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Coffee, Coffee, Coffee

By Cheryl Ward, Ph.D.

Originally published in El Bahri 3.2, 1997


Walking along almost any city street, in an airport or through a shopping mall carries you past at least one specialty coffee shop or cafe, but coffee is a fairly recent addition to our daily fare. Its origins can be traced to dwellers in Ethiopia's Red Sea hills, where chewing the bright red fruits of the coffee bush allowed them to stay alert while hunting. Adopted by Sufis in Yemen as an aid to religious practices about 600 years ago, coffee soon spread to the rest of the Muslim world.

Finds of coffee cups, pots, and even coffee beans on the mid-18th century Sadana Island shipwreck excavated by INA-Egypt since 1995 let us look a little closer at this addictive luxury's role in the economic and social life of the Middle East.

For centuries, Alexandria's warehouses stocked European and Mediterranean cabinets with spices and luxuries from the east. Unhappy with paying premium prices and able to successfully reach eastern seas, Europeans began trading directly for cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and mace in the late 1500s. Dutch take-over of spice-producing islands around 1600 forever changed world trade.

Egypt lost its monopoly on the "fine spices" and turned to coffee, dominating the trade throughout the 17th century. Coffee still made up about two-thirds of the value of imports from the Red Sea in the 18th century. Most coffee that passed through Egypt's Red Sea ports was sold in Cairo, about half of it for re-export to the Ottoman Empire. Egypt supplied the rest of the Ottoman world with the stimulating, and, some said, sinful drink.

Ottoman sultans periodically ordered all coffee houses shut and trade in coffee halted to prevent the rise of places filled with people doing nothing but sitting about drinking this dark, hot beverage and talking, often about politics and government.

Egyptian wheat, iron, glass and other food stuffs reached southern Red Sea ports in exchange for coffee, but most western Indian Ocean goods had to be paid for with silver coins.

This was not new practice--the periplus of the Erythrean Sea, a sailor's pilot of two thousand years ago, recommended merchants pack plenty of silver and gold bullion if they wished to acquire aromatic resins, spices, medicines, textiles, and fine wares of all types in the Arabian peninsula and western India.

Indian ships carried these expensive wares west on monsoon winds as far as Jidda, the port of Mecca and one of the world's busiest ports. But both Indians and Europeans, particularly the Dutch and Portuguese, were forbidden the northern Red Sea.

One of the curious features of the Sadana Island shipwreck is that no weapons have been found. A ship this size could ordinarily be expected to be armed with large cannon--piracy and capture were common in the western Indian Ocean. That the Sadana ship has no guns suggests that it sailed only within a "safe" area, in this case, the northern half of the Red Sea. This fits well with what we know of trade at Jidda where local rulers monopolized commerce to Suez in return for providing Ottoman officials with half the customs fees.

But the curious construction of the Sadana ship--which we can only describe as not European, not Arab, or not Mediterranean-- suggests that this policy may have changed by the mid-18th century. Archaeologists will work hard during the next excavation season at Sadana collecting wood samples and thousands of detailed measurements to help us pin down the ship's origin.

Studying remnants of the Sadana Island ship's coffee cargo helps us fit the ship's last voyage into the vast trade network encompassing Cairo and the rest of the Ottoman world. The interlocking pattern of exchange in this beloved beverage persists today, though the players are different.