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Lesson 4.6: Coffee, Coffeehouses, and Controversy


Lesson 4.6: Coffee, Coffeehouses, and Controversy


Topic 3: Networks of Trade, Technology and Taste: Sugar, Coffee and Silk


This lesson tracks the spread of coffee from Ethiopia and Yemen to the Ottoman Empire to various European cities by following the debate over coffee and the new institution of the coffeehouse. The document-based inquiry lesson focuses on primary sources that reflect controversies over whether coffee should be allowed under religious law, its effects on the body, and the unease governments and social critics felt as coffeehouses became new sites of political gathering, cultural production, and sometimes immoral activities.


Barbara Petzen


Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: A World History Curriculum Project for Educators


Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University




2014, Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University, published under Creative Commons – Attribution-No Derivatives 3.0 License


One 45-50 minute class period, plus additional time for extension (may be assigned as homework)


• Students will gain awareness, tolerance and respect for points of view deriving from other national or cultural backgrounds

• They will be able to analyze historical primary source documents, both written and visual, and identify the point of view, goals, main arguments and evidence used by the writers (or artists).

• They will be able to compare the positions and goals of the authors of different primary source documents on a single issue.

• They will be able to articulate how cultural debates reflect different worldviews, political stances, and economic interests.

• They will be able to choose and defend a perspective based on a variety of evidence.


• Student Handout 4.6.1 Coffee

Lesson Plan Text

1. Open the activity by passing around a sample of coffee beans. [If available, also pass around a hand-held coffee grinder, and allow students to grind and smell the coffee.] Ask students if they know where coffee originates [Ethiopia] and how it spread [via the Arabs and the Ottomans]. Ask students to imagine a world without coffee—or cafes/coffeehouses. Where would people “hang out?” Explain that in the early modern Mediterranean world, before the introduction of coffee (and tea and chocolate, which are introduced around the same timeframe), most people socialized in their homes, at the mosque (or church or synagogue), or in their workplaces. The introduction of coffee opened up a whole new kind of space for socializing.

2. Pass out copies of Student Handout 4.6.1 on Coffee.

3. Ask students to read the first set of texts on the religious permissibility of coffee. Depending on the level of your students, you can answer the questions on each document with the whole class working together, or have students work individually or in groups to answer the questions. What are the differences between the arguments for and against coffee in Muslim and Christian contexts? Why?

4. Once students have worked through all the documents in the first section, take a poll by asking students to stand on one side of the room or the other, depending on whether they would have allowed coffee on the basis of the documents or not. Ask students from each side to present the most convincing argument they can make to support their stance.

5. Follow the same procedure with the second section of the handout on the health effects of coffee. Then ask students if they think, based on today’s evidence, that coffee is good for you or bad for you. Do any of the arguments given by the authors in the primary source documents still hold up according to modern medical opinion?

6. Now ask student to examine the set of documents on coffeehouses. Have students note where and when each document is from as they analyze them, using the prompts in the handout.

• Why does each author approve or disapprove of coffeehouses?

• Describe the people you see in the images. Who do you think they are? What are they doing? Where would you guess the different individuals are from, and what do they represent? How do you think the artist is using the images of the people portrayed to influence his audience about coffee and tobacco?

• What differences and similarities do you see in coffeehouses and the debate about them in different countries?

• What arguments are most compelling to you? Why?

• Why do you think coffeehouses continued to grow in popularity despite the significant opposition to them from religious authorities and governments?

7. As homework, ask students to write a tract from the perspective of someone in 1700, advocating either for or against coffeehouses. They can set their argument in any of the cities represented in the primary sources. Alternatively, ask students to prepare for a debate before the sultan over whether coffeehouses should once again be banned. Have groups from each side of the issue create short position papers representing the religious establishment, local merchants, the intelligentsia, and the chief of police. Have each group choose a representative to argue their position before the throne so that the sultan can make an informed decision.

8. Extension: Have each student group make their arguments for or against coffeehouses in the form of public service announcements for television.

9. Assessment: Students should be assessed on their ability to find evidence for particular perspectives in texts and to articulate its meaning and impact on the argument. They should also be assessed on their participation and communication in both group discussions and the larger debates. If they write a tract, their writing should be assessed for clarity, the appropriate use of the arguments in the primary source material incorporated into their imaginative work, and effective use of language.



Barbara Petzen, “Lesson 4.6: Coffee, Coffeehouses, and Controversy,” Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: Teaching Modules , accessed January 19, 2018,

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