Matthee R. (1994) For piety and pleasure, coffee and coffeehouses in Safavid Iran

Matthee, Rudi (1994) “Coffee in Safavid Iran: Commerce and Consumption”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 37/1, 1-32.

Picture 26Picture 27Picture 14


Despite the fact that it took place roughly at the same period, the spread of coffee consumption over the world appear to have occurred independently from the European commercial expansion (p.1). It spread during the early 16th century from Arabia through the Ottoman Empire and to Iran (p.2). The habit may have penetrated the Safavid realm via the heavily Arab-influenced southern shores. The constant wars and exchange of territories between the two empires can only have helped to spread this Turkish custom (p.5).

The companies move in

As early as 1618, the East India Company suggested to carry coffee from Yemen to Iran (p.6). In 1628, the VOC was the first to actually ship coffee to Iran: 15,000 pounds from Mokha with an expected 70% return. Political unrest in Yemen prevented the trade to go on for another decade, but by 1638 the Dutch were already sending 60,000 pounds to Iran. The route was so profitable that shipping coffee back to the Netherlands was regarding as an expensive folly (p.7).

“If coffee deliveries by the [European] companies to Iran proved irregular, this was due in part to price fluctuation, caused by the variably quality and quantity of the harvest in Yemen. (…) The companies fundamental weakness [was] their insufficient control over production.”

Asian merchants stay in the game

The Asian merchants usually purchased the commodity directly from the inland production centers using a complex system of advance payment “that put outsiders such as the Europeans, who traded on the coast, at a distinct disadvantage”. Navigating the Red Sea was difficult and pirates created a real threat (p.8).

However, Yemen was a poor market for the wares the European merchants brought there, forcing them to trade with bullion. This motivated the VOC’s decision to abandon the coffee trade in 1654 (p.9). In Iran, coffee prices collapsed over the 1630s as supply increased and in 1641, there were even unsold stocks.

“In Mokha, meanwhile, competition by English and Gujarati merchants drove up retail prices” (p.10). Over the 1640 an average of 100,000 tons were shipped yearly to Iran (p.11). Finally European merchants rarely ventured to Yemen until the 1680s (p.13). But by then the European market had replaced the sluggish Iranian demand.

The European market

The EIC moved quickly, coffee export to England amounted to 45,000 pounds in 1664 and 300,000 pounds twenty-five years later. The VOC only shipped 22,000 pounds to Europe in 1661, but in 1712 this figure had reached the million (p.13).
At the end of the 17th century, the trade was greatly disturbed due to a Portuguese-Omani conflict. Convoys had to be set up (p.14). As a result of competition of supply and piracy, prices remained high in Iran.

In Yemen, in the 1720s the Dutch endeavoured to manipulate the market to keep the prices high, they succeeded so completely that by 1726 the amount of coffee purchased from the Dutch colony of Java was nearly ten times the one bought in Yemen. However some of the coffee consumed in Iran and brought by Gujarati or Arab traders still came from Yemen even if their importance had somewhat decreased (p.15). Their trade since 1650 had been centred on Masquat however a portion of the trade took place using the land route (p.16).

Consumption in Iran

However coffee was initially valued for its medicinal properties in Iran (p.17). But it soon became a sought-after social beverage during winter. Its usage spread all the way to the royal court (p.18). Shah Abbas himself went to coffeehouses (p.19). Lower prices after 1630 allowed less affluent people to drink coffee, but unlike the Ottoman Empire the consumption of the beverage never extended significantly beyond the urban middle class (p.23).

Coffeehouses – often attached to the mosque-school complex – were a middle ground between the world of the mosque and disreputable taverns. They became the place for discussions, games and entertainment. Mullahs frequently gave speeches there too and even held oratory competitions (p.24). Sufism and Dervishism also entertained a mystical relationship with that mildly intoxicating drink.

However coffeehouses gradually lost their godly reputation and became known for the luscious dances of their young teenage Circassian waiters (p.26). Finally by the 1650, a devout government put an end to the libidinous practices of these “houses of sodomy”.

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