By Magda Romanska
Coffee, the sober drink, the mighty nourishment of the brain, which unlike other spirits, heightens purity and lucidity; coffee, which clears the clouds of the imagination and their gloomy weight; which illuminates the reality of things suddenly with the flash of truth.
– Jules Michelet, French historian (1798-1874)
Coffee’s roots reach to Yemen, in the Middle East, where it was used by the mystical Sufis to stave off sleep during their all-night religious rituals of dancing and chanting. Embraced by many devout Muslims as an alternative to alcohol, coffee-drinking eventually spread throughout the Middle East. Muslim clerics remained ambivalent about the religious status of coffee, but despite their many attempts to close down coffee houses in places like Mecca and Cairo, coffee houses quickly proliferated, and by the early seventeenth century, they were becoming respectable places of leisure for men to be seen, meet, and enjoy a game of chess or backgammon.
Coffee was introduced in Europe in the early seventeenth century, around the same time that it became popular in the Middle East. It was brought in by the European travelers returning from their exotic voyages. Like in the Middle East, the introduction of coffee in Europe was not without controversy. Many Christians considered it an unholy drink, as opposed to wine, the holy drink symbolizing Christ’s blood. As a result of the controversy, in 1605, Pope Clement VIII was asked to declare the Catholic Church’s official stand on coffee. The story goes that after tasting it, the Pope was so enthralled by its savor and aroma that he declared the drink permissible for Christians.