How Istanbul’s ancient coffee culture is holding its own in the modern world

There are worse locations for a cup of coffee in the morning than Kahveci Mustafa Amca Jean’s. Sitting on one of the stools in the quiet courtyard off stiklal Avenue, I realize that I’m not the only one who thinks so: a street cat has also found a seat, curled up on a cushion next to me in the sun’s gentle rays. A soft clink of cups emanates from the tucked-away kitchen.

Duygu Douc states, “We have a proverb in Turkish.” “‘Eat sweet, talk sweet.’ If you simply wish to converse, we drink sweet tea. If you desire a serious discussion, then let’s have coffee.”

Then, I anticipate an earnest conversation with my Istanbul Tour Studio guide as we sip strong, bitter Turkish coffee, but it never materializes. In fact, as I finish my beverage, Duygu inverts the cup onto the saucer with a wry smile. “Ok, let’s have a look.” She turns it over and peers inside the formless brown sludge, attempting to discern shapes. No luck. “Ah, I have no idea. Did you know that there is now an app for reading coffee grounds?”

This should come as little surprise. According to Duygu, the digitization of kahve fal (coffee-ground fortune-telling) is merely another chapter in the lengthy history of Turkish coffee culture. The first coffeehouse in Istanbul was established in 1555 by two merchants from Damascus who brought Arabian Peninsula coffee beans. There, in the mountains of Yemen, Sufi mystics consumed coffee day and night to induce spiritual states. By the end of the 1500s, it had taken on a more earthly purpose as the drink of choice in Constantinople, then Istanbul, and coffeehouses had sprung up everywhere. They became a place for men to socialize away from the mosque’s ears and eyes, promising gossip, games, and good coffee. Sultan Murad IV felt so threatened by the popularity of coffee in the early 17th century that he banned it, along with alcohol and tobacco, and executed those who disobeyed.

“Everything occurred in Istanbul’s coffeehouses,” concludes Duygu as she finishes her drink. “Actors, storytellers, and puppeteers would all come to perform, and tradesmen would frequently spend the entire day there in case anyone in the area required their services. It was comparable to a job center.”

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