The Religion of Coffee

People often joke that the rituals surrounding coffee in today’s busy world have become a religion. If the network executive doesn’t get his coffee on time, heads will roll. The office secretary cannot function correctly without her morning brew. New mothers live off of the stuff (those who aren’t breastfeeding, of course). Coffee is important to us, that much is clear.

It turns out that we aren’t the first civilization to revere coffee and its myriad powers. The earthly drink has a long and sometimes controversial history of holding a highly respected position in a multitude of societies.

An Ottoman Coffee House

In place of wine, which was banned in many areas of Africa and Yemen, coffee was often used in native religious ceremonies. These competed with the Christian church, however, and as a result, the Ethiopian Church banned the drink until 1889 during the reign of Emperor Menelek II, a transformational African power in many respects. Coffee was also banned in Ottoman Turkey in the 17th century for political reasons and was associated with political rebelliousness in Europe.

Khair Beg, the governor of Mecca, banned coffee in 1511. After witnessing monks drinking coffee in preparation for evening prayers, he declared it as haraam (or sinful) on the notion that alcohol was banned as an intoxicant, and the cheering, stimulating effects of coffee were similar. Coffee lovers united, however, and with the support of the Sultan of Cairo, Khair Beg’s superior, the ban was lifted.

In much of the world, coffee has enjoyed a much better reputation. The nutritional benefits of coffee were often considered so great that it was held on a par with bread and water. Turkey even passed a law at one point making it grounds for a divorce if a husband refused his wife coffee. Coffee also became highly valuable as a commodity, noted as one of the world’s largest, most valuable legally traded commodities (after oil). Many third world countries rely on coffee as their primary source of income, and it is the backbone for African and Central American countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Brazil, Columbia and Peru, among many others.

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