How Coffee Revolutionized Jerusalem Social Life in the 16th Century

Rabbis were uncertain whether it was permitted to drink it, and places that served it were accused of encouraging homosexuality. A new exhibition examines the origins of the coffee scene in Jerusalem, which caused scandals and prompted investigations even as it united rich and poor alike

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Items on display at the Jerusalem exhibition.
Items on display at the Jerusalem exhibition.
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

In the mid-16th century, complaints from residents of Jerusalem reached the palace of the sultan in Istanbul: As a result of the new custom of visiting coffeehouses, which was spreading among the city’s Muslim denizens, many of them were not praying five times a day, as prescribed by Islam. “In the history of the human race, ‘new’ is not always something positive,” Amnon Cohen, professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says jocularly. “It’s tantamount to, ‘If the new thing is really good, it would long since have been old.’” The anonymous complaints were submitted – probably not by ordinary folk, more likely by Muslim clerics who feared seeing the coffeehouse supplant the mosque – to the qadi, the judge of the Jerusalem court, who forwarded a copy of his report to his superiors in the Ottoman capital.

“The reply he received, like in our day, such as in the ‘submarines affair,’ is that he should establish a commission of inquiry,” Cohen continues. “He did so, and the next report he sent back to Istanbul noted that these new institutions, the coffeehouses, were indeed being opened of late in the city’s densely populated residential neighborhoods and that they had become a nuisance to the local population. Transcripts of the Muslim court, which to this day is located on Saladin Street in Jerusalem, also refer to edicts of that time that had banned the drinking of the popular new beverage. But this [16th-century] report no longer dealt with the drink itself and about whether it’s permissible to partake of it. Drinking coffee as such, despite the newness of it, was no longer improper and no longer banned. Now the point was the annoyance the new institution was creating, and from this we derive information about the character of the first coffeehouses in Jerusalem.”

Those first cafés – others were opened around the same time in Gaza, Ramle, Nablus, Damascus and Aleppo – operated all day and all night, a sensational innovation in the pre-electricity age, when people usually went to bed early.

“In the Middle East of the premodern era, few people left the house in the evening hours – at most they sat with the family at home or with neighbors in shared courtyards,” says Dr. Shai Vahaba, a historian whose doctoral thesis dealt with material culture and daily life in the region during the period. The congregating of the clients during the day and especially at night caused a commotion. The din of conversation and the gales of laughter were augmented by music – presented by instrumentalists, dancers and actors. And on top of the noise people complained about the smoke that swirled up from the roasting of the coffee, which was prepared over an open fire.

Credit: Dan Perez

The presence of the clients, some of whom would be seated in the street, attracted peddlers, who offered skewers of roasted meat, another nuisance and source of dirt. Tobacco was another new pleasure that the authorities and clerics tried to fight – again unsuccessfully – and the smoke of water pipes, sometimes mingled with the aroma of opium, became an inseparable part of the new coffeehouse experience. And because all the clients of these new institutions were men, for whom the public space, both religious and secular, was exclusively reserved in the Ottoman Empire – the coffeehouses were also accused of encouraging homosexuality and of generating an atmosphere liable to give rise to sexual harassment.

“The waiters who poured the boiling coffee from the pot into the cups were young boys who didn’t have even the shadow of a beard yet,” notes Cohen. “And they were chosen deliberately in order to lure the clients to hang out in the café.”

“Coffee – East and West” is the title of the new exhibition at the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem. It’s also the title of an accompanying comprehensive, visually rich collection of articles on the subject. The history of local coffee culture, from the 16th century down to our time, is only one of the chapters in a global story and the latest attempt to fathom the secret of the popularity of the beverage, an inexpensive stimulant that has conquered the world, from different perspectives.

“The story of this country is singular, because two coffee traditions coexisted here over time: Ottoman-Turkish-Arabian coffee that is cooked; and Western coffee, which is filtered and prepared by a variety of methods and in different utensils,” says Yahel Shefer, the exhibition’s co-curator (with Noa Berger), who spent the past five years studying the subject and collecting rare items associated with the material culture that sprang up side by side with the social etiquette that accompanies coffee consumption. Indeed, there is probably no other food or beverage for which so many accessories have been designed.

Credit: Dan Perez

“This story also seen in the products of local industries that designed and manufactured complementary items for coffee drinking,” says Shefer. “Palalum – Palestine Aluminum – established in Ramat Gan in the 1930s, manufactured macchinettas [moka pots] in the European style, as well as brikkas, coffee pots in the Ottoman-Arab style. And Palceramic, founded in the 1940s, turned out utensils of European design decorated with hand-painted motifs, such as sabra [prickly pear] bushes, associated with the local culture.”

Coffee, she adds, “also gives rise to a unique institution dedicated to it, which becomes the most popular gathering place in the world. In Palestine, coffeehouses were established in the Ottoman-Arab tradition but also in the European-Western tradition, which was brought by the [German] Templers and by Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. In the early 20th century, people in Zion Square in Jerusalem would drink Turkish-Arabian coffee in the morning, and in the afternoon hang out in the famous Café Europa.”

Those first cafés operated all day and all night, a sensational innovation in the pre-electricity age, when people usually went to bed early.

Secular beverage

The source of the coffee bush, and of the use of the coffee bean, lies in Ethiopia. From there coffee agriculture and awareness of coffee’s potency as a stimulant crossed to Yemen on the other side of the Red Sea. By the end of the 15th century, the beans and the beverage made from them had reached Mecca, Medina and Cairo, not least thanks to Sufi orders whose members used coffee to help remain awake during lengthy rituals. The Ottoman army, which conquered the Arabian Peninsula and the rest of the Middle East from the Mamelukes and even reached the gates of Europe, created a large and safe political space that enabled economic prosperity and the development of a leisure culture. By the mid-16th century, coffee, via the Syria and Palestine region, had reached Istanbul, where coffeehouses opened and then spread across the cities of Anatolia.

A finjan with a silver lid, from the Bursa collection.Credit: Dan Perez

“The camel convoys of traders carrying coffee beans were not new in the region,” says Amnon Cohen, in reference to the significant contribution that historians attribute to the Ottoman Empire in regard to the spread of coffee and the coffee culture. “But the routes became safe, and a world that can provide physical security and flourishing economies is one with more leisure time available. One of the reasons that the institution of the café was so successful in the Middle East, a region heavily populated by Muslims, who are prohibited from drinking wine, was people’s hunger for a place where they could simply meet and talk. Muslim cities of the period had hardly any public places – apart from the mosque – where social activity could be conducted.” In the Muslim world, then, coffee took the place of wine as a psychoactive substance that inhibits hunger, raises the spirits and “quiets the vapors of the brain.”

The owners of the Jerusalem cafés opened by the mid-16th century were for the most part Muslims, though they were frequented by Jews and Christians as well. Jewish clerics joined their Muslim colleagues in expressing misgivings about the popular new beverage and the social institution that was springing up around it.

“The first Hebrew mention of a coffeehouse appears in Safed in the 1560s,” says Prof. Yaron Ben-Naeh from the department of Jewish history at the Hebrew University. “The Safed café is mentioned as having a dubious reputation, or in the words of the text, it was a place of ‘frivolous company.’ The religious arbiters of Judaism, like their Muslim counterparts, are undecided about whether it is permitted to drink coffee. Isaac Luria, the holy ‘Ari’ [“Lion,” his epithet], the greatest of the kabbalists, rules that drinking coffee is forbidden, but the believers simply ignore it. No one abides by the prohibitions.”

Despite additional doubts related to halakha (traditional Jewish law) – such as which blessing should be uttered upon drinking coffee, or whether a Jew can consume the beverage in a Muslim coffeehouse, lest a friendship lead to assimilation – the new drink managed to evade the rigid and binding restrictions that apply, for example, to the drinking of wine that was made or is served by a non-Jew.

Zarfs (“envelopes,” in Turkish) – small, short-legged vessels that held finjans – coffee cups. From the Bursa collectionCredit: Dan Perez

“I believe that in this case, coffee’s newness was actually beneficial to the beverage,” Ben-Naeh says. “You didn’t have the ancient historical baggage of wine and the restrictions that were imposed in connection with it by the early Middle Ages. Coffee was a new beverage, and even though its origins were linked to Muslim religious orders, at this stage it was still considered a secular beverage and, as such, the café was also considered a secular institution. The religious arbiters continue to split hairs over whether it was permissible to drink coffee that was prepared by a ‘goy’ on Shabbat – even at this very early stage, there were already people who were addicted to coffee and to tobacco, who asked, hopefully, whether it was permissible to go to a coffeehouse on Shabbat in order to inhale the smoke of Muslim smokers – but most people just did as they pleased.”

Because all the clients of the new institutions were men, coffeehouses in the Ottoman Empire were accused of encouraging homosexuality and of generating an atmosphere liable to give rise to sexual harassment.

Says Vahaba: “Religion was still the major influence on day-to-day life In the 16th and 17th centuries, but the example of coffee proves that it was no longer the exclusive shaper of everyday life, that the will of the individual was assuming increasing importance and that he could shape the world to his needs. Coffee consumption was born from below; popular will dictates it and it is universally adopted. One reason for this is that it’s inexpensive, so all classes could indulge in a type of pleasure that throughout most of history had been reserved solely for the fabulously rich, but also because everyone wants to be part of it. You go to the mosque because it’s obligatory; congregating in a café is not an obligation, you go because you want to chat and gossip, to play dice and board games and to listen to music.”

Early evidence for the institutionalization of a local coffee culture is the existence of the coffee-sellers’ guild, which appears in the records of the Muslim court in Jerusalem in 1590. “We don’t have an exact list of the members, but we do know that in Jerusalem there were already at least five to seven cafés, a sizable number relative to the city’s population at the time, and they appear under their names and addresses,” Cohen says. “Membership in the professional guilds, such as those of the builders, bakers or goldsmiths, entails supervision over the prices of the coffee and its quality.”

The coffee culture continued to take root in the 17th century, Vahaba relates. “Someone in Jerusalem who wants a cup of coffee can now get one from a street-seller who carries a large ibbrik, a coffee pot, on his back, or a copper tray with finjans, small cups, on his head. He can also get a cup of coffee in tiny shops – small rooms with two or three places to sit where coffee pots are placed on a rented stove – or in the spacious cafes where people sit on benches, pillows or low stools. But the great innovation of the century was that people were already starting to make themselves coffee at home.”

Palalum coffee utensils from the '40s-'60s. Credit: Dan Perez

Vahaba drew his knowledge of daily life in 17th-century Palestine from examination of records of the objects left behind by the deceased; in other words, by means of arduously going through an entire decade of estates in the records of the Muslim court. One can only imagine how many cups of coffee that heroic effort required, but the results justify the work.

He continues: “In the second half of the 1600s, there isn’t an estate in Jerusalem that doesn’t include a coffee pot and coffee cups, and usually a lot of them. To the modern person that sounds self-evident, but in the premodern era most people had barely any material property – most died with only the clothes on their back – other than a few cooking pots, dishes and spoons. Knives and forks were hardly used – people wrapped their food in torn slices of bread, and drank water or other beverages from clay jugs or from one cup that was shared with others. And suddenly there was an abundance of finjans, some of them made of porcelain and imported from China; others brought from Iznik, the pottery center of the Ottoman world; and gradually locally manufactured utensils also appeared, especially in the Gaza region and on the slopes of Mount Hermon.”

Tale of a thousand cups

“The flavor, the aroma and the foam are temporary, but the objects that the material coffee culture creates are permanent and concrete,” says Nihal Bursa, architect, lecturer in design at Istanbul’s Beykent University and, with her husband Murat, a collector of items related to the world of coffee. “You can observe them and touch them, and they offer an experience that can be grasped through the five senses. The material culture that developed around coffee doesn’t only accompany the coffee rituals in the background; there’s a mutual influence between it and social niceties, and they shape one another.”

A zarf made of silver and gemstones. From the Bursa collectionCredit: Dan Perez

The current exhibition at the Museum of Islamic Art provides a rare and extensive look at a number of marvelous collections of material coffee culture. There are rare collectibles of Israeli porcelain – produced by Lapid, Naaman, Harsa and smaller ceramics factories that operated in Israel from the 1930s to the 1990s. Also on display are historical espresso machines, spectacles that are a feast for the eye, on loan from the collection of Iris and Ram Evgi, manufacturers of coffee-roasting machines and owners of one of the world’s largest collections of its kind. On show, too, is an Italian collection of modern design, and there are coffee utensils from the Ottoman world, borrowed from the Bursas’ collection, which numbers thousands of items, some of which have been exhibited in institutions such as the Topkapi Palace Museum.

The religious arbiters of Judaism, like their Muslim counterparts, are undecided about whether it is permitted to drink coffee. Isaac Luria, the greatest of the kabbalists, rules that drinking coffee is forbidden, but the believers ignore it.

Prof. Yaron Ben-Naeh

“My academic background is in archaeology and anthropology,” says curator Yahel Shefer. “From my perspective, these objects are the element that connects the items of food and drink themselves with the human stories, customs and traditions that were created around them. One of the most moving items is a Bedouin coffee pot that was welded from pieces of junk and scrap metal. The thought that coffee is so important in a person’s life that he will go to that much trouble to make it in the middle of the desert, moves me to tears. From the first it was clear to me that there was no way to mount an exhibition like this without utensils from the Ottoman world, but bringing them to Israel proved almost impossible, because of bureaucratic obstacles and the political situation. I had almost despaired, until the connection was made with Nihal and Murat Bursa, who moved heaven and earth to make all this happen.”

“Sustainability, from my point of view – and this is something that I have dealt with in my profession, too – means reaching out a hand to the future,” says Murat. “And the true bridge to the future is culture. Everything perishes, but it is an obligation to share our family collection, which contains material items but embodies historical cultural riches. In spite of the disputes and the present situation, it is important for us to support every initiative that promotes a common cultural heritage.”

“We hadn’t intended to become collectors,” Nihal says. “The two first items in the collection – porcelain coffee cups – were acquired more than 30 years ago at a public auction. But after I bought them I enjoyed arranging them on a tray next to a coffee pot and the other accessories. Drinking coffee in Turkey is truly a cultural rite in every respect, and acquiring coffee cups became a type of design-related amusement that is accompanied by sensuous enjoyment.”

Harsa coffee cups from the '60s.Credit: Dan Perez

Murat adds, “My intention, in the beginning, was really and truly to drink coffee at least once from every cup we bought. But today if we were to try to do that, we would need a few decades before we would have used each one.”

Gradually the Bursas’ collecting impulse spread to additional utensils associated with the rituals of coffee – roasting and cooling devices for beans; pestles and grinders; storage containers; cooking and serving utensils; and also historical correspondence, manufacturers’ packaging and other historical souvenirs and reminders of the important place coffee has occupied in human history in the past few centuries. Some of the finest and most expensive items that are on loan in the Jerusalem exhibition are types of zarfs (“envelopes,” in Turkish) – small, short-legged vessels that held finjans – coffee cups – the first cups which, inspired by the Chinese tradition, resembled small soup bowls.

“The first utensils that were brought from China had no handles,” Nihal notes. “They required a covering that would allow them to be held in the hands without scalding them. The functional aspect was very quickly enhanced by a symbolic meaning. It’s very difficult to set diamonds, pearls and precious metals on coffee cups, which contain a boiling liquid. But the zarf, which held cups made of porcelain, clay and glass, became a prestigious status symbol and a means to show off wealth and social class.”

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