madeline reidy

madeline reidy


That Ineluctable Shot of Life

by W.S. Chahanovich

Between the wallpaper and the coffee steam brewing behind the counter, how did we first cultivate this essential aspect of our lives?

The coffee bean has come a long way from its humble beginnings in Ethiopia and Yemen, but seldom does the average bibulous caffeine freak ponder its origins.   Whether it is a “cup o’ joe” enjoyed in a cream-colored breakfast nook, an espresso del pomeriggio knocked back in a local bar tucked behind the Duomo, or a frothy finjan slowly sipped at the wharf while waiting for the next Bosporus ferry, around the world we all spend a lot of time drinking coffee.   It seems, therefore, all the more pertinent in our first issue, “Idle Days,” to delve into the origins of one of the world’s favorite ways to savor those rare and precious pauses in the day.

Straight Shot: And God created the coffee…seed?

Most of us have, no doubt, confronted the ubiquitous images of coffee plants and roasted "beans," probably while standing in line at Starbucks or a similar international coffeehouse. These pictures have become so redundant in the mass marketing of coffee that we perhaps no longer take them to represent even a modicum of truth.  We might have even come to believe it is all a charade to make us feel "the source" of our coffee. It is something akin to a caffeine-freak’s Truman Show, an artificial reality in which we intake some marketing department’s construction of a seamless, romantic safari that leads us from the verdant farms of Colombia to our coveted moment of consumption in a clattering coffee shop. At that moment, we might just have realized the disconnect between marketing and making coffee. But it isn’t all that bad.  One positive aspect of these mass produced sylvan wall-hangings is that we have at least come into contact with a visual representation of the plant that produces the very fruits of our early morning libation. Some terms need to be quickly clarified, however, before going on such an excursion. 

Ensconced in the crimson berries of the Coffea plant (genus Coffea, family Rubiaceae), the coffee "bean" is actually not a bean at all but, rather, a seed. Even more exact: they are two seeds in one fleshy pod. Hence, the cure to all one’s soporific woes starts out as a zygotic pit. There exist several major species today—e.g. Coffea canephora, Coffea liberica, Coffea charrieriana—the most famous, perhaps, in contemporary consumers’ minds being Coffea arabica and its myriad sub-varieties. According to their website, the 120-year-old Italian coffee company Lavazza proudly asserts that it uses “100% Arabica” in all its products. In addition, our common conceptions of coffee seeds as being as black as our beloved early-morning brew is also erroneous. The brown or black shade we give our early morning productivity—or late-night labor—is really the result of a roasting process.  The coffee bean, in its raw form, is actually green.

Yet between the wallpaper and the coffee steam brewing behind the counter, how did we first cultivate this essential aspect of our lives? The first coffeehouse in Europe opened in Venice circa 1629 and, shortly after that, in London in 1652. It should come as no surprise that Venetians embraced the introduction of coffee first, but it was not because they intrinsically possessed some sense of caffeinated panache. Northern Italians first enjoyed coffee only because they enjoyed the most intimate trade relations with another entity that played a profound role in the formation of European identity and history, albeit from the outside: the Turkish Ottoman Empire. This mammoth of a historical dynasty is one of the longest running reigns in all of history and, thanks exclusively to their relatively pacific trade relations with the Doge and Co., European capitals and salons, kings and commoners came to know the drink of the coffea seed. 

Caffeinate the Casbah: A Uniquely Islamic Drink

Ethiopia is generally identified as the region from where the first coffee seeds were imported, across the Red Sea to Yemen. Folktales describe some serendipitous event of an Abyssinian peasant tending to his flock as his donkey—or in other versions, his flock—started to behave jittery. Upon further inspection, this inquisitive shepherd recognized that his four-legged friends only ever started kicking and frolicking about after nibbling on a benign and unassuming bush with bright-red berries: the coffee plant. This, of course, is nothing more than a quaint fiction to narrate the history of coffee, but it hardly amounts to a shred of verifiable, or for that matter relevant, data. Greater detail, however, can in fact be provided once the Ethiopian crops reach the Arabo-Islamic world. Arab chroniclers, our most reliable sources, concede as much. Even the 17th century Ottoman historian and geographer Kâtip Çelebi made the observation:

This matter [i.e. the origin of the introduction of coffee] was much disputed in the old days. It originated in Yemen and has spread, like tobacco all over the world. Certain sheykhs, who lived with their dervishes in the mountains of Yemen, used to crush and eat the berries, which they called qalb wabun, of a certain tree. Some would roast and drink their water. (1) 

Organic origins are, perhaps, not as important as the clear indication that the coffee seed clearly entered the Islamic world via Arabia Felix: Yemen. At the turn of the 15th century (2), Yemeni Sufis began using the boiled seeds in nightly liturgical vigils called dhikr, which translates to “remembrance” or “recollection.” The coffee seed first found its way to the Islamic world via mystical channels (3). Early modern history, as Harvard Professor of Ottoman History Cemal Kafadar notes, stands out as an age of revolutionary transformations, both social and economic. One of these transformations was the advent of “new regimes of temporality that redefined the spheres of work and leisure” (4). Precisely because Sufis already practiced “night-time vigils and symposia”, it should come as no surprise, then, that they, “played a pioneering role in colonizing the night and redesigning the architecture of the nocturnal and the diurnal” by introducing the coffee bean into Islamic religious practice (5). The berry of the Coffea shrub or tree, due to its affiliation with Islamic religious orders, subsequently made its way to the heartland of Islamic piety, the Hijaz (now in modern-day Saudi Arabia) by the second-half of the 15th century (6). Coffee shops were shortly thereafter recorded as selling the seeds in Damascus and Cairo in the early 1500s and later in Istanbul by the mid-1500s. Testimony of the stimulant seed arriving in Istanbul is attested in the will of Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha (1473-1546), having bequeathed a kahve odası, a coffee chamber, to his descendants and thereby documenting for us one of the earliest sources for a pre-modern coffee nook. It only took some adventurous Europeans, especially Venetians, who dared to sample the Turks’ dark brew, to begin the spread of coffee into Italy. 

The reception of coffee was not, however, without its detractors. Kâtip Çelebi, the Ottoman historian cited above, relates that the introduction of the coffee seed and its culture of collective late-night imbibition stirred the ire of the Islamic religious community.  The reasons given are several. First, the dark brew was consumed in gatherings. This not only gave off an air of “loose living,” as Çelebi notes (7), but it also extended one’s activity into the night, which was associated with secretiveness and, potentially, salacious activity.  Constantinople hardly lacked in both, and religious scholars were not ignorant of what transpired in all-male gatherings (8).

The mayhane (wine house) and bozahane (boza drink house)—boza being a fermented winter drink made of wheat durum, sugar, roasted chick peas, and cinnamon that contains a small amount of alcohol—appeared all too similar to the kahvehane (coffeehouse) ambiance. Evidently, the image of a Sufi slurping boiled coffee seeds was no longer the first association that came to mind after it arrived in Constantinople; coffee enjoyment ceased to serve as an innocent religious pastime. Stripped of its exclusive association with nighttime liturgical vigils, coffee appeared to only make run of the mill Muslims far too perky and inclined to perambulate at night—and the coffeehouse became a den of unseemly, excessive socialization. Wine and boza séances shared similar traits, their addicts equally driven to nocturnal perambulating. It is, therefore, no surprise why the Arabic term qahwah—which was a synonym for khamr (wine) and from which we derive the words coffee, caffè, café, and Kaffee—came to be applied to boiled bunn, the technical term for the roasted and crushed seeds. In a way, I guess coffee is still just an acceptable substitute for the afternoon pint or sifter of brandy. 

More correctly, the problem that authorities had in regards to the newly founded institution of the coffee house perhaps had less to do with religious laws than it did with the potential of these late night gatherings to engender new forms of political and social action, ranging from idle chatter and debate to organized resistance (9). Such machinations one could hardly expect from the alcohol-addled minds of wine addicts. Approximately four decades after the opening of the first coffeehouse in Constantinople (1551), this unique quality of coffee caught the attention of the Ottoman Sultan Murad III, who ordered his Grand Vizier Koca Sinan Paşa to have all mayhane, bozahane, and kahvehane closed.  Arguably, the Sultan chose now, of all times, to close these institutions precisely because coffeehouses were a novelty, and change is, as humanity systematically demonstrates, something wary in the eyes of authority. When we drink coffee today, it is usually just to get our brains somewhat charged, not to plot political riots or engage in salacious activities. In contrast, the average Ottomans, in the eyes of their overlords, were already seditiously too thoughtful when they put their lips to the cup. Perhaps we too should be so politically perky before we grab the next espresso. How would politics today play out if politicians constantly feared of the next pull of a ristretto?

Another aspect to consider is how the business of coffee reflected several fundamental changes in social dynamics. Mustafa ‘Ali (d. 1600), an Ottoman bureaucrat and historian, remarked that the emergence of coffeehouses were indicative of three major social changes: a rising middle class, changing standards of leisure, and the democratization of socialization (10). The lowly coffee seed from Ethiopia had transcended its initial mystic associations and become both a religiously questionable and socially revolutionary product. After all, as Kâtip Çelebi again observes, giving us an insight into contemporary opinions: “One coffee house was opened after another and men would gather together, with great eagerness and enthusiasm, to drink. Drug-addicts in particular, finding it a life-giving thing, which increased their pleasure, were willing to die for a cup (11).”

Giving into the Temptation

In the end, Koca Sinan Paşa did not succeed in closing down the coffeehouses forever and the rising middle-class in 16th and 17th century Constantinople continued to get their daily rush of caffeine. People trading in, serving, and drinking the stimulating coffee seed’s brew crossed numerous layers and circles of society. Coffee was the new hot ticket on the market, such that even outsiders took note. For example, the Augsburg physician Leonhart Rauwolf (d. 1596) observed the following in his Journey to the Lands of the Orient (1582): 

Among other things the Turks have a good drink which they greatly esteem. They call it ‘chaube’: it is nearly as black as ink and helpful against stomach complaints. They drink it from earthenware and porcelain cups early in the morning, also in public places without any hesitation. But they take only small sips of it and then pass these cups around, for they are seated next to each other in a circle. To the water they add a berry the natives call ‘bunnu’ which, but for its size and color, resembles bay tree berries surrounded by to thin hull. (12)

Similarly, by the 18th century the communal attraction of the coffee bean and its juice had crossed into all aspects of Ottoman society:

Coffee shops were frequented by the dervishes, by the intellectual circles who went there to talk and drink coffee, and by the poor who, having nowhere else to go on a limited budget, went there all the time. The janissaries and the sipahis (Ottoman cavalry) were to be found there from morning to night, gossiping away in every corner, and there were those who played backgammon and chess or who gambled for money. (13)

Europeans found it difficult to adjust to the new fad once it reached their cultural shores. Women in England, for example, claimed that it caused impotence in men. Exactly how much activity 17th and 18th century British bedchambers witnessed before and after the introduction of coffee remains a mystery. Yet it is clear that the science of the humors inspired this misapprehension: coffee was a dessicant and, seeing as men were already dry enough physiologically, the drink exacerbated the matter and, consequently, made them excessively dry in more ways than one. Women were not necessarily keen on drinking coffee either, but, given that the science of humors deduced that female anatomy is all too damp, a little cup o’ joe every now and then might be just the right thing to balance out the nasty nature of the gentler sex. 

It is a much longer story to describe the myriad lives coffee had in early modern Europe, and perhaps that tale can be saved for another day. But at least now, the next time we have a mug with our mates or a tazza with our colleghi, we might toss one back for the obstreperous Turks who just could not get enough of that bubbling buzz.

(1) Chelebi, Haci Halifa Kātib. The Balance of Truth. Trans. G.L. Lewis. London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1957, p. 60.
(2) Kafadar, “How Dark is the History,” 246. Cf. Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses, p. 11. Hattox gives a general date as sometime in the mid-15th century.
(3) The details of the coffee seed’s introduction to Yemen are open to doubt. See Hattox, ibid., pp. 14-26. 
(4) Kafadar, ibid., p. 244. 
(5) idem., p. 246.
(6) Hattox, ibid., p. 27. Hattox cites Faḫr al-Dīn b. Abī Yazīd al-Makkī: “And as for us, qishr reached us in Rey in Mecca and other places twenty or more years ago, but qahwa made from it did not spread until the end of the ninth [fifteenth] century.”
(7) Chelebi, Balance of Truth, p. 60.
(8) For an informative article on 16th century Ottoman legal tractates and judicial practices vis-à-vis prostitution, see Baldwin, James E. “Prostitution, Islamic Law and Ottoman Societies.” Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient 55 (2012): 117-152. Two very informative readings on homoeroticism/pederasty in Ottoman society, see El Rouayheb, Khaled. Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005; Ze’evi, Dror. Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500-1900. Berkeley: UC Press, 2006. 
(9) Kafadar, ibid., p. 252.
(10) idem., p. 251. 
(11) Chelebi, ibid., p. 60.
(12) qtd. in Schivelbusch, Wolfgan. Tastes of Paradise. Trans. David Jacobson. New York: Vintage Books, 1992, p. 15.
(13) Boyar, Ebru and Fleet, Kate. A Social History of Ottoman Istanbul. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010, p. 193. Cf. Gelibolulu Mustafa Ali, Mevâʾidüʾn-nefâʾis fî kavâʻidiʾl-mecâlis, pp. 363-4.

More in this issue:


Stripped of its exclusive association with nighttime liturgical vigils, coffee appeared to only make run of the mill Muslims far too perky and inclined to perambulate at night—and the coffeehouse became a den of unseemly, excessive socialization.


The lowly coffee seed from Ethiopia had transcended its initial mystic associations and become both a religiously questionable and socially revolutionary product.


People trading in, serving, and drinking the stimulating coffee seed’s brew crossed numerous layers and circles of society. Coffee was the new hot ticket on the market, such that even outsiders took note.