I’ve been thinking about developing a secondary persona, either Aksumite (Ethiopian area 1st-century), Abyssinian Kingdom (Ethiopian area 14th-century), or a North African living in Norman Sicily (12th-century). In doing preliminary research I’ve discovered that coffee *is* period.
Ancestors of the Oromo ethnic group, inhabitants of modern-day Ethiopia, were the first to capture the energizing effect of the coffee plant there (Weinberg). Their word for coffee is būn. Over the millennia modern-day Ethiopia has been associated with different names and dynasties:
- Aksum (Emperor Ashama ibn Abjar) 1-6th C
- Zagwe dynasty (12-13th C)
- Abyssinia (14-17th C)
The earliest mention of coffee by a European was by Philippe Dufour in reference to the work of a 10th-century Persian physician named Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (Dufour).
There are letters from Henry IV of England to the Emperor of Abyssinia in the 14th-century. The area that is now Ethiopia was also in contact with Portugal in the 15th century. I’ve read translations of letters in Ge’ez from Queen Eleni (Saint Helena) offering Portugal an alliance against the Muslims and describing the gifts she both accepted from and sent to Portugal (including a rhinoceros!).
There is also evidence that Arab traders brought coffee from Africa to their homeland in the early 15th-century (Ukers) and those in Yemen’s Sufi monasteries drank the liquid resulting from putting the beans in hot water (Weinberg). By 1414 coffee was being consumed in Mecca (it was banned in Mecca in 1511) and spread from that place to Egypt where Sufi demand was increasing (BBC). Coffeehouses were founded in the 16th-century to provide the beverage in Egypt, Syria, and Istanbul (BBC). Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I overturned a ban on coffee in 1524.
According to the scholarly works my friend Mistress Urtatim Al-Qurtubiyya have read on coffee, such as the book by Ralph S. Hattox, “The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East”, the first coffeehouse, Kiva Han, opened in Istanbul in 1554/55.
As the Italian peninsula had many ports, like Venice, where goods and peoples from the east (specifically Ottomans) stopped to trade and live part-time it is likely some there knew of coffee and perhaps even drank it on occasion when they could get the beans.
Hypothesis: Ottomans, Arabs, Persians, and Ethiopians in Europe would have had access to coffee beans and actually consumed the beverage there; Europeans in contact with such persons might have had occasion to try the beverage.
So, how was it made back then?
Part II coming soon.
Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, is the original home of the coffee (arabica) plant. Kaffa, the province in the south-western highlands where they first blossomed, gave its name to coffee. The formal cultivation and use of coffee as a beverage began early in the 9th century. Prior to that, coffee trees grew wild in the forests of Kaffa, and may in the region were familiar with the berries and the drink. According to Ethiopia’s ancient history, an Abyssinian goatherd, Kaldi, who lived around AD 850, discovered coffee. He observed his goats prancing excitedly and bleating loudly after chewing the bright red berries that grew on some green bushes nearby. Kaldi tried a few berries himself, and soon felt a sense of elation. He filled his pockets with the berries and ran home to announce his discovery. At his wife’s suggestion, he took the berries to the Monks in the monastery near Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River. (Professor Nkiru Nzegwu)
BBC. “Coffee and qahwa: How a drink for Arab mystics went global”. BBC News.
Dufour, Traitez nouveaux et curieux du café, du thé et du chocolat (Lyon, 1684, etc).
Ukers, William (1935). All About Coffee. New York: The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal Company. pp. 9–10.