Did you know, that in Istanbul drinking Coffee in public was punishable by death penalty?5 min read
Throughout Europe and the Middle East years ago tried to ban the black drink.
In 1633, the ottoman sultan Murad IV absolutely forbade an activity he believed was the cause of social decay and disunity of Istanbul, his capital. The risk and the bad habits of this activity were so terrible that he declared transgressors should be immediately punished with the death, and according to some documents, Murad IV controlled the streets of Istanbul undercover, using a 100-pound broadsword to decapitate all people that he found in this illicit and unaceptable activity.
And what was this terrible activity?
Drinking coffee in public.
Murad IV wasn’t the only that wanted to ban drink coffee, but surely he was the most brutal and determined. Read this, in current times where drink coffee is usual, obviously seems absurd, but however, according to Murad IV, coffee shops could damage social norms, encourage dangerous thoughts or stimulate other terrible things.
All this especially the early 16th and late 18th centuries, when some people thought coffee’s mild mind-altering effects meant it was a narcotic. Murad IV had particular reason to hate coffee culture. In his childhood it seems that his brother Osman II was deposed and brutally murdered by the janissaries, a military group that had grown increasingly autonomous and brutal, and a year later, also his uncle. Thereafter, Murad IV became a child ruler, and lived in fear of janissary rebellions. During one rebellion, they hung people close to him, and for this events he became a notoriously power- and order-obsessed absolutist, ready to use also lethal force. Murad IV knew that janissaries frequented coffee shops, and used them to plot coups. He did not want to have tension and uprisings in the society under his rule, as he sought to wrest control from the janissaries. Murad IV imposed the death penalty on coffee, public tobacco and opium consumption and closed taverns, other sources of supposed disorder. He killed also soldiers for minor infractions, and in the worst stories about him, (probably true) he flew into blind, middle-of-the-night rages and ran into the streets half naked to murder anyone he came across. The nonsense was that Murad IV never banned coffee wholesale, while kept on drinking coffee and liquor, and tolerated consumption when occurred in family socially homogeneous.
The Sultan’s successors continued his policies, and by the mid-1650s, over a decade after Murad IV’s death, someone wrote that Istanbul’s coffeehouses were still desolate as the heart of the ignorant.
These problems linked at coffee ended in the 16th century, when it reached much of the world. Coffee beans were just known and used since centuries in Ethiopia, their country of origin, but the first clear historical evidence of grinding coffee beans and drinking them into a cup of joe dates to 15th century Yemen. There, local Sufi Muslim orders used the drink in religious ceremonies like a social method to estabilished brotherhood, a narcotic to stimolate spiritual intoxication, or a concentration booster. The drink soon spread up the Red Sea, until Istanbul in the early 1500s and Christian Europe over the following century. And then, the reactionaries cited religious reasons to outlaw and prohibite coffee. According to the mind of the conservative Muslims, any innovation different from the time of the prophet Muhammad was illegal.
However, this reactionary tendencies were not only for Islam, later, also in Europe religious leaders asked the Pope to ban coffee because there were coffee intoxicated drinkers (forbidden), coffee was bad for the human body (forbidden), and that roasting made it the equivalent of charcoal (forbidden for consumption). Other personality also charged that coffeehouses were natural magnets for illegal behaviors such as gambling, prostitution, and drug usage, or simply because it was a new product, reason enough to forbidden it. But despite this, it’s difficult explain most of the coffee crackdowns in the Ottoman Empire, and it’s incredible that Bostanzade Mehmet Efendi, the highest ranking religious in the Ottoman world in the 1590s, issued a defense of coffee.
Politic reasons? It’s possible.
Before coffeehouses there weren’t many spaces in the Ottoman Empire for people to meet and talk about normal matters. Mosques offered a n hypotetic place, but was impossible accommodated long and speak about everyday life, and other places like taverns or similar weren’t for good Muslims. Coffeehouses were instead cheap and without social restrictions, so they were accessible to everyone. Here coffee was made slowly in a special pot for almost 20 minutes, served in a cup filled until the end, and was bitter and scalding hot, that it could only be consumed in tiny sips and people were so encouraged to sit.
A place where everybody could speak about everything, also politic questions, cities and governments. The first recorded coffee crackdown was in Mecca in 1511, when an important official in a pre-Ottoman regime, Kha‘ir Beg al-Mi‘mar, caught men drinking coffee outside of a mosque because thought they looked suspicious, and later other coffee crackdowns occured still in Mecca, Cairo (some times), Istanbul and other Ottoman areas. Only from the end of the 16th century, the Ottoman court had an official coffee maker, hundreds of coffeehouses dotted Istanbul, and the government officially declared coffee and coffeehouses writ large licit.
By the late 18th century, had created more secular meeting places, and coffeehouses was no longer a go-to dissent crusher, the bans stopped, although rulers still posted spies in them to monitor anti-regime chatter, a practice that some autocrats maintain until today.
At the end, coffee culture won against religious and political conservatism, and now we live in the world of Starbucks, Hard Rock Cafè and every kind of coffeehouses. What will the next steps? 🙂
Photos from web \\ public demain