Let’s Outlaw Coffee…?

Name and Place for Tuesday, October 14 (’14)

From Bernard Lewis’ Istanbul and the Civilization of the Ottoman Empire, a fascinating glimpse into the Ottoman Empire when it still sent chills into the heart of Europeans:

Food and drink held an important place among the preoccupations of the religious and police authorities in the city.  So too for a while did coffee and tobacco, the former introduced from the Arab lands, the latter by English merchants from the American colonies.  The historian Ibrahim-i Pechevi, writing in about 1635, describes their introduction as follows:

“Until the year 962 (1555 on the Christian calendar), in the high, coffeeGod-guarded capital city of Constantinople, as well as in the Ottoman lands generally, coffee and coffee-houses did not exist. About that year, a fellow called Hakam from Aleppo, and a wag called Shems from Damascus came to the city; they each opened a large shop in the district called Tahtalkale, and began to purvey coffee.  These shops became meeting-places of a circle of pleasure-seekers and idlers, and also of some wits from among the men of letters and literati, and they used to meet in groups of about twenty or thirty.  Some read books and fine writings, some were busy with backgammon and chess, some brought new poems and talked of literature.  Those who used to spend a good deal of money on giving dinners for the sake of convivial entertainment, found that they could attain the joys of conviviality merely by spending an asper or two on the price of coffee.  It reached such a point that all kinds of unemployed officers, judges and professors all seeking preferment, and corner-sitters with nothing to do proclaimed that there was no place like it for pleasure and relaxation, and filled it until there was no room to sit or stand.  It became so famous that, besides the holders of high officers, even great men could not refrain from coming there.


We dug up a picture of the original and very revolutionary Ottoman Coffee company logo.

The Imams and muezzins and pious hypocrites said: “People have become addicts of the coffee house; nobody comes to the mosques!” The ulema said: “It is a house of evil deeds; it is better to go to the wine-tavern than there.”  The preachers in particular made great efforts to forbid it.  The muftis, arguing that anything which is heated to the point of carbonization, that is, becomes charcoal, is unlawful, issued fetvas against it.  The in the time of Sultan Murad III, may God pardon him and have mercy on him, there were great interdictions and prohibitions, but certain persons made approaches to the chief of police and the captain of the watch about selling coffee from back-doors in side-alleys, in small and unobtrusive shops, and were allowed to do this….After this time, it became so prevalent, that the ban was abandoned.  The preachers and muftis now said that it does not get completely carbonized, and to drink it is therefore lawful.  Among the ulema, the sheykhs, the viziers and the great, there was nobody left who did not drink it.  It even reached such a point that the grand viziers built great coffee houses as investments, and began to rent them out at one or two gold pieces a day.”

The more things change, the more things stay the same.


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