Topkapı Palace: 500 Years of Turkish Coffee

Topkapı Palace: 500 Years of Turkish Coffee

February 20, 2015
  • Sütlü Türk Kahvesi | Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl
  • Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi Eminönü
  • Turkish coffee cup (European, 19thC)
  • Turkish coffee cup (European, 18thC)
  • Tahmis Kahve in Gaziantep | photo by Rhiannon Davies
  • Turkish coffee

To celebrate roughly 500 years of Turkish coffee culture, which has been recognized as part of humanity’s Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, the Topkapı Palace Museum is hosting the exhibition ‘A Drop of Pleasure: 500 Years of Turkish Coffee’ until June 15. In recognition of this landmark event, we will delve into the dark, steaming past of this ubiquitous pick-me-up.


Cortado, latte, Americano, flat white, mocha, Irish, frappe, Vienna: these names are all prefixes to the magic ingredient that puts pep in our step, makes dreams take wing, brings our brains up to speed, spins the gears of chit-chatter. It is, plainly, coffee; but probe deeper into this sweet-sounding word – follow its roots to the French café, the Italian caffè, the Turkish kahve, and Arabic qahwa - and you’ll find a flow of time that reaches across Europe, through Asia, and into the African continent.


The origins of coffee are steeped in legend and topped with a creamy dollop of speculation. What is certain is that the lush-leaved shrubs and their precious berries – bright red or green while fresh – originate in East Africa, most likely Ethiopia, where the Kaffa Kingdom may have baptized the bean with its name. It then spread across the Red Sea to Yemen, where the stimulating brew was used in local Sufi ceremonies; another etymology suggests that coffee comes from the Arabic root meaning ‘dark color’, originally used for strong wine.


From the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, coffee took some time to reach Istanbul, where Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent learned of the beverage from the Ottoman governor of Yemen in 1555. This was the birth of Turkish coffee – a particular preparation of the wondrous drink that involves roasting the fresh beans over a fire, grinding them finely, and then boiling the ground beans slowly over charcoal embers. Naturally, coffee became the shining star of the court’s social life, and the sultan appointed his own kahvecibaşı to prepare the imperial cup of Joe.


The Mediterranean has always been a melting pot of civilizations, so it’s no surprise that coffee soon made its debut in Europe. It may have entered through trade between Italy and North Africa, via the Ottoman ambassador in Paris, or during the Ottomans’ failed siege of Vienna, where it’s said they left sacks of coffee behind in the retreat. Whatever the true story, it’s clear that coffee took Europe by storm – perhaps the Ottomans’ greatest victory in the West.


But let’s forget the frappe latte and filter coffee for now and focus on coffee’s legendary role in Turkish culture, or more properly the culture of Istanbul, Anatolia, and former Ottoman lands. Celebrating this fine heritage, Topkapı Palace has put together the most comprehensive display of Turkish coffee paraphernalia in the country, including many pieces from the palace collection and from private collectors. These encompass both relics directly connected to coffee consumption, such as cups and grinders, as well as artifacts from the social milieu that coffee fuelled, as various ethnicities, classes, and professions would mingle in the coffee houses of Istanbul.


J. S. Bach reminds us in his comically accurate Coffee Cantata: ‘If I couldn't, three times a day, be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee, in my anguish I will turn into a shriveled-up roast goat.’ Every bean fiend knows how that feels – so sing the praises of the glorious shrub and thank the goddess Caffeine for 500 years of Turkish coffee, without which Europe may have never had a single sip.


How to prepare your own Turkish coffee:

For one cup of orta şekerli (medium sweet) Turkish coffee:

• 1 Turkish coffee cup of water (room temperature)

• 2 teaspoons of sugar

• 2 teaspoons of Turkish coffee

Mix and heat on low temperature in a cezve (copper vessel). Take the foam off the top right before it boils and add it to your Turkish coffee cup. Pour slowly. Serve with a glass of water, and if preferred, with Turkish delight, cookies, or dark chocolate.


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