How Coffeehouses Came to Jerusalem

July 27, 2021 | Ronit Vered
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At Jerusalem’s Museum of Islamic Art, a new exhibition focuses on the history of coffee-drinking in the city, which developed under the combined influences of both Europe and the Middle East. The first cafés appeared in the Levant in the 16th century, shortly after coffee itself arrived in the region. Ronit Vered speaks to some of the experts about the beverage’s history, citing first Amnon Cohen of Hebrew University:

“One of the reasons that the institution of the café was so successful in the Middle East, a region heavily populated by Muslims, who are prohibited from drinking wine, was people’s hunger for a place where they could simply meet and talk. Muslim cities of the period had hardly any public places—apart from the mosque—where social activity could be conducted,” [said Cohen]. In the Muslim world, then, coffee took the place of wine as a psychoactive substance that inhibits hunger, raises the spirits and “quiets the vapors of the brain.”

“The first Hebrew mention of a coffeehouse appears in Safed in the 1560s,” says Professor Yaron Ben-Naeh from the department of Jewish history at the Hebrew University. “The Safed café is mentioned as having a dubious reputation, or in the words of the text, it was a place of ‘frivolous company.’ The religious arbiters of Judaism, like their Muslim counterparts, are undecided about whether it is permitted to drink coffee. Isaac Luria, . . . the greatest of the kabbalists, rules that drinking coffee is forbidden, but the believers simply ignore it. No one abides by the prohibitions.”

The coffee culture continued to take root in the 17th century, [the historian Shai] Vahaba relates. “Someone in Jerusalem who wants a cup of coffee can now get one from a street-seller who carries a large ibbrik, a coffee pot, on his back, or a copper tray with finjans, small cups, on his head. He can also get a cup of coffee in tiny shops—small rooms with two or three places to sit where coffee pots are placed on a rented stove—or in the spacious cafes where people sit on benches, pillows, or low stools. But the great innovation of the century was that people were already starting to make themselves coffee at home.”

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