• Nick Charlie Key

When Drinking Coffee Could Get You Decapitated

After coffee had made its way from Ethiopia into the middle east and beyond, it began to seep its way deeper and deeper into the everyday culture.

Coffee houses, or cafes as we know them first sprang up in the Ottoman Empire and for good reason. The official religion of the empire was islam, and this meant that for most, if not all practicing muslims, bars and alcohol were off limits entirely. Coffee houses offered the same opportunity as bars did to talk and mingle with friends and strangers alike, but with the socially acceptable consumption of coffee as the beverage of choice. Another benefit to coffee houses over bars in this time was that they had an entirely egalitarian structure to them, meaning that people of any age or gender could come in, gather, socialize and share ideas. And while to us this all seems terribly progressive and joyful, the leaders of the time did not quite share the same sentiments. In fact, in 17th century Turkey, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Murad IV saw this new found meeting place as a catalyst for the erosion of centuries of societal norms and standards. And he had a particularly persuasive way of ensuring that his subjects stopped drinking this seditious brew.

Before we dive deeper into that story, it’s worth reflecting again that leaders of countries all across Europe and Asia, seemed to be in agreement that coffee was a brand new evil unleashed upon the earth, and one that needed to be stopped.

An author named Stewart Allen, in his book The Devils Cup, Coffee as the driving force in history" puts it like this: “If you look at what is being said about the drugs that we're dealing with now — like, say, crack cocaine — it's very similar to what has been said throughout history about coffee."

Physicians in Europe banded together against it claiming, rather unscientifically, that drinking coffee would cause your spinal fluid to dry up and therefore cause paralysis in the drinker.

Religious leaders would stand on street corners warning passers-by of the dangerous and indecent behaviours brought about by coffee.

Perhaps the most colourful argument against the consumption of coffee was made by an angry group known as The Womens Petition Against Coffee, who held nothing back in their 6 page manifesto published in England in 1674. Especially for that time, it was an eye-popping read, full of innuendos and sexual implications claiming it was causing their husbands to become impotent.

Here is one of the milder excerpts from their manifesto which I will attempt to paraphrase from the original english.

“The excessive use of this newfangled, abominable and heathen-like liquor called coffee, renders nature bereft of her choicest treasure, drying up our mens moisture and creating Eunuchs of our husbands. These men have become as unfruitful as the deserts from which that unhappy coffee berry is said to be brought.”

Strong, clear words from the English women about their feelings on the matter.

It seems that wherever coffee spread, it was consistently popular with the masses but seemingly always challenged by the powerful.

Coffee was seen to be a catalytic fuel in the formation of the French and American revolutions, with treasonous plots formed in the dark corners of coffeehouses. In America particularly, Coffee had begun to be seen as a patriotic drink after the anti-english protest that ended with 342 chests of tea being dumped into the Boston harbour in what famously became known as The Boston Tea Party.

The organisers of this protest were known as the sons of liberty and, according to Daniel Webster, many of the groups meetings were held in the Green Dragon Tavern, a joint bar and coffeehouse that would come to be known as the “Headquarters of the Revolution.”

We heard last time of Frederick the Great demanding his people switch from coffee to beer, some say in an attempt to keep his people subdued by the dumbing down effect of the alcohol.

In England, King Charles II ordered that all coffeehouses be shut down immediately after it was discovered that they were the source of some rather clever but unflattering poetry about him. His people were not happy with this decree and the backlash from this decision was swift and threatening. Just 11 days later, King Charles reversed his ruling perhaps remembering that these same countrymen of his had beheaded his father, and clearly weren’t people to be trifled with.

One of the notable standouts as an advocate FOR coffee however, was Pope Clement the 8th, who fell madly in love with the overwhelming charm of coffee. His advisers were skeptical but he once declared to them that “This so-called Satan’s drink is so delicious, that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”

He was definitely a man going against an overwhelming tide of negative beliefs from other powerful rulers. Maybe none more so than Sultan Murad IV, the Ottoman Ruler I mentioned earlier. He was an eccentric man with bloodthirsty habits, who also had a strong distaste for his people consuming coffee. Unlike other European rulers who would ban coffee and then confiscate the offenders crockery when they broke the rules, the Sultan had a rather more effective method of ensuring that A) the offender never made the same mistake again and B) made a strong case to other would-be offenders that, it really wasn’t worth it to drink coffee in under his rule in Istanbul. So what was this groundbreaking method he used? Well, for now, let’s just say it involved a disguise and 100lb broadsword.

Sultan Murad IV was born on the 27th Of July 1612 to his father Sultan Ahmed I and his consort Queen Kosem. His father Ahmed I was notable for putting a stop to the long standing Ottoman tradition of having all of your brothers killed upon your accession to the throne. This was good news for Murad’s brother Ibrahim who continued on with life normally, but who would eventually become sultan himself after Murad’s early death at the age of just 27.

Murad’s father Ahmed died when he was only 11 years old and so while Murad became the de facto ruler and new sultan, for many years after this he was merely a figurehead while his mother Kosem essentially ruled through him.

10 years into his rule, however he was now in his 20’s, a man by his own right and he took over full control of the rulership from his mother. He brought together a team of advisors and wise men to guide him as Sultan, and one of these grand Viziers came to him with a worrying tale of his own people whispering and plotting against him.

This particular grand vizier had secretly visited one of the coffeehouses in Istanbul and there he had observed the difference between the alcoholic establishments and these new cafes. In his opinion the people drinking alcohol would merely get drunk, sing songs and be jolly. However, the coffee drinkers stayed up late, remained sober and used their time to plot against the Sultan.

Coupled with this, was the advice of the religious leaders at the time who justified their anti-coffee stance with decrees laid forth in their religious texts. They argued that coffee intoxicated it’s drinkers, and intoxication of any kind was forbidden. The roasting of the beans was essentially the equivalent of charcoal, a substance forbidden to be consumed. The point was also made that these houses encouraged gambling, prostitution and drug usage, as bars had in the broader European context.

Perhaps the most dangerous of all to any ultra conservative leaders was the fact that these spaces allowed, for the first time ever, people from across the social lines to mingle, talk and share ideas. The process of coffee making back then encouraged people to sit for a while, while the coffee was prepared in a big pot, often taking between 20-30mins before it was ready. Then it was served full to the brim as a scorchingly hot liquid with an incredibly bitter flavour, encouraging the drinkers to sip it slowly, further prolonging their stay at the coffeehouse.

It seems that throughout that time in history, even in the muslim world there was no full consensus on the opposition to coffee. A high ranking cleric in the Ottoman empire name Bostanzade Mehmet Efendi issued a poem in defense of coffee in 1590. Earlier that century however in 1511, coffee was banned in Mecca and later in Cairo and other Ottoman areas.

When it came to Sultan Murad IV however, it seems he had a particularly strong reason to hate coffee and the culture that came with it. As a child his brother Osman II was brutally murdered by a military group known as the Janissaries. A year after this, they deposed his uncle and were instrumental in installing Murad as the new child ruler of the Empire.

But while many power hungry rulers would feel gratitude towards any group who helped elevate them to power, Murad lived in fear of them and never forget their brutal treatment of his brother Osman.

He knew that the Janissaries spent a large amount of their time frequenting coffee shops and ultimately used those spaces to plot their coups. He believed that just as they had killed others to put him on the throne, they could just as easily do the same to him if they decided it suited their plans.

His solution was simple. He wouldn’t ban coffee entirely, but rather he decided to ban the public selling and consumption of it, along with tobacco, opium and alcohol. Essentially he was making sure that, in the capital at least, there was nowhere for people to congregate and plot against him.

His enforcement of this new ban however, was entirely indicative of his own personal cruelty. He was known to be a man with a quick temper and love of violence. He killed soldiers for the smallest errors, and would often fly into blind rages in the middle of the night, grabbing his weapons and running out into the streets of Istanbul killing anyone he came across.

There are also stories of him setting up a small booth along the banks of the river alongside his palace. He would sit for hours in this booth and shoot arrows at any boats that passed by close enough for him to hit.

It’s maybe no surprise then that he imposed the death penalty on anyone found to be selling or consuming coffee in public. As the story goes, he didn’t want to leave this enforcement to just anyone and so he would disguise himself as a commoner and wander the streets of Istanbul in search of anyone breaking his new coffee law.

If he happened to come across someone flouting the rules he would whip off his cape and unsheath a 100lb broadsword he had strapped to his hip and right there and then he would chop their heads off in the street.

As mentioned earlier the Sultan died young at the age of 27 from Cirrhosis of the liver, an ailment commonly brought on by excessive alcoholism. Something that might explain his consistently erratic and violent behaviour.

After his death, his successor relaxed the ban from an immediate death penalty to merely a light beating if found guilty of a first offence. If one was caught a second time however, the law breaker would be sewn into a leather bag with some rocks and thrown into the Bosphorus river.

The laws against coffeehouses were eventually relaxed and by the end of that century the Ottoman royal courts had their own official coffee maker with hundreds of coffeehouses dotted throughout Istanbul. They knew they were fighting against a rising tide and so had finally acquiesced to the will of the people.

In fact, coffee culture became so ingrained throughout the middle east, and especially in Saudi Arabia, that it became law that any husband who failed to supply his wife with enough coffee could have that used against him as grounds for divorce.


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