texts by Herbert Maurer (Vienna) and Serge van Duijnhoven (Brussels)
THE METAPHYSICS OF COFFEE
by Herbert Maurer
In this modest article regarding the Armenian introduction of coffee to Europe, and especially to Vienna, through the Mediterranean – I would also like to highlight the cultural & sociological aspects of Armenian life as well as the collision of oriental and occidental identities implied. Also the link between this historical background – a background with the smell of coffee – and the present will be pointed out.
At the outset I must confess that while not an historian, but a writer and linguist, I am more used to writing essays than anthropological studies.
There are very few facts and figures about the Armenians in Vienna/Austria during the period in question, from the 12th to the 15th century. Being of Viennese origin, and therefore to hoping maintain an unbiased viewpoint, it must be admitted that Vienna during the 12th to 15th centuries represented the focus of a remarkable struggle between the Ottoman Empire and the so called Western Europe.
The fact that Armenians are already mentioned as translators and well settled merchants in 1529 as well as in 1683 (when the city was besieged by the Ottoman Army) means that their presence in the capital of the Holy Roman Empire must have developed during the three centuries before. Therefore our way of speaking about the middle Ages in Central Europe, but especially in Vienna, retrospectively from 1683, is also the year when coffee emerged into society with Armenian involvement.
This article could also be titled: “The Metaphysics of coffee and its influence on Armenian identity and their presence at the centre of the Holy Roman Empire throughout the centuries”.
So we have three components we need to deal with in order to define or characterize the “metaphysics of coffee”:
Vienna, the Armenians and of course, the Coffee
Let me briefly present, or – better – repeat – the most important facts and figures we will need in order to come to any kind of conclusion – most of these facts and figures will already be familiar:
The legend or one of the legends in the book of Antonius Faustus Naironus “De saluberrima potione cahve” from 1671 states that coffee came from the Kaffa region in Ethiopia in the 14th century to the Arabian region, mainly to al-Mukha, in Yemen, one of the important trade centres (the terminus technicus “mocca” – in this case for “espresso” – is still present in our coffee-houses). During the 15th century this oriental speciality spread throughout Persia and the Ottoman Empire to Istanbul, where 1554 the first coffee – house was opened to the public. It took another 100 years until this exotic beverage also became popular in several European metropolises such as Venice, London & Paris, (where an Armenian opened the first coffeehouse in 1672, and then 1675 at the Court in Berlin). The Introduction of coffee to the Viennese public, we will as well as Armenian involvement will be dealt with later.
Initially, when reaching the European markets, coffee was a metaphor for the exotic, and the exotic was fashionable – from the time of the crusaders up to Goethe and his, then new, interpretation of Oriental & Persian literature, under the influence of the Austrian translator, diplomat and founder of the Austrian Orient-Society Hammer-Purgstall.
In this case eating and drinking exotic products is at the same time a method of domestication & sometimes even humiliation. This can be said of the British and tea, the Germans and potatoes (coming also from overseas) etc. In this case, what refers to Vienna: Instead of consuming the flesh of the Turkish enemy or drinking his blood it is enough to drink his coffee! Also the Austrian “Kipferl” (croissant) is nothing else but the symbol of the enemy; you can eat it, prepared in hundreds of different ways. During the first confrontations of Europeans with the Ottoman Empire – the crescent was not understood as the symbol of a religion but simply as the symbol of the enemy.
Also the coffee, the liturgical hot blood of the enemy is prepared and served in 30 different ways, just look at the menu of any typical Viennese coffeehouse. The Winners (in this case the Austrians) of this conflict where provided with the exotic products of the Losers, by the Armenians which enabled the continuing ritual of domestication over the centuries. In a very short time the culture of consuming coffee became connotated with an interest in far away foreign civilizations and the adventure of becoming familiar with something exotic and not with the humiliation of a defeated foe. Now the Armenians lost their role as pure translators and remained as merchants.
Vienna in the period from the 12th to the 15th century was facing several different threats of invasion- the Czech Hussits from the North, the Mongols, and then the Hungarians from the East. At the same time, slowly but consistently the city was developing into a capital and centre of trade in the region, on the crossroads of two important trade-routes, the Danube, connecting south-eastern Europe with Central Europe reaching to the Black Sea – and the amber-route. The two main and crucial confrontations with the Ottoman Empire of 1529 and 1683 helped the city to attain the role of occidental fortress against the orient. In 1683, after the victory over the Ottoman army under Kara Mustafa, among the other spoils, drinking coffee was introduced to the Viennese everyday life.
The first what could be called “official” presence of Armenians in Vienna – according to historical sources – began in 1683. The first coffee-house, for instance, as previously mentioned, was founded by the Armenian Johannes Diodato (Owhanes Asvazadour, born 1640 in Istanbul) in the same year 1683. Unfortunately, details about this merchant are few.
The fact that the Polish nominated Georg Franz Kolschitzky as the pioneer of coffee in Vienna has led to never-ending multi-cultural discussions. It could be argued that the Armenians, from the Middle Ages till now, do not receive much recognition, or let us say, less than they would deserve. The Armenians have been mainly merchants and translators, that is, most atypical immigrants. This explains why they settled in different ways, having connections to the Viennese and other societies which are not as tight as other immigrants would claim, when wishing to assimilate.
At the end of the 18th century their presence, contribution to society, and acceptance / integration in the highest ranks of the Court, is obvious. It was the wish of Empress Maria Theresia that the Mechitarist Congregation should settle in Vienna. However we are still very far from our starting point in the middle ages.
Being a merchant means to be a translator at the same time, in the pure meaning of the word.” trans – ferre” (lat.). By transferring goods, like coffee, but also carpets etc. from A to B, from Orient to Occident, from the Sender to the Receiver, from one cultural context to the other, the one who transfers has to remain neutral in order to not transform the goods. In another context coffee could also be purely – information. In this case, the receiver, in our case the people of Vienna or the Court of the Hapsburg Empire (coming from Switzerland and being foreign workers as well) would clearly say that “In God we trust” is not enough. You have to be able to trust the translator as well, and this was the advantage of the Armenians. In any case: Do not trust god more than the translator.
This relationship between the Viennese Court and the Armenians is one based on trust and confidence – a relationship between individuals and not between representatives of a kingdom, a state, or a race.
This relationship ultimately resulted in a very ambitions enterprise when the Levante-Post was founded in the 18th century. The Levante-Post is a kind of refinement/distillation of the previously existing connections during the centuries before. Its successor, the Austrian postal system, many of whose representatives were Armenians, were initially the merchants and then later the settlers in the south-eastern-European countries, e.g. Greece, etc. This communication system, was controlled and run by Armenian merchants and later the regional officials of the local authorities, were as important then, as the internet is today. Times and circumstances changed, but the importance of translating and transferring both, goods and information, remained the same.
All this could lead us to the following conclusions according to the “metaphysics of coffee”:
Coffee represented for the Armenians an empowering medium of exchange, which allowed them to manage their lives and retain some control “on the way” and in-between, not necessarily as refugees, while leaving their national/traditional territories.
The coffee as a phenomenon itself represents an ambiguity. The consumer could stay at home, surrounded by familiarity, while experiencing a comfortable level of exoticness at the same time.
Only the translator should be trustworthy guide, dependable, loyal and guaranteed to be on his side.
The coffee – mostly during the last decades of the 17th century, when introduced to the high society and the courts of Europeans metropolis – represented also power, not only in the material sense, but in the sense that something alien (belonging to the culture of the former enemy) can be possessed, consumed and dominated.
After the consolidation of the Winners, the enemy was no longer important as an enemy; the “metaphysical” symbols like coffee were transformed into objects of luxury.
The Armenians were able to accompany this development and transformed themselves from merchants to valued members of the civilised society and infrastructure of the Habsburg Empire. Nevertheless they did not give up their original mission as “translators”, keeping a certain distance to the establishment.
Although they were “physically” present, with even a certain influence within their newly adopted society they did not loose their affinity to the principle of “metaphysics”, being still foreigners and dealing still with goods like coffee etc.
The Armenians were successful in transforming the principal of the metaphysical value of goods (like coffee) into their own metaphysical existence in the context of “physical” societies. While having an affinity to other societies and therefore being integrated, honoured and accepted as translators, they were are not ready to transform themselves, remaining unchanged while acting as a catalyst. In matters of assimilation they still remained very cautious without forgetting their competence as translators.
Like the taste of coffee, which remains the same, even when differently named, such as Greek, Turkish, Albanian, Armenian or prepared in 30 different Viennese varieties, the taste and the style of Armenians remains the same in the context of different societies over during the centuries.
As experts of translation with a virtuosity in transferring goods from orient to occident, as in the Middle Ages, they trusted mostly in themselves, sometimes only in themselves. Therefore it becomes a more difficult challenge to transform their own unique tradition into something new, independent from the laws of translation between orient and occident, although there is also the chance to continue with the tradition of translating between these different cultures, especially when seen against the background of ethnic and national tragedies.
So, in conclusion, I would say, that the Diaspora (as an additional effect of constant harassment, terror and even genocide) created a very special kind of metaphysics within the Armenian national identity. Beyond the coffee and beyond the borders of different empires – Diaspora is more than a guarantee of physical existence, it inspires something like a higher quality of metaphysics and – hopefully – also a deeper sense of reality.
With this is mind, in the future, obviously the best coffee would be Armenian coffee.
– end of lecture Herbert Maurer –
Serge responded Oct 11th, 16h15:
Thanks Herbert, for your interesting account about coffee.
Being a coffee renegade myself, standing a bit apart from the abundant coffee culture in these areas where I live, I still treat the coffee bean and its history with due respect.
How so, you can read in the following note that I wrote for an international magazine based in Amsterdam (An Eye on Amsterdam) that unfortunately went bankrupt after having published two editions because the founder and chief (Jonathan Kern-Palmer) turned out to be a typical con-man and imposter who ran off with the money collected from advertisements. The imposter vanished for a while, from the planet, stole a Lotus Esprit Press-car in England while pretending to be the very same Jonathan Palmer as the famous Formula 1 pilot, appeared on the America’s Most Wanted List for a period, got busted in Paris, but eventually released before he could be extradited to the United States. He still has an out-standing warrant for him in Connecticutt. Jonathan Kern-Palmer is (one of) his name(s). On the internet, JPK’s profession is currently still being listed simply as: fugitive. Nickname: The Sweetheart Swindler. Mister Palmer still owes the group around An Eye on Amsterdam 50.000 dollars in cash. If you happen to run into him at some far away corner of the publishing business: don’t go for a coffee! Before you know it, you will leave the table in ruins. Meanwhile, JPK is of course a very charming man and only a victim himself of severe misunderstandings.
Anyway, the story about coffee serves merely as an appendix to the poem you can find at the end, and that was translated into Armenian by mister Nazarian during the first Literary Ark festival back in 2001.
Looking forward to meet in Jerevan next week!
Real Name: Jonathan Kern
Aliases: Jonathan Palmer
Wanted For: Fraud
Date of Birth: January 9, 1954
Height: 5′ 10″
Weight: 180 lbs.
Details: Jonathan Kern is a con-artist and another Sweetheart Swindler. He wines and dines unsuspecting women throughout Europe, the whole time impersonating race car driver Jonathan Palmer, and then robbing his lady friends of money he never intends to pay back. In the process, he racks up bills and fees all in the real Palmer’s name. In 1994, he pretended to romance Elizabeth Grzescyk, ending it only after he had completely drained off the money in her bank account.
THE COFFEE HABIT – CURE OR CURSE?
by Serge van Duijnhoven.
I’m not a coffee drinker, never have been, and never will be. That makes me something of a renegade in this country of coffee drinkers. Holland is at the top of the list of coffee drinking countries worldwide. Seventy million cups of coffee are guzzled down each day. A national average of four to five (plastic) cups per person per day. In my home province, North Brabant, I know hardly anyone who drinks less than ten cups a day. My mother used to drink twenty, my father just about half of it.
Coffee is not just a beverage, it is part of our national heritage, an essential part of the Dutch culture. In just a much a way, as I have understood, as this is the case in Armenia, Italy, Bosnia or Ethiopia. In the early eighteenth century, Holland began a profitable trade in coffee from the East Indies and Surinam. So for many years, to be able to pour that steaming black liquid down Dutch throats has been the hot, comforting and tangible proof of the nation’s wealth; to be collectively enjoyed as it burns its daily way past the uvala. Coffee drinkers, whether they drink silently or noisily, clearly belong to the same tribe. People who don’t drink coffee in an environment of coffee addicts, are looked upon with suspicion. Not really as being part of the crowd, a bit of an outsider.
I can say little about the the quality of Dutch coffee, I can not judge. Never has even a sip passed my lips. I know that Americans think that our coffee has the density of quicksand. When they come here for the first time they always try to make their spoon stand up straight in their cup which they have amply filled with sugar and sometimes a creamy milk-derivate in order to soften the strong taste. They often sniggeringly ask for an extra cup of water to dilute the extract. Bosnians, Italians, Turks and people from the Arabic countries, on the contrary, find Dutch coffee nothing more than a joke. Too weak, too watery, to much or little of anything, really, but coffee. They wonder disapprovingly at how a people can be so fond of this ooze from which all taste seems to have been distracted rather than added.
In a country completely addicted to caffeine it is not easy to stay “coffee-free”. One is often poured a cup without being asked, out of shere hospitality and habit, and it is up to your own inventiveness – or austerity – to get rid of the substance as inconspicuously as possible, without hurting anybody else’s feelings or losing face. Countless times I have secretly emptied my cups in the plants, toilets or sinks, or have had to blow away vapors ascending from a display before my well-meaning host would notice.
The cause of my obstinate apostasy and renegade behavior lies from my youth, in the early seventies. I was very young, a few years old when, while dashing to and fro on my tricycle, I fell and hit my head on a step of marble tiles in our living room. The result was a hole in my head the size of a finger tip. My mother panicked because a torrent of blood was pouring out my scull, and ran out into the street screaming for help. Our Egyption-born neighbour Nowal knew what to do. The wound in my head had to be sealed with freshly ground coffee. No doubt it helped to stop the blood and sterilize the wound, but the O.D. on caffeine that was directly released on my brain and bloodsystem, caused me to have this lasting aversion against the smell and taste of coffee. I consider it an irony of fate to have been cut off from the enjoyment of coffee by a woman who comes from the area where coffee consumption and growth once have begun. As far as we know, the coffee plant originally only grew wild in the south of Egypt and on some steppes along the source of the Blue Nile. The name coffee stems from Kaffa, a province in Ethiopia. Several sources speak of an Abyssinian goat herder named Kaldi, who noticed around the year 500 that his goats became more energetic after eating a particular type of berries. Kaldi himself tried the berries and found that they gave energy to him.
Upon learning about the berries Khalid‘s wife urged him to tell the local monk about the berries. The chief monk declared the berries as Work of the Devil and flung the berries into a fire. Upon doing so, the whole room was soon filled with the aroma of roasting berries. The roasted berries were retrieved from fire and dipped in water. After drinking the brew they came to realize that Khalid was telling them the truth. After this the monk used the brew to keep themselves awake during the evening prayers. In the 9th century a certain culture of coffee had established itself already in Ethiopia and present Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. From there it spread to Egypt and Yemen, by fifteenth century coffee had reached Persia, Turkey and northern Africa.
Europe’s first knowledge of coffee was brought by travelers returning from the Far East and the Levant (an area of modern day Israel and Lebanon, including the Jordan Valley and a small bit of Syria). Leonhard Rauwolf recorded his famous journey into the Eastern countries in a book called Rauwolf’s Travels. He left from Marseilles in September, 1573, having left his home in Augsburg, the 18th of the preceding May. He reached Aleppo in November, 1573; and returned to Augsburg, February 12, 1576. He was the first European to mention coffee; and to him also belongs the honor of being the first to refer to the beverage in print. Rauwolf was not only a doctor of medicine and a botanist of great renown, but also official physician to the town of Augsburg. When he spoke, it was as one having authority. The first printed reference to coffee appears as “chaube” in chapter viii of his Rauwolf’s Travels, which deals with the manners and customs of the people from the city of Aleppo.
From the Middle East and portal cities like Aleppo, coffee went to Europe and became popular here around 17th century. Large scale import was first done by the Dutch. As the Arabs were not allowed to export the coffee plants or unroasted seeds, the Dutch smuggled some seedlings in 1690. They used the seedlings to make coffee plantations at Java, which was a Dutch colony at that time. Arabica coffees were named after the port from which they were exported, like Mocha from Yemen and Java from Indonesia. In Holland the beverage originally was called „Mochase caeuwe“ – the kawa from Mocha. Because not all coffee was imported from this Arabic port, the Dutch simply started to refer it as „koffie“. Mokka became one of several varieties of coffeebeans that were traded through the ports of Amsterdam, Hoorn, Dordrecht and other coastal cities with large harbours.
As a matter of fact, coffee originally wasn’t a beverage to be savoured, but medicinal all the way. Ground coffee beans were used to cleanse wounds and mouths of bacteria, as a powder against dizziness and nausea and as a medicine against constipation. It was for those purposes that the first shipments of coffee were brought to the Low Countries via the Arabic peninsula. The powdered beans were sold by apothecaries and on medicinal markets only, in small and expensive doses. Soon however, we started to brew drinks from the ground coffee-beans in experimental doses, that apart from their supposedly healing power, also offered a palatable sense of pleasure. Following other large European cities, like Vienna, coffee houses sprang up tin the Dutch provinces. The liquid that was poured in those public houses must have been vehemently strong, and soon resulted in cases of behavior that nowadays we would primarily relate to drug abuse. An establishment at the Hofsingel, in The Hague, was smashed to pieces in 1670 near closing time by a bunch of speedy citizens whose stomachs and veins were loaded with caffeine. The civil guard of the city, had to intervene and make several arrests with force in order to stop further derangements. Such cases happened more and more over the next two decades, until finally in 1699 the States of Holland attempted to have the coffee houses banned. The rulers were very much concerned with the coffee habit of the people, that was growing out of proportion by the shere fact that people were spending more times in coffee houses than they were at their work or at home. It was however not to be stopped. Only the doses of the coffee were drastically reduced in the beverage that in thoses times was spewed out lavishly by majestic coffee fountains. The popularity of coffee only augmented with the austerity measures taken by the authorities. Coffee became a favored beverage in all stratas of the population, and thus even became the ultimate symbol of Dutch classless sociability and ordinary coziness. A cup of consolation (een bakske troost), the smell of unpretentious homeliness (ne tas gezelligheid). There probably isn’t a single family that does not own, at least one, decent porcelain or silver coffee service standing ready for use in the cupboard. But in practice one usually prefers that well known egalitarian thin white plastic or cartboard paper cups spewed out by coffee machines in hallways and cantinas in every office, school or public building for a nickle and a dime.
The three hundred years of abundant coffee usage, have left their trace upon the outer and inner fitness of our society. Every morning you can see them staggering by. The endless stream of Dutch caffeine addicts. Shoulders haunched, a dazed look in their eyes, a cup in their hand. They are everywhere. On the trains, in the lecture rooms of universities, hospitals, libraries, sport facilities, schools, hotels, funeral homes; lips glued to rims of thin white or brownish coffee cups, the ever-ready coins of choice in their hands, waiting to score a new and necessary dose of their hot and steamy elixir vitae.
Holland indeed is a country of coffee junkies, most noticeably so on weekends. Millions can’t hide their weekly withdrawel symptoms as a result of sleeping in and missing the daily procession to the corporate automat, espresso machine or coffee bar. Although a renegade in my own country, I stay clean of this suffering. Thanks to my Egyptian neighbour’s potent medicinal intervention, I’ll never be addicted to Hollands most emblamatic dark and hot beverage.
– originally published in An Eye on Amsterdam, “Lifestyles of the Dutch”, p.50-51. Sept. 1995.
I was four and fell with my scooter
down the stairs with the marble tiles
at home in the sitting room and I fell
hard and with my head back to front on
the tiles and I screamed and Mum saw that
blood was flowing from my head and
Mum screamed and I screamed and Mum ran
into the street to get help and it
was still hurting and our Egyptian
neighbour opposite knew how to make
the pain go away she said she knew the cure
she said that was with coffee from the
coffee package she said and she rubbed the
coffee into the dark hole on my head
and I felt the sting of the coffee
in my entire head and in my body
and it still hurt a great deal and
since then I never drink coffee
and I hardly sleep
Translation in Armenian:
Ես չորս եւ ընկավ իմ սկուտեր
աստիճաններից հետ մարմար սալիկներ
տանը նիստին սենյակում, եւ ես ընկա
կոշտ եւ իմ գլուխը վրա դեպի ճակատ
Ես բղավում, եւ տեսա, որ մայրիկ
արյուն էր հոսող իմ գլուխը եւ
Լուռ ու բղավում ես ու բղավում լուռ վազում
մեջ փողոցը այստեղ օգնության համար, եւ այն
դեռ վնասում, եւ մեր եգիպտական
հակառակ հարեւանը գիտեր, թե ինչպես կարելի է անել
ցավը հեռու գնալ, նա ասաց, որ ինքը գիտեր, որ բուժել
որ նա ասաց սուրճ – ից
սուրճ փաթեթ եւ նա ասաց, որ ինքը դնում
սուրճի մեջ մութ անցքը իմ գլխին
եւ ես զգացի, որ խայթել է սուրճի
իմ ամբողջ գլուխը եւ իմ մարմինը
եւ այն դեռեւս ցավում մեծ եւ
Այդ ժամանակից ի վեր ես երբեք չեմ խմել սուրճ
ես հազիվ քնում եւ