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How coffee conquered the Middle East

Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East - Ralph S. Hattox

Coffee is so commonplace today that most of its avid consumers are unaware of just how controversial a beverage it was in its early years. Yet its initial appearance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was opposed by several legal and medical figures, some of whom even attempted to ban coffee from consumption by Muslims. This controversy serves as the starting point for Ralph Hattox’s book, which describes the emergence of coffee in the region by using these efforts and the debates they spawned to examine the beverage and the social institutions that developed around it.

 

To accomplish this, Hattox faces two interrelated challenges: the relative scarcity of sources and the contradictions between them. Sifting through them, he makes a convincing case for the origins of coffee as a beverage in the use of it by Sufi mystics in Yemen as a stimulus during their night-long devotional ceremonies. Coffee drinking spread quickly to the broader Muslim society, where it soon grew in popularity. Hattox argues that it was not coffee itself that engendered the initial controversy so much as the gathering of people to drink it, an action which raised concerns for some in authority.  Yet their efforts to ban coffee as an intoxicating beverage ultimately failed, as it soon became a common part of Muslim life. The key to this, according to the author, was the emergence of the coffeehouse. Though modeled after wine taverns, unlike those disreputable institutions coffeehouses offered a respectable place for people to enjoy the beverage – and in doing so, transformed urban Muslim society by offering a new social form where Muslims could interact with each other.

 

With its fascinating analysis of the legal debate over coffee and its colorful description of the development of coffeehouses in the Middle East, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in the rise of coffee as a social beverage. Hattox makes good use of his limited sources to provide the reader with a history of its sometimes tumultuous origins, supplementing his description of the various legal debates and cases with insightful and well-reasoned observations. Though some may find his focus to be a little too narrow, he nonetheless succeeds in offering an excellent introduction to the history of coffee’s origins, one that leaves its readers enjoying their morning cup with deeper appreciation and insight.