Thursday, February 02, 2012

Safavid Coffeehouses

In his award-winning monograph The Pursuit of Pleasure: Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History, 1500-1900, Rudi Matthee includes Jean Chardin's description of coffeehouses in the Safavid Empire:
These houses, which are big, spacious and elevated halls, of various shapes, are generally the most beautiful places in the cities, since these are the locales where the people meet and seek entertainment. Several of them, especially those in the big cities, have a water basin in the middle. Around the rooms are platforms, which are about three feet high and approximately three to four feet wide, more or less according to the size of the location, and are made out of masonry or scaffolding, on which one sits in the Oriental manner. They open in the early morning and it is then, as well as in the evening, that they are most crowded...

"People engage in conversation, for it is there that news is communicated and where those interested in politics criticize the government in all freedom and without being fearful, since the government does not heed what the people say. Innocent games...resembling checkers, hopscotch, and chess, are played. In addition, mullahs, dervishes, and poets take turns telling stories in verse or in prose. The narrations by the mullahs and the dervishes are moral lessons, like our sermons, but it is not considered scandalous not to pay attention to them. No one is forced to give up his game or his conversation because of it. A mullah will stand up, in the middle, or at one end of the qahvah-khanah, and begin to preach in a loud voice, or a dervish enters all of a sudden, and chastises the assembled on the vanity of the world and its material goods. It often happens that two or three people talk at the same time, one on one side, the other on the opposite, and sometimes one will be a preacher and the other a storyteller.

The basins in the middle were used to refill the water pipes known variously as shisha, hookah, or narghile used for smoking flavored tobacco. The invention of this device is attributed to Abu 'l-Fath Gilani, a physician at the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who made the first one out of bamboo and coconut, and the word "narghile" is Sanskrit for coconut. Matthee's excellent book, which also deals with wine and opium, goes on to talk about the decline of coffee-drinking in Iran and its replacement by tea during the Qajar period as a result of the commercial inroads of Russia and Britain, both of which had interests in tea-producing regions.

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