How the city of cafes came to be

Ambrin Hayat explains how the cafe originating in the Middle East became central to the identity of Paris

How the city of cafes came to be
The Seine, an enterprising river, 483 miles long, emerges in Dijon in northeastern France. It culminates its long journey at Le Havre, pouring its waters into the English Channel.

Thousands of years ago, La Seine hosted on its banks the Parisii, a Celtic tribe of Indo-European people, in the broad spectrum of time during the Iron Age. In ancient times a trade route existed in the area, where most probably the Parisii were trading on the river Seine with ancient Germania and Hispania. Before the Roman conquest, the Parisii were an established people, minting their own gold coins – obviously a product of a thriving economy.

Ottoman coffee cup

The Parisii were mentioned in the chronicles documented by Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico (58-49 BCE), which he wrote on the nine years of intrigues and wars that saw the Romans fighting with the Germanic and Celtic peoples. It is said that as Julius Caesar’s armies entered the Parisii’s city in 52 BCE, on the island in the Seine called Ile de la Cite, which later became the center of the burgeoning city, the Parisii started burning their own houses and other buildings – as they did not want the Romans to have their treasures. The Romans set up their government in the Parissi town and named it Lutetia Parisiorum. What we know about this city after the conquest is that the Romans built grand baths, temples and auditoriums and that it was a prosperous city in every sense. Whether all the baths, open-air auditoriums and theaters were built by the Romans or whether the city already had good architecture and civilised facilities for its citizens even before it was conquered by Julius Caesar remains open to debate. In the book Egypt,Greece and Rome, author Charles Freeman writes that it is difficult to describe one tribe as Celts or Keltoi as the Greeks called them. He believes that there were a number of tribes residing in Europe which could not all be grouped under one culture. However, Freeman says that there was a distinctive group of people who followed one similar culture and who were referred to as the Hallstatt in history. This tribe typically had settlements along rivers, and was found in the Seine River valley, the Rhine River Valley and along the Danube River. He describes the Hallstatt as the Celts.
The seeds of modernity were germinated in the surreal world around the ordinary tables in the ordinary cafes of Paris

The Parissi were one of the tribes of the Celts. They had prosperous settlements, trading in gold, ironworking skills, etc. Greek historians also regularly mentioned the Celts – they were surprised and at times in awe of these striking people. Polybius (200 BCE-118-BCE), whose book The Histories influenced generations, writes that the Celts were a very brave people who would fight in the battlefield naked – a matter of grave concern for the Romans looking to conquer them. He described one battle scene: “The Celts had innumerable horn blowers and trumpeters and as the whole army was shouting their war cries at the same time there was such a tumult of sound that it scared the opposing army. They were well built and wore gold torques and armlets”. Historian and philosopher, Strabo (64 BCE-24 CE) noted that the Celts were a high-spirited people and had a love for decorations. He also mentions their ornaments of gold – on their necks, on their arms and on their wrists. He was surprised to see that in Celtic society, people of high status wore dyed robes.

An Ottoman coffee house

The Indo-European pantheon of deities was presided over by Dyeus Pather or the Sky Father who had the same attributes as the Dyaus Pita or Heaven Father of the Vedic Pantheon. They also worshipped Hausos the goddess of dawn who had similar attributes to the Vedic goddess Usas. There is some evidence that the Parissi probably worshipped the goddess Isis, who in turn is an avatar of Vedic goddess Durga. Legend has it that in Lutetia Parisorium the Parisii had a great temple dedicated to Isis.In 1163 CE, on the site of that temple,Notre Dame de Paris was built – which later became the Cathedral Notre Dame as we know it today. Isis’s statute that was placed in it was moved to the Abbey of St Germaine. The Chronicles of the Great Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland Volume II says that in 1514 the Archbishop of Meraux had the statute of Isis finally destroyed. Perhaps with it the more visible Celtic traditions of the Parisii were abandoned.

Saint Denis brought Christianity to Paris when it came under Roman rule. The Romans beheaded Saint Denis on a hill. That hill came to be called the Hill of the Martyr or Montmartre. Today it is a quaint artists’ village. On its cobbled streets, many centuries after Saint Denis, avant garde paintings and other artwork are defying a narrow view of life, every day.

18th-century French coffee cup

Lutetia Parisiorum continued to thrive as a city under Roman rule. The Western Roman Empire finally ended. In 508CE, Clovis the Frank, of the Merovingian dynasty, made Parisiorum the capital of his kingdom.

The medieval era brought more laurels to Paris. Imposing architecture, social, cultural and religious importance – all gave Paris great distinction when compared to other cities in Europe.

This became the city where Rousseau the author and philosopher, Beaumarchais the dramatist, de Bolly the author of the then famous The Seige of Callais, La Chaussee, Fontenelle and many more debated their ideas and exchanged creative thought in cafes. The First World War brought new and unique dynamics to the region, but Paris retained its place as a centre of arts and literature – not just for the French but also for artists and writers from abroad. James Joyce, Josephine Baker, Igor Stravinsky, Sidney Bechet, Hemingway, Salvador Dali and numerous others came to the city to develop and chisel their ideas, thoughts and artistic talent to go beyond that boundary where their work would achieve true excellence. This is the space where Picasso made his paintings and where Sartre formed his ideas – it is that culture which gave liberty to writers and artists to develop and reach the heights of excellence. And that space was provided by the numerous cafes of Paris.

Cafe Procope in Paris is the oldest continuous establishment of its kind

Coffee drinking was first introduced to the French on a large scale by the Ottoman Ambassador Suleiman Aga in 1669

The seeds of modernity were germinated in the surreal world around the ordinary tables in the ordinary cafes of Paris.

The culture of the cafe, though, started in the Arab world in the 15th century. The Ottomans became enchanted with coffee and cafes as they came to rule the Arab lands. The Ottoman Empire entered the European continent via the Balkans. And the Ottomans, like the Arabs before them, took several cultural, social and academic traditions to Europe as they extended their political and social milieu to the European shores.

The first cafe in Europe was opened in 1629 in Venice. John Theodat and Jerzy Kulczycki, the first to introduce milk/cream to coffee, were probably the first two people who opened up the very early cafes in Vienna at the beginning of the 17th century. The Europeans first tasted coffee in one of these early coffee houses. Thus the seeds for intellectual discussions in public places were sowed in the European society – as it was not just coffee that was brought to the Europeans but also the culture that was associated with it in the Orient.

A French porcelain coffee cup, from around 1780

In 1650 at the university town of Oxford, the first coffee house was opened in England. Pasqua Rosee worked for an Englishman Daniel Edwards, who was a trader in Turkish coffee and other goods. Pasqua decided to go into business himself, with the help of his employer. He set up a cafe in St. Micheal’s Alley in Cornhill, London. By the 1670s, England was pulsating with a unique chatter. The exchange of political and philosophical ideas took place in its three thousand cafes.

This was a new phenomenon for Europe and the time was ripe to take the model to other countries in the continent. Pasqua Rosee decided to extend his business. He set up the first coffee house in the city of Paris in 1672.

Coffee drinking was first introduced to the French on a large scale by the Ottoman Ambassador Suleiman Aga in 1669. Ambassador Aga had brought large quantities of coffee beans with him, which he presented to Louis XIV and other nobles in the court. He had also distributed coffee as gifts to friends in Paris. Many Persians and Arabs had already made coffee familiar to Parisians by selling door to door small cups of coffee in the neighborhoods of Paris – much before the coffee houses were established.

Isaac Disraeli (1766-1848) writes in his book Curiosities of Literature that Suleiman Aga threw lavish coffee parties at his residence which were even mentioned in the court of Louis XIV. The brilliant porcelain cups used by the Ambassador and the fine napkins fringed with gold had high society in Paris in awe. Soon many elite Parisians were drinking and enjoying coffee.

Pasqua’s cafe had brought coffee to the ordinary man on the street. It soon rose to prominence as there was no competition. For many years his cafe became the place where ideas for a modern society were germinating, people were getting accustomed to going out and debating their inner thoughts with likeminded people – or even with people of contradicting views.

In 1686, Procopio Cuto an Italian chef who had lemonade and gelato stalls previously, opened the doors of his new coffee house, Cafe Procopeto to the Parisians. The seventeenth century in Paris was a very interesting period in history. Fuelled no doubt in part by coffee, modernity, modern Political Philosophy and a complex intellectual dialogue was emerging, giving rise to a period when the society was freeing itself from the shackles of archaic, dated traditions and debating new ideas of equality and freedom based on reason. The Age of Enlightenment had arrived in Paris, discussed, debated and documented in these cafes over hundreds of cups of coffee.

Cafe Procope became a centre for intellectual debates. In the 18th century, great philosophers and intellectuals of the time, Voltaire (1694-1778), Rousseau (1712-1778) and Diderot (1713-1784) who was greatly influenced by Voltaire – maybe in the cafes of Paris – became regular visitors. Their conversations contributed to the great new philosophical thought that was emerging and produced invaluable literature and works of philosophy, giving rise to the Age of Enlightenment in Paris. The cafes multiplied in number and the city frequently offered space for diverging views. The ideas of reason, equality and justice were brought to the common people who were thronging the cafes – transforming in time the entire social paradigm.

In the 19th and 20th centuries Paris was attracting writers, artists, philosophers and intellectuals and cultivating them in its numerous cafes.

One of the greatest French philosophers Jean- Paul Sartre (1905-1950), like the giants before him, was a regular visitor to these meeting places. Artists who left a universal mark, like Pablo Picasso (1880-1973), Monet (1840-1926) and many others, shared and developed their ideas in the cafes of Paris.

Ernest Hemmingway summed up the city with its magical cafe culture in the delightful book The Moveable Feast, an account of his years in Paris.

In the 21st century too, the enchanted cafes peppering the streets and boulevards of Paris are invisibly helping to write contemporary literature every day. Paris is rated as one of the happiest cities in the world. The reason could be hidden in its cafe culture.

The effervescence of this magical city is condensed in these obscure cafes scattered in long forgotten alleys and on the majestic, tree-lined boulevards of the ancient metropolis. As the Seine flows by, on its banks new fashions, new trends in arts and culture, new waves in the philosophical thought are unconsciously emerging over delightful cups of coffee.