It seems that many of us would struggle to live without a daily coffee, and an exhibition at the British Museum looks at the history of coffee, as a drink and cultural phenomenon.

Although the coffea plant is native to East Africa’s highlands, locally it was consumed mainly as a powder added to food. As a drink though, it has its roots in Yemen, and from its consumption in Sufi religious orders, the beverage spread along trade and pilgrimage routes, reaching the capital of the Ottoman Empire in the early 16th century.

The terms coffee, kahve, café, koffe, Kaffee, caffè, kopi are among many used around the world to denote coffee. They evolved from the Arabic word qahwa which originally referred to a class of brewed beverages in the Arabian Peninsula.

As a social and religious drink, a lot of ritual kitchenware was produced, and the exhibition shows off a lot of the various styles, from the long handles favoured in Turkey to the small cups and covered bowls used in the east. According to the exhibition, travellers to Arabia complained that so much time was wasted by locals enjoying this hot black drink, time that could have been put to better use. They underestimated, however, the importance attached locally to coffee drinking as a time spent enhancing social interactions, sharing information, conducting business and resolving conflicts.

In later centuries though, photographs of “locals drinking coffee” became early tourist souvenirs. Some of these photographs, some clearly staged for the western market are on show in the exhibition.

Very difficult to see alas in the display case are the tiny and intricately decorated coffee tokens used by coffee houses at a time when small currency was scarce. I would have loved to see images of the decoration enlarged though, which were only really visible if I put my phone on the glass and used the camera zoom to enlarge the image.

Although the exhibition focuses mainly on Islamic culture, the impact of coffee’s arrival in London cannot be overlooked, with the arrival of the coffee houses. They famously became the main meeting places for the gentlemen to talk politics and business. The coffee was a trigger for the social changes that dominated 17th and 18th-century life.

In the mid 20th-century though, the UK’s coffee market was dominated by instant granules and the decent stuff was relegated to restaurants and foreign homes. People who moan about the coffee chains today may want to think back to what coffee was like before the big chains arrived – where it was usually just instant granules served lukewarm in a polystyrene cup.

Of course, in recent decades, coffee has come to dominate the UK high street, providing as plentiful a supply of social drinking spaces as pubs did in the 18th and 19th centuries. In a way, all that’s changed is what we drink, not where or why we drink.

This exhibition tells us how deep and rich the culture of coffee can be, and not a polystyrene cup to be seen.

The exhibition, Life in a cup – coffee culture in the Islamic world is at the British Museum until 18th September and entry is free. The exhibition can be found in the Islamic galleries, which are on the first floor. Head up the grand staircase at the front entrance, and then just walk straight ahead through the European rooms to the end and into Room 43.


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