Friday 25 March 2022

A Coffee Pilgrimage to Room 43a of the British Museum


Love is like the coffee of the Bedouin, bitter yet beautiful. - Arab saying

 We think we like coffee, that we have a coffee culture — really?  A cappuccino in a plasticized paper cup or any later than breakfast time is an abomination.  Even worse is the “Latte”, a child’s drink of warm milk with a memory of coffee.  It is a sort of homeopathic version of coffee.  What we want is the strong, aromatic coffee of Islam.

Come with me on a pilgrimage to the Levant and Arabia, where Sufis, Bedouin and Ottomans have perfected and celebrated the art of coffee since the 1300s.  Travel is still a bit tricky but we can do all this in Room 43a of the British Museum where a free exhibition “Life in a Cup. Coffee Culture in the Islamic world” is on until 18 September 2022.  The exhibition is small but intense, rather as coffee should be.   British Museum

Sufis in the Yemen in the late 1300s discovered coffee’s properties. Coffee warded off sleep and enhanced their mystical experience. Coffee reached Istanbul by the early 1500s.  There, the preparation and consumption of coffee became an art form.  The exhibition introduces us to the Sultan’s coffee maker, not a Nespresso machine but an elegant person in a rose-pink silk robe and turban.  The Cavehdgi Bachi presents a tray of coffee covered with an embroidered coffee-cosy.  Levantine coffee drinkers dismiss a coffee with no foam as of poor quality and look down on the skills of the coffee maker.  I doubt if the Cavehdgi Bachi ever took the risk of presenting the Sultan with a poorly foamed coffee.

By the 1600s, people from Morocco to India were drinking coffee.  In the courts and mansions of Istanbul, drinking coffee was a refined activity as we can see from the lustre porcelain cups they used.  The exquisite patterns would have emerged to delight the eye as people sipped their coffee. Some of the porcelain was imported from Japan and China along the Silk Road trading routes.  In rural Yemen, they used more humble earthenware cups that have their own beauty.  We can tell they were cherished from the lovingly woven baskets they used to carry them.

Sir David Wilkie, who travelled in Istanbul, Izmir, Jerusalem and Alexandria in the 1840s, was a keen observer of the coffee culture.  He came to realise that what he thought was time wasting (he must have been amazed at how long the five or six sips in a Turkish coffee cup can be made to last) was time spent building social relationships.  

Postcards in the exhibition show that women enjoyed coffee too but I have the impression that men and women did not drink coffee together. Some years ago, I was travelling in the Sahara with my wife, Adrienne. We went into a small coffee shop in the oasis town of Siwa.  I sensed a tension as soon as I ordered. I had not noticed that only men were present.  The presence of a woman unsettled them though Arab hospitality prevailed. There were no such worries when we went to the Al Nofara coffee shop in the al-Hamidiyeh Souk in Damascus to listen to Abu Sadi tell his stories.  In modern Damascus, the sexes, the young and the old mixed happily. I have written about that experience in another post. The Story Teller of Damascus

Coffee is a sensory pleasure.  The Egyptians and Syrians say that tobacco without coffee is like a Sultan without his fur coat. All fur coat and no baccy?

Coffee reached London in 1652 with the celebrated Pasqua Rosée, who founded the Capital’s first coffee shop. Its successors would go on to be the seedbeds of the Enlightenment.  People like coffee shops and enjoy conversations.  Even as early as 16th Century the authorities in Mecca, followed by Cairo and Damascus, tried to ban coffee shops.  They failed of course; the people and commerce prevailed.  In Istanbul, by the late 1800s, coffee shops became places where families could enjoy shadow puppets performances and, as I had done in Damascus, story telling.

The European powers took hold of coffee, set up plantations in Brazil, Kenya and elsewhere.  Coffee became a global commodity.  Italy and, from there, America developed their own methods of brewing and consuming coffee.  The new coffee culture spread back to its heartland.  There are 47 Starbucks outlets in Istanbul.  They do serve Turkish coffee but you will do very much better in any street café, where you will enjoy not just the coffee but also the experience of an ancient tradition.

Within five minutes of leaving the British Museum, I found a Turkish café and enjoyed a proper coffee before setting off for the famous Algerian Coffee Stores in Old Compton Street.  Algerian Coffee Store

Enjoy this quiet exhibition at the British Museum.


  1. What a pleasure to read you have the art of writing and your posts always put a smile on my face! :-)

  2. Thank you, you have made my day.