Art And Culture

Coffee Ruled Before Teahouses Became the Culture

Coffee Ruled Before  Teahouses Became the Culture
Coffee Ruled Before  Teahouses Became the Culture

The first coffeehouse was established in Qazvin, during the reign of King Tahmasp I of the Safavid dynasty. Later, during the reign of King Abbas the number of coffeehouses increased in Isfahan. When Agha Muhammad Khan Qajar shifted the capital to Tehran, more coffeehouses were established. According to available documents of that time, Tehran with a population of 250,000 people, housed 4,300-4,500 coffeehouses. The large number speaks of their popularity.

During the reign of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, the number of coffeehouses continued to increase, states an article in Iran newspaper. Several coffeehouses were established across streets and neighborhoods within the city: close to trade centers, industrial workshops, factories, motels, terminals, and city gates and entrances.

Before tea came to Iran, the coffeehouses served imported coffee. After tea was imported and also planted and flourished in the northern regions, palates changed and it fast became the most popular drink within the country, almost completely replacing coffee. However, the fame and functions of coffeehouses continued long after.

‘Coffeehouses’ were a gathering place where people would drink tea, smoke hookahs, engage in conversation, share the latest news, and recite stories and poetry. Traditional coffeehouses paved the way for the emergence of two key schools of oral and visual arts i.e. storytelling and painting. Several pioneers of these arts emerged out of coffeehouses.

Coffeehouses became social institutions which reinforced people’s national and religious identities, and highlighted the importance of sacrificial ethics and values. Paintings of national mythical heroes and historically legendary kings adorned the interiors. Coffeehouse dwellers became well familiar with the values and tenor of heroic sacrifice.

Visiting coffeehouses gradually became part of the everyday routine in people’s lives; many would enter when the coffeehouses opened and leave late at night just before closing time. Among the frequent visitors were peddlers, and whether it was rosaries, rings, or antiques that they were offering, the itinerant traders seized the opportunity to merchandise their goods at the coffeehouses.

 Exquisite Murals

A number of exquisite murals and mosaics remain from traditional coffeehouses, namely a painting of a feast created using “engraving techniques and painted with ceramic glazes” during the Qajar era. The mural is showcased in Tehran’s Anthropology Museum.

 Sangtarash-ha coffeehouse, also established in the Qajar era, located at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar remains open to this day. The interior design with the stone pillars, rib-vault ceilings, platforms, and the stone pool in the middle, resembles the architecture of traditional Iranian baths.

Other notable traditional coffeehouses that remain include Sarcheshmeh coffeehouse in the neighborhood of Sarcheshmeh, Aased Ali coffeehouse on north Saadi St., Ayeneh and Ghanbar coffeehouses on Nasserkhosro St., Yoozbashi coffeehouse near Shams-ol-Emareh, Golestan Palace.

 Hookah Houses

There is no coffee served at the traditional coffeehouses any more. They are now teahouses serving tea and hookahs and the visitors have also changed. Youngsters between 14 and 28 years, who do not seem to have anything better to do, often hang out at the teahouses. The former traditional platforms for promoting arts and culture are no more. Nowadays, the only thing which draws the youth towards the teahouses is hookahs.              

Blanketed in thick smoke, the youngsters rave on about their insights and theories on different kinds of socio-political subjects, which more often than not are far removed from the truth. To recluse in teahouses and smoke hookahs has become their obsession. When asked why, they quickly retort that “they’ve no other suitable recreational activities.”

Many of the people who hang out in modern day teahouses have criminal records, are shunned by society, and share the same frame of mind. Naïve new comers, easily impressionable, gradually start to adapt to the new behavior, which deviates from social norms.