Chapter 2 - The Wine of Islam
Chapter 3 - The Sufi Connection
Chapter 4 - The Discovery of Coffee by the East India Company
CHAPTER 1 - Jean de la Roque
It was Paris in the summer of 1714 - a breezy Sunday afternoon. Jean de la Roque hurried down Quai St. Bernard bound for the Jardin des Plants. He'd been invited by Monsieur de Jussien, the head gardener, to witness something that few Europeans had ever seen. Something, indeed, so special that his hands trembled with anticipation and his heart pounded as he strode quickly along the quay.
What could it be that induced such a powerful response in an 18th century Parisian gentleman? The answer might seem a bit prosaic to us looking back more than a quarter of a millennium on. In our mind's eye we see a Paris quite different than the one we know - a Paris with a leg still in the medieval world. Rather than the grand, symmetrical boulevards, this was a city with narrow winding streets and rickety, ancient houses yet to be demolished by great urban planners set loose by future Napoleons. Yet this was a city seething with anticipation. For if one foot was in the old world, the other was firmly planted in the new.
Such a distance tends to blur one's vision, especially when gazing back from an age like ours. Having seen everything there is to see and eaten everything there is eat, our senses have been shattered to a point that there are few surprises left - or so we are led to think.
But back then, two and a half centuries ago, what Jean de la Roque was going to witness was as fantastic to him as the marvels and horrors of bio-technology are to us. Only in one other place, at the famed Hortus Medicus in Amsterdam, had anyone accomplished such a feat - coaxing a coffee tree to bear fruit in European soil.
For Jean de la Roque, seeing this horticultural slight-of-hand was a culmination of an obsession which had plagued him since childhood. He had long been fascinated by the stories of his father who had travelled to Constantinople in 1644 and then to the Levant, bringing back to his home in Marseilles not only some of the first coffee ever seen there, but also the enticingly exotic service used in Turkey when entertaining guests - the tiny Finjan cups of ancient China, the little silk napkins embroidered in gold, the delicate silver spoons and the lacquered serving tray.
Coffee was little more than a curiosity when la Roque's father had returned to France, brewed sparingly in drawing rooms of the wealthy or those who had through travel or trade contracted the habits of the Levant. But in 1669 something happened which made this substance very much in vogue and launched the epoch of coffee that so fascinated la Roque. It was in July of that year when the emissaries of Sultan Mohammed IV came to Paris bringing with them sacks upon sacks of a curious bean.
Paris, at the time, was already in the throws of Turkomania as the Empire of the Ottomans pressed ever onward into Europe, till it was knocking at the gates of Vienna itself. Stories of eunuchs dressed in robes of silver and mauve, overseeing their master's erotic needs and courtiers with organs of hearing and speech removed so as to assure their trustworthiness, vied with tales of the Janissaries, the Sultan's elite infantry corps, made up of children torn from their mother's breast as a periodic levy on Christian youth. But it was Constantinople, the ancient seat of Byzantium usurped by the Turkic hordes of Islam, which fired the Gallic imagination with shimmering images of silks and spices and all the exotic loot of an empire which stretched from Yemen to Persia to Hungary.
When the Sultan's Ambassador left in May of the following year, the coffee habit he introduced into Parisian society had already become the newest fad. People of means were beginning to bring it in from Marseilles, or making private arrangements with ship's captains who sailed to the Levant. Yet it wasn't until 1672 that an enterprising Armenian, known simply as "Pascal", took to selling it publicly, first at the grand fair of Saint Germain and then in a little shop located at the Quai de l'Evole where he sold coffee for two sols, six derniers (or about 2 English pennies) a dish.
La Roque was later to write about a little lame man who, in those years, went through the streets of Paris touting this strange new drink. "He had a napkin tied about him very neat carrying in one hand a chafing dish made for the purpose, upon which he would set his coffee-pot. In the other hand he carried a kind of fountain full of water, and before him a tin-basket, where he kept all his utensils."
He was known as "Candiot". It seems he just appeared on the scene one day with his companion, a young man named Joseph, who came from the Levant to seek his fortune in Paris.
But that was a generation before. By the time la Roque hurried down the boulevard that summer day in 1714 toward the Jardin des Plants, there was scarcely a town of any size that hadn't one or more coffee houses. Within a brief period they had sprung up almost magically from one end of the kingdom to another. Coffee had gone from an exotic luxury to a necessary commodity with shiploads of raw beans in rough, muslin sacks coming into harbour almost everyday.
Coffee had come of age. What had been small scale bartering forty years before, had emerged into full-fledged commerce. And the Ottomans, who till now controlled the trade through their Red Sea ports, were quick to realise a good thing when they saw one - as they had been searching for an alternative to the spice monopoly the swaggering Dutch had lifted from them.
"The potentates of Egypt," la Roque complained, "have become more difficult in letting that commodity be transported, which has caused a scarcity and raised the price to six and seven haucks per pound." The hauck was equivalent to about three English pence, and though that seems incredibly small in our inflated age, back then it was certainly enough to make the new entrepreneurs think seriously about alternative sources of supply.
The problem was, however, that alternatives didn't exist to the Red Sea ports - except for one. Which is why the fruiting of that plant la Roque had rushed to witness was so vitally important.
"We went there to see it and observed it a good while with pleasure; it was set in its case and placed in the glass-machine, with the Taper of Peru beside it," he wrote. "The Hollander who had that tree under his care came from Marly to the Royal Garden. He told us that there was a great tree of this species in the Hortus Botanicus of Amsterdam whose height was equal to the second story of house and proportionally as large. That great tree came originally from Arabia, brought from there very young and transported to Java. After some stay, it came at last to Holland where it grew to perfection. The fruit of this same tree, planted in he Garden of Amsterdam, have produced diverse young plants, some of which have born fruit from the age of three years. The shrub sent to our King was of that number, according to the Dutchman."
It was the scourge of the Ottomans - the Dutch - who first got that bean to grow outside its homeland. Now it had been handed over to the French. What la Roque had witnessed at the Jardin des Plants on that very special Sunday was the Mama tree. It was her progeny that travelled the perilous seas to Dominica. And from there, her grandchildren moved on, jumping from the Caribbean to French Guyana and then to Brazil, becoming the founding nurseries of the great coffee empires of South and Central America.
Perhaps this marvel of growing coffee in a European garden can hardly be appreciated now, in our age when human life can be nurtured in laboratory test tubes. But it takes more than a green thumb to force a coffee tree to bear fruit outside its native habitat, especially without the technical understanding of soil and nutriments based on sophisticated chemical analysis that we have at our disposal. The critical factors these incredible Dutch gardeners had to contend with in perfecting their Super-tree were, quite simply, astronomical.
To understand what was behind these astounding achievements, however, we need to consider the relationship of humans and plants in the 17th and 18th centuries - a relationship much different than the one we have with vegetables today.
Before the industrial revolution and the dubious marvels of chemistry, plants were the main basis of drugs and tonics which doctors and herbalists prescribed for their patients' health and well-being. European theologies of the day still accepted the notion that all plants originated in the Garden of Eden and were placed there by God specifically to serve (or tempt) the human race. This belief formed the basis of the ancient theory of "signatures" which said that each plant gave forth a sign, both in colour and shape, as to its effect. Many herbalists believed that plants could be "read", and, if interpreted correctly, could be used to cure any known disease.
It was a widely held belief during the Middle Ages that the Garden of Eden had somehow survived the flood, and during the 15th and 16th centuries, the great journeys of exploration kept this item on their agenda along with the search for the Holy Grail and the Fountain of Youth. But by the 17th century, opinion had shifted as the world became more and more charted and pragmatic philosophies of mercantilism became the force to be reckoned with rather than the vague mythologies of the Church which could produce fascinating dreams but very little hard, convertible cash.
The idea of the Garden of Eden, however, persisted even though its current existence was doubted. And, in line with the magnificent arrogance of the time, men began thinking of starting it anew by bringing together all the bits and pieces of creation into one place.
This resurrection of Paradise became a virtual obsession among the new breed of merchant adventurers, perhaps as a rationale for their pillage and looting of the world or, more probably, because they understood that in the new economies being forged, knowledge was power and commodities, wealth.
Most merchant ships, therefore, carried with them a trained botanist whose business it was to discover new vegetation, describe and codify it and, hopefully, bring back living specimens for the proliferating botanical gardens which had sprung up in nearly every university town in Britain, Italy and France - though the best gardens, the most brilliant displays of flowering diversity, were owned by the Dutch.
In Leyden, for example, practically every plant known to European naturalists was on display. The garden there was like a botanical encyclopaedia containing examples from the far reaches of the world. Academics, herbalists and medical practitioners awaited each discovery with the anticipation of a physicist learning about another building block of matter. And each new plant would be nurseried and brought to the marvellous Hortus Medicus in Amsterdam, where it would be duly noted in their vast and every-expanding pharmacopoeia.
The skill of the chief gardeners, like Dutchman Hendrick Gerritsz and Cornelis Vos, in keeping such a monumental collection in bloom, was quite extraordinary. The difficulty, for example, in growing coffee from seed exemplifies the prodigious amount of information necessary in keeping one, let alone thousands of exotic plants, through succeeding generations.
Viability of coffee seeds is comparatively short and germination is a chancy operation at best. Soil warmth is a critical factor, with the optimum temperature hovering at 27.7 degrees Celsius. Propagating the plant through cuttings is equally difficult and requires the maximum of light plus a humidity reading of close to 90%. Rooting can easily take three or four months.
Keeping these things in mind, it's not difficult to understand why the fruition of a coffee tree in a Paris garden might have been such a great event. What is less clear is why it was so important to people who were not in the business of rushing out every time an exotic flower bloomed.
The fascination that Sunday, was, of course, coffee itself - at least for la Roque. His obsession was so great that he ended up writing a book on the subject; the most definitive one to that date.
What interested la Roque was its origins, most likely because of his childhood memories and his father's ritualised use of the ornate paraphernalia he had brought back from Turkey. He had witness coffee emerge from a surreptitious drink, known only to those familiar with the ways of the Levant, to something which burst onto the urban scene, abruptly transforming the course of social life.
Yet the coming of this drink, which Montague said quickened the mind and let the spirit fly, coincided with a period of intense turmoil and change. The noted French historian, Roland Mousnier, even went so far as to call it the "century of crisis which affected all mankind causing new uncertainties in thought and faith."
One contemporary observer wrote "the whole world is shaking". And, certainly, few people who were around at the time would have denied it. France witnessed well over 1000 revolts during the course of the 17th century and historians have discovered a similar pattern of popular unrest almost anywhere else they cared to look.
Numerous theories have been expounded as to why this century was so extraordinary. Puritans saw the turbulence as a sign from God, warning mankind to mind his wicked ways. Others suggested that malign forces were being influenced by the stars. Modern astronomers now think they might have been right.
Between 1645 and 1715, the skies, according to the records of the time, had a curious absence of sun-spots. And observers from Scandinavia to Scotland noticed another mysterious disappearance - that of the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis.
Both these phenomena are indicators of solar energy. The Northern Lights are cause by particles from the sun entering the earth's atmosphere, and sun-spots, themselves, are an indicator of changes in the sun's magnetic fields.
Considering that a decrease of one percent in the total solar radiation can cause a fall of one degree centigrade in mean summer temperature, which in turn restricts the growing season by three to four weeks as well as the maximum altitude at which vegetation will ripen, it's not surprising that a world in which 90% of the total population was dependent on agriculture for food and employment would be thrown seriously out of whack. As a consequence, the population of Europe, between the years 1625 and 1650, fell by twenty percent.
Curiously, this is the very time that coffee first entered Europe. Could it be that la Roque's fascination had something to do with this coincidence? Or perhaps he thought it wasn't a coincidence at all.
In 1714, la Roque stood on a pinnacle. Behind him was a world laid waste by famine, plague and insurrection. Before him was the grand new age of Europe illustrated by the growth of commodity markets and the stock exchange, the empires built on plantation-based trade, and the flowering of the continental cafés.
For the great emerging powers - Holland, England and France - true wealth now came in the form of plants: sugar cane, cotton and tobacco. And, added to the list now was coffee, the new drink that oiled the economic machine and kept it gong - the drink that so fascinated the likes of la Roque and seemed to epitomise this new age.
No wonder la Roque tried so hard to delve into its origins, as if its story could shed some light on those extraordinary times. But the history of coffee lay in a past so murky and vague that la Roque, like most of his contemporaries had to resort to third-hand tales in order to trace its way. What he found out was how amazingly little was known - at least in the West. And what was known in the East was shrouded in mystery.
CHAPTER 2 -The Wine of Islam
It wasn't only la Roque who was captivated by the Black Apollo. Europe's fascination with this new drink sent a number of historians searching for clues to its origin.
The first European to write about coffee was Prosper Alpinus, a famous physician from Padua and a great botanist who accompanied a counsel from the Republic of Venice to Egypt in 1580. Alpinus lived there for several years and wrote a book about Egyptian medicinal plants in which he discussed coffee:
"I have seen at Cairo a tree in the garden of a Turk named Aly Bey, and I have been given the figure of one of its boughs. Tis the same which produces the fruit so common in Egypt which they call 'bon' or 'ban'. There is made with it, among the Arabs and Egyptians, a kind of decoction very much in use and which they drink instead of wine. This drink is called 'qahwa' and the fruit comes from Arabia Felix..."
Arabia Felix was the name the Romans gave to the southern end of the Arabian peninsula where dancing waters from silvery streams rushed down pristine mountains into rich, fertile valleys below.
Fantastic? Perhaps to us, but not to Alexander-the-Great whose dream was to retire there. That land, known now as Yemen, was as distant as the moon to Europeans of the day. Hardly anyone travelled there. And when they did, it was with wonder and awe that they would describe it.
Yemen was at the far reaches of the Ottoman Empire - traversed by only the bravest European merchant adventurers. Travel writers then were few and far between. And of those daring men who did wander into the unknown, certainly none could compare with the Englishman, George Sandys, who went simply out of curiosity.
Departing Venice in 1610, he voyaged through the Turkish dominions for several years like a wayward Odysseus, several times fleeing from pirates and finding himself caught up in strange caravans. Once, journeying through the hot desert to the Holy Lands, he joined a group of elderly Jewish women who "at the extremity of their age were undertaking so wearisome a journey only to die at Jerusalem: bearing along with them the bones of their parents, husbands, children and kinfolk."
Sandys, unlike the merchants he travelled with, was fortunately a keen observer of daily life. Writing of Turkish drinking habits, he said, "Although they be destitute of taverns, they have their coffa-houses, which something resemble them. They sit there chatting most of the day and sip a drink called 'coffa' in little china dishes as hot as they can suffer it: black as soot, and tasting not much unlike it." (As an afterthought, perhaps as an explanation for this curious state of affairs, he added, "Many of the coffa-men keep beautiful boys who serve to procure them customers.")
But it wasn't until many years later that a European travel writer, named Niebuhr, reached Yemen, itself. "On the first day of our journey," wrote Niebuhr, "we rested in a coffee house situated near a village. 'Mokeya' is the name give by Arabs to such places which stand in the open country and are intended, like our inns, for the accommodation of travellers. They are mere huts and are scarcely furnished with a 'serir' or long seat of straw ropes; nor do they afford any refreshment but 'kischer,' a hot infusion of coffee beans. This drink is served out of coarse earthen cups; but persons of distinction always carry porcelain cups in their baggage. The master of the coffee house lives commonly in some neighbouring village whence he comes every day to wait for passengers..."
This was a far cry from the opulent rooms bedecked in silks and velvet that came to be the pride of cities like Baghdad, Damascus and Istanbul. On the other hand, the village in which Niebuhr found himself was only a short distance from the hills in which coffee was grown and but a few days journey from the harbour of Mocha, where this commodity was exported.
By the time Niebuhr came along, coffee was already well known in Europe and the 'mokeya' had been a part of Yemeni life for hundreds of years. Still, he was one of the first Europeans to describe it; an indication of how distant and strange Yemen was even in the mid-18th century. So it's hardly surprising that historians like la Roque, let alone naturalists like Alpinus, could find little to say about coffee's origins.
When Prosper Alpinus went to Egypt, coffee had been used there for more than a half century. In 1510 there was not a single coffee house in Cairo. But just twenty years later, there were multitudes, as witnessed by a Turkish writer who stayed there for a while and noted "the concentration of coffee-houses at every step. Early rising worshippers and pious men, get up and go there, drink a cup of coffee adding life to their life. They feel, in a way, the slight exhilaration strengthens them for their religious observance and worship." Cairo, however, produced no coffee and Alpinus could trace this bean no further than his vague reference to Arabia Felix. But Philippe Sylvestre Dufour, who wrote a small book published in 1685 with the intriguing title - Traitez Nouveux et Curieux Du Café, du Thé et du Chocolate - thought he could fix the origin in Persia.
"The first that makes mention of the property of this bean, under the name of 'bunchum' in the 9th century was Zachary Mohomet Rases, commonly called Rhasio, a very famous Arab physician," Dufour wrote. He then set forth the thesis that coffee, in fact, came from Persia and had been known in that part of the world for nearly a millennium.
Dufour was wrong. But his disastrous error - which led writers astray for several centuries - gives us a special insight into the historical process and emphasises why following the path of anything that crosses cultural and linguistic divides is so incredibly tricky. There is a strange rule of history which allows any bit of information that goes unchallenged to pass from generation to generation as if age alone bestows it with authority. Believability becomes a question of reference. In the case of the Persian connection, it lasted up until the present day.
The problem was one of language and the fact that European Arabists were something like Latin scholars. They had an excellent classical background, but most of them knew nothing of the living language, nor could they pick up on the multitude of meanings and nuances in such a rich and metaphorical tongue.
In Arabic, the word "El Ajem" means "foreign". Depending on where it is spoken, the word can refer to different lands. In the northern parts of the Arabian peninsula, it can mean Persia. But in the south, the term is used in reference to the people of the opposite coast - specifically, Sudan and Ethiopia.
Similarly the Arabic words "qahwa" which has come to mean "Coffee", and "bun" or "bunchum", which now is used as a term for "coffee bean", had a multitude of references depending on where or when it was written or spoken.
"Qahwa" is a general term which in ancient times meant "wine", but changed in meaning as the dictates of the Moslem religion led to prohibition of alcoholic drinks. it came to mean a "brew" or "infusion" without a substance being specified. It could mean "coffee". But, equally, it could mean an infusion from a plant called "qat" which was used in the south long before coffee was known.
These variations in meaning caused no end of problems for the European writers who dared to use the fragments of Arab manuscripts that came their way which seemed to promise an authoritative clue to coffee's origin. But definition of specific words was only part of the quandary. The major stumbling block had to do with the differing notions of history, itself.
By the time la Roque had come along, history in the West was already a straightforward, pragmatic venture controlled, in the main, by secularists. Writers, of course, had their benefactors and it was still very much the vogue to start one's book with a lengthy and unctuous benediction directed toward their patron of the day.
But in the Moslem world there was no distinction between secular and religious. Cause and effect were ever entwined with the dictates of the Koran. And the Arabic language seemed to delight in flowing obliquely, in tangents, like their intricate mosaic tiles.
The origin of things had a different meaning in the East than in the West. for starters, everything came from God. So history was more of a parable, which incorporated moral issues and hints of Grand Design, within its context.
Since history and poetry were almost interchangeable in the Arab world, translation from one language to another had little chance of success if it was done with a literal bent. Success lay in cracking the metaphor.
So what were these stories which the Arab world passed on to explain the origin of coffee? Not surprisingly, they had to do with mystics. There were many variations, but they all seemed to run along a common line. They were epic tales, which appealed to the imagination. Here is one:
In the mid-thirteenth century, as westerners count time, there was a famous Sufi sheikh who went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. When he arrived at his destination, he informed one of his disciples that his life was coming to an end and he would soon die. After his death, he told him, a man wearing a golden veil would appear. The man, he said, would dig down in the ground and marvellously pull out a bowl full of water. The disciple was then to take the bowl and walk with it till the water ceased to ripple. And at that very spot he was to build a dwelling.
When the sheikh died, the disciple went out into the desert where he set up camp so that he could grieve alone, under the quiet, sheltering sky. There, as the elderly sheikh predicted, a man in a golden veil appeared.
Squatting down, the man drew his finger though the sand in a circular motion and gently brushed away the top layer of grains with the palm of his hand, exposing a bowl of glistening water. Then, taking the bowl and standing up again, the man in the golden veil held it out toward the disciple.
Mindful of his master's instructions, the disciple took the bowl and began his long journey south, trekking week after week, until he reached the fantastic peaks of the Asirs. But seeing the water still rippled in the container, he headed west, through the rich, green valleys, till he came to the flatlands near the city of Mocha. And it was there that the water ceased to ripple.
On the outskirts of Mocha, the disciple built his abode. And preaching the word of his master, he soon began to make converts of his own who sat at his feet and became his disciples.
But as his following grew, the other sheikhs of Mocha started to feel threatened by this man whose words seemed to have such a powerful effect on their people. And they grew jealous and conspired to spread false rumours in the town, that perhaps this stranger was not a man of God at all, but spoke the words of the devil.
When these rumours took hold, the people of Mocha became frightened and joined forces to attack the alien sheikh, running him from his home so that he and his followers were forced to take refuge in the foothills behind the town. There they remained in exile for many months, foraging for food, until there was nothing left to scavenge.
Having spent endless days in hunger and close to starvation, the sheikh, in his distress, began to lose faith - thinking he had been sent into oblivion by the man in the golden veil. Then, one night when he felt close to death, he was visited by an apparition in the form of a flickering silver light, which he recognised as the ghost of his former master.
Beckoning him to follow, the ghost led the emaciated sheikh through the arid foothills to a high plateau, thick with the fragrance of jasmine. Then the ghost faded into the air, but not before the starving sheikh caught sight of some ivory flowers and crimson berries glistening in the light of the moon.
With feverish hands, the sheikh harvested the berries, stuffing them into the pockets of his burnoose. Rushing back to his camp, he fed them to his sickly followers and, only when they had finished, ate of the crimson berries himself.
In a while a marvellous thing happened. The men, who just moments before had been so weak and pale, suddenly felt strong and alert. And when the sheikh told them of the visitor he had received that night, they all gave thanks to their dear, departed master.
As it happened, at that very time the city of Mocha had been visited by another ghost who had spread among the town the seeds of a deadly plague. Fearing the annihilation of their city and having heard rumours of the miracle that had occurred in the exiled community, the leaders of Mocha sent an emissary to the sheikh who they had cast out into the wastelands.
The sheikh took the emissary and the accompanying townspeople into his home with generosity and forgiveness and fed them the crimson berry which his followers had harvested. Soon the townspeople regained their strength and brought the message back to the town leaders that the exiled sheikh was truly a man of God.
The next day, the sheikh and his followers were invited back to Mocha where they lived out their lives in dignity and honor. And when he died, his story passed on into history, through a network of scribes, each one taking poetic license to embellish the tale.
The interesting part of this story is that it assumes coffee grew wild in the vicinity of Mocha, which it very well might have done by 1258 AD, when the events in this tale were to have taken place. It also implies that prior to this time the drink was unknown - at least in Arabia. Lastly, it links the origin of coffee consumption to the Sufi order within Islam - a fact substantiated by other historical documentation.
But if coffee wasn't sent to the Arabs by a messenger of God, the question still remained: where did they get it from?
CHAPTER 3 - The Sufi Connection
It's not difficult to understand how the coffee plant could have made the short jump across the Red Sea from Ethiopia to Yemen. But that doesn't help us solve the mystery of why coffee became a drink, or how, in a few short years, it rose from obscurity to become a commodity of enormous importance. To follow what happened, though, we need a little background:
At the end of the 15th century, the Arab world was undergoing a major retreat from its points of expansion. The Christian reconquest of Spain was nearly complete and, in the east, the Egyptian Caliphate, having become hopelessly corrupt, was under threat by the Ottoman Turks. Even worse, the Portuguese who had founded new sea routes to India, now were able to bypass the Red Sea ports, thus squeezing the Islamic merchants out of the lucrative pepper trade. And the great caravans loaded down with spices from the East, faded silently into the rippling desert heat, now little more than a mirage. For many Arab writers, this time was seen as a period of decline and despair - summed up in the words of a contemporary poet:
"...for that I live
In an age become exceedingly strange
Cruel and terrible, wherein we need
Most urgently a statement of our faith..."
A deep sense of malaise prevailed in the lands of the crescent moon. And there were those who began searching for something to fill the spiritual and economic void, the great chasm in the heart of Islam.
It was within this context that Sufism, a mystic order that sought to look beyond the material world, took root amongst the masses who were beginning to see themselves marching down the long, dusty road to oblivion. In the final decades of the 15th century the Sufi ranks swelled as thousands of artisans, laborers and students dug their way from the debris of the collapsing social edifice to follow their local saint, hoping to find some illumination to brighten up the shadows of their bleak existence.
Like many leaders of mass religious movements which are suddenly besieged with such desperate converts, more than a few Sufi sheikhs were quick to see the advantage in having gained so loyal and obedient a flock. Naturally, it wasn't long before Sufism became a prime target of attack from established secular and religious leaders who saw this pesky, but rather docile sect, become, in their eyes at least, a full-fledged political threat.
However, Sufism was neither a strictly hierarchical order, nor was it monastic. In fact, each adherent was encouraged to seek his own path of enlightenment. The Sufi who set forth to find God called himself a "traveller" and he advanced by slow stages toward the goal of union with the great universe of the spirit - something like the quest of the gurus in the 60's generation who exhorted their followers to "turn on, tune in and drop out." Like then, the dissatisfaction with the trappings of secular wealth and the perceived hypocrisy of the established order led to massive experimentation with devices which might transport those many unhappy souls to another realm, where the burdens of everyday life could be left behind and spirits might soar.
Of course, for a devout Muslim, the Koran was quite specific about which substances could or could not be taken into the body to help the spirit gain flight. Wine, or any similar beverage, was definitely out. So the ingredient which other cultures and religions had found the quickest way to nirvana, namely alcohol, was denied them.
On the other hand, Sufism was not the individual, quiet contemplation of a Christian monk floating off in an alcoholic haze. Indeed, it was very social and far from quiet. If the way to God was through denial of self, it was better to do it together and with such fervor that each spirit would leap from the body and come together in the oneness of the divine. Thus a typical Sufi gathering was characterized by a frenzy of activity which gave rise to the whirlwind images related by astounded European travellers who witnessed the dancing dervishes of the Sufi sects whose chanting gyrations could easily go on throughout the night.
Parties like that don't go very far without a stimulus. So the need for an amphetamine-like substance existed. And in the same general location there was a plant which provided such a drug. The only thing necessary was to put the two together.
How did this happen? If we travel on the magic carpet of our historical imagination, perhaps we can peek through the mists of time:
In a small room in Mocha, the great Red Sea Port of Arabia Felix, the land we now know as Yemen, a Sufi sheikh pondered a question that had baffled many of his kind. Over the years he had been seeking a path to enlightenment. But though he had advanced in his goal of union with the great spirit of the universe, he had yet to reach the blessed state of oneness with the divine.
The way he saw the problem, it all boiled down to a question of staying power. If he could gain the endurance to maintain his concentration long enough for his spirit to gain flight, then perhaps he could touch the mind of God. But how could he overcome the weakness of the flesh which made him suddenly cry out for sleep just as he was about to soar from the prison of his body?
It wasn't as if he hadn't tried boosting himself with a little prick of the pin or even, on occasion, walking over hot coals from a fire now and then. But pain, he found, often worked against spiritual concentration.
The nearest he had come to a decent stimulant was by chewing a leaf called "qat". This came from the plant which grew wild in Yemen, but in order for it to be effective, one had to chew it fresh - as the potency evaporated if the leaf had been off the tree for more than forty-eight hours.
The other problem with qat was the possible conflict with the enforcement of his fast. The question of whether leaf chewing actually broke the fast was open to interpretation. But it was an issue and he had to consider it.
As a way around this conundrum, he had tried making an infusion from the leaf. But the result was so weak and ineffective that it was hardly worth the effort.
Being a determined individual, as most good gurus are, he tried many other herbs and plants. But, here again, he had to act with caution. For the Koran was quite specific about what kind of food and drink was acceptable for a Moslem to ingest. Wine or any kind of alcohol was definitely out. Besides, they were depressants and would hardly keep him alert enough to maintain his rituals. Hallucinogens, even mild ones like hemp, were also taboo.
So what was left?
He was mulling all this over for the umpteenth time, when he was distracted by a strange and wonderful odor that came wafting through the door of his room. Rousing himself from his dream-like state, he followed his nose down the hallway into the kitchen where he saw his housekeeper busily roasting spices in a large, cast iron pan.
Watching her stand before the fire, moving the iron pan back and forth so as to get an even roast, he noticed that on the table by her side were the remnants of some berries that had been give to him by a friend the other day. The man who had given him these berries had suggested it as a remedy for fatigue. And he had explained the ancient formula for making it into a paste which was then to be spread over bread and eaten. Except now the berries had been carved up and fried by his miscreant housekeeper.
Angry at her meddlesome ways, the Sufi asked what in the world the housekeeper thought she was doing.
She looked at him, abashed. But wasn't this another spice? she asked him. Like cardamoms and coriander?
Coming over by her side, he looked into the pan. In the same manner as other spices she had prepared, she had carved away the outer skin in order to get to the seed. The inner part was then roasted and pounded into a powder and, finally, set aside for seasoning when it was appropriate to the menu.
The Sufi grabbed the pan out of her hands and, dumping the roasted beans into a dish, he ordered the poor woman out. She left the room weeping. A nameless soul history would never recall had this story been true.
But the Sufi wasn't thinking of history that fateful day. However, he did have a clever idea. Perhaps, he thought, the essence of the berry's power lay in the bean. And, if that were true, who not try an infusion?
So, taking the housekeeper's mortar and pestle, he began pounding the carbonized beans into powered. When he was done, he filled a pot with water and placed it on the fire. Then, as the water came to a boil, he spooned in the powder. Giving it a stir, he took the concoction off the stove and placed it on the table, letting it sit for a while.
When he returned to the kitchen and inspected the pot, he noticed the water had turned a rich ebony with tiny undulating rings of an oil-like substance shimmering on top. Pouring some of the blackish stuff into a cup, he brought it to his mouth and drank. There was a moment's hesitation, as if he wasn't sure what had happened to him. Suddenly, he made an awful face and spit the residue out.
It was the most vile drink the Sufi had ever tasted. Water from a polluted well couldn't be this bad, he thought. No wonder the instructions were to mix the berry into an adulterous paste!
He went back to his room and, sitting down before the window, looked out at the ships docked in the harbor. There were fewer than the year before. In fact, compared to the bustling days of his youth, when the air was thick with the smell of fragrant cargoes piled high on the wharf, the harbor seemed desolate.
As the implications of this fact meandered through his head, he began to realize that something strange was happening to him. His eyes were seeing further, he thought - with more clarity as well. And the air in his lungs was fresher - like the clean, crisp atmosphere on a mountain top. It was as if his sinuses had suddenly opened and he could truly breathe again.
He noticed that his mind had come alive within his body. Just an hour before he had felt like death itself, listless and morose. Now he was alert and refreshed. Suddenly, everything had changed. And he realized that it must have been the drink.
Jumping for his chair, he left the house and quickly made his way to see the man who had provided him with this fruit. He wanted to know where these berries had come from and how his friend had come to know about its powers.
And this is what the Sufi found out:
Some years ago, the man said, he had occasion to travel across the Red Sea to Ethiopia, the land of his ancestors. While he was there, he had taken ill, languishing in bed for many days. Weeks passed, and even though his fever cooled, he still had not fully recovered.
Then a woman who took care of the house where he stayed in Addis Ababa told him of a tonic which was sometimes prescribed in the southern provinces where she was born. It had been used for generations, she said, as far back as anyone could remember. It gave strength to the weak an empowered the feeble. If he wished, she would try to get some for him.
A few days later, the woman returned carrying a bowl of crimson berries from which she made a paste. She fed this to him on a piece of crisp bread and a short time later he felt strong and alert.
The effects of this tonic lasted for several hours before he was required to take some more. But using the substance judiciously, he was able to travel home again.
Once back in Mocha, he told his doctor about this marvelous drug and showed him one of the berries which the woman had given him. The doctor, he said, recognized the berry at once. He told the man that the shrubs which provided them grew wild in the hills behind Mocha and was a staple part of his apothecary, used as a medicine to energize the blood.
The Sufi listened to this story, attentively, and then requested that his friend take him to see these plants. Obligingly, the friend trekked with him into the highlands, above Mocha, and showed him the trees which now were in bloom.
As soon as he saw the shrub-like trees, the Sufi remembered a story that had been passed won through the generations about the fruit of these plants which had once saved the city of Mocha from a terrible plague. And breathing in the perfumed air, he began to harvest some of the crimson berries.
Later, back home, the Sufi asked his dumbfounded housekeeper to prepare the beans as she had done before. Again, he crushed the carbonized nuts into a powder and spooned it into boiling water, allowing it, once more, to sit for a while.
As he waited, an eagerness began burning inside of him somewhere close to his heart. And he began to think that perhaps with the help of this infusion (which he called "qahwa" because it reminded him of a more potent version of qat) he would truly find a pathway to God.
CHAPTER 4 - The Discovery of Coffee by the East India Company
On the evening of April 7, 1609 the first British ship ever to visit Yemen came to anchor outside the port of Aden. Of course the English had heard stories of this great port, thick with freighters and junks which tramped the coasts of India bringing exotic goods from the East to be exchanged for European commodities like woollens, leathers, tin and iron, brought down from Suez by ship or caravan. But, to the surprise of the men aboard the Ascension, the historic harbour of Aden was curiously deserted, except for a few Gujarati vessels; and the city, itself, what they could see of it, seemed run-down and seedy as if the businessmen had all gone elsewhere and the place had been left to rot.
Even so, the ship's officers were warmly welcomed by the Governor of Aden, a Greek renegade who administered the city for the Turks. They were entertained with "tabour and pipe", given a robe of honour and offered splendid accommodation in which to rest. Assured by the Governor that their goods would find a quick and ready sale, they went to sleep that night secure in the thought that a year of tribulation, fighting the perils of the seas, would at last be rewarded.
The following day, the ship's cargo of cloth and metal was purchased for the Pasha and brought to shore accompanied by several of the ship's merchant representatives, two men named Jourdain and Revett, who were sent to settle the accounts. Once ashore, however, the Governor, intent on gaining whatever profit he could from these Christian heathens, declared an enormous customs duty on all goods landed, whether sold or not. Jourdain, the chief factor, refused to accept such outrageous extortion. But the Governor stood fast. If the factors wished to appeal, he said, they could take their claim up personally with the Pasha. That would mean, of course, travelling overland to San'a - a treacherous journey of several weeks which would probably end in disaster.
Foolhardy stubbornness was a trait which marked these merchant buccaneers. So, as their ship set sail for Mocha to see about picking up some indigo which was said to have recently arrived, Jourdain and Revett set out on camel to journey several hundred miles through mountainous terrain bound for the centre of Ottoman rule in Yemen, the town of San'a.
Jourdain wrote in his journal that they left on the 26th of May in the company of "two renegades, our drogamon, one Italian and another a Frenchman." They travelled often at night, sometimes till three in the morning, passing "high mountains full of stones and very dangerous for thieves."
On the 3rd of June they reached the city of Hippa, a garrison town where they rested in a caravanserai. "The very fertile nature of the land surrounding the city yields fruit every three months," wrote Jourdain. He also spoke of the kindness of the Governor there who sent a goat for Jourdain and his men to eat. They stayed two days, in the evening going to the hot house to bathe while the Governor's man kept them company.
Then, on June 5th, they left Hippa early in the morning to cross the great mountain which rose ominously in their path. "From this mountain," wrote Jourdain, clearly enraptured by the magnificence of the sight, "runs many rivers that water Arabia; and from its soil springs many grains and fruit. The way is paved so five men may go abreast all the way up."
Such a large highway in the middle of nowhere? It seemed incredible. What was the need? On top of the hill were two strong castles by means of which the Turks commanded the passage. Nearby was a town where Jourdain and his companions stopped. Here atop the great mountain, they were astonished to find a town buzzing with activity. The marketplace was thick with merchants and traders - Arabs, Indians, Persians - haggling in a babble of exotic tongues. But what drew them to this distant spot?
Anxious to find out about the nature of this thriving commerce, Jourdain - adept in the art of commercial espionage - quickly located some likely informants and exchanged a few worthless goods for information. He was told that the mountain was named Nasmarde and that it was a very special place. For on this mountain grew most of the qahwa (which Jourdain heard as "cohoo") that was shipped throughout all the lands controlled by the Turks and to the far reaches of the Indies.
What Jourdain and Revett had stumbled upon that day was Yemen's coffee mountain - the produce of which, by then, had become more valuable than gold (at least for those who had been seduced by this exotic substance). Though coffee had yet to make its entry into Europe, by 1610, the year these stalwarts from the East India Company arrived, it had become one of the most important commodities in the Turkish Empire.
Let us stop a moment and consider this remarkable intersection where two worlds crossed, by chance, like an apparition meeting up with its destiny on a verdant mountain top. Two English merchant adventurers, trekking through an unknown wilderness, as strange and forbidding as being lost in the pages of Arabian Nights, suddenly came face to face with the commodity that several generations hence would sweep through their homeland like an economic mistral, changing the face of society and making vast fortunes for merchants very similar to themselves. However they could hardly see across that chasm of time which separated knowledge from fantasy, dreams from truth, or a handful of beans from a silver ingot. For there was still a quarter century yet to go before a dish of coffee would be sold on English soil.
Jourdain and Revett, though, were clear that they had found out something quite significant. These two young factors, after all, were trained and resourceful agents of an organisation soon to become an economic power as great, in relationship to its world, as any multinational concern we know today; and they duly noted the information they had pried from their straightforward hosts, eventually passing it on to their home office which filed it away with all the other mass of records which accumulated in vast piles in musty rooms, sifted through slowly by seventeenth century bureaucrats.
Leaving Nasmarde, Jourdain and Revett continued on to San'a, accomplishing their mission (the Pasha was most understanding and agreed immediately to full recompense) and after a few other adventures (like spending the night with a blind, Portuguese warlock), they made their way to Mocha, where they finally met up with their ship.
Unlike Aden, the two factors found Mocha "very populous" with merchants from many cities of Islam and the Indies. Thirty-five sailing ships from Ormus, Dieu, Chaulel, Tatta, Daman and Sinda, crowded into the harbour together with freighters from Suez. They came there, Jourdain wrote, because of the "staple". One merchandise now reigned supreme and had brought life back to this ancient city. It was coffee, the very commodity they had seen just days ago on Nasmarde, now stacked neatly in mountainous piles of sacks which towered over the wharf.
Were Jourdain and Revett the first Englishmen to see a coffee plant? Very possibly. Certainly they were among the first to intimately understand its economic importance, if not for the European market then as a vital commodity of exchange in the mideast. Forty years before the English or Dutch merchants started bringing coffee into Europe, they were well aware of its value in the mideast and India. They knew where it was grown, what price it brought and its port of origin. The only thing they didn't know was why people wanted it so much. And until they knew that, it wasn't worth bringing back home.
However, that didn't stop British merchants from using it in the form of commodity exchange, which the English East India Company started doing a few years later - especially between their factories in Surat (on the Gurjarat coast) and Jask (the Indian Ocean port for Persia.) Well before it ever reached the Thames Estuary, English shippers had experience in how to buy and store the stuff.
Why didn't some clever entrepreneur jump the gun and take advantage of this lengthy gap in the marketplace? One reason is that even when a market exists for a commodity one place, there is no guarantee it exists someplace else. The East India Company was well aware of this. Out of the hundreds of condiments and spices used in India, only a dozen or so "sold" well in European markets. The reverse was also true. Sage, for instance, which was used as a tea in England during the 17th century, couldn't be given away in Asia. They just didn't like the flavour.
The idea behind trans-shipping, in fact, was knowing where something was wanted and where it wasn't. English iron could be traded for coffee in Mocha which then could be shipped to Surat and traded for spice which then could be taken to Jask and traded for Persian carpets. Theoretically, in each case a profit was made even if money never changed hands. The final exchange, hopefully, gave the merchants a cargo that would sell well in England, the value being that much greater because of all the previous transactions.
In fact, coffee was to become an item of desire in Europe - far beyond anyone's expectations. But what kind of imagination would it have taken to understand that Europe was ready for a long drink of caffeine? And, even if that could be imagined by some prescient merchant, how could he have put it into motion? You don't just take an unknown commodity and dump it in the marketplace. Either the demand is there or you have to know how to create it. Back then there weren't any advertisers to beat the drums over the airwaves. In the 17th century, building a market was a slow, laborious task. If the demand for a particular commodity was there, someone might be able to fill it. But it had to be economically worthwhile before a merchant invested a goodly sum to ship a product halfway round the world. The polished techniques of creating desire as an integral part of merchandising commodities came much later in the history of capitalism.
To follow the story of coffee we must now turn to the cleverest of all the players in this new age of commerce - the Dutch...
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