According to sources, coffee first appeared in the Middle East in the 15th century. There is no mention of a specific date though. Legends and traditions about the origins of coffee consumption in Islamic countries state that the “journey” of coffee began in Yemen and that it was originally associated with the Sufi orders. The members of these heterodox Muslim fraternities drank coffee during their common worship, which was usually performed at night. Anything that kept them awake was considered an aid to enhance devotion, and so coffee was the right drink. That would explain why some Historic Cafes are located near mosques.
According to Ottoman chroniclers, coffee and Cafes were introduced in the Ottoman capital in 1554 by two men, Hakam from Aleppo and Sams from Damascus, who opened cafes in the Tahtakale district of Istanbul. Coffee and Cafes, despite occasional negative reactions, were very successful both in Constantinople and in the rest of the Ottoman Empire. Coffee cities were inhabited by Europeans, travelers and merchants who visited the Ottoman Empire for a plethora of reasons. In fact, they were fascinated both by coffee and the everyday culture of Cafes. The upper and middle classes started to gradually include coffee in their diet. Historical records show that Italian traders imported coffee beans to southern Europe in the early seventeenth century. However, those who contributed decisively to the dissemination of coffee and Cafes in Western Europe are believed to be Greeks and Armenians who, as former Ottoman nationals, already knew the success story of coffee and Cafes in Ottoman lands and decided to establish the first Cafes in Europe. The first Cafes operated in Oxford in 1650 and in London two years later, followed by Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. In the early eighteenth century, Cafes dominated almost all major European cities.
European Cafes were not exact copies of Ottoman cafes. Despite similarities, they differed both in the buildings that housed them, the architecture, the interior design, the equipment, the products offered to the visitors – and in the intangible aspects of the everyday culture they helped develop. Interestingly, European Cafes also followed different paths, since each time they had to adapt to the particularities of the local communities.
During the 19th century, European type Cafes were introduced in the major cities of the Ottoman Empire and the emerging states in the region. At least in their first years of operation, these new Cafes were frequented mainly by members of the middle and upper social strata, who preferred a lifestyle influenced by the standards of the West. The popular classes, on the other hand, continued to visit the traditional ones.
It is worth noting that Historical Cafes have hosted important events and were frequented by prominent writers, poets, artists and politicians. Special mention should be made of the organized literary and artistic entities that operated and, in some cases, continue to operate in many of the Cafes. Typical examples are the French and Italian literary Cafes, which influenced the literary Cafes in other European countries as well.
Scientific research has linked Cafes to the culture of leisure, and many scholars have highlighted the role of Cafes in shaping the public sphere in Europe. This is because Cafes formed a new intermediate space between the private and the public. In other words, they functioned as a place of social gathering -often also between individuals of different social backgrounds-, a place of trade, where people could be informed about political developments both through discussions and by reading of the daily press. The fact that the social background of those who frequented the Cafes was varied, in contrast to the previous, more closed aristocratic lounges, led some scholars to argue that they gave rise to democratic culture of equal sociability.
At the same time, during the 18th century, the old continent became a cradle of civilization, hosting artists and creators who left the USA and the strict prohibition of alcohol to find “shelter” and inspiration in Europe, while at the same time giving “wings” to the domestic talents who were searching for creative inspiration in Cafes, bistros, and bars.