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History of Coffee Part I - Africa & Arabia

Kaldi

The coffee plant originates from the highland forests of Ethiopia. It is believed that the first plants were found growing wild in the region of Kaffa, from where coffee derives its name. A popular legend tells of a goat herder named Kaldi. One day he noticed his goats behaving in a strange manner. They were full of energy, playfully chasing each other and bleating loudly. He noticed they were eating red berries from the bushes nearby. Feeling tired and slightly curious, Kaldi decided to try some of the berries. To his delight, his fatigue quickly faded into a fresh burst of energy.

Kaldi was so impressed by the berries, that he filled his pockets with them and ran home to show his wife. "They are heaven-sent," she declared, "You must take them to the Monks in the monastery." At the monastery, Kaldi told the Abbot how these berries had had a miraculous energising affect on himself and his goats. The Abbot, clearly displeased, hurled the berries into the fire, proclaiming them as the "Devil's work"

Within minutes, the berries started to smoke and the monastery was filled with the heavenly aroma of roasting beans. The other Monks quickly gathered to see what the commotion was. One Monk swiftly raked the beans from the fire and extinguished the embers by stamping on them. The rich smell of coffee obviously agreed with the Abbot's nose, as he ordered the Monk to place the now crushed beans into a jug and cover it with hot water to preserve their divine goodness. He then took a sip from the jug and sampled the rich and fragrant brew that is coffee. From that day on the Monks vowed to drink coffee daily to keep them awake during the long, nocturnal devotions.

No one is exactly sure when coffee was discovered. There is evidence to suggest that coffee beans were used to make a primitive 'energy bar' before they were actually brewed as a hot drink. Sometime between 575-850AD, a nomadic mountain tribe, known as Oromo, used to mix ground coffee with ghee. These bars were consumed by the tribe's warriors to heighten aggression and increase their stamina during battle. To this day, these bars are still eaten in Kaffa and Sidamo (Ethiopia).

Some authorities claim that coffee originated from the Arabian Peninsula rather then Ethiopia, stating that coffee was cultivated in Yemen from around 575AD. An Islamic legend tells of how Sheikh Omar discovered coffee growing wild while living as a recluse near the port of Mocha (Yemen). He is said to have boiled some berries, and discovered the stimulating effect of the infusion, which he administered to the locals who were stricken with a mysterious illness and thus cured them. However, it is more likely that coffee spread to Yemen through Sudanese slaves. These slaves are thought to have eaten coffee beans to help them stay alive as they rowed ships across the Red Sea between Africa and Arabian Peninsula.

Evidence suggests that coffee was probably not enjoyed as a beverage until around the 10th Century. It is at this time that the oldest known documents describing the beverage coffee were written. Two Arabian philosophers, Rhazes (850-922AD), and Avicenna of Bukham (980-1037AD), both refer to a drink called 'bunchum', which many believe is coffee.

As the Qur'an forbids Muslins from drinking alcohol, the soothing, cheering and stimulating effects of coffee made it a popular substitute in Islamic countries for wine. The first coffeehouses are said to have been established in Mecca (Saudi Arabia). Known as the Kaveh Kanes, they were public places where Muslims could socialise and discuss religious matters.

The relationship between Islam and coffee has not always run smoothly though. Some Muslims believed coffee was an intoxicant and therefore should be banned by Islamic law. In 1511, the governor of Mecca, Khair Beg, saw some worshippers drinking coffee in a mosque as they prepared for a night-long prayer vigil. Angered, he drove them from the mosque and ordered all coffeehouses in Mecca to be closed. This incited the pro-coffee Muslims and a heated debate soon ensued. In this dispute, two unscrupulous Persian doctors, the Hakimani brothers, who were infamous for testifying on the side of the highest bidder, condemned coffee as an unhealthy brew. The doctors had good reason for wanting it banned, for it was a popular cure among the depressed patients who would otherwise have paid the doctors to cure them. The matter was only resolved when the Sultan of Cairo, Khair Beg's superior, intervened, demanding that a drink that was widely enjoyed in Cairo should not have been banned without his permission. Khair Beg soon paid for his insolence, as in 1512 he was accused of embezzlement; the Sultan sentenced him to death.

By the late 16th Century, the use of coffee was widespread throughout the Arabia, North Africa and Turkey. The nutritional benefits of coffee were thought to be so great that coffee was considered as important as bread and water; so much so that a law was passed in Turkey making it grounds for divorce if a husband refused his wife coffee.

Wherever Islam went, coffee was sure to follow. With the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, coffee quickly spread to the Eastern Mediterranean. However, it is believed that no coffee seed sprouted outside Africa or Arabia until the 17th Century, as coffee beans exported from the Arabian ports of Mocha and Jidda were rendered infertile by parching or boiling. Legend has it that this changed when a pilgrim named Baba Budan smuggled fertile coffee beans out of Mecca strapped to his stomach. Returning to his native India, he successfully cultivated the beans in Mysore.

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