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Mocha in the 17th and 18th centuries – Yemen’s Age of Coffee
Presented by Professor Nancy Um

Professor Nancy Um
Professor Nancy Um

On December 12th, 2022, Professor Nancy Um, Associate Director for Research and Knowledge Creation at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, presented Mocha in the 17th and 18th Centuries – Yemen’s Age of Coffee, a talk hosted by the British-Yemeni Society (B-YS), the International Association for the Study of Arabia (IASA) and the MBI Al Jaber Foundation. In her talk, Professor Um drew on research that she conducted for her book, The Merchant Houses of Mocha: Trade and Architecture in an Indian Ocean Port and shared new findings and interpretations that have emerged since its publication. She explained that Noel Brehony, Chair of IASA, had asked her to speak on Mocha and the Yemen coffee trade approximately one year ago, and although she had ceased to work on those topics, she agreed to revisit her earlier research as there was still great interest in the city of Mocha and the coffee trade.

Nancy’s talk began with some background material on the port city of Mocha, which is located on the southern Red Sea coast of Yemen and was developed as a major port of trade by the Ottomans in the 16th century. After ousting the Ottomans, the Kosami Imams of the Zaidi family continued to use Mocha as the major site of their trade– indeed Mocha persisted until the 19th century as Yemen’s most important port until Aden came to prominence. There was frequent traffic between Mocha and the port of Surat in Gujurat, north-west India, and the former was closely connected to other ports on the Red Sea, connecting it to Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. Thus, Mocha sat at the nexus of both long-distance and more regional networks of trade. Being conveniently situated inside the entrance to the Red Sea was one of the reasons that Mocha thrived; the large, ocean-going vessels that came from the Indian Ocean could offload their goods at the port, leaving smaller vessels to navigate the coral reefs and unpredictable winds of the Red Sea.

On her first visit to Mocha (and Yemen), Nancy was disappointed to learn that the city’s ‘historic fabric was no longer legible.’ Many of the merchant houses had been destroyed so much of her work depended upon sources other than the city itself - for example, on textual documentation including travellers’ records and European merchants’ records. One such merchant was Karsten Niebuhr, who visited the city in 1763 and was a member of a scientific team that was sponsored by King Frederick of Denmark. He had excellent knowledge of Arabic, ‘even colloquial Yemeni Arabic’, was a sensitive observer and has been an important source for historians as he spent a great deal of time in the city. In Nancy’s opinion, however, these travellers’ records ‘were not and are not the most important sources on Mocha.’ She reserves this praise for the copious documents left by the East India companies, particularly those left by the English East India Company and the Dutch East India Company, whose records are well-known to historians.

Professor Um recalled that she was particularly captivated by some of these records i.e., the ‘diaries’ which provided a day-to-day account of activities in the city. When recording that nothing much was happening, the merchants would sometimes remark on a building being constructed or the governor going to inspect the brickwork every day; they also give details on an altercation taking place in front of a merchant’s house, describing the space where it occurred and how it was being used for such disputes. These records demonstrate how Mocha was used and were essential to understanding the urban fabric of the city. Nancy also mentioned the pitfalls of writing the history of Mocha from what is inevitably a European perspective, which she said is a huge challenge requiring ‘much balancing’. Unfortunately, Arabic sources on the port are usually quite scant and say very little about the city itself. As well as using textual evidence, Nancy also examined a range of visual documentation - maps and images that she believes are very important in reconstructing Mocha. These include photographs by a French photographer, August Bartholdi, and Herman Burkhart, the German traveller.

Regarding coffee: Nancy stated that there were ‘multiple legacies of coffee centres’ around the city centre of Mocha and that many of these legacies focussed on a particular historic figure, the Sufi, Al-Shadhili, who lived in Mocha in the early 15th century, predating the arrival of the Ottomans and before the city became a bustline international settlement. Al-Shadhili came from Zabid, to the north of Mocha, and travelled around the wider region to Hijaz, Jerusalem, Cairo and Abyssinia. After this journey, he settled in Mocha, developing a reputation there as a religious figure and spiritual guide. He died there and is still today considered to be its patron saint. Al-Shadhili has been attributed the status of the world’s first coffee drinker and as the originator of this social habit; this is, however, not uncontested.

Prof Um stated that the drinking of coffee as a hot beverage emerged somewhere in the lowlands of Yemen in the early 15th century in Sufi circles. She said we know that coffee drinking emerged in this place at that time. We also know that coffee cultivation on a large scale was also first developed in Yemen. Coffee Arabica grew wild in the mountains of Ethiopia before the plants were brought to Yemen. We do not know exactly when this took place, but it was in Yemen where coffee was cultivated on a large scale by the Ottomans in the late 16th century and it was from that date that coffee was exported from Yemen to a world that was increasingly thirsty for it. This continued until the early decades of the 18th century when the Dutch, who had been experimenting with coffee for many decades, were finally able to refine the quality and quantity of coffee they were cultivating on Java. The French also increased their coffee cultivation on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean, as well as other places, in the 1720s. By the 1730s, we have an extraordinary reversal of historic global trade trends in coffee. During this period, it was cultivated in places such as Martinique, as mentioned above, and was moving west to east into the ports of Egypt, the Levant and Anatolia via Marseille. Those movements of coffee so dominated by Yemen and moving largely from east to west became irreversibly changed, leading us into the situation that we have today, where coffee is a global commodity and Yemen has come to play an increasingly small role in that industry. There is, however, great interest in reviving the Yemeni coffee market and it is possible that it may regain a larger share of the trade in the future.

Professor Um concluded her presentation by showing several slides of the material culture related to the drinking of coffee and coffee ceremonies in Yemen, including coffee cup holders, rosewater sprinklers and an incense burner. She also touched on her current thinking on images of the port city of Mocha. She now believes them to be images that represent the imagination of faraway ports as much as they can be used as documents of a city, presenting us with much more food for thought.

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