Coffee and the Ottoman coffeehouse ( a brief history of…)

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A coffee bearer from the Ottoman quarters in Cairo, Egypt, circa 1857.

Coffee today, easily ranks in the top ten most traded commodities in the world. It sits comfortable amongst natural gas, gold, corn and wheat to name a few. (It sits as high as 2nd on some selective lists as the worlds most traded commodity.)

The history of coffee and our obsession with it as a ‘revitalising’ beverage dates at least as far back as the thirteenth or fourteenth century to Ethiopia or Kenya. Though the earliest feasible evidence of it as a ‘coffee drink’ or the awareness of the ‘coffea arabica’ plant or tree appears in the fifteenth century in Yemen.

There are many fancible stories about how coffee was discovered. One particular story retells the account of an Ethiopian herdsman in the 9th century, who chewed on some wild berries after he noticed that they had an invigorating effect on his flock. He was astonished with its uplifting effects that he brought them to a monk in a nearby monastery. The monk very quickly disapproved of their use and threw the berries into a fire. Almost instantly, an aroma billowed out of the fire enticing the monk to investigate racking out the roasted beans. Legend has it that the beans were then ground up and dissolved in hot water, creating the world’s first coffee drink.

Possibly from Mocha in Yemen, coffee spread first to Egypt and North Africa. By the fifteenth century it had reached Persia and Anatolia (Turkey). From here, coffee drinking spread notably to Italy through Venetian traders and then onto the rest of Europe.

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Storytelling in a coffeehouse in the Ottoman Empire

With the rise of coffee drinking out of the Middle East, came the establishment of the coffeehouses. They were originally created as a place to sell coffee, but soon enough became a public space not only for drinking coffee but a place for political debate, gossip, stories and games. For the Ottomans consuming coffee thus became a social experience, and the coffeehouse where it was served became a very important meeting place. Though soon enough authorities recognized that places and venues that  served coffee, were also places that could harness dangerous conversation and frequently took action to suppress it.

From humble beginnings, the coffeehouse grew and eventually spread to Europe in the seventeenth century to London, Vienna, Paris and Bremen and Hamburg in Germany.

Today, it seems the juggernaut industry that was created for coffee lovers shows no signs of slowing down. Gloria Jeans, Coffee Club and Starbucks are only a few franchise chains that just seem to keep growing. The only thing that may stop us from buying coffee is its increase in price and possible scarcity in the future ? Global warming is putting the cultivation of coffee, for example in Ethiopia at risk, to the point where the indigenous Ethiopian coffee plant, Coffea Arabica could go extinct within 70 years ?

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