In the sixteenth century, coffee came to enjoy considerable influence on a number of spheres of urban life in the Middle East, in the economic sphere, production of and trade in coffee helped breathe life into many areas that only shortly before had been commercially weak. To the Yemenis, it was vital, and they took steps to preserve their monopoly. Much of what was grown in the mountains and shipped from the ports of the Yemen had as its ultimate destination the great warehouses of Cairo, where spice and coffee merchants also saw considerable profit. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Cairo merchants made up for much of what they had lost when Europeans cut them out of the India spice trade, by dealing in coffee.
The single most striking and significant result of the growing use of coffee in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, however, was its effect on the social life within the city, town, or village, for around the preparation and sale of this commodity was born a hitherto unknown social institution, the coffeehouse. By the early 1500s coffee's use was no longer restricted to Sufi orders in the Yemen. It had become familiar to and popular among a variety of classes, at least in the Hijaz and Egypt. But most significantly, taking it had become a public pastime: the habit struck far deeper roots in the public places intended for that purpose than it did in the home. These public houses where it was served are mentioned immediately and in the closest possible connection with coffee itself, as though an essential part of the definition of coffee is that it is served in these places.
The massive importation of coffee to areas outside the Yemen was most likely undertaken by merchants interested in profit. Sometime after the beverage, or even just its reputation, initially reached an area through the agency of Sufi connections, it must have been realized, by those more concerned with profit than religion, that this might be a very profitable undertaking. They were aware of the warm reception coffee had received in the limited circles into which it had been introduced, and some must have seen the tremendous commercial potential for such a product. But one can imagine that they were faced with something of a marketing problem. Had they merely dumped sacks of coffee in the marketplaces of the larger cities, demand would probably have been very sluggish indeed. Who would buy such a product whose properties, uses, and preparation were a complete mystery to him? Far better to start by selling the already brewed beverage from little stands or shops, in order to build up a demand. This was precisely the course pursued in Istanbul. It is likely that most people first tasted coffee in a coffee shop.
The form these new establishments took, their physical arrangement, was in great part determined by that of the already existing places after which they were patterned, or of the actual premises on which they had been built. We thus see three distinct types of coffee outlet emerge early on, which for want of better terms we can label as the coffee stall, the coffee shop, and the coffeehouse. The coffee stall is distinguished from the other two in that it is not designed for the on-premises consumption of coffee. It was in essence a 'take-out' shop, usually located in a commercial area, for the convenience of those doing business in the markets. The coffee shop is the small, local shop, which sometimes shared the same function as the coffee stalls, acting as a 'service' cafe in a quarter, a take-out. There was, in addition, usually some space in the shop for customers to sit and consume their beverages. Far different from these strictly functional shops were the grand-style coffeehouses found in many cities in the Middle East. Certainly not all the six-hundred-odd coffeehouses found in Istanbul in the time of Selim II (1566- 74) were of the grand sort, and perhaps most of them were of the stall type. These small shops exist in Istanbul to the present day. But those coffeehouses located in the most important places in town were apparently quite luxurious. There seems to have been an attempt, especially in Syria and Iraq, to create a park or gardenlike atmosphere, to surround the patron with refreshing sights and sounds unlike those of either the city or the desert. Quite often there would be great lamps placed along the ceilings of the coffeehouses, because of their popularity at night, particularly at two times of the year: in summer, when the cool of the evening would draw people out; and in Ramadan, when many would choose to break their fasts with a cup or two, and when there were the most frequent performances by story-tellers.
It may seem that, in making the assumption that the coffeehouse sprang logically from the commercial need to sell the prepared beverage we are overlooking another obvious possibility. One still finds in Istanbul and the cities of the Levant street vendors who sell everything from kebabs and grilled fish to sour cherry juice and even water. Why 'was this type of sale not applied to coffee as well? Coffee, quite simply, has to be prepared and consumed in a particular manner, one that rules out a completely mobile operation. Coffee, particularly in the form in which it was and is drunk in the Middle East, must be served and drunk hot. European accounts emphasize that Arabs and Turks liked their brew very hot. If coffee is to be served at such a temperature, a strolling coffee vendor would not be able merely to prepare it in large quantities ahead of time and carry it around, selling it as he went, without some sort of elaborate apparatus for keeping it warm. Similarly, the customer cannot merely have a steaming cup of coffee put in his hands and be expected to swallow it down. Turkish coffee, when first poured, is full of powdery grounds which, left undisturbed, settle in about a minute into a thick mud at the bottom of the cup, leaving an inch and a half or so of clear coffee on top. This may well be what accounts for the fact that the Turks sip their coffee more slowly. All this is best accomplished with a stationary and relatively protected place of consumption. Coffee demands that you take your time.
If we grant that the tavern provided the most convenient model for those wishing to introduce coffee to the public at large, why then would people continue to frequent such shops once they became familiar with the methods of preparation? In the Middle Eastern context, we are speaking of a society without any significant restaurant culture. The inhabitants of the sixteenth-century Muslim city were, even by the standards of their contemporaries from Europe, short on dining spots. Eating outside the home was a habit alien to most.
The answer is not to be found solely in relation to the drink itself. It is likely that the owners of the coffeehouses successfully created the demand for a kind of taste which they, with their specialist skills, were best prepared to duplicate. Yet it is not primarily in this that we must look for the answer, but rather in the fact that the coffeehouse provided the sixteenth-century city resident with an excuse to do something that he obviously had a desperate urge to do: to get out of the house. One went to the coffeehouse not merely because one wished to drink coffee. One went to the coffeehouse because one wished to go out, to spend the evening in the society of his fellows, to be entertained, to see and be seen.
The coffeehouse, introduced out of commercial motives, given its general shape by imitation of taverns and considerations determined by its method of preparation, thrived because it catered to a real social need. The very fact that it offered something different, something which was indeed innovation, allowed it to take its place without disturbing already established patterns of life. It was in some way part of the proper life of a decent person to take his meals at home. If it had even occurred to somebody to establish such places where one went to have meals, it would have seemed very odd. But the coffeehouse in no way disrupted this aspect of life. Rather, it offered something extra, outside previous experience, and as such could fit into one's routine.
In the long run what kept the coffeehouse jammed was the fact that its facilities for sitting and having a cup offered the perfect setting for socializing with one's fellow patrons. This role of the coffeehouse as a center of social intercourse was clearly what fueled the controversy surrounding coffee. The moral question had nothing to do with what one drank in the coffeehouse, but rather with social anxieties concerning why one came, with whom one associated, and what one did alone or in groups in these places.