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Coffee Culture: Fear and Enlightenment

Coffee Culture: Fear and Enlightenment

Enter the captivating world of coffee! Once upon a time in Yemen, Sufi Practitioners and Mystics discovered the wonders of Qahwa, a magical elixir that kept them awake during all-night prayers, meditation sessions, and recitations of holy scripture. This remarkable brew traveled from Yemen to the Middle East, then onwards to Europe and beyond. However, it faced fierce opposition from religious and political authorities who feared its influence on people and the potential threats it posed to church and state. Little did they know, coffee was about to unleash a whirlwind of radicalism, rebellion, and social-political transformations in Europe's bustling coffee houses.

Painting in coffeehouses in Ottoman Society

Coffeehouses in Ottoman Society

Let's take a sip from history and explore how coffee culture evolved in different regions.

The Middle East and Ottoman Empire

Painting of Sultan Murad IV

Sultan Murad IV If he came upon someone drinking coffee he would immediately decapitate the person

In the early 16th century, Kahir Beg, the governor of Mecca, banned coffee and labeled it an intoxicant, similar to alcohol, which the Quran forbids. He saw it as a menace to social order and the Muslim faith.

In Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Murad IV took things a step further and declared coffee consumption a capital offense in 1633. Murad IV's brother had been assassinated by janissaries who frequented coffee houses, leading the Sultan to fear similar plots hatched in these establishments. In a bizarre turn of events, he became so obsessed with eradicating coffee that he disguised himself as an ordinary citizen and roamed the streets of Istanbul, carrying a large sword. Whenever he stumbled upon someone enjoying a cup of coffee, swift decapitation followed.

Despite these draconian measures, coffee continued to thrive. Eventually, the prohibitions were lifted, and even the Ottoman Sultans themselves became avid coffee enthusiasts. Coffee became an integral part of daily life in the Islamic world.

Europe and the Americans

Painting of Fredrick the Great

The 16th century witnessed the spread of coffee throughout Europe, starting from Venice due to its trade connections with the Ottoman Empire. From there, it conquered the other Mediterranean countries and made its way to Northern Europe.

Just as in the Middle East, many religious and political authorities in Europe despised this novel beverage. Some members of the Catholic Church viewed coffee drinking as a satanic practice, prompting pressure on the Vatican to ban it. Moreover, Europeans harbored aversion toward coffee due to its association with the Islamic world, its birthplace.

In Prussia, Fredrick the Great was no fan of coffee. He saw it as a threat to the production and consumption of beer, a beverage he held dear. In response, he issued a declaration extolling the superiority of beer over coffee, imposing strict regulations and hefty taxes on the latter.

In 1674, England saw the publication of "The Woman's Petition Against Coffee," which blamed coffee drinking for impotence and various ailments, condemning it as a time-wasting, foul-tasting, and money-draining vice.

Painting of King Charles II of England

King Charles II of England

Around the same time, King Charles II of England grew suspicious of coffee houses as hubs for sedition and rebellion, issuing an order to shut them all down. However, resistance against coffee proved short-lived. Pope Clement VIII, before passing judgment on coffee, decided to try it and found it delicious and delightful. With his approval, the clergy's resistance to coffee dissipated. Frederick the Great, in his later years, became an avid coffee drinker, consuming multiple cups each morning. King Charles II, not wanting to repeat his predecessor's fate in the English Civil War, wisely chose not to antagonize the masses and interfere with their love for coffee and coffee houses.

Resistance, Rebellion, and the Enlightenment

Etching of a "Penny university"

For centuries, beer and wine reigned supreme as the preferred beverages of Europeans. Even children turned to them because drinking water was unsafe Life was lived in a perpetual state of low-level intoxication. Then, coffee emerged as a game-changer. It offered a safe alternative made with boiling water, while also providing a stimulating effect. This had a tremendous impact on society, some even argue that it marked the birth of the modern world.

The coffee houses of the 17th and 18th centuries were vibrant establishments, unlike their modern counterparts. They were not mere grab-and-go espresso joints but places where people gathered to savor their coffee, engage in board games, socialize, and, most importantly, discuss politics, philosophy, religion, and art. These coffee houses were treasure troves of books and magazines, serving as information hubs akin to today's social media platforms.

In Oxford, England, these coffee houses were playfully called "penny universities" because they welcomed all, and even a commoner could find themselves immersed in conversations with writers, philosophers, and intellectuals, all for the price of a cup of coffee.

The 17th and 18th centuries were a time of momentous change and advancements in science, mathematics, philosophy, and the arts—the era of Enlightenment and reason. The sobriety and stimulation brought about by coffee, coupled with the intellectual gatherings and egalitarian spirit fostered by coffee house culture, played a pivotal role in these transformative developments. It was not uncommon to find luminaries such as Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau engrossed in their work and captivating audiences within the cozy confines of their favorite coffee houses.

So, let's raise our cups to coffee, the catalyst of fear and enlightenment, the brew that defied prohibitions, stimulated minds and fueled social progress.


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