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A History of Coffee: Part 2 - Caffeine Contraband

A lot of things have been banned for starting a revolution. From kilts and bagpipes to hip hop and Facebook, what seems to be the smallest, most insignificant thing (or possibly obnoxious in the case of bagpipes) have been seen as the symbol and sometimes vehicle of a movement that can overthrow a seat of power. Ever heard of coffee being such a vehicle? No? Let's take a trip to 16th century Mecca.

It was here that coffee was first banned on grounds that it was a stimulant to radical thinking that would challenge the imams. This was a great disappointment to the Sufi mystics that would drink from a big bowl of it to stay awake during funerals. The Great Islamic Coffee Shop Ban ended in 1524 and a shop was promptly opened in Istanbul by two Syrian immigrants from Aleppo and another man described as a "wag" from Damascus. I don't know what a "wag" is but I'll be willing to bet he wasn't the guy in charge of the money.

Why would someone think coffee was a "stimulant to radical thinking"? You might ask? Well back then free speech was a hot new idea and you were about as likely to find it in a coffee shop, as one would be as likely to find a Barbara Streisand anthology in the used record section of a thrift store. The way one Parisian tourist describes the medieval Islamic coffee shop scene, it was a veritable hodgepodge of people drinking coffee and playing games, chatting about politics, getting the latest gossip, and random poets, storytellers, preachers just standing up, doing their thing and everybody pretty much talking over them while they orated. You can see how this would be quite a disturbing situation to someone used to authoritarian power.

Europeans banned coffee for much weirder reasons. The best of which (I think) was in 1777 when pressure mounted to ban coffee since it interfered with beer drinking. The Prince at the time thought this was a great idea since he himself had been brought up drinking beer for breakfast.

Tune in next time for more stories about the history of coffee...



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