Coffee and Arabia

konaThe Arabian Peninsula (now split into Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yeman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait) has a long and distinguished relationship with the world’s favourite hot drink, as it was was the first area where coffee was deliberately cultivated. By the fifteenth century it was being grown in what’s now the Yemen and a hundred years later it was being traded and grown across Persia (Iran), Egypt, Syria and Turkey.

Coffee quickly became so popular that public coffee houses, or gahveh khaneh, were set up, quickly becoming important social hubs. Activities not only included coffee drinking, but also music, entertainment, board games, conversation and an exchange of the important news of the day. The coffee houses became so important both culturally and as a quick and efficient way of exchanging information that they became known as ‘schools of the wise’, and coffee itself as the ‘wine of Araby’.

At the time, Arabia was in a unique position as thousands of pilgrims flocked to the holy city of Mecca every year on a pilgrimage, coming from all over the world. With so many people visiting from foreign lands, news of the wonderful new drink began to leak out. Arabian had a virtual monopoly in the early coffee trade, and wasn’t anxious to share its secrets. Exported beans were often boiled or parched to render them infertile, and it’s believed that for a long time no coffee at all grew outside Africa and Arabia.

In the 17th century, legend has it that an Indian pilgrim named Buba Budan managed to fool the authorities and smuggle a few fertile beans out of Mecca strapped to his stomach.

Wherever Islam went, coffee was sure to follow. With the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, coffee quickly spread to the Eastern Mediterranean. However, it is believed that no coffee seed sprouted outside Africa or Arabia until the 17th Century, as coffee beans exported from the Arabian ports of Mocha and Jidda were rendered infertile by parching or boiling. Legend has it that this changed when a pilgrim named Baba Budan smuggled a few fertile coffee beans out of Mecca strapped to his stomach. He raised them at Karnataka, India, where a shrine bearing his name still stands.

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