Food Stories: The Sultan’s Coffee Prohibition

Murad IV was a the sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1623 to 1640, and a particularly insidious one to boot. He’s also a fairly grisly footnote in the history of coffee.

It is said that the Murad often walked the city in disguise in order to hear what the public were saying about him. On his first sojourn into the public, he stopped in a tavern and heard people singing and watched them getting drunk.

He then moved on to a coffeehouse and saw the customers engaging in conversations about the politics, the empire and the sorry state thereof. The coffee drinkers blamed the bad state of the government on the administration and Murad himself. The sultan, clearly concerned, went back to his palace to think upon what he had learned.

His decision? To ban coffee and coffeehouses under the Islamic rule that intoxicants were forbidden.

The cafés in Istanbul were closed and in some cases destroyed. If it was discovered that a person had been drinking coffee, they were beaten. If they were discovered to have consumed coffee a second time, they were sewn into a leather bag and tossed into the Bosphorus (also known as the Istanbul Strait). Murad’s despisement of coffee drinkers (and smokers, which was also associated with coffeehouses) was so great that he was known to walk the streets of Istanbul with an executioner, and ordered the beheading of anyone he saw drinking coffee or smoking. It is reported that between 10,000 to 100,000 people were executed during this purge of coffee.

One of the end results of this? The coffee makers and café proprietors of Turkey moved out of the country and migrated to places such as Italy, France, Austria and Britain.

The punchline? Murad died at the age of 28. The cause? Alcohol poisoning. It seems that Murad was an alcoholic. Under his reign, Alcohol was technically forbidden, and many drinkers of alcohol were also executed, but Taverns were allowed to stay open while drinkers of coffee were put to death and the coffee industry was forced to immigrate.

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