Turkish Coffee
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Coffee and Coffeehouses

Deniz Gürsoy

What a person really desires is neither
coffee nor a coffeehouse
What a person really desires is a friend
And coffee is just an excuse
Turkish saying

Coffee made its appearance in Istanbul in 1543. Scholars of Islamic law, however, opposed the drinking of coffee because of its pleasure-giving property and because the roasting of the beans destroys its nutrients, so that it was harmful to the health. The esteemed Şeyhülislam Ebusuud Efendi issued a fetva (İslamic religious law) declaring it lawful to sink the two ships in the port of Istanbul whose cargo was coffee.

According to the Peçevi Tarihi in 1554 two natives of Damascus, one named Hakim from Damascus and the other Şems brought coffee to Istanbul and began making and selling coffee in two different shops they opened in the district of Tahtakale. These were the first two coffeehouses in Istanbul. And despite the pronouncements against its use, coffeehouses became common. In this early period, coffeehouse structures characteristically possessed tall ceilings and fountains both on the interior and outdoors in the garden. The coffee brought to Istanbul derived from Yemen.

The introduction of coffee to Europe occurred in conjunction with mariners who had been to Istanbul. Venice, having made its acquaintance with coffee through these seamen, persisted in drinking coffee despite the opposition of the pope. In fact, coffee became so popular that cafes were established that purveyed coffee only; to accompany this beverage sandwiches and cold dishes were subsequently added.

The French learned of coffee in 1669 through the first Ottoman envoy, Müteferrika Süleyman Agha. In 1672, an Armenian named Pascal began to sell coffee in the Saint-Germain market in Paris. The opening of the first coffeehouse in Paris had to wait however until the opening of Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli of cade Procope at Fosses-Saint-Germain (Rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie), where Pascal had been a waiter for eleven years. This café is still in operation.

The spread of the popularity of the coffeehouse throughout Europe occurred when Mehmet Aga was appointed as ambassador to Vienna. The most popular coffeehouse in London in the early 18th century was one called the “Turk’s Head.” Large antique auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies’ have started to accept bids on the small chambers formerly part of the Turkish coffeehouses that were active in London. Johnathan’s coffeehouse owned by Edward Lloyd at one time crowded with shop owners, captains, merchants, and insurance agents that Lloyd’s, which is at present the leading name in world maritime insurance and maritime exchange, came into being in this coffeehouse.

Since, as a refreshment, coffee replaced the alcoholic drinks prohibited to Muslims, it managed to acquire broad acceptance in a very short time. All the same, this statement fails to account for the reason why the faithful of other religious persuasions found it appealing. Coffeehouses, particularly in the beginning, came to assume a position as a meeting place as an alternative to the mosque and the church and synagogue under theocratic or strict regimes. Here, ordinary subjects could speak at their ease and enjoy a free exchange of ideas under conditions of equality.

Between 1580 and 1830, coffeehouses became subject to a variety of prohibitions for various reasons – the use of tobacco and opium along with coffee, spoken critism of the government of even if there was no critisim the suspicion of same. Coffeehouses were occasiaonally closed down or even demolished, as was the case under Murad IV (1624-1640). Occasionally these places of business were converted into a variety of other functions, such as barber shops, and a blind eye was turned to their staying in operation.

Though the coffeehouses were shut down one last time in 1826 at the time the janissary corps was abolished, the drinking of coffee was exempted from any restriction. The prohibition against the running of coffeehouse was repealed in 1830.

Our solidarity claim to universal fame –Turkish coffee- failed to earn the admiration of Mark Twain. In his book concerning his travels, Twain relates that, on his visit to Constantinople  in 1867, “[t]this [i.e., the meal] was followed by the serving of the world-famous Turkish coffee, praised with rapture by poets throughout the ages, and I eagerly embraced the coffee as my last hope of salvaging my dreams about Oriental luxury. This, too, turned out to be another deception. Of all the drinks of the infidel that have ever touched my lips the worst was Turkish coffee.”

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