The Last House Of Coffee

Pınar Keskin
7 minutes

There are various stories about the first appearance of coffee, but the most common theory is that it came to Yemen from Ethiopia and spread to the world from there. Famous coffee historian Ralph S. Hattox, author of the book “Coffee and Coffeehouses”, explained that from the middle of 15th century Sufis started using coffee to stay awake before dhikr rituals. This habit of the Sufis spread in the Islamic world and the Ottoman Empire over time, and after the 17th century, when European travelers, especially those who came to Istanbul, were introduced to coffee, its use increased first in Europe and then in Anatolia eventually.

According to some sources, Yemeni Veysel Karani, whose real life and legendary personality are still confused, observed that his camels became more active after eating a plant, and he tasted this plant out of curiosity, but threw it into a fire because it had a very bitter taste. It is rumored that when he liked the smell of these burnt beans, he tasted them again and discovered coffee. Whether this information is correct or not is unknown, but we may say that coffee is the symbol of awakening in Sufism. Drinking the coffee offered by a “friend of God” (velî) can be a blessing in disguise to wake us from the deep sleep that the material world has sank us into. I think there is such a symbolic meaning that Aynalı Baba offers Raci coffee in every chapter of the valuable book Amak-ı Hayal. The name Raci means both seeker and requesting at the same time and contains the meaning of a request as well as a recourse. The root of the word fasting, which means returning to its origin, is also recourse. Request, on the other hand, represents the person who demands and wants the truth. The coffee offered to Raci, who will go through these stages, will lead to his awakening.

The coffeehouses, which used to be meeting places of pleasant conversations in the Sufi culture of the past, have unfortunately taken a completely different form today. In the past, coffee houses were also called “kıraathane“. “Kıraat” means “reading”, “hane” means “house”, so the word “kıraathane” means “reading house”. As it stands, the name coffeehouse is an older term, when coffeehouses also kept newspapers and magazines for customers to read.

Coffeehouses are defined as spots where books, daily newspapers or magazines were read, important literary conversations and meetings were held, and political agendas were determined in the past. In this respect, coffeehouses, which are the meeting centers of intellectuals, paved the way for the birth of some literary, political and artistic formations; They were also defined as cultural spaces where social problems are discussed and communicative activity reaches its peak. Today, however, we come across people sitting all day in coffee houses in the neighborhoods without doing anything, or in some chain coffee shops, instead of people chatting with each other we see individuals burying themselves into their computers accompanied by their coffees. The last representative of this ancient and sophisticated culture still lives in Istanbul, in Kadırga district, which was one of the two great ports of Byzantium in its time. Arif Abi’s place, also known as, Kadırga Tulumbacılar Kahvesi (Kadırga Coffeehouse of Fire Brigade) is still alive in the nearly 150-year-old building with its 89 year old owner Arif Abi. Getting to know this place and this special historical personality, which is mentioned in Reşat Ekrem Koçu’s Istanbul Encyclopedia and who we met thanks to a very valuable history teacher, will not only enable us to understand the true culture of coffee and coffee houses, but it will also take us to those colorful streets of old Istanbul.

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Arif Abi was born in 1934 in Kadırga, Istanbul. He says that when he opened his eyes to the world, the first thing he saw was the fountain in the middle of the coffee house. Today, both the fountain and the last of the seven pumps of Kadırga are still in working condition. In addition to these, the historical plane tree continues to reach the sky with all its majesty and surrounds the place. Arif Abi, who is proud to have lived in the same period with Atatürk until he was 4 years old, told us in his conversation that we all have a starting point in life and that we should always remember this, that we should learn about love and see the beauty in everyone. Give love and observe how you will be rewarded, he said. He also told us that love shields all ill-will. In this charming place, while smelling Istanbul of the past, you listen about the virtue of the old-time neighborhood culture and the importance of neighborliness.

If you want to drink your coffee accompanied by Arif Abi‘s conversation, you can spend a very special day with a very enjoyable walking route. It is an exciting experience to walk through history step by step from Sultanahmet Square to Kumkapı, feeling the traces of many different characters, from Sufis to fire brigade, from the hoodlums to janissaries, as if hearing their voices and seeing them turn around a corner as you walk along this route.

While walking downward from the old hippodrome of Sultanahmet Square towards the seaside, you will first notice the Binbirdirek Cistern (The Cistern of Philoxenos), which is the second largest water reservoir in Istanbul and 212 of its 224 original columns have survived to the present day. Then you can also see the Şerefiye Cistern (Cistern of Theodosius), which has a history of 1600 years, and then continue towards Kadırga. The first important work of art that you will come across is the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque which is a complex of a mosque, madrasah, dervish lodge, shops and fountains built by Mimar Sinan in the second half of the XVI century. Spot the Little Hagia Sophia Mosque located between Kadırga Harbor and Cankurtaran district and then, from here, visit the Cinci Square, which is claimed to have been named after a spiritualist hodja, but in fact, it’s real name was Cundi meaning javelin because of the cavalry soldiers during the Ottoman period but because of mispronunciation ended up as “Cinci Square” today. When you arrive at Kadırga Tulumbacılar Kahvesi, you can have a chat with Arif Abi and at the end of this friendly conversation walk down to Kumkapı, find the little shop of Boris which was opened in 1936, buy some cream and butter and finish off the day flavored with history with a little more essence.

This is the last house of coffee that has gone through similar experiences with Sufis, by being stripped of its cover, roasted, beaten and boiled and many different characters has passed through this place, which is both the home and the workplace, actually the whole life of Arif Abi. Who knows what conversations this coffeehouse has witnessed from different cultures, different religions, from men of letters to historians, from writers to artists, from film shoots to visits by statesmen, from the rebellion plans of the Janissaries to the secret meetings of the Unionists. With that pleasant sound of water, the fountain has kept all the conversations that have come and gone and did not let anyone hear them. And while you are there, you feel as if you hear all the whispers of history, breath in the smells of the past, as if a pumper man will enter through the door or realize that you have been zoomed over to the Ottoman era when you walk out the door.

We can recall our colorful and rich culture there, think about why we are divided, why we fight so much, and become aware of the truth of Oneness within us by realizing how we can be a whole despite all the opinion differences with a conversation over a cup of coffee.

The heart wishes no coffee, no coffeehouse.

Coffee is only a pretended reason,

The heart wishes a friendly conversation.

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