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In Istanbul, Drinking Coffee in Public Was Once Punishable by Death

As coffee made its way out of Ethiopia to the rest of the world, it was an insanely controversial drink. The fact that people loved and enjoyed it was enough to brand it as sinful. Ottoman Sultan Murad IV took note of the coffee's popularity and set out to destroy the coffeehouses of Istanbul in 1633. Being caught drinking coffee in public would get you beaten on the first offense, a second offensive meant death.

Odd though it may sound, Murad IV was neither the first nor last person to crack down on coffee drinking; he was just arguably the most brutal and successful in his efforts. Between the early 16th and late 18th centuries, a host of religious influencers and secular leaders, many but hardly all in the Ottoman Empire, took a crack at suppressing the black brew.

Few of them did so because they thought coffee’s mild mind-altering effects meant it was an objectionable narcotic (a common assumption). Instead most, including Murad IV, seemed to believe that coffee shops could erode social norms, encourage dangerous thoughts or speech, and even directly foment seditious plots. In the modern world, where Starbucks is ubiquitous and innocuous, this sounds absurd. But Murad IV did have reason to fear coffee culture.

The fear had to do with the nature of the coffeehouse. Patrons had to wait for the coffee to brew, and then sip slowly because it was hot and bitter. And since it was fairly inexpensive, both wealthy and poor citizens gathered to drink it, and discussed the news of the day while they waited. Those discussions might lead to plots against Murad IV, as he was a particularly brutal ruler. Yet Murad himself enjoyed an occasional cup. Read about the despotic ruler and the political dangers of coffee at Atlas Obscura.   

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