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From Mecca to Europe - The Origins of the Coffee House

Did you know the coffee house first emerged in the Arab world?

The origins of coffee houses trace back to 15th-century Mecca in Saudi Arabia, where the aromatic brew qahveh, captivated the Arabian Peninsula.

Interestingly the use of coffee in Mecca initially had a religious significance by Muslims and was used as a tool by Sufi Muslims to assist in fasting in Ramadan and stay up and alert for night prayers during the holy month.

Additionally, it was used for medicinal purposes some of which scientists today acknowledge do work. Nowadays, very few religious people would ever consider drinking coffee for contemplation … but many of us wouldn't be able to complete a day’s work without the drink.

Coffee soon became a drink for everyone and what emerged in the late 1400s, was the creation of the first public coffee houses in Mecca, named qahveh kanes. These establishments became more than just places to savor the rich coffee; they transformed into hubs of social life, known as "Schools of the Wise."

In the early 1500s, imams in Mecca took drastic measures, banning both the coffee houses and the consumption of coffee from 1512 to 1524. The underlying fear was that these gatherings became hotbeds for political discourse, challenging the status quo.

Coffee houses, it seemed, had become arenas for political debate. Undeterred by the ban, coffee houses reopened, and coffee's influence continued to expand across the Middle East—reaching Egypt, Persia, Turkey, and Syria.

In 1475, the Kiva Han, debuted in Constantinople (now Istanbul), marking a transformative moment in coffee history. The Ottoman Empire's influence led to the widespread establishment of coffee houses, reshaping social interactions like the impact of modern social media on communication.

Coffee gained its great title at that time. Elegance was added to the presentation of refinement in the cooking techniques in Ottoman lands. Once coffee became popular in the Ottoman court, the position of Chief Coffee Maker was established, brewing the perfect pot of coffee for the Sultan & his guests.

Coffee houses were not only places to discuss politics but also to negotiate business deals, resolve conflicts, and forge alliances. They became the birthplaces of literary masterpieces, with renowned writers, poets, and intellectuals converging to share ideas.

Despite periodic bans and controversies, the popularity of coffee persisted. In Mecca, the ban was eventually lifted, and coffee resumed its journey across Arabia. With pilgrims visiting Mecca from around the world, the fame of the "wine of Araby" spread far and wide.

By the late 16th century, coffee had become ingrained in the daily lives of people across Arabia, North Africa, and Turkey. The enjoyment of coffee in Egypt goes back to the brotherhood of the Islamic Sufis who drank it during their prayers.

In the late 17th century, Cairo boasted 643 Bayt Qahwa coffee houses, serving as cultural hubs and public meeting spots. The Ottoman Empire's expansion facilitated coffee's spread to the Eastern Mediterranean. However, it wasn't until the 17th century that coffee beans thrived beyond Africa and Arabia.

Legend has it that a pilgrim named Baba Budan smuggled coffee beans out of Mecca, sparking the cultivation of coffee in India. Many believe Baba Budan strapped the beans to his chest before embarking on a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he sampled the coffee for the first time.

He smuggled the precious seeds back to his homeland in Karnataka, India, where he cultivated them and established the country's first coffee plantation. Baba Budan is still revered as the "father of Indian coffee," and he is widely celebrated in Indian culture.

Coffee comes from the Dutch word, koffie, which emerged from the Turkish word, kahve, which originally came from the Arabic, qahwa, which is still used in the region today. The evolution of the word reflects the spread of coffee along the Silk Routes from South Arabia to Europe in the 16th century.

Coffee finally arrived in Venice in 1570 and quickly became quite popular. In 1615, Pope Clement VIII decided that the drink must be satanic. Upon inspection, however, he gave in to the glory of the beverage, baptized it, and declared it a Christian beverage.

As the 1600s rolled on, coffee houses sprung up all over Europe in England, Austria, France, Germany, and Holland. The first coffee house opened in England in 1650, & by 1700 coffeehouses in London had become popular.

Viewed in the UK as coming from the Ottoman Empire, coffeehouses usually had signs depicting an Ottoman outside them, indicating that coffee was served in the establishment.

Much like the coffee houses of Arabia, these places became social hubs where one could engage in stimulating conversation and political debates. In England, these became known as penny universities. Coffee houses became the go-to place for Englishmen. If they weren’t working or at the pub, they were at the coffee houses.

 Women at the time were furious as their husbands were never home anymore, always drinking coffee and engaging in religious and political discussions. In 1674, the Women’s Petition Against Coffee was born in an attempt to ban coffee and bring their men back home.

In conclusion, the epic journey of coffee houses from Mecca to Europe is more than a tale of a beverage—it's a story of cultural exchange, resilience, and the enduring power of shared experiences. Today, as we gather in our own modern coffee spaces, we continue to honor this rich legacy.

Arab Coffeehouse, Henri Matisse, 1912–1913

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