Sunday, September 19, 2010

Public Sphere Coffee Houses

In Professor Commins’s class we discussed the importance of the introduction of coffee and the emergence of coffee houses in the Middle East. We had to read Coffee and Coffeehouses by Ralph Hattox, which seems to be the most comprehensive account of the early spread of coffee in the Middle East. First part of the book tries to piece together the spread of coffee from Yemen in the early 15th century to throughout the Middle East. The introduction of coffee actually caused a lot of controversy especially in Mecca in the early 15th Century. The second part of the book argues the emergence of the coffee houses created a public sphere that never existed before. This revolutionized society in Middle East; this allowed men to gather at a place other then the mosque to discuses and exchange ideas and concepts. The coffee house became a new forum that was unrestrained in terms of what could be discussed. What I find interesting is that I don’t think Cleveland really discusses or mentions the emergence of the coffee house and its effect on society. By the 17th and 18th centuries coffee and coffee houses had become very popular throughout the Ottoman Empire. I wonder how much of a role it played in fermenting concepts and ideas for the young Ottomans, which lead to the first constitutional era. I think most of the young Ottomans were bureaucrats or individuals who were already educated in the west or about western concepts of nationalism.

What I find interesting is that the coffee houses spread into Europe where it also became a new space to exchange ideas. However the area that gave birth to the concept of coffee houses has now become the place where free thought has become so restricted with authoritarian governments.


  1. I have a book called The World that Trade Created and there are multiple chapters in it dedicated to coffee and the impact it had on world trade. I also found it interesting to learn that it was first domesticated in Yemen. Your thoughts on coffee and coffee houses as places to exchange ideas that would not typically be welcome in other public sphere are interesting. The concept of coffee as subversive seems odd taken in today's context, but I guess it's true. What I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall of one of those 17th century coffee houses!

  2. Yeah it would be pretty amazing to see what people in coffee houses discussed in Istanbul during the different periods of Ottoman history. When I first started reading about it I was shocked at how much of an impact coffee had on the Middle East. Actually there is another part of the story in which the Ulama discussed how mind altering coffee actually was. Sufi practices required the individual to stay up late and therefore one of the initial methods in which coffee spread was the use as stimulate for Sufis.