Ottoman coffeehouse

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The Ottoman coffeehouse, or Ottoman Café was a distinctive part of the culture of the Ottoman Empire. These coffeehouses, started in the mid-sixteenth century, brought together citizens across society for educational, social, and political activity as well as general information exchange. The popularity of these coffeehouses attracted government interest and were attended by government spies to gather public opinion. Ottoman coffeehouses also had religious and musical ties. And Europeans adopted coffeehouses and other Ottoman leisure customs during the early modern period.

The activity of coffee-drinking and coffeehouses originated in Arabia, and it moved to Egypt then to Persia then to the Ottoman empire during the sixteenth century.[1] In the Ottoman empire, the first coffeehouse was opened in Istanbul in 1555 during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent.[2] It was founded by two merchants from Damascus and established in Tahtakale, Istanbul.[3] Eventually, coffeehouses offered more than coffee, providing sweet beverages and candies too.[3] Coffeehouses also became more numerous and functioned as community hubs. Before their introduction, the home, the mosque, and the shop were the primary sites of interpersonal interaction.[3] Eventually, though, there existed one coffeehouse for every six or seven commercial shops. And by the end of the nineteenth century, there were nearly 2,500 coffeehouses in Istanbul alone.[4]

Coffeehouse attendees and activities[edit]

Coffeehouses brought together men from all levels of society.[5] Coffeehouses drew together distinct groups, including academics, idlers, business men, and government officials.[6][7] Despite this variety, not all citizens attended the same coffeehouses. Coffeehouses differed in scale, with some serving as neighborhood establishments and others as large community centers.[5] As a result, sometimes different people would visit different shops. But coffeehouses shared some commonalities in their attendees. For one, coffeehouses were restricted to the male populations; women and children were not allowed in these spaces.[8] Coffeehouses were also principally Muslim gathering spots, though followers of other religions like Christianity were known to attend occasionally.[5] These establishments broke down social barriers and allowed for socialization and information exchange.[7]

Educational activity[edit]

Ottoman era coffeehouses democratized education across all stratums of society. Because individuals from a variety of backgrounds gathered in these coffeehouses, illiterate or low literacy people could sit alongside educated individuals.[9] This diverse attendance enabled what scholar John Houghton called a "penny university," a statement conveying the virtually free nature of the education men could attend by visiting the coffeehouses.[6] For instance, the bourgeoisie that attended coffeehouses desired to prove their enlightenment to elites through academic discourse.[6] By being proximate to these academic discussions, less educated visitors could listen and learn from these conversations. Second, the more literate society members would hold public readings of the news, allowing the illiterate to stay informed.[10] Even professional readers would sometimes visit coffeehouses to read the main news of the day.[10] These readings were especially helpful for those who could not afford newspaper subscriptions. Ottoman coffeehouses allowed the members of lower society to receive informal education, instruction that was traditionally provided by universities and churches.[7]

Social and entertainment activity[edit]

Coffeehouses provided a new venue for socialization to occur.[11] Before them, hospitality events were reserved for the home. Coffeehouses, however, offered a new venue for leisure. Gossip was now exchanged with coffee cups and around coffee tables.[12] This gossip often included discussions of women. Men would debate or question the chastity of known women by the community.[5] In other cases, men would simply converse about daily ongoings or scandals. Sometimes, they would engage in entertainment activities like producing plays on everyday life satires. They would also host improvisational performances.[13] Other times, shadow puppet shows would be produced or narrated stories would be told.[5] The emergence of coffeehouses expanded the private sphere to allow many social conversations and experiences in public settings.

Political activity[edit]

News updates were circulated and acts of government resistance were planned in coffeehouses. Without modern forms of communication and the limited accessibility of print news, coffeehouses enabled citizens to verbally update one another on news.[10] News was often broken in these shops and political rumors started.[7] Speculative conversations discussed cabinet changes, corruption scandals, and possibly initiations of war.[9] In addition to information exchange, mutinies, coups, and other acts of political resistance were planned in coffeehouses. In particular, impassioned janissaries made coffeehouses their headquarters for meetings and discussions about political acts.[12] Some janissaries even had their own coffeehouses which they marked with their insignia, the orta.[9] Non-janissaries and janissaries would come together in these coffeehouses to plan rebellions to check the power of the Sultan and prevent absolutism.[7][13] As hubs of discussion on the state, coffeehouses were opposed by the Ottoman government. They believed coffeehouses were locations of vice and disorder.[6] Despite their efforts to burn or ban coffeehouses, these establishments persisted in popularity.[5]

Surveillance in coffeehouses[edit]

The Ottoman government was interested in coffeehouses, and they employed spies to visit them and collect public sentiment.[13] These spies were often locals or recruited coffeehouse owners that answered to the police. While much is unknown about the spies, documents from the mid 19th century (1840-1845) show that the spies made weekly reports for the local police. These reports were shared with individuals as powerful as the Sultan.[5] Spies were also assigned to surveil barber shops, mosques, private baths, and hotel rooms.[12] But because coffeehouses were key locations for discourse and information exchange, the majority of spy reports included these types of conversations.[6] The main objective of the spies was to collect public opinion, including everything from neighborhood gossip to planned political riots.[12] These reports were not used to persecute individuals or accuse them of crimes. Instead, the reports constituted a form of micro surveillance where the government could quickly gather a range of public opinion on an different topics.

Protestantism and temperance[edit]

In the 19th century Protestant missionaries set up several schools in the Ottoman Empire, including one in Istanbul that would later become Robert College. Cyrus Hamlin, who was President of the College until 1877 wrote: "Steam made Constantinople a commercial city and brought civilization, the arts and the vices of the West and East together in the Ottoman capital". He felt values were Christian rather than "Western" and both he and his successor George Washburn supported temperance in the Ottoman Empire. According to Mary Neuberger, "This inculcation of the Protestant work ethic was part of a more general assault on Balkan drunkeness and idleness." She writes that "many British and Americans writings celebrated the coffeehouse and even smoking as acceptable and regenerative forms of leisure, a sober foil to the drunken Balkan krŭchma" and that "the kafene was a presumed improvement for drunken and 'subjugated' Christian men."[14]


Risto Pekka Pennanen argues that the Greek language café music is not an independent style as much as a "branch" of what she calls "Ottoman popular music" or the music that was performed at cafés and other leisure venues. She has written that some Greek writers "tend to underestimate the Ottoman element in smyrneika", explaining that "The nationalist point of view in Greek writing on music which stresses the domestic origins of cultural, political and social factors can be called Hellenocentrism".[15]

Comparison with European coffeehouses[edit]

Coffee and tobacco were common to both European and Ottoman coffeehouses, but they also had some differences. Unlike the English and French coffeehouses, Ottoman coffeehouses did not serve alcohol or meals, and were not patronized by women. Some authors have written that "when a young man gazed through the window of a coffeehouse, he was aspriring to adulthood, and his admission to the institution was a communally recognized transition to adult life". Western European coffeehouses were also "masculine spaces", but women would sometimes go to coffeehouses despite social conventions, because no formal rules prohibited their attendance. Though women's participation in coffeehouse culture was not socially acceptable at first, it gradually became more acceptable in Western Europe throughout the 19th century. The traditional culture endured at Ottoman coffeehouses until the introduction of "cafés' in the 20th century.[16]

Further reading[edit]

Beeley, Brian W. “The Turkish Village Coffeehouse as a Social Institution.” Geographical Review 60, no. 4 (1970): 475–93.

Brummett, Palmira. Image and Imperialism in the Ottoman Revolutionary Press, 1908-1911: Essays and Responses. SUNY Press, 2000.

Cowan, Brian. The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse. Yale University Press, 2008.

Gwendolyn Collaco. “The Ottoman Coffeehouse: All the Charms and Dangers of Commonality in the 16th-17th Century,” 2011.

Hattox, Ralph S. Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East. University of Washington Press ed. Near Eastern Studies, University of Washington, no. 3. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.

Karababa, Emİnegül, and Gülİz Ger. “Early Modern Ottoman Coffeehouse Culture and the Formation of the Consumer Subject.” Journal of Consumer Research 37, no. 5 (2011): 737–60.

Sajdi, Dana. Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee: Leisure and Lifestyle in the Eighteenth Century. I.B.Tauris, 2014.

Salvatore, Armando, and Dale F. Eickelman. Public Islam and the Common Good. BRILL, 2004.

Tarbuck, Derya, and Ozlem Caykent. “Coffeehouse Sociability: Themes, Problems and Directions.” Accessed November 19, 2018.

Tokman, Aslı. “Negotiating Tradition, Modernity and Identity in Consumer Space : A Study of a Shopping Mall and Revived Coffeehouse.” Thesis, Bilkent University, 2001.

Yılmaz, Birsen, Nilüfer Acar-Tek, and Saniye Sözlü. “Turkish Cultural Heritage: A Cup of Coffee.” Journal of Ethnic Foods 4, no. 4 (December 1, 2017): 213–20.


  1. ^ Beeley, Brian W. (1970). "The Turkish Village Coffeehouse as a Social Institution". Geographical Review. 60 (4): 475–493. doi:10.2307/213769. JSTOR 213769.
  2. ^ Yılmaz, Birsen; Acar-Tek, Nilüfer; Sözlü, Saniye (2017-12-01). "Turkish cultural heritage: a cup of coffee". Journal of Ethnic Foods. 4 (4): 213–220. doi:10.1016/j.jef.2017.11.003. ISSN 2352-6181.
  3. ^ a b c Aslı, Tokman, (2001). Negotiating tradition, modernity and identity in consumer space : a study of a shopping mall and revived coffeehouse (Thesis). Bilkent University.
  4. ^ Public Islam and the common good. Salvatore, Armando., Eickelman, Dale F., 1942-. Leiden: Brill. 2004. ISBN 978-1423711803. OCLC 60826759.CS1 maint: others (link)
  5. ^ a b c d e f g S., Hattox, Ralph (2015). Coffee and coffeehouses : the origins of a social beverage in the medieval near east. [Place of publication not identified]: Univ Of Washington Press. ISBN 978-0295998886. OCLC 921868856.
  6. ^ a b c d e Collaço, Gwendolyn. ""The Ottoman Coffeehouse: All the Charms and Dangers of Commonality in the 16th-17th Centuries," Lights: The MESSA Journal, A University of Chicago Graduate Publication 1, No. 1 (Fall 2011): 61-71".
  7. ^ a b c d e TARBUCK, DERYA; Caykent, Ozlem. "Coffeehouse Sociability: Themes, Problems and Directions".
  8. ^ Aslı, Tokman, (2001). Negotiating tradition, modernity and identity in consumer space : a study of a shopping mall and revived coffeehouse (Thesis). Bilkent University.
  9. ^ a b c Sajdi, Dana (2014-06-09). Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee: Leisure and Lifestyle in the Eighteenth Century. I.B.Tauris. ISBN 9780857715395.
  10. ^ a b c 1950-, Brummett, Palmira Johnson (2000). Image and imperialism in the Ottoman revolutionary press, 1908-1911. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press. ISBN 978-0585350288. OCLC 47011159.
  11. ^ Cowan, Brian (2008-10-01). The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300133509.
  12. ^ a b c d Public Islam and the common good. Salvatore, Armando., Eickelman, Dale F., 1942-. Leiden: Brill. 2004. ISBN 978-1423711803. OCLC 60826759.CS1 maint: others (link)
  13. ^ a b c Karababa, Emİnegül; Ger, Gülİz (2011). "Early Modern Ottoman Coffeehouse Culture and the Formation of the Consumer Subject". Journal of Consumer Research. 37 (5): 737–760. CiteSeerX doi:10.1086/656422. JSTOR 10.1086/656422.
  14. ^ Mary C. Neuburger (2013). "Coffeehouse Babble: Smoking and Sociability in the Long Nineteenth Century". Balkan Smoke: Tobacco and the Making of Modern Bulgaria. Balkan Smoke. Cornell University Press. pp. 11–42. doi:10.7591/j.cttq43m0.5 (inactive 2019-03-05). JSTOR 10.7591/j.cttq43m0.5.
  15. ^ Pennanen, Risto Pekka (2004). "The Nationalization of Ottoman Popular Music in Greece". Ethnomusicology. 48 (1): 1–25. JSTOR 30046238.
  16. ^ Borsay, Peter; Furnée, Jan Hein (2016). Leisure Cultures in Urban Europe, C. 1700-1870: A Transnational Perspective. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-8969-5.