When the sunny days of summer pass and the weather turns cold and rainy, the inhabitants of Istanbul look for somewhere to take refuge. The winter season has come, and with it, melancholy prevails. The sense of freedom which lent vitality under blue skies is superseded by gloomy lethargy under lowering gray clouds. Now it is time to leave the open air to retreat behind steamed up windows, not just to escape the cold but to past the time, relax, and enjoy a spot of conversation. The coffee house on a street corner, up to a quiet alley or next to the local mosque, is just the place. Although open in summer too, it is in winter that these really respond to psychological needs, with steaming glasses of hot strong tea doing the rounds and the soothing sound of bubbling nargiles.
Coffee houses are perfect for enjoyable conversations and clandestine meetings. They are also mirrors of Istanbul’s complex social texture, the place for heated discussions of politics, the latest football results, and the latest gossip from school or work. Love affairs begin and end here, and secrets are disclosed. In short, the diaries of the country and individuals are written in the coffee houses.
In one of his books, Salah Birsel has written: Coffeehouses breathe 24 hours of the day. Because they, like living organisms, grow, fall in love, experience happiness and unhappiness, and die.
According to musty archive records the first coffee house opened in Istanbul 30 years after the arrival of coffee itself. In her book about Istanbul’s first coffee houses, Burcak Evren writes: According to the historian Solakzade coffee was introduced to Istanbul in 1519 after the Egyptian campaign of Selim I (1512-1520), and the first coffee houses opened in the city in 1551. This time gap between the arrival of coffee and the establishment of coffeehouses can be accounted for by the time it took for consumption of this new beverage to spread to the point where it required special places to drink it.
The rest of the story resembles that of a dynasty which steadily climbs the hill of power and fame until it settles on the summit to rule unchallenged. Coffee imported by Muslim merchants from Yemen via Jeddah, Cairo, and Alexandria to Istanbul, enjoyed a career in this latter city which outdid any other in splendor. Its popularity quickly spread until no one could live without it.
This refreshing dark brown liquid with its distinctive aroma deserved equally distinctive places where it could be savored to the full. As Burcak Evren explains, ‘Pleasure seekers and above all well-known intellectuals and writers began to congregate together in the coffee houses.
Some read books and essays, others played tavla (backgammon) or chess. Others discussed poetry and literature. Eventually, it reached the point where anyone with nothing better to do headed for the nearest coffee house: civil servants waiting for a new posting, judges, college professors, and the unemployed came here to enjoy themselves and forget their troubles. Sometimes the coffee houses were so full that there was nowhere to stand, never mind sit down.
The popularity of coffee houses soon began to disturb the authorities, who regarded them as potential beds of the public insurgency, and clerics and preachers pressed for coffee to be banned. The first prohibition on coffee houses came just a few years after they came into existence, during the reign of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566), imposed by Seyhulislam Ebusuud Efendi. All the coffee houses were closed down and people caught drinking coffee were punished. As if that were not enough, all the merchant vessels laden with coffee lying in Istanbul harbor were sunk. But even the severest of measures could not topple coffee from its place of honor at convivial gatherings or destroy an institution which was becoming so much a part of social life. Coffeehouse proprietors found ways to circumvent the ban, either by admitting customers through the back door or by obtaining special waivers from the authorities.
The varieties of the coffee house in past centuries reflected the socio-cultural spectrum. Every class, every group of tradesmen and every neighborhood had its own coffee houses. In time the categories became still more diverse, with coffee houses to suit every taste and profession, for opium eaters and janissaries, those where musicians played, and those where meddahs told stories. As well as those with permanent premises there were coffee stalls set up in any pleasant or busy spot. Before long coffee had become an intrinsic part of life, not just among ordinary people but even in the homes of those who had been so keen to stamp out the habit.
The coffee houses of Istanbul today are but a faint shadow of their counterparts in earlier centuries. The music has fallen silent and the storytellers have gone their way. Doors onto rooms which once rang with laughter have closed, never to open again, and the coffee stalls have disappeared never to return. Today the handful of coffee houses which still serve water pipes preserve some of the nostalgic atmospheres of the past, but their time is running out at the hands of the clock slowly turn.
Those which have declined to cater to the tourist trade and bedeck their walls with souvenirs have instead removed to quiet backstreets where they can hide amidst familiar faces. Here the atmosphere can fill with the smoke of nargile tobacco without anyone complaining. A few other coffee houses have managed to survive with little change, particularly along the Bosphorus, in Bebek, Cengelkoy, and Emirgan, and at Eyup and Kasimpasa on the Golden Horn. An attractive position is a key to survival, perhaps looking out over the sea, or tucked under the spreading branches of an ancient plane tree. The remainder has changed in step with the times to suit a new type of customer, but as in the past, their functions have messages for their contemporaries. In some, computer games have taken the place of packs of cards and gin rummy boards, and in others, cans of soft drinks stand on the shelf beneath the tea glasses. All have something to offer their particular category of clients, whether university students or swaggering local toughs.
So, however, coffee houses might change form and shape in this modern metropolis with a population heading rapidly for the 20 million marks, the elderly city does its best to protect institutions which have shared and witnessed its history. Snapping its fingers at the newfangled cafés which have mushroomed in fashionable districts, it obstinately protects its old friends which hold their ground on sidestreets and quiet waterfronts.