The Legendary Origins of Coffee

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Coffee plantation

Not much is known about the early history of coffee, and many tall tales and legends have arisen to fill in the blanks of the historical record.

The origins of coffee are mysterious. It is known that coffee came into general use in the Middle East sometime in the fifteenth century, but a lack of sources means it’s impossible to be more specific. Ever since, historians and chroniclers have found the absence of any mention of coffee before this period to be a puzzle.

Coffee is indigenous to Africa, and probably Arabia as well, and has, presumably, been around for a long time in its wild, uncultivated state. Why did no-one notice it, or if they noticed it, why did they fail to mention it?

The Origins of Coffee

It is a question that has roused some interest over the years, as writers have tried to fill the gap in the historical record with some highly imaginative interpretations of ancient works and charming legends.

The most famous story concerns the Ethiopian goatherd Kaldi. The story first appears in De Saluberrima Cahue seu Cafe nuncupata Discursus (1671), by Antoine Faustus Nairon. He relates that Kaldi, on noticing the energizing effects when his flock nibbled on the bright red berries of a green bush, chewed on the fruit himself. Impressed with the effects, he brought the berries to an Islamic holy man in a nearby monastery. The holy man disapproved and threw the berries into the fire, from which an enticing aroma soon issued. The roasted beans were quickly retrieved, ground up, and dissolved in hot water. Voilà – the world’s first cup of coffee.

Another origin story, recounted in the Travels, Researches and Missionary Labors During Eighteen Years Residence in Eastern Africa (1856) by Reverend Doctor J Lewis Krapf, gives pride of place in the propagation of coffee to the civet cat (a cat-faced relative of the mongoose). It was the civet cat that carried the seeds of the coffee plant from central Africa to the Ethiopian mountains, where it was first cultivated. An Arab merchant travelling in the area then brought the plant to Arabia, where it flourished and become known to the world.

The Ancient History of Coffee

Troubled by the lack of evidence for the ancient history of coffee, some writers felt duty-bound to fill in the blanks. Pietro della Valle, who journeyed through the Middle East in the seventeenth century, put forward the theory that the drink nepenthe, prepared by Helen in The Odyssey of Homer, was coffee mixed with wine. At about the same time Sir Henry Blount declared that the drink he had enjoyed in the Levant was the same as a famous drink of the Spartans. Others made strenuous efforts to find coffee in the Old Testament.

The history of coffee enters the realm of convincing evidence with the earliest history of coffee that survives to this day, by ‘Abd Al-Qadir al-Jaziri. His most reliable work is based on the lost work of Shihab Al-Din Ibn ‘Abd al-Ghaffar, who wrote in around 1530. According to al-Jaziri, ‘Abd al-Ghaffar, while living in Egypt, first heard of a drink called “qahwa” that was becoming popular in Yemen and was being used by Sufis to help them stay awake during their prayers.

The first firm references to coffee mention it in the context of the Yemen and the Sufis. The references to Ethiopia in the legendary accounts of the origins of coffee may not be so far off the mark. Ethiopia, across the Red sea, is not far from the Yemen, and there would have been ample trade between the two.

The mystery of the lack of evidence for any earlier use of coffee remains, however.

Sources:

  1. The World of Caffeine, Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K Bealer (Routledge, 2001)
  2. Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East, Ralph S Hattox (University of Washington Press, 1985)
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