Istanbul's historic coffeehouses

Istanbul's historic coffeehouses

Joshua Bruce Allen
October 20, 2016

Turkish coffee

Caffeine enthusiasts know that Topkapı Palace displayed the country’s largest collection of Turkish coffee-related artifacts in 2015 to celebrate 500 years of the UNESCO-recognized drink. With the extravagance of wheeled coffee pots and gilded cups, the exhibition confirmed the Ottomans’ deep reverence for the Ethiopian bean. But those who missed the show need not despair — Istanbul itself is a living museum for the country’s coffee culture. Though no longer a capital city, Istanbul is still the social and economic focal point of the country, and it was from Istanbul that coffee first spread its roots throughout the Ottoman Empire, into Western Europe, and across the world.

Art historian Çiçek Akçıl, speaking to The Guide Istanbul among the clatter and vapor of the Grand Bazaar’s Şark Kahvesi coffeehouse, explains that the first coffeehouse owners were not Turks but Arabs. “Different historians differ on the exact date, but we know that traders Hakem from Aleppo and Şamlı from Damascus opened Istanbul’s first coffeehouse in Tahtakale some time between 1551 and 1560,” says Akçıl. “Ottoman royalty first encountered coffee culture on Yavuz Sultan Selim’s Egyptian campaign in 1516-1517, but the drink didn’t begin to enter regular use in the Ottoman palace until the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent.”

The palace coffee ritual was predictably ornate, featuring incense, rose-flavored lokum (Turkish delight), and rosewater cologne, while the coffee itself was flavored with mastic, cardamom, or ambergris. Once the palace was hooked on the brown stuff, the rest of society surely followed — despite a fatwa from chief cleric Ebussuud Efendi in 1543 that caused shiploads of coffee beans to be dumped into the sea.

The common people’s coffee culture was not quite so refined, but Akçıl notes that lower-class coffeehouses also had important political, artistic, religious, and even military functions. “The first coffee houses to open in Ottoman times were based around serving their neighborhoods,” says Akçıl. “Later, many kinds of coffee house appeared, such as tradesmen’s coffee houses, janissary coffee houses, and firemen’s coffee houses. There were also opium smokers’ coffee houses and public storytellers’ coffee houses, as well as coffee houses for aşıklar — the folk poets and musicians of Turkish oral culture.”

Şark Kahvesi, Turkish Coffee

Sufi Sheikh Sazeli introduced coffee to Ottoman religious life after his trip to Mecca, and the drink became an important element of the zikir, a chanted ritual in remembrance of God’s names. Coffee was valued for increasing the Sufis’ energy and concentration during nighttime ceremonies. Up until the 19th century, all Istanbul coffeehouses featured a plaque reading, “Our shop is opened every morning with a bismillah [Islamic prayer]. His holiness Sheikh Sazeli is our master.”

Not all coffeehouses had such spiritual functions, however, with some even operating as Istanbul’s first theaters. “Sometimes a barber would sit next to the coffee hearth so you could get a shave there as well,” Akçıl comments. “The janissary coffeehouses often had Greek dancers for entertainment and also attractive young boys serving the customers.”

Any mention of Ottoman coffeehouses would be incomplete without the Grand Bazaar, known as one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets. The bazaar’s earliest remaining example is Ethem Tezçakar Kahveci, a family business that stretches back four generations to at least 1909, as shown by a dated receipt in the owner’s possession. This coffee shop is formed of a small room open to the street on one side, where customers drink Turkish coffee at small stools and tables — an arrangement typical of the old Grand Bazaar coffeehouses. Owner Bekir Tezçkar is proud of the family tradition that bears his name, and his shop also specializes in hot ginger tea. Halıcılar Çarşışı Sokak, Grand Bazaar, Beyazıt

The 1950s-era Şark Kahvesi has a forgotten role in the Grand Bazaar’s more recent past, although the coffeehouse is firmly on the tourist trail. “We can say this is the heart of the bazaar, and it’s also important historically,” says Akçıl. “The name Şark [meaning east] comes from the immigrants who came from eastern Anatolia in the early Republican period to find work as shop assistants in the bazaar.” Originating as an open-air market between two bedesten (covered markets) shortly after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar gradually came to its present form by adding wooden and then stone coverings over the stalls. In a similar way, Şark Kahvesi began as a room akin to Ethem Tezçakar Kahveci, later expanding across the street to create an enclosed coffeehouse. Yağlıkçılar Caddesi, Grand Bazaar, Beyazıt

Erol Taş Kültür Merkezi, Cankurtaran

Despite falling into more recent history, the Yeşilçam film industry of the 1950s-80s is a vital reference point in the city’s cultural timeline. Therefore a marriage of Yeşilçam and coffeehouses should not seem so strange — and this combination is achieved in the Cankurtaran neighborhood’s Erol Taş Kültür Merkezi. Known colloquially as kötü adam (the evil man) for his recurring role as a cinematic villain, Erol Taş opened the coffeehouse after retiring from his successful acting career. In ironic reference to his moniker, the coffeehouse displays a giant poster of Taş with the words “Rest in peace, good man.” With simple wooden walls covered in framed photos of Yeşilçam icons, the outside terrace is a perfect place to absorb the heyday of Turkish cinema — along with puffs of nargile and cups of powerful Turkish coffee. Cankurtaran Meydanı, Yeni Saraçhane Sokak, Cankurtaran