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

IN 1633, THE OTTOMAN SULTAN Murad IV cracked down on a practice he believed was provoking social decay and disunity in his capital of Istanbul.

The risk of disorder associated with this practice were so dire, he apparently thought, that he declared transgressors should be immediately put to death. By some accounts, Murad IV stalked the streets of Istanbul in disguise, whipping out a 100-pound broadsword to decapitate whomever he found engaged in this illicit activity.

So what did Murad IV find so objectionable? Public coffee consumption.

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.