Ottoman Coffeehouses

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We’re celebrating the International Coffee Day  with a selection of Ottoman coffeehouse photographs, exhibited as part of “Coffee Break: The Adventure of Coffee in Kütahya Tiles and Ceramics” collection exhibition!

Let’s take a closer look at Ottoman coffeehouses that have become the social media of the period.

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Coffeehouses were places that re-defined the traditional spatial perception and social roles in Ottoman society, and early examples appeared in Mecca, Cairo, and Damascus in early 16th century, arriving in Istanbul towards the middle of the same century. The Pechevi History mentions two men, one named Hakem coming from Aleppo, and the other named Şems coming from Damascus, arriving in Istanbul in 1554 and opening up a store to sell coffee at Tahtakale. Shortly thereafter, coffeehouses became widespread as venues where coffee was sold and drunk, bringing together people from different levels of society and culture, serving as important socializing places. They could be seen everywhere in the city, and played an important role in the change of daily life that had previously been defined as a triangle between home, work, and the mosque; coffeehouses asserted themselves as a serious alternative to these spaces, and even though they were open only to male socialization, they nonetheless constituted a significant part of Ottoman public sphere.


Coffeehouses are hard to classify; even as they create a public space, they also feature characteristics of a home away from home, such as familiarity. These male-dominated spaces, hosting men from all walks of life, were at first regarded as merely a novelty, but soon they became central in meeting the social, economic, and cultural needs of society. Social incidents, politics, and the economy were discussed at coffeehouses, and their increasing political importance attracted the attention of the state, which feared the public sphere and attempted to prohibit coffeehouses by using religious arguments or claiming that fires always started there and that mosque attendance was declining due to them.

Selim III and Murad III directly intervened with coffeehouses and closed all of them down. Another prohibition came in the era of Murad IV, when coffee and tobacco were outlawed and all coffeehouses were closed down once again. After coffee became popular in Europe in the 17th century, it was banned in Prussia and Britain by the King, and Italy and France, where the first coffeehouses were opened in 1645, by the Pope. Governments tended to see coffeehouses as “dangerous places” posing a threat to established order.

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It is impossible to create a typology of coffeehouses, but the predominant forms are neighborhood coffeehouses and those frequented by shop owners, janissaries, firemen, troubadours, and poets. Mobile coffeemakers could be seen in parts of Istanbul where there were no coffeehouses but where people still wanted to have a cup on the go.

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