Why drinking coffee used to be punishable by death

Why drinking coffee used to be punishable by death

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There have been times where we’ve all felt we might die if we don’t get a cup of coffee. As anyone who has to drag themselves to painfully early meetings will agree, caffeine is the lifeblood of the modern working world. Without it, we’d all grind to a halt. But, once upon a time, we all looked at coffee very differently. For a few of our ancestors, the drink wasn’t as much a mid-morning pick-me-up as it was a death sentence. As shocking as it might seem for the Starbucks generation, being caught with a cup of joe could have got you killed.

Turkish coffee Credit: Flickr/InOutPeaceProject

Today, there are few countries that take coffee more seriously than Turkey. Their proud brewing tradition dates back centuries and has now become as synonymous with the nation as kebabs and baklava. Head to any Turkish barber and you are almost guaranteed to get a great coffee as well as a snazzy haircut.

Despite modern Turkey’s obvious affection for caffeine, coffee was not immediately seen for the awesome drink it is. Until relatively recently, it remained an obscure delicacy across the western world, rarely seen, let alone consumed, outside of its native East Africa. It was not until the 16th Century that trade began to flow and merchants started to flog the exotic bean to a growing middle class. This was when the trouble started.

It soon became obvious that coffee was not a normal drink. The buzz from a large black pot was enough to put more conservative members of society on edge. The idea that the lower classes could be consuming something that would make medieval life slightly more bearable made everyone uneasy. Consequently, rulers took action. Several countries attempted to introduce coffee bans on the grounds that it encouraged lewd and licentious behaviour. Religious leaders railed against the moral degradation brought on by coffee consumption. For all the complaining, however, nowhere took things quite as far as the Ottoman Empire.

By the mid-seventeenth century, coffee culture was firmly established in Turkey. The coffee shops of Istanbul were world-famous places to meet, talk and make merry. Along with tobacco, the industry had been actively encouraged by generations of Ottoman sultans, who recognised the impetus that the bean provided to the Turkish economy. This all changed during the reign of Murad IV.

Turkish coffee

A notoriously cruel and draconian monarch, Murad IV had an unusual vendetta against coffee. He had inherited the Ottoman throne as a child, after his elder brother Osman II had been brutally deposed and murdered by a rebellious group of Turkish soldiers known as janissaries. Janissaries were a group of crack troops, armed with early firearms and charged with protecting the royal family. However, by the 1600s, they had grown increasingly independent and had been involved in several small rebellions. Murad grew to loathe the janissaries and sought to weaken them at every opportunity. The tactic on which he finally settled was to target the coffee houses where they met and conspired.

We might think that our generation are the masters of cafe culture but, in reality, it all began in Ottoman Turkey. Coffeehouses were the place to relax, discuss business and plan to kill sultans. With so many common people flowing in and out of the hundreds of establishments, they became havens for gossip and mischief. The protection afforded by the coffee house was something the permanently-suspicious Murad would not tolerate.

Murad’s war on coffee began in earnest in the 1630s. He made it illegal to operate a coffee house or to be seen drinking coffee in public. The punishment for disobedience was death. All across the capital, loyal troops scoured streets looking for lawbreakers and dragging caffeine addicts kicking and screaming to jail, to later be beheaded, impaled, thrown in the river, or some combination of all three. There were even rumours that Murad stalked the streets in disguise, hunting for unfortunate drinkers and executing them on the spot with an enormous 100-pound broadsword. These were dark times to be in the bean business.

Despite the seemingly extreme attitude of the sultan, historians have been quick to point out that his problem wasn’t with coffee per se. Murad himself continued to drink it, along with hard liquor, and tolerated the practise amongst his subjects - provided it was kept behind closed doors. His sole motivation was to ensure that the rebels who had proved so problematic for previous rulers were unable to use coffee as an excuse for a treacherous chin-wag. To this end, he was largely successful.

Indeed, so successful was Murad’s policy that it was continued by later Ottoman rulers. Mehmed IV decided to beat anyone convicted of a first coffee offence, before handing them over to the executioner if they were caught again. But, even with all the carnage ruining the industry, coffee continued to thrive. During slightly more lackadaisical reigns, bans were lifted and coffee began to flourish once more. Despite the best efforts of some very angry sultans, the inevitable advance of the world’s favourite black drink could not be stopped.

In a world where we see a Starbucks on every corner, it can be difficult to imagine that coffee has had such a turbulent history. Nevertheless, for all the futile preaching from priests and kings, coffee has risen to take its rightful place at the forefront of modern food culture. Today, it couldn’t be easier to head out and grab a quick cup of joe. But, next time you do, spare a thought for the thousands of unfortunate Turks who suffered unspeakable horrors so that we could continue to enjoy our morning brew.