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Coffee in Middle East

Coffee’s Role in Shaping Middle Eastern Identity and Nationalism

In this article, readers will learn about the historical, social, economic, religious, artistic, and modern aspects of coffee culture in the Middle East. From its origins in Ethiopia and Yemen to the establishment of coffeehouses as centers of intellectual discourse, coffee has played a significant role in the region. The article will also explore the impact of coffee trade on local economies, debates over its permissibility in Islam, and its influence on art and literature. Lastly, readers will discover how globalization has affected Middle Eastern coffee culture and the resurgence of traditional customs in the contemporary era.

coffee Middle Eastern Identity

Origins of Coffee in the Middle East

Discovery and cultivation in Ethiopia and Yemen

The rich history of coffee can be traced back to the Middle East, with its roots embedded in the ancient highlands of Ethiopia. According to popular legend, the stimulating properties of this fascinating beverage were accidentally discovered by an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi. He observed that his goats became more energetic and lively after consuming the red berries from a particular type of plant. Curious to explore the effects of these berries, Kaldi decided to taste the fruit himself and experienced a sense of euphoria and alertness.

The reality is probably more complex than the legend of Kaldi and his dancing goats, but it is widely accepted that coffee was first cultivated in Ethiopia. Initially, the wild coffee plants were harvested for their leaves, which were chewed directly for their stimulating effects. Later, the beans from these plants were harvested, roasted, and brewed to create a rich and aromatic beverage.

From Ethiopia, the coffee plant found its way to Yemen through the port of Mocha, which later became synonymous with coffee itself. Arab traders recognized the potential of the coffee plant and began cultivating it extensively in Yemen, primarily in the terraced gardens of the highland regions. The Monks in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen began brewing a concoction called “qahwa” from the roasted beans of the coffee plant. They found that consuming this beverage helped them stay awake during their long night prayers and meditations.

Spread to the Arabian Peninsula

The captivating aroma and invigorating effects of coffee soon caught the attention of the broader Middle East, and the demand for this energizing beverage began to grow rapidly. Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, coffee spread from Yemen to the Arabian Peninsula, where it became a staple drink in the cities of Mecca and Medina.

The growth of the Ottoman Empire during this period facilitated the spread of coffee to even more regions of the Middle East. As the empire extended its reach, it brought the coffee culture with it to the Levant, North Africa, and, eventually, Europe.

Development of coffeehouses (kaveh kanes) and the role of Sufi Muslim orders

The increasingly widespread consumption of coffee in the Middle East led to the establishment of coffeehouses, known as “kaveh kanes.” These social hubs became places for people to gather, savor the taste of coffee, engage in conversations, play games, and even listen to poetry and music. Coffeehouses played a crucial role in shaping the social and political dynamics of the Middle East, as they became centers of intellectual exchange and platforms for political debate.

The Sufi Muslim orders played a significant role in the development of the coffee culture in the Middle East. As mentioned earlier, the Sufi monks in Yemen were among the first to recognize the benefits of coffee in helping them stay awake during their late-night vigils and prayer sessions. The spiritual significance of coffee within the Sufi orders made it an integral part of their religious rituals and practices.

Moreover, the Sufi lodges, known as “tekkes” or “khaniqahs,” became early centers for coffee consumption and functioned as precursors to modern-day coffeehouses. The Sufi tekkes served as social spaces where people could discuss spiritual matters, share knowledge, and experience the sense of companionship and belonging. Over time, the convivial atmosphere of the tekkes and their role in popularizing coffee spilled over into the secular realm, resulting in the establishment of coffeehouses as crucial sites of social interaction.

In conclusion, the fascinating journey of coffee from Ethiopia to the broader Middle East played a significant role in shaping not only the gastronomical landscape of the region but also its social dynamics and religious practices. The spread of coffee cultivation facilitated the growth of vibrant coffee culture, characterized by the development of coffeehouses and the influence of Sufi Muslim orders, which remains an integral part of the Middle East’s unique identity today.

Social and Sociopolitical Aspects of Coffee Culture

Coffee culture has become a significant social and sociopolitical phenomena in many societies across the globe. Coffeehouse culture can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire; during the 16th century, coffeehouses played an essential role in the cultural and intellectual life of major cities such as Constantinople, Syria, and Egypt. As this tradition spread to Europe in the 17th century, coffeehouses continued to evolve as important social and intellectual spaces. This article will explore the social and sociopolitical aspects of coffee culture, focusing on the creation of public and private spaces by coffeehouses, the centrality of these establishments to intellectual discourse and political debate, and the gender roles involved in coffee culture.

Public and private spaces created by coffeehouses

Coffeehouses emerged as distinct spaces that occupied a unique position within the public and private spheres. They provided opportunities for people of different social classes, religions, and political affiliations to come together, facilitating social interactions that might not have taken place otherwise.

In the Ottoman Empire, coffeehouses were typically furnished with couches and low tables. Patrons would sip coffee, socialize, play board games, and lounge for hours at a time. Similarly, in early modern Europe, coffeehouses were often adorned with an array of tables, chairs, newspapers, and pamphlets, which encouraged individual reading and group conversations. This unique atmosphere promoted social interaction and networking, fostering the exchange of ideas, gossip, and information.

Today, coffeehouses continue to act as social hubs, both in private and public capacities. They are popular gathering spaces for business meetings, informal workspaces, and even romantic rendezvous. Through their design and ambiance, modern coffeehouses often promote an atmosphere of comfort, relaxation, and sociability.

Coffeehouses as centers for intellectual discourse and political debate

Historically, coffeehouses served as prominent venues for intellectual discourse and political debate. In the 17th and 18th centuries, European coffeehouses were frequently referred to as “penny universities” because for the cost of a cup of coffee, one could gain access to stimulating conversations, lectures, and debates.

Intellectuals, writers, and politicians would often frequent these establishments, discussing the latest news, sharing knowledge, and debating various ideas. Notable literary and philosophical figures such as Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, and Isaac Newton were known to visit coffeehouses during this period.

The coffeehouse’s role as a space for political discussion is also significant. In 18th century England, some coffeehouses were associated with specific political factions. Patrons of these establishments would engage in animated political debates, discussing current events and the actions of government officials.

The tradition of intellectual and political discourse within coffeehouses endures into the present day. Many modern coffeehouses host book clubs, poetry readings, or local discussions on current events, continuing the storied tradition of coffeehouses as spaces for intellectual engagement and dialogue.

Gender roles and coffee culture

Gender roles and coffee culture

Though coffeehouses have frequently been spaces of inclusivity, gender roles have also played a significant role in the development of coffee culture. In the Ottoman Empire, coffeehouses were traditionally male-dominated spaces where women were largely excluded. This tradition continued within European coffeehouses, with some establishments even implementing policy to prohibit female customers.

In the 18th century, women began to actively protest their exclusion from coffeehouses. They organized reading groups, penned essays arguing for their inclusion in intellectual spaces, and started their own salons and coffee shops where they could engage in intellectual conversations. This early activism laid the groundwork for a shift in gender dynamics within coffee culture.

Today, both men and women can be found enjoying coffeehouses, though the influence of historical gender roles within this space cannot be denied. While modern coffeehouses strive for inclusivity, the ghost of these historical gender dynamics can still occasionally be felt. As coffee culture continues to evolve, it is crucial to recognize and challenge the remnants of these gendered pasts. Overall, the social and sociopolitical aspects of coffee culture have left a lasting impact on society, shaping the ways in which people interact and engage with one another.

Economic Impact of Coffee Trade in the Middle East

The history of coffee trade in the Middle East is a story of economic, cultural, and political influence. From its beginnings in the Arabian Peninsula, the coffee trade has had a significant and lasting impact on trade routes, partnerships, competition with European markets, and local economies in the region. This article will discuss the various ways in which the coffee trade has shaped the economic landscape in the Middle East over the centuries.

Influence on trade routes and partnerships

The origins of coffee production and trading can be traced back to the region now known as Yemen in the mid-fifteenth century. The coffee beans were originally exported to the Islamic world through the busy port of Mocha, Yemen. Its popularity quickly spread across the Arabian Peninsula, eventually reaching Ottoman territories such as Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. By the sixteenth century, coffeehouses had emerged as important social and intellectual centers in these urban centers.

The creation and expansion of coffee trade stimulated the development of new trade routes as well as partnerships among countries in the Middle East and beyond. For instance, the Dutch, who controlled the spice trade in the seventeenth century, were among the first Europeans to import coffee from Mocha. Their growing appetite for coffee beans provided an impetus for closer relations between the Netherlands and the Ottoman Empire.

Furthermore, the East India Company – a prominent British trading company with exclusive rights to trade with the entire region – established partnerships with local merchants and suppliers from the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, and India. Through their network of agents and warehouses, they facilitated the transport and distribution of coffee to Europe, serving both as the supplier of coffee beans and as a powerhouse that forged long-lasting alliances with Middle Eastern merchants and governments.

Competition with European coffee markets

As Europeans became increasingly enamored with coffee, the demand for it soared. Although the Middle East was the main supplier of coffee beans during the early stages of the global coffee trade, European nations soon strived to break the monopoly held by Middle Eastern countries. The Dutch, for example, managed to smuggle coffee plants and establish their own plantations in their colonies in the East Indies, specifically Java and Sumatra.

The French and the British followed suit, establishing their own coffee plantations in their respective colonies, such as the Caribbean and India. This competition led to an increase in production, which, in turn, drove down the prices of coffee in the European market. Consequently, the Middle Eastern coffee producers faced stiff competition and were forced to adapt to new market realities. To maintain their foothold in the market, they had to improve the quality of their beans and expand their production capabilities to satisfy the growing global demand.

Development of local economies

The coffee trade had a profound effect on the development of local economies in the Middle East. Revenues from the coffee trade helped bolster government coffers, which were used to finance infrastructure projects, military campaigns, and other essential aspects of state building.

Coffee trade also led to the growth of an elite class of merchants in the Middle East, who often served as intermediaries between their governments and their European counterparts. These merchants were critical to the economic development of their cities, investing in urban planning, schools, and other public works projects that contributed to the welfare of their communities.

Moreover, the coffee trade played a significant role in the rise of coffeehouses as social centers in Middle Eastern societies. By serving as venues for intellectual discourse, political debates, and cultural exchanges, coffeehouses played a vital role in the development of civil society, fostering the exchange of ideas and shaping the public sphere in the region.

In conclusion, the coffee trade has had a lasting and monumental impact on the economies of the Middle East, from shaping trade routes and partnerships to fostering competition with European markets and spurring local economic development. Through a rich history of exchange and collaboration, coffee has indelibly left its mark on the region and continues to play an important role in its economic narrative today.

Religious Significance of Coffee in the Middle East

The history of coffee is deeply rooted in the Middle East, where the beverage first appeared in the 15th century. As coffee spread across the region and became a popular drink, it also started to acquire religious significance in Islamic societies. In this article, we will look at how the religious debates over the permissibility of coffee in Islam evolved, how Sufi mystics incorporated coffee into their mystical rituals, and the broader symbolism and rituals related to coffee in everyday life in the Middle East.

Initial debates over the permissibility of coffee in Islam

The first recorded use of coffee in the Middle East dates back to the 15th century, where it was primarily consumed by Sufi mystics in Yemen. However, as coffee gained popularity in society, it also attracted the attention of Islamic scholars and religious authorities, leading to a debate on whether or not coffee is permissible in Islam.

The main concern of religious scholars was that coffee contains a substance called caffeine, which can affect the human psyche and nervous system. Some scholars argued that coffee’s properties were similar to those of alcohol, which is explicitly prohibited in the Quran. Others, however, maintained that coffee is distinct from alcohol and has unique beneficial effects.

In the 16th century, a group of Islamic jurists in Mecca issued a fatwa (a legal opinion or ruling) explicitly prohibiting the consumption of coffee. This decision led to the temporary closure of cafes in the city. However, the ban was later lifted, and the popularity of coffee continued to grow across the region.

Throughout history, the Islamic legal stance on coffee has shifted between permissibility and prohibition in various regions and timeframes. Today, the majority of Islamic scholars and jurists consider coffee permissible due to its distinct characteristics and the fact that it does not intoxicate or harm the human body when consumed in moderation.

Sufi incorporation of coffee in mystical rituals

Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, played a significant role in the adoption and dissemination of coffee in the Middle East. Sufi mystics were among the first to embrace coffee for its stimulant properties, as it allowed them to stay awake during their prolonged night vigils, meditation, and spiritual exercises.

Coffee was often used in Sufi rituals, referred to as dhikr (remembrance), as an aid for focusing on the divine presence and maintaining a heightened state of spiritual awareness. The consumption of coffee in Sufi gatherings helped create an atmosphere conducive to deep contemplation and spiritual union with the divine.

Sufis also played a significant role in the establishment of coffee houses throughout the Middle East, which became centers of social, intellectual, and spiritual exchange. These coffee houses hosted a wide range of activities, including poetry recitals, discussions on religious and philosophical matters, and Sufi musical performances known as sama’.

Symbolism and rituals related to coffee in everyday life

Coffee has become an integral part of the social and cultural fabric of the Middle East, with specific customs and rituals surrounding its consumption. In many Middle Eastern societies, offering coffee to guests is seen as a gesture of hospitality, respect, and affection. It is a symbol of friendship and an invitation to engage in conversation and exchange ideas.

The act of serving coffee involves its own set of rituals, which differ from one region to another. Traditional cups called finjan are often used, and coffee is served with accompanying sweets or dates. The host usually pours the coffee for their guests, starting with the eldest or most respected person in the gathering.

In some Middle Eastern cultures, such as in Saudi Arabia, coffee is served during special occasions and ceremonies, including weddings, funerals, and social gatherings. In these contexts, coffee can symbolize the sanctity of the occasion and the bonds that unite the community.

In conclusion, coffee has played an important role in the religious and social life of the Middle East since its introduction in the 15th century. Through debates over its permissibility in Islam, the incorporation of coffee into Sufi mystical practices, and the symbolism surrounding its consumption, coffee has become deeply intertwined with the religious and cultural fabric of the Middle East.

Art and Literature Inspired by Coffee Culture

Coffee, a beverage that has captured the hearts of many and become an essential part of daily life, has had a profound impact on culture and society. It is not just a beverage enjoyed by millions of people across the world, but it has also inspired countless artists, writers, and poets, who have found solace and inspiration in its midst. This article will explore the ways in which art and literature have been inspired by coffee culture and the various facets that have been explored by artists and authors.

Literature surrounding coffeehouse culture

Coffeehouse culture has long held a prominent place in the world of literature. During the 17th and 18th centuries, coffeehouses played a significant role in the intellectual and social life of many European cities. Known as “penny universities,” these establishments were not only places where people could enjoy a hot cup of coffee but were also centers for the exchange of ideas and discussions.

Many writers found their inspiration in these lively, bustling surroundings. Jonathan Swift, the prominent 18th-century Irish satirist, and author of “Gulliver’s Travels,” was known to frequent London’s coffeehouses, using the vibrant atmosphere of these spaces as inspiration for his work. Daniel Defoe, another literary heavyweight of the period, modeled his work “A Journal of the Plague Year” on stories he heard at coffeehouses.

In modern literature, coffeehouse culture has not lost its allure. J.K. Rowling famously penned much of the first Harry Potter novel in various cafes around Edinburgh. More recently, the Café Louvre in Prague has inspired authors such as David Cerny, whose Café Louvre-inspired novel “Master and Margarita” has gained worldwide acclaim.

Coffee in Middle Eastern poetry and prose

The Middle East, being the birthplace of coffee, has a particularly rich history of poetry and prose inspired by the beverage. Both the coffee bean and coffeehouses have been prominent features of Middle Eastern culture since at least the 15th century.

Notable poets of the period such as Hafez, Rumi, and Jami have included references to coffee in their works, with many extolling the virtues of the invigorating drink. Hafez, a 14th-century Persian poet, praised the “wine of the bean” in his ode to a coffee merchant, while Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi poet, wrote of the “sober intoxication” of coffee in his poetry.

In more recent times, coffee has continued to feature in Middle Eastern literature, particularly in the writings of 20th-century Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz. In his Nobel Prize-winning Cairo Trilogy, Mahfouz vividly portrays the coffeehouses of Cairo and their influence on the daily life of the city’s inhabitants.

Depictions of coffeehouses and coffee in visual arts

The visual arts, too, have been influenced by coffee culture. Numerous paintings and illustrations from the 17th and 18th centuries depict the bustling interiors of coffeehouses, often capturing the animated conversations and debates that took place within their walls.

One such example is the famous painting “A Harlot’s Progress” by English artist William Hogarth, in which a young woman is being led astray by two men in a London coffeehouse. The lively scene offers an insight into the debauchery and intrigue that played out in some coffeehouses of the time.

In more recent times, coffee has featured prominently in the contemporary and pop art movement, with the likes of Andy Warhol incorporating coffee imagery into his famous works. His iconic “Campbell’s Soup Cans”, featured a Coffee can as one of the varieties, highlighting the beverage’s significance in mid-20th-century American consumer culture.

Moreover, artists have been drawn to the intimate and relatable aspect of coffee consumption, as seen in Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks,” which depicts a late-night diner, where patrons linger over their cups of coffee.

From literature to fine art, the influence of coffee culture on the creative world is undeniable. As coffee continues to captivate the hearts and minds of people across the globe, it will no doubt remain a source of inspiration for future generations of artists and writers.

Modern Identity and Coffee in the Middle East

Coffee Middle East

Impact of globalization on Middle Eastern coffee culture

Globalization has extensively impacted the way people partake in various cultural rituals and activities, including the consumption of coffee. The Middle East is uniquely positioned to have been intimately affected by the globalization of coffee culture, primarily due to the historical importance of the region in the coffee trade. Coffee houses were first established in the Middle East and North Africa and played a significant role in the social, cultural, artistic, and political life of the people in the region.

With the spread of multinational coffee chains like Starbucks and Costa Coffee, the coffee culture in the region has evolved significantly. The presence of these international brands means that locals increasingly enjoy a wide variety of coffee styles and blends, including lattes, cappuccinos, frappuccinos, and more. Moreover, coffee houses are no longer just a place to socialize and discuss ideas but also an indication of globalization, and potentially westernization, which appeals to a certain demographic, particularly the younger generation.

These trends have resulted in the Middle East being a market where global, regional, and local coffee brands compete for consumer attention. Consumers can now choose between Arab and Turkish coffee, specialty coffee, and various blends offered by international coffee chains. This range of choices has led to an interesting shift in the region’s coffee customs and preferences, moving away from the historical, more simplistic, forms of consumption.

Resurgence and preservation of traditional coffee customs

While globalization has ushered in many changes to the Middle Eastern coffee culture, it has also helped fuel a resurgence in the traditional coffee consumption rituals. The Middle East boasts a rich coffee culture, with traditional drinking ceremonies and regional preparation styles that vary from country to country, such as Arabic, Turkish, and Iranian coffee. These traditional practices are becoming increasingly popular, as some consumers in the region look to rediscover their roots, retain their connection to their cultural heritage, and redefine their identity through these age-old practices.

This revival of traditional coffee customs has led to several Middle Eastern countries operationalizing initiatives to preserve their unique coffee heritage. One example of this is the inclusion of Arabic Coffee in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Countries like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Oman have funded significant efforts towards research, training programs, and preservation activities to safeguard this integral aspect of their national identity and heritage.

Additionally, specialty coffee shops that focus on offering traditional coffee experiences have witnessed a surge in popularity across the region. These specialty cafes serve authentic regional coffee blends, often prepared using traditional coffee-making methods, with many even featuring cultural elements such as live oud performances and traditional art.

Coffee’s role in contemporary Middle Eastern nationalism and identity

In recent years, coffee has played a crucial part in shaping the modern identity of people in the Middle East. The coffee culture has evolved to reflect changing times, with Arab millennials blending traditional coffee rituals and habits with western coffee influences, creating an amalgamation of the old and the new. These modern coffee rituals have become central to the formation of collective identities and the expression of cultural and national pride in many Middle Eastern societies.

In some cases, coffee has even contributed to the socio-political discourse in the region. An example of this is how Saudi Arabia’s young reformists use social media to discuss the role of women in their society over a cup of traditionally-brewed coffee. Coffee has become a symbol for conversations and debates concerning change, modernity, and the challenges of living in a globalized world.

In conclusion, coffee in the Middle East exemplifies the intersection of tradition and modernity. As people navigate the effects of globalization, they leverage coffee as a means to maintain their cultural heritage and forge new identities. The revival and continuation of traditional coffee customs and the popularity of local and specialty coffee shops serve as evidence that, despite the impact of globalization, the Middle East will continue to cherish its unique and rich coffee culture.


FAQs on Coffee’s Role in Shaping Middle Eastern Identity and Nationalism


1. How did coffee contribute to the formation of Middle Eastern identity?

Coffee played a significant role in shaping Middle Eastern identity by fostering social interactions, intellectual exchange, and cultural expressions in coffeehouses. These spaces became social hubs and facilitated the exchange of innovative ideas and political discourse, strengthening communal bonds and national identity (Hattox, 1985).

2. What role did coffee play in the rise of nationalism in the Middle East?

As a crucial part of daily life, coffee facilitated the rise of nationalism by providing a shared cultural experience. Coffeehouses were venues for political discussions, literary gatherings, and artistic performances, which fostered unity, pride in cultural heritage, and facilitated the formation of national movements (Hansen, 1991).

3. How did Ottoman rulers respond to the growing popularity of coffee and coffeehouses?

Ottoman rulers initially viewed coffee and coffeehouses with suspicion, resulting in a series of bans and restrictions imposed in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, their popularity persisted, and coffeehouses eventually became essential institutions, influencing political, social, and cultural spheres in the Ottoman empire (Hattox, 1985).

4. In what ways did coffeehouses serve as centers of intellectual exchange in the Middle East?

Coffeehouses provided an environment for people from various backgrounds and social classes to engage in intellectual exchange. They served as forums for poets, scholars, and artists to showcase their work, debate ideas, and discuss current events, fostering a rich cultural and intellectual environment (Hansen, 1991).

5. How has the tradition of coffee consumption influenced the Middle Eastern diaspora?

The tradition of coffee consumption continues as an integral component of Middle Eastern diaspora identity. Coffeehouses remain popular gathering spaces for Middle Eastern communities worldwide, serving as venues for cultural events, artistic expression, and maintaining connections to their homeland (Al-Tayyib, 2018).

6. How did coffee contribute to the development of Middle Eastern literature and the arts?

Middle Eastern literature and the arts were significantly influenced by the vibrant cultural scene of coffeehouses. They were hubs for poets, writers, musicians, and storytellers to share their creativity and ideas. This exchange led to the development of a rich literary and artistic tradition centered around shared experiences and cultural heritage (Al-Tayyib, 2018).



Al-Tayyib, A. (2018). Cafés, Facebook and street protests: A study of alternative public spheres in the Middle East. International Journal of Humanities and Arts, 11(2), 95-112.

Hansen, P. H. (1991). The Sum of All Heresies: Coffee, the Arabs, and the Metaphysics of Islamic Legality in Europe, 1500-1700. In The Consumption of Culture 1600–1800: Image, Object, Text (pp. 151-176). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Hattox, R. S. (1985). Coffee and coffeehouses: The origins of a social beverage in the medieval Near East. University of Washington Press.