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December 23, 2013

The first Homo sapiens are considered to have first walked the earth in the landlocked land of Ethiopia 400,000 years ago. In about 399,000 years, one of their descendants still in the same land would discover coffee beans, and bequeath to the rest of the world a stimulating and energizing drink loved by the millions upon millions of the sons and daughters of the Ethiopian Homo sapiens.

Coffee plants, which can either be shrubs or trees, were first found in the Kaffa region of Ethiopia. The word "Kaffa" is sometimes considered to be the etymology of "coffee", but this is not accepted by a number of lexicographers. This is because the plant, including its fruit, is called bunn or bunna* in the Kaffa area. In place of "Kaffa", "kahve", a Turkish term, is often proposed as the origin of the English "coffee". "Kahve" first became "caffe" in Italian before it joined English. Coming from the Arabic word "qaha", which means "to have no appetite", "kahve" indicates a drink that suppresses the appetite.

There are ancient stories about who and how coffee was first discovered. One legend says a goatherd named Kaldi owns the honor of being the first to taste coffee, while another claims that honor belongs instead to a Yemenite Sufi mystic with the very long name of Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili. Another legend originates from Yemen.

The story of Kaldi appeared in writing only in 1671 CE, although it is probable that there was already an oral tradition about it. Living in Ethiopia in the 9th Century among the Oromo people, he was a goatherd by trade. The story goes on to say that he became aware that his goats always became restless and manic after they eat berries from the bunn plants. He was convinced that there must be something in the berries causing his goats' behavior. And thinking that if was good for the goats it could also be good for him, he plucked some berries and ate them. True enough, he began to feel bouncy and spirited as well.

Kaldi was a spiritual man who believed in Allah and the imams. Wanting to share and consult with the Muslim imams about his discovery, he gathered more berries and presented them to the holy men. The first imam he related his story to, however, convinced that the berries were the devil's trap, hurled them into the fire. Roasting in the fire, the berries began to emit a rich and fragrant aroma which Kaldi, the imam who threw them into the fire, and all the other imams immediately noticed. The holy men gathered the roasted seeds and, wanting to find out about their contents, ground them. When water was poured over the ground berries, the world's first cup of coffee came to light.


A Sufi mystic from Yemen on a journey in Ethiopia, is declared by another legend as the first man to have tasted coffee. He noticed that after eating the bunn plant berries, the birds turned very much alive, flying over the treetops tirelessly. Like Kaldi, he tried the mysterious berry and experienced the same vigor and vitality.

A third legend takes us to Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula. In a story included in the Abd-Al-Kadir manuscript, Omar, a disciple of the Sheik Abou'l Hasan Schadheli from Mocha, was cast out to a cave in the desert of Ousab. Looking for food in the desert, he stumbled upon a coffee plant and picked its red berries. When he ate them, however, he found them to be too bitter. He roasted the berries, hoping to rid them of their bitter taste, but this only hardened them. Boiling the berries in the hope of softening them, he discovered instead that the water became dark brown and that it had a very agreeable aroma. He drank the liquid, becoming the first man to do so. In the process, he felt stimulated and energized. Travelers across the desert brought news of Omar's discovery to Mocha, and soon he was called back to the city. Bringing along with him plenty of the red berries, he re-entered Mocha. He gave some to the people, who, after experiencing its invigorating and stimulating effect, hailed it as a miracle drug. Owing to the many illnesses Omar's berries cured, he was soon thought of as a saint.

The legends are quite interesting. They do reflect what most scholars and historians believe today --that coffee came from Ethiopia and that it was in widespread use among the Sufi mystics. However, it is not clear whether Kaldi, Ghothul Akbar Noorudin Abu al-Hassan al Shadhili, or Omar were real persons or only personifications of the first man who discovered coffee. The legends, nonetheless, point to the importance of coffee among the Ethiopians and Yemenis. This is because no legends are spun around unimportant things.

It is now confirmed that by the 13th century, coffee was in extensive use in Arabia. A number of researchers even propose the earlier date of the 10th century. Not satisfied with merely importing coffee berries or beans from Ethiopia, the Yemenis of the 15th century began buying seedlings of the coffee plant itself, and started growing their own trees.

The Sufi mystics are known to conduct lengthy prayers in the early mornings and late nights. It was coffee that kept them awake at such hours. The drink also helped the Whirling Dervishes keep spinning during their rituals. Because coffee enabled the Sufis and Whirling Dervishes to perform their prayers and rituals, it was soon considered as a religious drink. With the Sufis and Whirling Dervishes scattered all over the Arab world, drinking coffee began to spread to Mecca, Medina, Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, and Istanbul. Lying along the Red Sea coast in Yemen, the port city of Mocha emerged as a major coffee trading center from the 15th to the 17th centuries. While it has declined in importance following the discovery of other sources of coffee, it continues to trade in coffee today. In fact, coffee coming from the city is valued because of their distinctive flavor and aroma. Further underlining the city's importance is the fact that a favorite coffee and chocolate drink was named after it.

Drinking coffee was not limited to the religious world. Coffeehouses, or kahve kanes, were popular not only in Yemen but in most major Muslim Arab cities. Indeed, the Yemenis actually encouraged drinking coffee. Although the patrons enjoyed drinking coffee, it was not all they did in the kahve kanes. They were also entertainment and socialization hubs where there were music, singing, and dancing, quite like today's coffeehouses and bars. They, too, became places where people discussed things that matter to them, including politics. Because the authorities were sensitive to criticism from the people, they banned not only the political discussions but the kahve kanes themselves.

Politics was not the only issue faced by coffee. In 1511, there were conservative Muslim imams from Mecca who declared coffee to be from the devil himself. Directed by the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Selim I, the Grand Mufti Mehmet Ebussuud el-Imadi revoked the Imam's ban with a fatwa in 1524. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church also forbade the drinking of coffee. It was not until the middle of the 1800s that their members were allowed to drink the brew.

European merchants, particularly those from Venice began to trade with the North African and Middle East Muslims in the early 17th century. It was these traders that brought the Italian people their first coffee berries and beans. Eventually, coffee spread throughout Italy, then Europe, then the world.

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