Coffee and Coffeehouses in Ottoman Jerusalem

Adi Nemia-Cohen, Edna Assis |11/10/2021|773
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So, drink some Turkish coffee and wake up, you’re the singer. 

 Drink Turkish coffee, it’s universal!  

If you don’t sing, who will?  

(Lyrics: Yankele Rotblit; Music:  Miki Gavrielov; Vocals: Arik Einstein)

When Israelis think about strong, sweet, black coffee it’s hard not to hum the familiar refrain of the well-loved song by the iconic Israeli recording artist, Arik Einstein.  According to noted historian, Amnon Cohen, one of the reasons for the name “Turkish coffee” is because it was brought from Asia to Europe. However, as far as Jerusalem is concerned, Cohen suggests viewing the growth of coffee, coffeehouses and the establishment of the coffee sellers’ guild, as a relatively new, Ottoman phenomenon since, during the earlier Mamluk period, coffee was not yet known in Jerusalem.  Following Amnon Cohen’s research, we will travel through the development of coffee in Ottoman Jerusalem.


Growth of Coffeehouses

Coffeehouses in Jerusalem sprung up around the middle of the 16th century, at the same time as in Aleppo, Cairo and Istanbul, and other cities in the Ottoman Empire.  In 1566 officials were sent to Jerusalem from Istanbul, the capital of the empire, to enforce a prohibition on a new, popular, pastime in the city:  spending the entire day drinking coffee in coffeehouses.  Jerusalem residents complained and asked officials to put an end to this habit.  After a few months, more officials were sent to Jerusalem to require the coffeehouses to close.  Those who frequented coffeehouses were often described in unflattering terms - criminals, villains, miscreants, licentious people, and drunks.  Those who sat in coffeehouses were presumed of not only criminal offenses but also moral.  This, despite the fact that most of the patrons were not actually on the social fringe, and coffeehouses even attracted respectable merchants and fervent believers.

Residents of the city complained because coffeehouses sat in the heart of residential neighborhoods, and the flow of patrons, some of them from outside the neighborhood, was non-stop during the day and night and spoiled the intimate neighborhood feeling.  Coffeehouses were even thought to be a bother to women in the neighborhood who could not leave their homes undisturbed. In addition to the commotion on the street, coffeehouses became an environmental nuisance:  smoke from the coals and the scent of roasted meat rose in the air, songs of male singers and sounds of music emanated from coffeehouses at all hours.  Coffeehouses were a completely male space, and women did not enter.  What is clear from the nature of the complaints is the almost uniform picture painted of the activity of the coffeehouses - patrons passing coffee in small cups from one person to the next as they circulated through the room.

In large part, the complaints against coffeehouses were as a cultural and social institution, and not against drinking coffee in the home.  The Ottoman officials were directed to completely close the coffeehouses in Jerusalem, but they did not regulate the merchants importing coffee beans to the city.  According to Cohen, from the sources we have in hand today, it appears that the general population did not agree with these governmental mandates. Towards the end of the 16th century, officials had already stopped trying to close and condemn the coffeehouses.

Even after coffeehouses were politically accepted, criticism about the negative nature of the activities inside was still heard.  A member of the coffee sellers’ guild asked to lease part of a building that was part of a religious, trust and needed the agreement of the trust holders in order to convert it into a coffee house.  Of the three trust holders, two agreed, and one opposed.  The one who opposed gave as his reason family concerns as the building was located next to his house. He explained that converting a religious trust to a coffeehouse harmed him and his family.  “If this property next door became a coffeehouse, it would be difficult for his wife and children, and his entire family due to the music arising from it and the frequent visits to it by reckless people.”  (Amnon Cohen, “Coffee and Coffeehouses in Jerusalem”, from “Studies in the History of Muslim Peoples”, pg. 111)


Naqib al-Ashraf Revolt

Coffeehouse locations and the disturbances they created in the city’s daily routine became evident during the days of the Naqib al-Ashraf revolt.  There were riots and turmoil in the streets of the Land of Israel in the early years of the 18th century.  At the time, the Empire was involved in foreign wars and did not prioritize local uprisings. Lawlessness reigned.  In 1702, a new governor was appointed in Jerusalem, Çerkes Mehmed Pasha.  He harassed the residents of Jerusalem and the surrounding villages who did not pay their taxes on time.  The governor’s soldiers damaged a village connected to the mufti of Jerusalem, and that damage, apparently, was the reason for the eruption of a great revolt in Jerusalem in 1703-1705, called the Naqib al-Ashraf revolt after the leader of the rebels.

A document from the Sharia Court notes that during the revolt, rioters fought against the businessmen who had opened new coffeehouses.  Many stores were turned into coffeehouses and, as we saw, the opening of new coffeehouses irritated the neighbors.  The rioters asked for the intervention of the judge in one such a case, and he directed, “From now on, coffee will be made and sold only at already established coffeehouses.”  

The conversion of many stores to coffeehouses was a natural process during the uprising.  Commercial activities were curtailed and were severely affected during the revolt; visitors and pilgrims avoided coming to Jerusalem, government workers left the city, and many stores became unprofitable.  As opposed to this, coffeehouses attracted many men who were wandering aimlessly around the city.  They passed the time in coffeehouses, which became desirable meeting places and thus, profitable to their owners.  (Adel Manna, “The Rebellion of Naqib al-Ashraf in Jerusalem, 1703-1705” Cathedra 53, 1989, pg. 62-63).

By the mid-18th century, coffeehouses enjoyed wide popularity among all segments of the population.  With the rise in use of tobacco, a new past time was added to the coffeehouse - smoking nargila water pipes.  Coffeehouses were established in various neighborhoods in the city, in the markets, in residential neighborhoods, and even in basements of homes.  The increasing demand for coffee even brought about the establishment of roasting houses in the basements of homes, and it's easy to imagine the city enveloped in the scents of coffee and tobacco.


The Coffee Sellers’ Guild of Jerusalem

Ottoman Jerusalem was a small city in comparison to Cairo and Istanbul, the capital of the empire, yet approximately 70 guilds, associations of craftsmen providing services to all residents, operated in the city.  Oversight of the production of food and drink and the workforce, was part of the urban landscape and was well-regulated throughout the Moslem period. According to Cohen, beginning as early as the Mamluk period, there were Jerusalem guilds for butchers (Katzav, Lacham), slaughters (Dabach, Salach), bakers (Hibaz), millers (Tachan), oil producers (Maatzrani), and candy makers (Haluani).  When coffee came to the city, and after the initial crisis surrounding the establishment of coffeehouses in the mid-16th century, the 1690’s saw a new guild arise: the guild of producers and sellers of coffee (Kahawaji).

The coffee guild operated just like other guilds.  A judge, upon recommendation from the members of the guild, appointed the head of the guild, the “elder”, and granted him professional authority.  The main role of the guild “elder” was organizing professional activities: he arranged for the purchase of raw ingredients, distribution between the members, oversight on the quality of the products and the pricing, intervention and solutions for disagreements, and acceptance of new members.  Membership in the guild was open to all regardless of religious affiliation or even gender.  Most of the guild members learned the trade secrets from within their own families, so that the craft, as well as guild membership, passed from generation to generation.

In Jerusalem we don’t find famous, influential coffee sellers, but coffee was economically important for the city.  Testimony of this is found in documents from Sharia Courts:  the business of buying, selling, loaning and even inheriting coffee beans was an everyday occurrence, similar to other foodstuffs like olive oil, milk, honey, cheese, grapes and wheat.

The coffee guild was neither affluent nor large, and during the 18th century numbered not more than 10 members.  Each member of the guild managed his own coffee house.  Over time, the size of coffeehouses increased and occupied larger spaces containing windows which let in natural light.  So, for example, a sale contract of a coffeehouse in the Bab al-’Amud neighborhood in 1839, describes the building of the coffeehouse as an impressive 2-floor building, in which the upper floor was filled with light streaming from 6 windows.


A Taste for More…

From the mid-16th century, coffeehouses in the city evolved, from a disenfranchised institution to part of leisure culture and even became an urban necessity.  We end with a description by Yaakov Yehoshua about the coffeehouses in the days of his childhood in the Old City:

“Modest and meager were the Jewish coffeehouses and taverns, and dissimilar from the spacious Arab coffeehouses which were filled day and night, emitting noise and sounds of commotion, quarrels and disagreements non-stop.  Shouts of the waiters, “one bitter, two sweet” are heard in every passageway and radiate into every street.  However, the light of the Jewish coffeehouses and the taverns warm my meager people, immersed in troubles, unemployment, and surviving on charity.  Here they sit to relax; and even those whose wallets had only a few coins, wages for a hard, grueling day’s work, engage in friendly conversation and games of backgammon.  Sometimes they order a cup of arak from the tea house next door to drown their sorrows.  The jokers call them “God fearers” because when they empty their glass and drink, they “see God”, and therefore, are not counted, God forbid, among the criminals.”

(Yaakov Yehoshua, “Childhood in Old Jerusalem”, section b, pg. 158)

(Translation: Leiah Jaffe)



אבנר יעקבי. מורה דרך.
רעיון מצוין.

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