How coffee crushed the Ottoman Empire

In the early 19th century, the vast Ottoman Empire was starting to fracture, and coffee helped hasten its demise, according to The Economist’s cultural magazine 1843.

“Coffee came to Turkey during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. When the man he despatched to govern Yemen came across an energising drink known there as qahwah, he brought it back to the Ottoman court in Constantinople, where it was an instant hit,” Sarah Jilani wrote in an essay for 1843 last week.

To serve the perfect little cup of coffee, or kahve, Ottoman palaces soon had a kahveci usta, or coffee-master, with assistants helping him grind Arabica beans into an extra-fine powder, which was then boiled in copper pots called cezves.

“The resulting drink – bitter, black and topped with a thin layer of froth created by pouring it quickly – was served in small porcelain cups,” Jilani wrote. “To balance its bitterness, legend has it, Suleiman’s wife, Hürrem Sultan, took her kahve with a glass of water and a square of Turkish Delight – which is how it is served in Turkey today.”

A hardline cleric in Suleiman’s court issued a fatwa against the stimulating beverage on the grounds that consuming anything burnt was forbidden. But that didn’t slow its rise, according to Jilani.

Two Syrians opened the first public coffeehouse, or kahvehane, in Istanbul in 1555. Soon, nearly one in six shops in the city served coffee, and kahve began to percolate to the far reaches of the empire.

“Coffee houses gave men somewhere to congregate other than in homes, mosques or markets, providing a place for them to socialise, exchange information, entertain – and be educated,” Jilani wrote. “Literate members of society read aloud the news of the day; janissaries, members of an elite cadre of Ottoman troops, planned acts of protest against the Sultan; officials discussed court intrigue; merchants exchanged rumours of war. And the illiterate majority listened in. In the coffee houses they were introduced to ideas that spelled trouble for the Ottoman state: rebellion, self-determination and the fallibility of the powerful.”

Authorities soon began to see the coffeehouse as a threat. A major shift from today, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has vowed to open 24-hour coffeehouses across the country and the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate says coffee houses are among the most important creations of Turkish civilization.

Back then, some sultans installed spies in coffee houses to gauge public opinion, while others, like Murad IV, an early-18th-century sultan, tried shutting them down, according to Jilani. But they failed, and coffeehouses came to play a little-known role in the collapse of the empire.

“When simmering nationalist movements came to a boil throughout Ottoman lands in the 19th century, the popularity of coffee houses burgeoned,” wrote Jilani. “Nationalist leaders planned their tactics and cemented alliances in the coffee houses of Thessaloniki, Sofia and Belgrade. Their caffeine-fuelled efforts succeeded with the establishment of an independent Greece in 1821, Serbia in 1835, and Bulgaria in 1878. The reign of kahve was over."