in Europe to ask for money to buy wine or beer.

At this time to refuse or to neglect to give coffee to their wives was a legitimate cause for divorce among the Turks. The men made promise when marrying never to let their wives be without coffee. "That," says Fulbert de Monteith, "is perhaps more prudent than to swear fidelity."

Another Arabic manuscript by Bichivili in the Bibliothéque Nationale at Paris furnishes us with this pen picture of the coffee ceremony as practised in Constantinople in the sixteenth century:

In all the great men's houses, there are servants whose business it is only to take care of the coffee; and the head officer among them, or he who has the inspection over all the rest, has an apartment allowed him near the hall which is destined for the reception of visitors. The Turks call this officer Kavveghi, that is, Overseer or Steward of the Coffee. In the harem or ladies' apartment in the seraglio, there are a great many such officers, each having forty or fifty Baltagis under them, who, after they have served a certain time in these coffee-houses, are sure to be well provided for, either by an advantageous post, or a sufficient quantity of land. In the houses of persons of quality likewise, there are pages, called Itchoglans, who receive the coffee from the stewards, and present it to the company with surprising dexterity and address, as soon as the master of the family makes a sign for that purpose, which is all the language they ever speak to them.... The coffee is served on salvers without feet, made commonly of painted or varnished wood, and sometimes of silver. They hold from 15 to 20 china dishes each; and such as can afford it have these dishes half set in silver ... the dish may be easily held with the thumb below and two fingers on the upper edge.

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Serving Coffee to a Guest.—After a Drawing in an Early
Edition of "Arabian Nights" Serving Coffee to a Guest.—After a Drawing in an Early Edition of "Arabian Nights"

In his Relation of a Journey to Constantinople in 1657, Nicholas Rolamb, the Swedish traveler and envoy to the Ottoman Porte, gives us this early glimpse of coffee in the home life of the Turks:[40]

This [coffee] is a kind of pea that grows in Egypt, which the Turks pound and boil in water, and take it for pleasure instead of brandy, sipping it through the lips boiling hot, persuading themselves that it consumes catarrhs, and prevents the rising of vapours out of the stomach into the head. The drinking of this coffee and smoking tobacco (for tho' the use of tobacco is forbidden on pain of death, yet it is used in Constantinople more than any where by men as well as women, tho' secretly) makes up all the pastime among the Turks, and is the only thing they treat one another with; for which reason all people of distinction have a particular room next their own, built on purpose for it, where there stands a jar of coffee continually boiling.

It is curious to note that among several misconceptions that were held by some of the peoples of the Levant was one that coffee was a promoter of impotence, although a Persian version of the Angel Gabriel legend says that Gabriel invented it to restore the Prophet's failing metabolism. Often in Turkish and Arabian literature, however, we meet with the suggestion that coffee drinking makes for sterility and barrenness, a notion that modern medicine has exploded; for now we know that coffee stimulates the racial instinct, for which tobacco is a sedative.

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Chapter III: EARLY HISTORY OF COFFEE DRINKING -- All About Coffee, by William H. Ukers

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