The Iranian Coffee-House
By Khodadad Movaghar

If, as a tourist, you enter an Iranian ghahvekhaneh (literally coffee-house), you will be very surprised to learn that there you can have some tea, eat a bowl of hot broth, have a soft drink, smoke the hookah, order an omelette… but you won’t find a single drop of coffee in that place. The reason is that before tea became fashionable and easily available in Iran through its cultivation within the country, Iranians used to drink coffee,
which habit was adopted from Moslem Arabs who brought with them coffee along with Islam to Iran.

The term ghahvekhaneh has survived from the Safavid era as we shall see later. Before then, Iranians did not have tea-houses or coffee-houses, it appears, as no mention of either is made in the ancient writings, nor are they depicted in pictures painted on potteries, in embossed patterns on metal tableware, etc. Some historians
maintain that people then spent their hours of leisure in houses of worship or visiting each other at home.

After the advent of Islam people continued to spend their hours of leisure in mosques and many men went to the zoorkhaneh (literally house of sports) where they practiced certain sports that developed their ability to
use weapons and to wrestle.

It is only during the era of the Safavid dynasty that coffeehouses seem to have emerged, through world trade, like so many other new things that trade introduced to various countries.

During the Safavid era the caravan routes were made safe by a strong central government. Therefore, trade
prospered as caravans traveled to or through Iran on their way further beyond. The Silk Road which extended from China to Rome passed through Iran. Its remains can still be found in the desert, south of the city of Qom. The caravans stopped in caravanserais, there to spend the nights. Each caravanserai,therefore, was a large guesthouse where food and drinks were served, beautiful girls danced to delightful music, thus entertaining the guests, and comfortable rooms were provided for the travelers.

Coffee was currently served in the caravanserais and from there it spread to the cities.

In 1646, Tavernier, a French merchant and traveler, who visited Iran several times during the Safavid era, wrote a book about his experiences and observations in Iran. In this book he wrote that in Iran, just like in the Ottoman Empire, there were coffee-houses where people gathered to spend their hours of leisure, hold business
negotiations and even to discuss governmental and state issues and settle disputes.

The most outstanding Safavid king, Shah Abbas I, went further by instructing dervishes to go to the coffee-houses and amuse the people by giving sermons, narrating stories and reciting the Shahnameh, a book of epic myths in 60,000 verses. Down to this day there are still morsheds who tell tales and recite from the Shahnameh in ghahvekhanehs to amuse people and arouse their feelings of patriotism and bravery.

(Unfortunately, the television is gradually forcing these men out of the ghahvekhaneh).

Trade brought another present to Iran, through the Ottoman Empire: the tobacco, which was smoked in the ghahvekhanehs by use of pipes or hookahs.

One of the pleasures of Shah Abbas was going – without previous announcement – to one of Isfahan’s ghahvekhanehs where he would meet artists and poets. Sometimes he would take a guest of honour, an ambassador or a dignitary from a foreign land, to a ghahvekhaneh where they would drink coffee and wine and watch young girls dancing. At about the same time there appeared a number of tea-houses where the more
respectable and conservative people would gather to drink tea and play backgammon or chess. Tea was then imported from China by Uzbek and Tatar traders. Iranians believed tea to be good for the health and they
drank it while it was very hot. After the extinction of the Safavid dynasty Iran established relations with the
Russian people who, being close to China, were great tea drinkers. They had developed the samovar for boiling water and brewing tea, and soon the samovar found its way into Iran. By this time the ghavekhaneh had become institutionalized as a place where people spent their hours of leisure.

Eventually, they became centers of communication, places where rumors were exchanged, and therefore of concern to the ruling class.

Gradually, as Iran’s relations with the West expanded and more people traveled to Europe and more Europeans came to Iran, cafes and restaurants emerged on the style of Europe, France in particular.

Then the more wealthy people who had traveled to Europe or had been educated there, chose the European style cafes and restaurants where European food was served.

Ghahvekhanehs remained for the more traditional people of the less wealthy classes.

During the reign of the Pahlavis there was a revival of the traditional ghahvekhaneh as Iranians were returning
to their roots and accepting themselves and their traditions to be no less worthy than those of the West. This trend has continued down to this day and excellent establishments are now appearing on the style of the traditional ghahvekhaneh, in increasing numbers. They are very elegant though very traditional in style. There,
you can eat true Iranian food, especially the deezi, an Iranian specialty made with lamb, potatoes, and dried peas and beans; a sort of broth. You can then have a estaken (small glass) of tea and smoke the ghalyan (hookah).


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