Coffeehouses were first opened in the Tahtakale neighborhood of Istanbul almost five centuries ago. They have in time become open-to-public offices, places suitable for passing time, and places where the oral culture of the Ottoman Empire was gathered and disseminated. As it can be seen in various Ottoman miniatures depicting the life of the era, coffeehouses were cosmopolitan locales where various guests were entertained, and masculine, high-profile locations where boys with no facial hair served coffee. During the Ottoman period, one would meet friends in coffeehouses after work or after dinner. In this sense, one of the most important functions of coffeehouses was their contribution to social life. In Ottoman times, it was in coffeehouses that the bard, the comedian, the “Karagöz” (shadow play) artist would set their stage and perform. Hence, until the middle of the 20th century, coffeehouses served as production and exhibition places for folk literature. Coffee was always the favored drink of these lively and colorful locations, and starting from the Ottoman culture of the 16th century, it continued its worldwide spread.

“Wherever Turkish soldiers were deployed, the car loaded with coffee beans would arrive right after, to serve commissioned and non-commissioned officers” states Ulla Heise in her work entitled “Kaffee und Kaffeehaus, (Coffee and Coffeehouses)”. In the Ottoman Empire, the treasured coffee which was, appropriately enough, nicknamed “Black Pearl,” was one of the preferred drinks of men in the public sphere, and of woman in the private sphere. In our day, coffee has become an indispensable drink. Its popularization and spread from the Ottoman Empire to the whole of Europe has been made possible by travelers. Before long journeys, travelers would stock up on coffee, in their “cezve”s they would prepare and enjoy this refreshing and comforting drink.

It is difficult to state exactly who first gathered beans from the coffee plant, or who first roasted, grinded and boiled coffee. There are countless myths that deal with this issue both in Middle Eastern literature, and in Turkish pharmabotanic history. However, the fact that coffee was known in the year 1000 in both Yemen and Ethiopia, and that Ibn-i Sina’, the Turkish mathematician and medicine man has made mention of it, would suggest that the Middle East peninsula is the homeland of coffee.

The book “Dogu’da Kahve ve Kahvehaneler (Cafés d’Orient revisités)” compiled by Hélene Desmet-Grégoire and François Georgeon, states: “It could be said that coffee has a symbolic meaning; it is a new drink that integrates into the habits, the hospitality principles, and into the patterns of daily behavior shaped by these principles.” It is true that in today’s world coffee has adopted similar symbolic meanings. Starting with the Ottoman Empire, this drink which has become widespread; no doubt coffeehouses have had a major role in popularizing and spreading the drink.

A humorous anecdote which appears in the work “Coffee and Coffeehouse”s and which is attributed to Madame de Sévigné of the Paris jet-set of 1660 summarizes that the tradition was here to stay. Commenting upon everyone’s keenness on being invited to the Residence of the Turkish Ambassador to taste coffee, Madame de Sévigné affirmed “Drinking coffee is a fad; it shall be forgotten one day, just like the modern writer Racine.” Considering that neither of the predictions came true, it would be difficult to deny the role that Ottoman Empire played in making coffee and coffeehouses a part of tradition.

Despite the fact that drinking coffee and going to coffeehouses was forbidden on several occasions during the course of the Ottoman Empire, these reopened as a result of the pressure exerted by the public. Today, coffeehouses can be found on every corner in Turkey. One of the important characteristics that set coffeehouses apart from cafés is that in coffeehouses only drinks are served and table games which cannot be considered gamble are being played.

In keeping with tradition today, it is usually men who frequent coffeehouses. Although these also now welcome women, it may still not be possible to see female customers in the coffeehouses of Anatolia. However in larger cities, anyone can go to a coffeehouse to have a drink or two, to spend time, to read a book or a paper, and to play table games. One of the most important characteristics which separate coffeehouses from cafés in the modern sense are these table games such as bézique, bridge, okey (rummy-like game played with tiles), backgammon. Moreover today’s coffeehouses are categorized according to the games that one can play there. However these games are never played for any sort of material gain, and hence they are not considered gambling. The penalty for losing these games is limited to the loser footing the bill. In this sense, coffeehouses are locations open until a certain time at night, and they welcome people of all ages. However in more recent times, in an act of nostalgia, Turkish coffeehouses have started to serve the traditional water pipes known as nargile. As a result of modernization, the nargile served in coffeehouses contain many different aromas and flavors. As a result of the rediscovery of this nostalgic pleasure, coffeehouses are once again becoming favored places.

Reference: Yesim Gokce (Bilkent University)

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