The first coffee houses opened in Istanbul in the 16th century, Although they were banned from time to time, they survived to become a firmly rooted institution. Sark Kahvesi in Eyüp Sultan (top) carries the weary weight of the years. Above is an oil painting of a 19th century Ottoman coffee house by Fabius Brest. When the sunny days of summer pass and the weather turns cold and rainy, the inhabitants of Istanbul look for somewhere to take refuge. The winter season has come, and with it melancholy prevails. The sense of freedom which lent vitality under blue skies is superseded by gloomy lethargy under lowering grey clouds. Now it is time to leave the open air to retreat behind steamed up windows, not just to escape the cold but to past the time, relax, and enjoy a spot of conversation. The coffee house on a street corner, up a quiet alley or next to the local mosque, is just the place. Although open in summer too, it is in winter that these really respond to psychological needs, with steaming glasses of hot strong tea
doing the rounds, and the soothing sound of bubbling nargiles.
Coffee houses are perfect for enjoyable conversations and clandestine meetings. They are also mirrors of Istanbul's complex social texture, the place for heated discussions of politics, the latest football results, and the latest gossip from school or work. Love affairs begin and end here, and secrets are disclosed. In short the diaries of the country and individuals are written in the coffee houses. In one of his books Salah Birsel has written, 'Coffee houses breathe 24 hours of the day. Because they, like living organisms, grow, fall in love, experience happiness and unhappiness, and die.' According to musty archive records the first coffee house opened in Istanbul 30 years after the arrival of coffee itself. In her book about Istanbul's first coffee houses, Burçak Evren writes. 'According to the historian Solakzade coffee was introduced to Istanbul in 1519 after the Egyptian campaign of Selim I (1512-1520), and the first coffee houses opened in the city in 1551. This time gap between the arrival of coffee and the establishment of coffee houses can be accounted for by the time it took for consumption of this new beverage to spread to the point where it required
special places to drink it.' The rest of the story resembles that of a dynasty
which steadily climbs the hill of power and fame until it settles on the summit
to rule unchallenged. Coffee imported by Muslim merchants from Yemen via
Jed-dab, Cairo and Alexandria to Istanbul, enjoyed a career in this latter city
which outdid any other in splendour. Its popularity quickly spread until no one
could live without it.
This refreshing dark brown liquid with its distinctive aroma deserved equally distinctive places
where it could be savoured to the full. As Burçak Evren explains, 'Pleasure
seekers and above all well-known intellectuals and writers began to congregate
together in the coffee houses.Some read books and essays, others played
backgammon or chess. Others discussed poetry and literature. Eventually it
reached the point where anyone with nothing better to do headed for the
nearest coffee house: civil servants waiting for a new posting, judges, college
professors, and the unemployed came here to enjoy themselves and forget their
troubles. Sometimes the coffee houses were so full that there was nowhere to
stand, never mind sit down.' The popularity
of coffee houses soon began to disturb the authorities, who regarded
them as potential beds of public insurgence, and clerics and preachers pressed
for coffee to be banned. The first prohibition on coffee houses came just a
few years after they came into existence, during the reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566),
imposed by Şeyhülislam Ebusuud Efendi. All the
coffee houses were closed down and people caught drinking coffee were punished.
As if that were not enough, all the merchant vessels laden with coffee lying in Istanbul
harbour were sunk. But even the severest of
measures could not topple coffee from its place of honour at convivial
gatherings or destroy an institution which was becoming so much a part of
social life. Coffee house proprietors found ways to circumvent the ban, either
by admitting customers through the back door, or by obtaining special waivers
from the authorities.
The varieties of coffee house in past centuries reflected the socio-cultural spectrum. Every class, every group of tradesmen and every neighbourhood had its own coffee houses. In time the categories became still more diverse, with coffee houses to suit every taste and profession, for opium eaters and janissaries, those where musicians played, and those where meddahs told stories. As well as those with permanent premises there were coffee stalls set up in any pleasant or busy spot. Before long coffee had become an intrinsic part of life, not just among ordinary people but even in the homes of those who had been so keen to stamp out the habit. The coffee houses of Istanbul today are but a faint shadow of their counterparts in earlier centuries. The music has fallen silent and the story tellers have gone their way Doors onto rooms which once rang with laughter
have closed, never to open again, and the coffee stalls have disappeared never
to return. Today the handful of coffee houses which still serve water pipes preserve some of the nostalgic atmosphere of the
past, but their time is running out as the hands of the clock slowly
Those which have declined to cater for the tourist trade and bedeck their walls with souvenirs have instead removed to quiet backstreets where they can hide amidst familiar faces. Here the atmosphere can fill with the smoke of nargile tobacco without anyone complaining. A few other coffee houses have managed to survive with little change, particularly along the Bosphorus, in Bebek, (Çengelköy, and Emirgan, and at Eyüp and Kasimpaşa on the Golden Horn. An attractive position is the key to survival, perhaps looking out over the sea, or tucked under the spreading branches of an ancient plane tree. The remainder have changed in step with the times to suit a new type of customer, but as in the past their functions have messages for their contemporaries. In some, computer games have taken the place of packs of cards and gin rummy boards, and in others cans of soft drinks stand on the shelf beneath the tea glasses. All have something to offer their particular category of clients, whether university students or swaggering local toughs.
So however coffee houses might change form and shape in this modern metropolis with a population heading rapidly for the 20 million mark, the elderly city does its best to protect institutions which have shared and witnessed its history. Snapping its fingers at the newfangled 'cafes' which have mushroomed in fashionable districts, it obstinately protects its old friends which hold their ground on sidestreets and quiet waterfronts.
Printed book illustrations, from the woodcuts of earlier centuries to later engravings, are a valuable source of information about their times Books relating the travels of Westerners to the East became increasingly numerous from the 17th and 18th centuries, and as one of the most popular destinations Istanbul was widely written about and illustrated. Western travellers have left accounts of Istanbul's ■ architecture, history, daily life. culture and many other subjects. The development of the district of Per a on the north shore of the Golden Horn into a residential district inhabited by large communities of non-Muslims and foreigners was another factor in the increasing numbers of visitors. William Henry Bartlett, Thomas Allow,, John Frederick Lewis, Pierron, Flandin, Gouffier, Melling and Preziosi are just a few of the artists who have left us pictorial records of Istanbul, its palaces, mosques, fountains, coffee houses, streets, shops and daily life, as well as panoramic views. Turkish coffee houses were not just places where people puffed on water pipes and lazed around. They were hubs of social life where people gathered to listen to music, poetry and songs, to converse, and to discuss religious, economic and political topics. Indeed it was due to the latter that various excuses were found to close down the coffee houses on several occasions over the centuries. Coffee houses were of several types. First of all there were the local coffee houses in each neighbourhood, simple establishments where the members of the community gathered, and those in commercial districts used by the tradesmen of the area. Then there were those run by the
janissaries, those of the firemen or tulumbaci, and those renowned
particularly for their musical entertainment, known as dsik (min-istrel) or
semai coffee houses. In addition to these, openair coffee houses were set up in
the summer months.
The way in which coffee houses catered for all classes and sectors of society made them into important social institutions. This significant role in society is underscored by the opening ceremonies held for janissary coffee houses, which served a dual function as police stations for the area, and hence donations were collected from the local inhabitants. A license was then applied for, and when granted a ceremony known as the nisan alayi (license parade) took place. An officer of the janissary regiment concerned would carry it from the Aga Kapisi (the janissary headquarters) in Siileymaniye to the new coffee house, in a procession led by a Bektasi dervish. Upon arrival the
license would be hung over the door. This ceremonial tradition continued up to
the reign of Mahmud II (1818-1839).
Firefighters, known as tulumbaci, had their own coffee houses in many parts of the city, and other coffee houses were famous for providing entertainment by minstrels. In Ramazan it was traditional for story tellers to entertain the clientele. Openair coffee houses were found particularly in the commercial areas around the harbour and along both shores of the Golden Horn between Eminonii and Ayvansaray. The best known firefighters' coffee houses were in the districts of Galata, Defterdar and Beyazit, and those which specialised in musical entertainment known as semai coffee houses were to be found in Kasimpa-sa, Unkapam, Defterdar, Eyiip, Hahcioglu, Galata, Findikli, Be§iktas, Kadikoy and Uskudar. Coffee houses had their own architectural style adapted to their function, and all were simpler or more ornate variations on this basic style. Janissary coffee houses were of a more elaborate type, having two storeys. In the centre of the main room was an ornamental pool with a jet of water, around which were seats with cushions, with a special seat for the Bektasi chaplain of the regiment. The coffee was made in a separate area, and there was another area where music was played. It was traditional for the local bar ber to ply his trade in one corner of the neigh bourhood coffee house, and his paraphernalia would add the finishing touches to the interior. As social institutions, therefore, visiting the many diverse types of coffee house in Istanbul was a good way for foreign observers to get to know the city. Here they could observe people ranging from the ordinary patrons of the simple local coffee houses, to the statesmen and scholars who fre quented the more exclusive establishments. Engravings by foreign artists in past centuries are the most important source of information about the coffee houses that played such a central role in the social life of the past
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