It is impossible to imagine the Islamic world without the ubiquitous smell of roasting coffee. Commercial transactions would be unthinkable unless sweetened by a demitasse of syrupy coffee. The smell of roasting coffee and the clink of the pestle as the beans are ground are the sounds and smells of the desert at night. Coffee is a drink that induces reflection and heightens perceptions at the same time. In a part of the world where most of the population lives by its wits, coffee is absolutely vital. Yet it is a relatively recent addition to the diet of the people of the Middle East, and an even more recent commodity in the West.
The early history of coffee is obscure, the first mention of the drink dating from the beginning of the 16th century. Even the origin of the word itself is debated—in classical Arabic, qahwa originally referred to a kind of dark red wine. Our English word "coffee" ultimately derives from qahwa by way of the Turkish kahve. But there is also the curious fact that the coffee plant is indigenous to only one part of the world—the highlands of Ethiopia, notably the area around the town of Kaffa. And the name of the town Kaffa sounds very like "coffee."
Whatever the true etymology may be, there is little doubt that the coffee plant itself was introduced into Yemen from Ethiopia. The first book written in the West about the origin of the marvelous beverage recounts a delightful legend of how the magical properties of the coffee plant were first discovered. A mystic named Shaikh ash-Shadhili, originally from Yemen, was traveling in Ethiopia. High on the slopes of a mountain, he noticed that the goats were dancing about and displaying an altogether unaccustomed vitality. Growing curious, he watched them carefully and noticed that they were eating a nondescript berry with which he was unfamiliar. He found the berries very bitter to the taste, so he boiled them and consumed the liquid. Thus was the first cup of coffee born, and it must have tasted pretty awful. But it certainly made our shaikh feel better. His mind felt wonderfully clear and wide-awake.
There was nothing for it but to take seedlings back to Yemen, where he introduced his new drink to his disciples, who unfortunately had the habit of nodding off when he was lecturing. It was a great success, especially after some unknown genius experimented with the beans and found that if they were roasted, the ensuing beverage was much more palatable. Coffee quickly caught on, the way Pepsi-Cola has in modern times.
The new drink, however, soon ran into a great deal of opposition from conservative groups. Although it was originally taken as a kind of medicine (it was regarded as having effective laxative qualities), improvements in its preparation led to improvements in the taste. Its growing popularity caused some concern in theological circles. How to classify the beverage? There was no doubt that it was a stimulant and its name, qahwa, originally referred to a type of wine. It was true that it did not seem to have an intoxicating effect, but to be on the safe side, the Turkish governor of Mecca, under pressure from conservative elements, forbade the sale of coffee in the year 1511. A number of vendors were punished and soon a great controversy was raging over whether coffee was beneficial or detrimental to the human body. (See following story.) Opinion among the learned was at first evenly divided, but as more and more people indulged in the new vice without ill effects, it was gradually accepted. A century or more later, the same controversies were to take place among Western doctors. In Marseilles, for instance, in the 17th century, the leading medical man of the day pronounced that any man who drank excessive amounts of coffee "would be unable to perform his marital obligations." Overnight all the cafés in Marseilles were abandoned.
The use of coffee spread from Mecca to Cairo, where it was pronounced haram (prohibited) in 1532. But as it became more and more popular, the theologians of al-Azhar pronounced a series of fatwas or decrees permitting its use. From Cairo it spread to Syria, Persia and Turkey. In 1554, during the reign of the great Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, a man from Aleppo opened the first coffee house in Istanbul. Although coffee houses had been popular in Cairo and Aleppo, in Istanbul they became the rage. They attracted the intellectuals: poets, writers, professors, scholars, and civil servants. The new institution was jokingly called the mekteb-i irfan, the "school of knowledge."
The religious authorities became worried about the coffee houses—they felt, probably rightly, that they were keeping people away from the mosques. Coffee was prohibited once more, but one suspects that political considerations were more important than the disapproval of the pious. For the coffee houses provided ideal meeting places for revolutionaries—of whom there were many. But coffee could not be legislated away, and soon the Ottoman government found it more sensible instead to levy a luxury tax on all establishments selling coffee. The tax amounted to two gold pieces a day, a substantial source of revenue to the state. The cafés in Istanbul must have been doing a landslide business if they could afford to pay such a heavy tax and still show a profit.
The first mention of the new beverage by a Western writer occurs in a book of travels by a doctor from Augsburg, Leonhardt Rauwolf. Rauwolf traveled widely in the Middle East, getting as far as Persia, and upon his return to Swabia in 1582 he published an account of his journey. Since this is the first mention by a European of coffee, it is worth quoting in full: "Among other good things, they (the Muslims) have a drink which they like very much and which they call chaube (sic). It is black as ink and very useful in treating various ills, in particular those of the stomach. They are accustomed to drink it in the morning, even in public, without fear of being seen. They drink it in small deep earthenware or porcelain cups, as hot as they can stand. They carry the cup to their lips frequently, but only take tiny sips, passing the cup on to the person sitting next to them. They make this beverage with water and the fruit which they call bunnu, which resembles in size and color laurel berries and which is enclosed by two husks. This drink is very widespread. That is why one sees in the bazaar a great number of merchants who sell the drink or the berries." (Bunna, the name of the berry, still means coffee in Ethiopia and North Africa.)
Although the existence of coffee was thus known in the West, at least to the learned, as early as 1582, it was a hundred years before coffee was introduced there. We owe the pleasant vice to one man: Franz Georg Kolshitzky.
In 1683, the Ottoman army was camped outside the walls of Vienna. The city had been under siege for some time, and the vast Turkish army had effectively cut the Viennese off from food supplies and reinforcements. The inhabitants of the city were hungry and an epidemic of dysentery had so weakened resistance that there was talk of surrender. At this crucial point, Kolshitzky, a Pole who had lived for many years among the Turks, where he had served as an interpreter, volunteered to try to get a message through Turkish lines to the Duke of Lorraine, the head of the allied army.
On August 13, Kolshitzky and a servant disguised themselves as Turks and walked through the Turkish camp. It was raining heavily, but Kolshitzky sang loudly in Turkish to avert suspicion. A Turkish noble, hearing the noise, came out of his tent, and questioned the two. Evidently satisfied with their answers, he offered them a cup of coffee and let them go, warning them not to fall into the hands of the Christian barbarians. After an adventurous journey through the Austrian countryside, they reached the Duke of Lorraine two days later. Kolshitzky told the Duke of the plight of the Viennese and the Duke promised to come to their aid.
Kolshitzky, passing once more through the Turkish lines, brought the Duke's assurances to the beleaguered citizens of Vienna. In gratitude, the Viennese awarded him 2,000 florins, Viennese citizenship and a letter of franchise allowing him to enter into business in the city.
On the 12th of September the allied army came, routed the Turks, lifted the siege and began to plunder the Turkish camps. Included in the booty were 500 huge sacks filled with a strange and aromatic bean that nobody had ever seen before. An argument broke out among the looters over what it was and everbody decided that the best thing to do was to throw it into the Danube. At this point, who should happen by but the brave Kolshitzky. Horrified at ,what his new fellow citizens were contemplating, he cried, "If you don't know what to do with it, give it to me!" They did, and soon afterward he opened the first coffee house in Europe.
At first the new drink created a mild sensation, but as this wore off, Kolshitzky found himself in trouble. Nobody really liked the thick bitter coffee prepared in the Turkish manner. His clientele all but disappeared. Rather than give up, Kolshitzky began to experiment. He filtered the grounds that are ordinarily found on the bottom of the cup and added a dollop of milk to the clarified liquid. Then Kolshitzky added the piece de resistance. He arranged with a baker to have rolls made in the shape of a crescent in order to commemorate the defeat of the Turks, whose standard was a crescent moon. And voilà! The croissant—and the continental breakfast—was born.
From Vienna (still famed for its coffee houses), the drinking of coffee spread all over Europe, profoundly changing the social patterns of the West. It is no accident that it was not long after the introduction of coffee into France that the revolution occurred. The coffee house provided the ideal place to meet and plot the overthrow of the government. Instead of dulling the mind with wine and beer, intellectuals could drink a very satisfying concoction that kept them alert and awake—suggesting, perhaps, that the real heroes of what Western history calls the Enlightenment are Franz Georg Kolshitzky, Shaikh ash-Shadhili and a herd of lively Ethiopian goats.
Paul Lunde spent his early years in Saudi Arabia and studied at the University of California in Berkeley and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He now studies and writes in Rome.