Tracing Coffee’s Travels From the East to the West

New exhibition explores how the caffeinated beverage sparked religious controversy and technical innovation

coffee beans
A new exhibition at the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem explores the fascinating history of coffee. Photo by Alexandr Marynkin via Unsplash

To some, coffee represents nothing more than a jolt of energy to start the day. But as a new exhibition at the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem demonstrates, the drink has been the subject of political and religious debates, cultural exchange, and culinary innovation for centuries.

Coffee: East and West” showcases coffee-making equipment from more than 30 countries, reports Judy Lash Balint for Jewish News Syndicate (JNS). Also on view are tiny decorative Turkish cups, large china cups used by elites in France and a cup with a feature that protects the drinker’s mustache.

“From my perspective, these objects are the element that connects the items of food and drink themselves with the human stories, customs and traditions that were created around them,” curator Yahel Shefer tells Haaretz’s Ronit Vered.

Coffee originated in Ethiopia before spreading to Yemen and beyond, reaching Mecca and Cairo by the end of the 15th century. With the Ottoman Empire’s dominance of the Arabian Peninsula, coffeehouses popped up around the region.

“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,” Amnon Cohen, an Islamic and Middle Eastern studies scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, tells Haaretz.

Religious authorities have engaged with coffee in many different ways. For some Muslim officials, coffeehouses represented a threat to mosques as central gathering places, wrote John McHugo for BBC News in 2013. But coffee also helped Sufi worshippers stay alert during prayer services. Meanwhile, Jewish religious scholars have debated whether coffee should be consumed on the sabbath and whether Jews should visit Christian-owned coffeehouses.

Coffee proved contentious in both the Middle East and Europe, where it was decried by some Catholics as “‘the bitter invention of Satan,’ carrying the whiff of Islam,” according to History Extra’s Paul Chrystal. Popular lore suggests the drink enjoyed a boost in popularity after Pope Clement VIII tried it and declared, “The devil’s drink is so delicious … we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!”

As the exhibition shows, people have developed an enormous variety of methods for preparing and consuming coffee. Shefer tells the Jerusalem Post’s Barry Davis that Ethiopians ground the beans and mixed them with goat or sheep fat as a source of quick energy for soldiers and hunters. The drink may have been prepared in this manner as long ago as the tenth century B.C.E. Much later, communities all over the world came up with elaborate methods of brewing the beans.

“It is the drink for which the greatest number of auxiliary items were designed,” Shefer says. “Anyone who felt any sort of connection with coffee—architects, designers, artists and other professionals—came up with creations for it. They related to coffee through their own professional eyes.”

Artifacts on display in the show include a small 18th-century cup with a spot on the base where drinkers could place opium, ornate Turkish cup-holders, modernist 20th-century Italian espresso machines and a Bedouin coffee pot welded from scrap metal.

Gender divisions also shaped coffee culture, JNS reports. Some women disguised themselves as men to enter all-male coffeehouses in the 16th and 17th centuries. Others protested their exclusion from the institutions or created their own—a trend that gave rise to the European kaffeeklatsch, an informal gathering characterized by coffee and conversation.

The exhibition presents Israel as a place where Arabic and European coffeemaking traditions met. German Christian Templers and European Jews who settled in Palestine in the 19th century established European-style cafes in Jerusalem. Later, British occupying forces created more demand for coffee shops.

“In the early 20th century, people in Zion Square in Jerusalem would drink Turkish-Arabian coffee in the morning, and in the afternoon hang out in the famous Café Europa,” Shefer tells Haaretz.

Coffee: East and West” is on display at the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem through May 2022.