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The socio-cultural history of the Pousse Café. Part 1: Coffee culture in the Ottoman Empire

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The Pousse Café, together with the Knickebein, a drink that was ubiquitous in Germany before the First World War, has unfortunately fallen into oblivion. It is practically no longer served and the social role it played has long been forgotten. Its origins lie in the Ottoman Empire.

The starting point for this research was an enquiry from Stefan Adrian asking if I could write something about “the socio-cultural background of the Pousse Café” for Mixology Online. For a long time, I couldn’t find any access to this topic, but then everything just fell into place. So join us on this wonderful journey, where you will learn about the basics of the Pousse Café: Ottoman and French coffee house culture, the emergence of the press, the Age of Enlightenment, the emancipation of women, European salon culture, the history of liqueur and sugar and French and German everyday life.

Coffee in Yemen

The coffee plant originated in Ethiopia. However, it was probably first cultivated in Yemen. It is said that the reason for this lies in Sufism, a variety of Islam whose followers are known as Sufis or dervishes. [1] [2] [5-63]

In order to induce a trance, amphetamine-containing leaves of the cath bush were chewed. However, these were not always available, which is why in the 15th century an Islamic legal scholar is said to have recommended drinking “qahwa”, as he called coffee, which he had learnt about in Ethiopia, as an alternative. Some say that the Mufti of Aden learnt about coffee in Persia and then popularised it in his city. This drink not only drove away tiredness, but also melancholy. [1] [4-64] [5-63] This made it easier for the dervishes to perform their ‘dance of the spinning dervishes’. [1] [2] [5-63]

Coffee in Mecca

Coffee houses were established in Mecca at the end of the 15th century. For pious people, this was scandalous, which is why the chief of police of Mecca, Khayr Beg, managed to have coffee declared ‘harām’, unauthorised, in 1511. As a result, both the sale and use of coffee was banned; sellers were penalised and stocks were burnt. After Khayr Beg’s replacement in 1512, however, coffee was consumed again. [3-1]

Coffee was in use in Africa and Persia long before the Arabs drank it. [5-64]

Coffee in Egypt

Coffee became popular in Egypt in the first ten years of the 16th century. Here, too, it was initially banned, but also with little success.

Suleiman der Prächtige

Suleiman the Magnificent was Sultan from 1520 to 1566. [4] During his reign, coffee became fashionable in Constantinople. [5-65] The Ottoman historiographer Ibrahim Peçevi reports on his time: [3-2]Until the year 962/1554-55, coffee was unknown both in the capital and in the Ottoman territories in general, and there were no coffee houses. Around this year, a man named Hakim from Aleppo and a man named Shams from Damascus came to the city. They each opened a large shop in the Tahtakalé neighbourhood and started supplying coffee. These shops became meeting places for pleasure-seekers, idlers, but also for some literary aesthetes; they made it a habit to meet in groups of twenty or thirty; some read books or beautiful writings, others were busy with trie-trac or chess, still others brought new poems or talked about literature. [3-3] Those who were used to spending a lot of money on meals to get together found that they could achieve the pleasures of being together even if they only spent an aspre or two as the price of coffee. This went so far that all sorts of unemployed officials, judges and professors, all seeking promotions, and the unemployed proclaimed that there were no comparable places for pleasure and relaxation, and they filled them until there was no more room to sit down or stand up. [3-4] This became so well known that, in addition to the holders of high office, great men could not help but come there. Imams, muezzins and hypocritical pious people said: ‘People rush to the cafes and no one comes to the mosques’, and the ulema in turn proclaimed: ‘These are houses of bad living; it is better to go to a tavern than to go there’. The preachers went to great lengths to ban cafes: The muftis argued that anything that is burnt until it chars, i.e. becomes coal, is illegal, and issued fatwas against the café.[3-5]

– “Bis zum Jahr 962/1554-55 war sowohl in der Hauptstadt als auch allgemein in den osmanischen Gebieten Kaffee unbekannt, und es gab keine Kaffeehäuser. Um dieses Jahr herum kamen ein Mann namens Hakim aus Aleppo und ein Mann namens Schams aus Damaskus in die Stadt. Sie eröffneten jeweils einen großen Laden im Stadtteil Tahtakalé und begannen, Kaffee zu liefern. Diese Läden wurden zu Versammlungsorten für Vergnügungssüchtige, Müßiggänger, aber auch für einige literarische Schöngeister; sie machten es sich zur Gewohnheit, sich in Gruppen von zwanzig oder dreißig zu treffen; einige lasen Bücher oder schöne Schriften, andere waren mit Trie-Trac oder Schach beschäftigt, wieder andere brachten neue Gedichte mit oder sprachen über Literatur. [3-3] Diejenigen, die es gewohnt waren, viel Geld für Mahlzeiten auszugeben, um sich zu versammeln, stellten fest, dass sie die Freuden des Zusammenseins auch erreichen konnten, wenn sie nur einen oder zwei Aspre als Kaffeepreis ausgaben. Das ging so weit, daß alle Arten von arbeitslosen Beamten, Richtern und Professoren, die alle nach Beförderungen suchten, und Unbeschäftigte verkündeten, daß es keine vergleichbaren Orte für Vergnügen und Entspannung gäbe, und sie füllten sie, bis es keinen Platz mehr gab, um sich hinzusetzen oder aufzustehen. [3-4] Das wurde so wohlbekannt, daß neben den Inhabern hoher Ämter auch große Männer nicht anders konnten, als dorthin zu kommen. Imame, Muezzine und scheinheilige Fromme sagten: ›Die Leute eilen in die Cafés, und niemand kommt in die Moscheen‹, und die Ulema verkündeten ihrerseits: ›Das sind Häuser des schlechten Lebens; es ist besser, in eine Taverne zu gehen als dorthin‹. Die Prediger bemühten sich sehr, Cafés zu verbieten: Die Muftis argumentierten, daß alles, was bis zur Verkohlung verbrannt wird, also zu Kohle wird, illegal sei, und erließen Fatwas gegen das Café.” [3-5]

Shams appears to have returned to Syria after only three years in Constantinople, albeit with a profit of 5,000 gold coins. [3-5]

Murad III

After Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim II, Sultan from 1566 to 1574, became ruler of the Ottoman Empire. He was followed by Murad III . [4]

Under Murad III, Sultan from 1574 to 1595, [4] there were bans and coffee houses were closed, but some people who had made contact with the chief of police and the commander of the guard were nevertheless given permission to sell coffee in narrow, inconspicuous shops in back courtyards. Coffee consumption was only permitted within families. [3-6] [5-64]

Bostanzade Mehmed Efendi, first mufti from 1589 to 1592 and from 1593 to 1598, gave his approval to coffee consumption, but other ulema remained opposed. Government business was criticised in coffee houses; the authorities were alarmed by this and issued decrees against coffee houses, but these had little effect. [3-7]

Coffee eventually became so widespread that its prohibition had to be lifted. Preachers and muftis declared that coffee was not completely carbonised and that drinking coffee was therefore not illegal. Everyone now drank coffee, whether ulema or sheikh, vizier and other important figures. Grand viziers even invested in large coffee houses and rented them out for one or two gold pieces a day.[3-8]

Murad IV, Ibrahim I and Mehmed IV

Between Murad III and Murad IV, sultan from 1623 to 1640, there were five other sultans, [4] and not all Ottoman rulers favoured coffee consumption. The historiographer Na’imâ reported that the great fire of Constantinople, which devastated the city in 1633, led to discontent among the population, which was loudly voiced in coffee houses. Murad IV therefore banned coffee and tobacco. [3-10] At the beginning of the sixteenth century, coffee led to similar unrest in Cairo. [5-64] Even under his successor Ibrahim I, Sultan from 1640 to 1648, coffee houses remained banned in all cities of the country. It was only under his successor Mehmed IV, Sultan from 1648 to 1687, that they were reopened. [3-10] [4]

Ottoman coffee houses

Despite all the prohibitions, coffee became an integral part of Islamic culture. There were also coffee houses in the Ottoman Empire. However, these were not just a place where people drank coffee, but a political institution. People met there to discuss and criticise the sultan and the authorities. It is therefore not surprising that coffee houses were monitored. [1] [5-64]

A French encyclopaedia reported in 1803: “In Persia, as here [in France], these houses became an honourable asylum for idlers and a place of relaxation for busy men. Politicians talked there about news, poets recited their verses and mullahs delivered their sermons.[5-64]

Anonymus: Nouveau dictionnaire d'histoire naturelle. Volume IV, 1803, page 64.
Anonymus: Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle. Volume IV, 1803, page 64. [5-64]

“En Perse, ces maisons devinrent, comme chez nous, un asyle honnête pour des gens oisifs, et un lieu de délassement pour les hommes occupés. Les politiques s’y entretenoient de nouvelles, les poètes y récitoient leurs vers, et les mollachs leurs sermons.” [5-64]

What European travellers reported from the Ottoman Empire

Auch in Europa nahm man vom osmanischen Kaffeekonsum Notiz. Im 17. Jahrhundert berichteten europäische Reisende darüber. Pietro della Valle schrieb um 1614: People in Europe also took note of Ottoman coffee consumption. In the 17th century, European travellers reported on it. Pietro della Valle wrote around 1614: “The Turks also have another drink, the colour of which is black, and in summer it is very refreshing, while in winter it is very hot, … and they drink it in long draughts, not before eating, but afterwards, as a kind of sweet, and in sips, in order to converse comfortably in the company of friends … . This drink, … and the fruit it produces is called cahvé, …. .[3-9] Jean Thevenot wrote in 1664: “But they have another [drink] which is very common to them. They call it cahvé and use it at all hours of the day … ; some mix cloves and a few grains of cardamom … in it, others add sugar … . There is no poor or rich person who does not drink at least two or three cups a day, and it is one of the things the husband is obliged to provide for his wife… .[3-9]

“Die Türken haben auch ein anderes Getränk, dessen Farbe schwarz ist, und im Sommer ist es sehr erfrischend, während es im Winter sehr heiß ist, … und man trinkt es in langen Zügen, nicht vor dem Essen, sondern danach, als eine Art Süßigkeit, und in Schlucken, um sich in der Gesellschaft von Freunden bequem zu unterhalten … . Dieses Getränk, … und die Frucht, die er hervorbringt, heißt Cahvé, … .[3-9]

– “Aber sie haben noch ein anderes [Getränk], das ihnen sehr gewöhnlich ist. Sie nennen es Cahvé und verwenden es zu allen Stunden des Tages … ; manche mischen Nelken und einige Kardamonkörner … hinein, andere fügen Zucker hinzu … . Es gibt keinen Armen oder Reichen, der nicht mindestens zwei oder drei Tassen am Tag trinkt, und es ist eines der Dinge, zu denen der Ehemann verpflichtet ist, seine Frau zu versorgen… .[3-9]

In 1803, a French encyclopaedia reported: “The Orientals drink coffee all day long, up to three or four ounces a day: they make it thick and drink it hot in small cups, without milk or sugar, but flavoured with cloves, cinnamon, caraway or essence d’ambre.[5-76]

Anonymus: Nouveau dictionnaire d'histoire naturelle. Volume IV, 1803, page 76.
Anonymus: Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle. Volume IV, 1803, page 76. [5-76]

– “Les Orientaux prennent du café tonte la journée , et jusqu’à trois ou quatre onces par jour: ils le font épais, et le boivent chaud dans de petites tasses, sans lait ni sucre, mais parfumé avec des clous de girofle, de la cannelle, des grains de cumin ou de l’essence d’ambre.[5-76]

Ottoman coffee house culture arrived in France, and Hanna Diyāb reports on it in his travelogue, which has gone largely unnoticed until now. The next article in this series will therefore be dedicated to his statements.

  1. https://www.swr.de/swr2/programm/download-swr-15678.pdf SWR2 Wissen. Kaffee – Vom „Türkentrunk” zum Trendgetränk. By Dimitrios Kisoudis. Transmission: Thursday, 29. September 2016, 08:30. Production: SWR 2016.
  2. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sufismus Sufismus.
  3. https://books.openedition.org/iremam/1193  Robert Mantran: Le café à Istanbul au xviie siècle. In: Le café en Méditerranée. Histoire, anthropologie, économie. XVIIIe-XXe siècle. Seite 17-30.
  4. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_der_Sultane_des_Osmanischen_Reichs Liste der Sultane des Osmanischen Reichs.
  5. https://archive.org/details/nouveaudictionna41803/page/64/mode/2up?q=%22etienne+d%27Alep%22 Anonymus: Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle appliquée aux arts, principalement à l’agriculture et à l’économie rurale et domestique. Band IV. Paris, 1803

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Hi, I'm Armin and in my spare time I want to promote bar culture as a blogger, freelance journalist and Bildungstrinker (you want to know what the latter is? Then check out "About us"). My focus is on researching the history of mixed drinks. If I have ever left out a source you know of, and you think it should be considered, I look forward to hearing about it from you to learn something new. English is not my first language, but I hope that the translated texts are easy to understand. If there is any incomprehensibility, please let me know so that I can improve it.

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