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By: A.I. Makki

  Historical beginnings are always hard to pin down. In the absence of historical records, legends and folk tales must suffice to fill in the earliest details. This is certainly true in the case of coffee. In fact, coffee has been so popular throughout its history that it has inspired and sustained more than one legend about its origin.

  Certainly the most charming is the Arabian legend of Kaldi the Yemenite goatherd. Around the year 750 CE, so the story goes, Kaldi was surprised to see his goats prancing madly in the grazing field after nibbling on the wild berries of a wild plant. Surprised at its strange effect on his animals, he tried a few berries himself and felt very good. He rushed to tell his friends about his discovery and that supposedly is how the coffee was first discovered.

  While the true origins of coffee drinking may be forever hidden among the mysteries of Arabia, shrouded as it is in legend and fable, scholars have managed to collect enough facts to prove that coffee beans were known in Abyssinia from times immemorial, and from there it was introduced into Yemen, where it flourished. Coffee comes from the seeds or "beans" of an evergreen shrub that grows up to thirty feet in height. The coffee tree requires a hot, moist climate, with lots of water and a rich soil in order to grow well. It is said that the early Abyssinians, in order to discover the rich flavor of coffee did not use it as a beverage, but ate the berries after crushing them and molding it with fat into a ball, during long journeys and in the battlefield!

  The coffee drink was first mentioned by Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (850-922 CE) in his treatise on medicine. Razi was the first person to classify its use in an encyclopedic manner and mentioned coffee under the name "bunchum." Other researchers on this subject add that the Arabs knew about coffee as early as the sixth century. Ibn Sina (980-1037 CE), the well-known Muslim physician and scholar, explains the medicinal properties and the uses of coffee beans, which he calls "bunchum" after the fashion of Imam Razi. Bengiazlah, another great physician, and a contemporary of Ibn Sina, likewise mentions the merits of coffee in his writings. Antoine Galland (1646-1715), the French Orientalist tracing the early origins of coffee, writes, "We are indebted to these great physicians for introducing coffee to the modern world through their writings, as well as the sugar, tea, and chocolate."

  The coffee drink got a boost when Sheikh Jamaluddin Abu Muhammad bin Said, the Grand Mufti of Aden became acquainted with the use of coffee, while on a journey to Abyssinia in 1454, along with its medicinal properties. He sanctioned its use among the devout Muslims, so that they could spend their night in prayers with more attention and presence of mind. He was assisted in his work of spreading the gospel of coffee by Muhammad al-Hadhrami, a physician of repute from Hadhramaut, Yemen. Coffee, thus being favorably introduced in Yemen, has continued to be in use there ever since without interruption. At that time, the Yemenites used to chew the coffee cherries (or beans) to stay awake trough their nightly prayers.

  The endorsement from the learned Imam was sufficient to start a trend in Yemen and from there to the far corners of the Muslim world. About 1510, coffee was being widely used in the Yemeni Quarters of Cairo by worshippers in the mosques to spend their nights in religious devotion. It is also recorded that by the close of the fifteenth century (1470-1500 CE), coffee had reached the Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah. The residents of Makkah had become so fond of the drink that disregarding its religious associations turned it into a secular drink to be sipped publicly in Qahwa Khanes, where people began to gather to discuss news and other business matters. At the same time coffee houses became popular in the City of Madinah also.

  About this time (1511 CE) Khair Bey was acting as the Governor of Makkah on behalf of the Sultan of Egypt. It is said that he was a strict disciplinarian and was unfortunately unaware about the widespread use of coffee among the residents of Makkah. As he was leaving the mosque one night after prayers, he noticed a group of people preparing to drink coffee to pass their nights in prayers. His first thought was that they were drinking wine, and was astonished to learn about coffee and its widespread use in the City of Makkah. After driving the worshippers away from the mosque, he decided to conduct an investigation about the use of coffee as a drink, which could incline men and women towards extravagance that was prohibited by the law.

  The next day he called a meeting of all the leading citizens of Makkah to debate the use of coffee as a drink. Some among the council spoke in its favor, whereas, a majority among them carried away by prejudice and misguided zeal sought a complete ban on drinking of coffee. Acting on the advice of the council the governor solemnly condemned the use of coffee, and a decree was drawn up to shut down the coffee houses, and got it signed by the majority of those present, and had it dispatched to the Sultan at Cairo for his ratification.

  However, the triumph of the enemies of coffee was short-lived; for not only did the Sultan disapprove of the "indiscreet zeal" of the Governor of Makkah, but also ordered the edict against the coffee houses lifted with immediate effect. How dare he condemn a drink that was approved by the learned physicians in Cairo whose opinions carried more weight than those at Makkah, and who had found nothing wrong against the law in the use of coffee? Khair Bey was shocked into submission on receiving such a rebuke from the Sultan. The prohibition against coffee houses was immediately lifted. Coffee, being thus, reestablished at Makkah met with no opposition and since then the use of coffee has continued both in homes and coffee houses by the people of Makkah.

  One of the most interesting facts in the history of coffee drinking is that wherever it was introduced, it had spelled revolution. It has been one of the world's most radical drinks in that its function has always been to make people think. And, when people begin to think, they become dangerous to tyrants, and to foes of liberty of thought and action. Attempts were made time and again to ban the coffee houses from Cairo to Constantinople as houses of sedition. Nonetheless, the use of coffee continued on its onward march to different parts of the Muslim world.

  Selim I after conquering Egypt introduced coffee to Constantinople. The drink was popular in Syria by 1530 and in Aleppo by 1532. Several coffee houses sprang up in Damascus and other cities of the Muslim Empire. Some of the earliest coffee houses set up were provided with all furnishings and comforts. Furthermore, they provided a free ground for social intercourse, discourse, and free discussion. Lawyers, students, as well as desert travelers who journeyed at night to escape the heat of the day started drinking coffee. For the artisans, goldsmiths, craftsmen and ordinary workmen who worked late into the night, coffee became the most sought after beverage. People high and low in the social strata took to drinking coffee with great enthusiasm. Coffee houses increased in number to meet the demand. Soon, the demand outstripped its supply.  At this time, the popularity of coffee has increased to such an extent that it became a legitimate ground for divorce among Turks for refusing to allow their wives to drink coffee!

  The Arabs in Yemen were cultivating coffee trees since ages and their caravans dominated trade in Qahwa until the Ottoman Turks captured Yemen in the year 1536, and soon dominated the coffee trade and looked upon coffee as an important commodity for export to different parts of the world. The beans that were exported from the port of Mocha took the name of the port, and became a major source of earning revenue. The Turks jealously guarded their monopoly over the trade and no fertile berries were allowed to leave the country unless they first had been steeped in boiling water or partially roasted to prevent germination. Inevitably, Baba Budan, a Muslim Pilgrim from South India thwarted these security precautions during his Hajj in the 1600's, and managed to bring in a few seeds that were successfully cultivated in the hills of Chikamagalur in the Old Mysore State, from where its cultivation spread to different parts of the world.

  Europeans were at first suspicious about this new beverage from Turkey terming it as an "infidel drink!" But, when Pope Clement VIII tasted the first cup of coffee and liked it, the drink got the seal of approval of all Christians. By 1652, coffee houses were set up all over England, and became centers of political, social, and literary thought and discussion. Coffee houses became popular in America in the 1770's when the King of England levied an unfair tax on tea, which infuriated the colonists to such an extent that they dressed up as Red Indians dumped a whole shipment of British Tea into the Boston Harbor and quickly replaced it with coffee as the favorite new beverage of the Americans.

  Today, a third of the world's people drink coffee regularly, and now it has become the number one beverage across the world because of its universal appeal. All nations do it homage. It has become recognized as a human necessity and each country seems to have its own way of drinking it. Americans love their coffee with milk and sugar. The French prefer cafi au lait, which is a mixture of equal amount of coffee and warm milk. Other Europeans take espresso-strong black coffee that is said to perk up the drinker. Cappuccino, favored by Italians is spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon, while the Viennese coffee has a large dollop of whipped cream on top. In summer time Americans drink iced coffee, while others try out coffee ice cream and coffee-flavored chocolates. Brazil is known as a nation of coffee addicts. Coffee made in Mocha and Java were once the most sought after coffee brands in the world.

  In the Arab world, coffee is the hallmark of Middle-Eastern hospitality today, as it has been when it was discovered centuries ago. According to an Arab tradition, "One's guests deserve the very best," and that, without a doubt means coffee. Whether in Cairo or Istanbul, or among the Bedouins of the Arabian deserts, coffee is brewed as soon as the guests arrive. In the land of Arabia, Qahwa Arabiyah, green Arab coffee, unsweetened, but flavored with cardamom and saffron, is served with great decorum with ripe dates, the oldest and most respected among the guests receiving the first syrup-thick thimbleful glass of steaming, frothy brew. Among the poorer Arabs the coffee ceremony holds even greater significance and it is enjoyed on every occasion that calls for a celebration with its preparation varying in different provinces and countries with additions of number of spices in the brew to give it a distinctive flavor and a pleasant aroma. Among the Bedouin Arabs there is a saying, "He makes coffee from morning till night," to describe a generous man, and it is said no greater praise can be given to honor an Arab.

  What is it about coffee that people like so much? Coffee contains an alkaloid called caffeine, which acts as a powerful stimulant to the brain and perks up a person, causing a two-fold effect - the pleasurable sensation that it brings to the body and the increased efficiency that it produces in a person's capacity to do work. The caffeol in the coffee supplies the flavor and the aroma, and a number of other caffetannic acids that gives the beverage its rare tasty appeal. Recent researches show that coffee helps as a medicine to fight cancer and keep Parkinson's disease at bay. Other studies have proved that it acts as a cure for heart ailments. Major studies conducted on coffee show that it significantly reduces Type-2 diabetes risk and is also known for treating asthmatic patients, migraine, and certain allergic disorders.

  So, the next time when you sit down to relax with a cup of coffee with your friends you can tell them to thank the Arabs for giving them their favorite drink!


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