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From Coffee to Tea: Shifting Patterns of Consumption

in Qajar Iran
Rudolph P. Matthee

Journal of World History, Volume 7, Number 2, Fall 1996, pp. 199-230

Published by University of Hawai'i Press
DOI: 10.1353/jwh.2005.0041

For additional information about this article

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From Coffee to Tea: Shifting Patterns of

Consumption in Qajar Iran*
rudi matthee
University of Delaware

ecent years have seen a surge in scholarly attention to consumption in early modern times. A fair share of the resulting scholarship has been devoted to the study of stimulants, such as coffee and
tea, which are no longer viewed as mere commodities in the trade and
consumer revolutions, but are now explored as emblems and symbols
of religious practice, social relations, or political change. Scholars have
addressed the function of these beverages in religious imagery and
medical experimentation, examined their acceptance and distribution
as indices of social class and status, and focused on governmental reactions to their importation and dissemination, which ranged from legal
prohibition to fiscal stimulation.1 Sidney Mintz has studied the links
among the production, spread, and consumption of tea in conjunction
with the spread of sugar in eighteenth-century Britain.2 Wolfgang
Schivelbusch has shown how, in the various societies where it made
inroads, coffee in the early modern West embodied now the rational
spirit of the Enlightenment and capitalist enterprise, now the mood of

* I would like to thank Iraj Afshar and Abbas Amanat for reading and commenting on
an earlier version of this paper.
1 Recent social studies of coffee and other stimulants in European countries include the
contributions in Wandel der Volkskultur in Europa, vol. 1: Festschrift fr Gnter Wiegelmann
zum 60. Geburtstag, ed. Nils-Arvid Bringus et al. (Mnster, 1988); Daniela Ball, ed.,
Kaffee im Spiegel europischer Trinksitten (Zurich, 1991); Pim Reinders and Thera Wijsenbeek, Koffie in Nederland: Vier eeuwen cultuurgeschiedenis (Zutphen, 1994); and the special
issue on Kolonialwaren of Jahrbuch fr Wirtschaftsgeschichte (1994).
2 Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in the Modern World (New
York, 1985). See also Woodruff D. Smith, Complications of the Commonplace: Tea,
Sugar, and Imperialism, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23 (1992): 25978.
Journal of World History, Vol. 7, No. 2
1996 by University of Hawaii Press



journal of world history, fall 1996

an emerging bourgeois milieu.3 In a fascinating workthe only booklength study to date that seriously explores the historical causes and
repercussions of peoples preferences for coffee or tea according to
region and religionKarl Wasserberg discusses the interplay between
faith and government policy on the one hand, and a popular preference for either coffee or tea, on the other, in early modern Germany.4
Farther afield, R. E. F. Smith and David Christian have looked into
the symbolic meaning of food and beverages, including tea, in prerevolutionary Russia.5
With the exception of the original areas of cultivationYemen for
coffee and China for teathe non-European world has received short
shrift in this recent scholarship.6 Few attempts have been made to
explore connections between domestic consumer culture and its demands, on the one hand, and patterns of international trade with its
supply element, on the other, for those regions of the world that
resembled Europe in consuming rather than producing coffee and tea.
These connections are the focus of this essay, which places the reception and consumption of tea in Iran in a comparative perspective by
asking some of the same questions that scholars have posed in studying
tea in the West.
Together with China, Japan, Russia, England, and some of the
successor states of the Ottoman empire, most notably Turkey and Morocco, Iran is one of the worlds great tea-drinking nations. Iran resembles all those countries except China and Japan not only in a current
predilection for tea but also in the timing of the drinks introduction,
the commercial channels it followed, and its belated popularity. With
3 Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Das Paradies, der Geschmack und die Vernunft (Munich,
1981); translated as Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants
(New York, 1992).
4 Karl Wassenberg, Tee in Ostfriesland: Vom religisen Wundertrank zum profanen Volksgetrnk (Leer, 1991). Wassenberg seeks to explain the peculiar predilection of east Frisians for
tea by referring to the context: a Calvinist environment that hailed the beverage as a quasicelestial drink, northwest Germanys exposure to the maritime trade that supplied the commodity, and the regions adversarial relationship with the centralizing Prussian state, which
promoted beer and coffee for the revenue it derived from them.
5 R. E. F. Smith and David Christian, Bread and Salt: A Social and Economic History of
Russia (Cambridge, 1984).
6 For Yemen, see C. G. Brouwer, Cauwa ende Comptanten: De Verenigde Oostindische
Compagnie in Jemen / Cowha and Cash: The Dutch East India Company in Yemen (Amsterdam, 1988). For coffee in the Ottoman empire, of which Yemen was a part as of the midsixteenth century, see Ralph S. Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East (Seattle, 1985). A recent study of tea in China is John C.
Evans, Tea in China: The History of Chinas National Drink (New York, 1992). See also Rudi
Matthee, Coffee in Safavid Iran: Commerce and Consumption, Journal of the Economic
and Social History of the Orient 37 (1994): 132.

Matthee: From Coffee to Tea Consumption in Qajar Iran


the possible exception of its northeastern region, Iran is likely to have

become acquainted with tea sometime in the sixteenth century. Like
Russia, Iran is located fairly close to China, a factor that likely accounts for the original introduction of tea through overland channels.
Like Morocco, Iran also received tea via maritime trade routes, as a
result of the activity of European trading companies.
Significantly, as in all other tea-drinking countries except those in
East Asia, tea in Iran went through a long period of gestation before it
became the favored drink of the masses. As was the case in Russia,
England, and Turkey, the real popularity of tea in Iran dates from the
nineteenth century. Unlike Russia, where tea competed mostly with
distilled liquor for popularity, Iranalong with some European countries and most of the Ottoman empirewas largely a coffee-drinking
nation before tea became popular. England, which was among the first
Western countries where coffee gained popularity in the seventeenth
century, long favored this drink over tea. Though introduced to
England at almost the same time as coffee, tea did not begin to supersede coffee in popularity in that country until the late eighteenth century. The factors responsible for the shift included cost, sources of
supply, working conditions, and changes in taste and fashion.7 Developments were more complex in the Ottoman empire, where coffee and
tea became differentiated according to region, and in Germany and
Holland, where religious affinities had an additional role in the choice
between the two drinks. The Arab-speaking parts of the Ottoman
stateEgypt, Syria, Iraq, and Libya and Algeria in the westwere
among the first to become familiar with coffee after its spread from
Yemen in the fifteenth century, and they never switched to tea. The
exception is Morocco, where tea, after its introduction by English and
Dutch merchants in the sixteenth century, managed to establish itself
as the more popular beverage.8 The diffusion of Russian customs and
taste and, in the twentieth century, state-sponsored domestic cultivation, caused Turkey to become a predominantly tea-consuming country, though coffee remains highly valued by many Turks.9
Iran over time similarly switched from coffee to tea, and since the
late Qajar period (17961925) tea has been the countrys national
7 See John Burnett, Coffee in the British Diet, 16501990, in Kaffee im Spiegel
europischer Trinksitten, ed. Ball, pp. 3552.
8 See Omar Carlier, Le caf maure: Sociabilit masculine et effervescence citoyenne
(Algrie XVIIeXXe sicles), Annales, ESC (1990): 97677.
9 Richard Tapper, Blood, Wine and Water: Social and Symbolic Aspects of Drinks and
Drinking in the Islamic Middle East, in Culinary Cultures of the Middle East, ed. Sami
Zubaida and Richard Tapper (London, 1994), pp. 21819.


journal of world history, fall 1996

beverage. Changes in regional spheres of influence and prevailing

international trade routes, leading to the integration of Iran into a
Russian- and British-dominated Eurasian market system, contributed
to the steady spread in tea consumption after 1840. Supply was probably the key factor in the spread of tea, but the market was not the
only stimulus. Rather than focusing exclusively on the diffusionist
effects of global changes in commerce and taste, and thus emphasizing the supply side of the issue at the expense of demand-related
factors, I will take up Mintzs suggestion that the growing popularity
of tea and sugar in England was a combined function of greater
affordability, a downward social movement, and the need of the working class for cheap calories. An examination of the scarce sources
on nineteenth-century Iran illuminates how issues of class, status,
and fashion contributed to the transformation in the consumption of
Coffee and Tea in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries:
Popularity and Spread
It is unclear exactly when coffee and tea were first introduced to Iran.
There is little doubt, however, that both made their entry during the
early reign of the Safavid dynasty (15011722). The earliest evidence
in both cases dates from the sixteenth centurythat is, some time
before either coffee or tea is recorded in any European annal. Medical
treatises contain the first mentions of coffee in Iran, reflecting how in
Iran, as in Europe, coffee was initially seen and used as a medicine
rather than as a tasty beverage.10 It was probably introduced to Iran
through the Ottoman empire from Arabia, by way of the pilgrim traffic
between Iran and Mecca or the lively commercial and military interaction between the Ottoman and the Safavid states. Coffee seems to
have found a place as a regular beverage in Iran only around the turn
of the seventeenth century. Evidence for this is found in the appearance of coffeehouses in Safavid Iran. After Shah Abbas I (1587
1629) transferred his capital from Qazvin to Isfahan in the 1590s, he
launched a grandiose project to redesign his new governmental center.
This included the construction of a magnificent central square known
as the maydan-i naqsh-i jahan, which was finished in 16031604 and is
10 See Aladin Goushegir, Le caf en Iran des Safavides aux Qajar lpoque actuelle,
in Contributions au thme du et des cafs dans les socits du Proche-Orient, ed. Hlne Desmet-Grgoire (Aix-en-Provence, 1991), pp. 7678.

Matthee: From Coffee to Tea Consumption in Qajar Iran


Figure 1. Iran in the Nineteenth Century

still standing. The shops that lined the square near the entrance of a
newly built bazaar included the coffeehouses that became famous
through descriptions by foreign visitors.11 In addition to those flanking
the main square, Isfahan boasted many coffeehouses elsewhere in the
city, and we know that provincial cities had coffeehouses as well.
Overall, however, it appears that the coffeehouse at this stage remained confined to the urban environment.12
Tea seems to have been introduced into Iran before coffee. The
supposedly oldest reference to tea in Europe involved an Iranian merchant, one Hajji Muhammad, who in the mid-sixteenth century informed the Venetian author and administrator Gianbattista Ramusio
11 Mulla Jalal al-Din Munajjim, Tarikh-i abbasi ya ruznamah-i Mulla Jalal (Tehran, 1366/
1987), pp. 23637.
12 See Matthee, Coffee in Safavid Iran, p. 23. The German physician-cum-traveler
Engelbert Kaempfer, who visited Iran between 1683 and 1685, noted that all over Iran, in
the bazaars and the roads, day laboreres could be seen grinding coffee. Neither he nor any
other source, however, confirms the existence of real coffeehouses outside the urban setting. See Engelbert Kaempfer, Die Reisetagebcher Engelbert Kaempfers, ed. Karl MeierLemgo (Wiesbaden, 1968), p. 115.


journal of world history, fall 1996

about tea in China.13 Tea may have been introduced into northeastern
Iran as early as the thirteenth century by the Mongols.14 It is not clear
whether in those early times the tea consumed in Iran was the black
brick tea, which nomads drank with salt and butterfat, or loose black
or green Chinese tea. There is no doubt, however, that by the 1600s
the latter, which is drunk with sugar, was known and enjoyed, since
the German traveler Adam Olearius, who visited Iran in the 1630s,
asserted that the Iranians put sugar in their tea.15
Coffee had been imported into Iran by Arab, Indian, and Iranian
merchants before the arrival of the East India Companies in the Persian Gulf in the early seventeenth century. Following Oleariuss claim
that tea entered Iran from China via Central Asia, carried overland by
Uzbeg Tatars, Chinese green or black tea similarly seems to have been
known before the arrival of European merchants on the shores of the
Persian Gulf. It may simply have become more widely available and
perhaps cheaper when these companies began to incorporate it in the
assortment of Asian wares they imported into Iran via the Indian
Ocean and Persian Gulf trade route. No references to tea are found in
the literature on the Portuguese trade with Iran or the records of the
activities of the English East India Company in the Persian Gulf. Only
the Dutch maritime documents from the second half of the century
contain various references to tea, all of them to Chinese tea.
The Dutch references do not specify the kind of tea imported by
the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch depended on the junk
trade from China for their supplies to their Asian headquarters in
Batavia, and the Chinese traders tended to furnish them with black
Bohea tea, so this is almost certainly the variety that found its way to
Iran.16 The Dutch sources also give various indications about the
extent of the demand for tea in Iranreflecting the habitual fluctuations of the marketbut on the whole suggest that the drink at this
point did not enjoy a consistently high level of popularity. Thus, in
1643 the Dutch were left with some 300 pounds of unsold tea in their

13 See Giovanni Gianbattista Ramusio, Delle navigationi e viaggi raccolte da M. Gio. Battista Ramusio, 3 vols. (Venice, 1559), 2:15.
14 Berthold Laufer, Sino-Iranica: Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in
Ancient Iran with Special Reference to the History of Cultivated Plants and Products (Chicago,
1919), pp. 55354.
15 Adam Olearius, Vermehrte newe Beschreibung der muscowitischen und persischen Reyse
(Schleswig, 1656), p. 599.
16 For the Dutch role in the East Asian tea trade, see Roderich Ptak, Die Rolle der
Chinesen, Portugiesen und Hollnder im Teehandel zwischen China und Sdostasien (ca.
16001750), Jahrbuch fr Wirtschaftsgeschichte (1994): 89105.

Matthee: From Coffee to Tea Consumption in Qajar Iran


warehouse in Bandar Abbas, the trade emporium on the Persian Gulf

coast.17 Seven years later a report stated that no Chinese tea had been
imported for the last four years and that the leaves were in great
demand and would yield a handsome profit.18 In 1694, by contrast, a
Dutch missive from Bandar Abbas noted that the 12,045 pounds of
tea that had been delivered had been transshipped to Surat in India for
lack of demand in Iran.19
The uneven distribution of sources makes it impossible to draw
definitive conclusions about the relative popularity of coffee and tea in
Safavid Iran. Most significantly, the northeastern part of the country
and the interior of Central Asia, where tea may have been most popular, yield very little information on social and economic issues in this
period.20 Yet contemporary sources suggest that, in terms of availability
and volume of consumption, neither tea nor coffee matched water and
sharbat (a fruit-flavored syrup diluted with water) and that, in terms of
comparative popularity, tea in Safavid times was a distant second to
coffee at least outside the northern region.21 Coffee was served in court
circles and consumed in the numerous coffeehouses found in the countrys urban centers. The drink also accompanied the avidly smoked
waterpipe and, indeed, may have owed much of its early popularity
to the introduction of tobacco into Iran in the sixteenth century.22
References to tea consumption in the Safavid period are far fewer. One
traveler refers to the existence of Chinese teahouses (chay khatay
khanah), another mentions the custom of serving the drink to customers of bathhouses, and a third tells of being treated to tea at official
receptions in the north of Iran.23
17 Algemeen Rijks Archief (Dutch National Archives, hereafter cited as ARA), The
Hague, Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (hereafter cited as VOC) 1144, Gamron to
Batavia, 14 May 1643, fol. 489. The same missive is found in VOC 1146, fol. 813v.
18 ARA, VOC 1178, Gamron to Batavia, 6 April 1650.
19 ARA, VOC 1549, Gamron to Batavia, 24 October 1694, fol. 602r.
20 While sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Persian court chronicles yield much
information on political and especially military events in Khorasan, it is not until the early
nineteenth century that (European) eyewitness reports tell us more about social conditions
and peoples daily lives.
21 See ARA, VOC, General Missiven, 30 November 1640, published in Generale Missiven van Gouverneurs-Generaal en Raden aan Heren XVII der Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, ed W. Ph. Coolhaas (The Hague, 1964), 2:115.
22 Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Les six voyages de Jean-Bapt. Tavernier en Turquie, en Perse, et
aux Indes, 2 vols. (Utrecht, 1712), 1:71415.
23 For the teahouses, see Olearius, Vermehrte newe Beschreibung, pp. 599600. Tea in
connection with bathhouses is mentioned by John A. Fryer, A New Account of East India
and Persia, Being Nine Years Travels, 16721681, ed. W. Crooke, 3 vols. (London, 1909
15), 3:3334. Engelbert Kaempfer was treated to tea in Shamakhi and Qazvin during his
journey to Isfahan in 168384. See Kaempfer, Die Reisetagebcher, pp. 45, 69.


journal of world history, fall 1996

The Decline in Coffee and Tea Consumption

Regardless of the relative distribution of the two drinks in Safavid
Iran, their popularity was not left unaffected by the demise of the
Safavids and the turmoil of the eighteenth century. Little is known
about the fate of tea, which is rarely mentioned after the fall of
Isfahan to Afghan invaders in 1722. As for coffee, its consumption
had already been challenged by official measures taken against coffeehouses in the mid-seventeenth century. As was the case in other parts
of the Islamic worldand, indeed, in several contemporary European
societies as wellcoffee and coffeehouses met with a great deal of
suspicion on the part of social critics, religious authorities, and government officials. Similar to pamphlets in Restoration England,
which called coffee a source of idleness and pragmaticalness, a late
seventeenth-century Persian tract warned its readers of the association of coffee with idle banter and the use of opium.24 Concern also
arose from the side of the Muslim Shii clergy. As soon as it was introduced, coffee everywhere in the Islamic world generated a heated
debate among theologians, some of whom opposed it for having
intoxicating properties similar to those of wine.25 A related cause
for concern was the ribald entertainment that used to take place at
Safavid coffeehouses, which included lewd dancing and singing by
young males. What prompted the state to heed religious calls to suppress coffeehouses, finally, was their role as gathering places for Sufis,
or Muslim mystics, who used them as a forum for recitals of subversive
poetry and epic narrations that undermined the legitimacy of the
The Iranian coffeehouse appears to have lost its character as a
venue for dubious forms of entertainment and subversive propaganda
following the imposition of governmental measures. The resulting
increase in austerity of the coffeehouse may not have had a negative
effect on the consumption of the beverage, especially since the clerical
debate over the nature of coffee was decided in favor of its religious
permissibility. At any rate, the decrease in coffee consumption resulted
24 A. Qazvini, Dar mazarrat-i dukhaniyat va qahvah va afyun, Sukhan 17 (1346/
1967): 37274.
25 See, for example, Shaykh Muhammad b. al-Hasan Hurr al-Amili, Wasa il al-shiah ila
tahsil masail al-shariah (Tehran, 1388/196869), p. 307. See also Rasul Jafariyan, Din va
siyasat dar daurah-i safavi (Tehran, 1370/1991), p. 364; and Agha Buzurg Tihrani, Tabaqat
alam al-shiah, 5 vols. (Qum, 1990), 5:603.
26 See Kathryn Babayan, The Waning of the Qizilbash: The Temporal and the Spiritual in Seventeenth-Century Iran (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1993), pp. 25563.

Matthee: From Coffee to Tea Consumption in Qajar Iran


more from dramatic political and economic changes than from government intervention or clerical indictment. In the early eighteenth
century Iran was invaded by Afghan tribesmen, who in 1722 captured
Isfahan and overthrew the Safavid dynasty. The Afghan occupation
ushered in a long period of political instability and even anarchy,
marked by severe economic dislocation. This continued until well
after the rise to power of the Qajar dynasty at the turn of the nineteenth century. The result was prolonged disruption of trade routes
and widespread impoverishment, which led to a combined increase in
prices and a decrease in the purchasing power of many former coffee
Just as important was the effect on public life of the violence, insecurity, and sheer destruction to which the country was subjected in the
course of the eighteenth century. The French traveler G. A. Olivier,
who visited Iran in the closing years of that century, compared the coffeehouses he saw with what he knew about the situation in Safavid
times from reading seventeenth-century travelers such as Jean Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. Formerly coffeehouses had been spacious and elegant public establishments full of lively debate and
entertainment, while the ones Olivier encountered were less numerous, less well attended, and less beautiful. His explanation for this was
that during the civil wars the Iranians had ceased to go to these public
places, where they could no longer converse in liberty and where they
could not even go without risking questioning and scrutiny with possibly nasty consequences. He noted that while in neighboring Turkey
coffee consumption increased daily and everyone drank it on all occasions and at all hours of the day, in Iran people offered sharbat and
sweetmeats to their guests, and passed around the waterpipe (nargilah),
but rarely offered coffee.27
Oliviers theory is attractive and deserves serious consideration for
its implication of a growing inward-looking tendency in Iranian society. Contrary to simultaneous developments in European societies,
where increasing emphasis on the private sphere reflected an inexorable embourgeoisement,28 the Iranian situation had all the elements of
extreme social and economic disruption leading to peoples involuntary withdrawal into the confines of the private realm. Because little is
27 G. A. Olivier, Voyage dans Lempire Othoman, lEgypte et la Perse, 6 vols. (Paris,
1807), 5:27577.
28 For this transformation in France, see Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and
Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York, 1984), chap. 3, The Bourgeois Puts
His World in Order: The World as a Text, pp. 10744.


journal of world history, fall 1996

known about the social history of the period between the demise of
Safavid rule and the rise of the Qajar, we cannot tell much about the
precise nature of this retrenchment of public life. As far as coffee is
concerned, a rare reference in the Persian-language sources for the
entire period concerns the building of a coffeehouse near Qandahar at
the orders of Nadir Shah (r. 173649).29
Although direct contemporary corroboration of Oliviers thesis is
lacking, circumstantial evidence supports his observation. For example, following the fall of Isfahan and its sack by the Afghans in 1722,
nothing more was heard of the famous coffeehouses that had flanked
the maydan-i naqsh-i jahan in Isfahan since the reign of Shah Abbas I.
The Italian missionary F. Leandro di S. Cecilia, who visited the city in
1738, does not mention coffeehouses in his description of the square.30
By the early nineteenth century little had changed in the former capital. James Morier, who accompanied the English diplomat Harford
Jones to the Qajar court, said of the houses that used to surround the
square that they were no longer inhabited, adding that the very
doors are all blocked up, so that there is now only a dead row of arches
to be seen all around. The great market, he continued, is now confined to one corner near the Nokara Khaneh. All the rest is quite
empty; scarcely a person is seen to pass along.31 Kerr Porter in 1818
conveyed exactly the same image when he noted that the streets were
everywhere in ruin, the bazars silent and abandoned, the caravanserais
equally forsaken.32
None of this means that coffeeor, for that matter, teadisappeared from the Iranian diet. In addition to the reference to the coffeehouse built by Nadir Shah, we have a remark by the English Russia
Company agent James Spilman, who in 1739 was treated to coffee and
tea by the vizier of Languaon (Langarud near Rasht?) in Gilan, a
region south of the Caspian Sea.33 Jonas Hanway in the 1740s said of
Iranians that they drink coffee in small quantities with the lees.
More than a generation later William Francklin claimed that Iranians

29 Mirza Mihdi Khan Astarabadi, Tarikh-i jahangusha-yi Nadiri (Tehran, 1368/1989),

p. 376.
30 F. Leandro di S. Cecilia, Persia, o sia secondo viaggio (Rome, 1753), pp. 18687.
31 James Morier, A Journey through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor to Constantinople in
the Years 1808 and 1809 (London, 1812), p. 170. The nokara khaneh (naqqarah khanah) is the
music house.
32 Sir Robert Kerr Porter, Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia, 2 vols.
(London, 182122), 1:408.
33 James A. Spilman, Journey through Russia into Persia in the Year 1739 (London, 1742),
p. 18.

Matthee: From Coffee to Tea Consumption in Qajar Iran


drank a cup of coffee without milk or sugar after eating breakfast.34

A late eighteenth-century British report on trade in the Persian Gulf
mentioned that coffee from Yemen was imported into Iran by Arab
merchants from Oman and also made its way into the country via
These examples, while suggesting a degree of continuity, do not
invalidate Oliviers observation. There is little doubt that coffee, and
to a lesser extent tea, continued to be consumed in the confines of
peoples homes, at least in the urban environment and among societys
upper strata. Still, the diminished visibility of coffee drinking reflects a
severe disruption of the public sphere, especially if seen in combination with the disappearance of the coffeehouse. It is equally clear that
this disruption was not necessarily linked to the physical destruction
that had befallen Isfahan and many other Iranian towns since Safavid
times. Early nineteenth-century observations by travelers who visited
those parts of Iran that had either escaped ruin or were in the process
of being rebuilt confirm and strengthen this impression.
James Buckingham, who entered Iran from Baghdad in 1828, noted
how Kirmanshah, the first town he visited, was in a state of (re)construction. Entering the town through a newly built wall, he went
through fine streets in every stage of their progress, where all was
like the bustle and activity of a perfectly new place. Further, there
seemed an abundance of every thing to be desired, both necessaries
and luxuries. The half-built streets and new bazars were thronged with
people, all extremely busy, and intent on some important errand.36
However, rather than finding this bustling scene accompanied by the
kind of leisurely and languid public life that he had witnessed in Arab
lands, he found an Iran that would seem hauntingly familiar to modern visitors. Everything, he noted, offered a striking difference to the
towns of Turkey and Arabia. There were no coffeehouses at which
grave idlers were lounging over their pipes; no slow and solemn-paced
passengers who moved as if for pleasure only; no fine flowing dresses of
gay colours, compatible only with stately attitudes and the freedom
from menial occupation.37
34 Jonas Hanway, An Historical Account of the British Trade over the Caspian Sea: With a
Journal of Travels through Russia into Persia, 4 vols. (London, 1753), 1:226. William Francklin, Observations Made on a Tour from Bengal to Persia in the Years 178687 (London, 1788),
p. 76.
35 India Office Records, London, G/19/25, Report by Manesty and Jones on trade in
the Persian Gulf, 15 August 1790, fols. 219, 255.
36 J. S. Buckingham, Travels in Assyria, Media, and Persia, 2 vols. (London, 1830),
37 Ibid., 1:131.


journal of world history, fall 1996

Of Hamadan, the next town he visited on his way to Tehran, Buckingham similarly noted that it did not have a single coffeehouse.38
Finally, in his comments on the meal he enjoyed at the residence of
the governor of Isfahan during his stay in that city, he noted the
absence of coffee, a beverage he claimed the Persians did not usually
drink either in public or in private.39
No early nineteenth-century source contests or contradicts Buckinghams observation about public consumption of coffee. No foreign
observer between 1800 and 1840 alludes to the existence of coffeehouses anywhere in Iran. The Frenchman C. Blanger, who visited the
country in the 1820s, said that cabarets, where wine and liquor were
consumed, had taken the place of coffeehouses ever since the coffeehouses had been shut by Shah Abbas II in the mid-seventeenth century.40 Evidence from other sources suggests that this claim was an
exaggeration, but not as far as the absence of coffeehouses in this
period is concerned. James Fraser, who traveled extensively throughout Iran in the same period, did not mention the existence of coffeehouses.
As in other parts of the Middle East, in Safavid Iran coffeehouses
may never have existed in the countryside outside the urban centers.41
In any case, rural coffeehouses were not common even in the midnineteenth century, at least in the northern region. The RussianFrench orientalist Nicolas de Khanikoff, traveling in the northeast
between Nishapur and Mashhad in the 1860s, passed some villages
that he called prosperous. What distinguished them from ordinary
Iranian villages, he remarked, was the presence of numerous coffeehouses, on whose front porch waterpipes (qaliyan in Persian), Russian
samovars of brass, and German and English tea sets were arranged.42
Buckinghams remark about the private sphere contradicts the
experience of other travelers who enjoyed the hospitality of Iranians
in the same period. A case in point is the Frenchman Gaspard Drouville, who noted in the second decade of the nineteenth century that
the Persian taste for coffee borders on frenzy. He added that he did
Ibid., 1:194.
Ibid., 1:380.
40 C. Blanger, Voyage aux Indes orientales par le nord de lEurope, les provinces du Caucase, la Gorgie, lArmnie, et la Perse pendant les annes 18251829, 3 vols. and 3 atlases
(Paris, 183338), 2:2:342.
41 See Michel Tuchscherer, Caf et cafs dans lEgypte ottomane, XVIIeXVIIIe sicles, in Contributions au thme du et des cafs, ed. Desmet-Grgoire, p. 55.
42 Nicolas de Khanikoff, Mmoire sur la partie mridionale de lAsie centrale, Recueil
de voyages et de mmoires publis pour la Socit de Gographie 7 (1861): 330.

Matthee: From Coffee to Tea Consumption in Qajar Iran


not believe there was one person in the country who did not drink the
beverage several times a day, something that was all the easier since
coffee was very inexpensive. According to Drouville, the traveler who
was not able to consume as much coffee as he desired carried some of it
in ground form with him in a kind of tobacco pouch, which enabled
him to enjoy some, mixed with honey or opium, on the road.43
The Distribution of Tea and Coffee
Clearly, we should treat generalizations by foreign travelers with
circumspection. More specifically, contrasting or contradictory statements, such as those cited above, point up the important issue of
geographical and societal distribution with regard to patterns of
consumption. That different foreign travelers mentioned different
beverages could be a result of their having visited different parts
of the country and having taken their own observations and experience as typical of Iran and all Iranians. Thus, when we read Drouvilles statement that coffee was both widely available and cheap,
the questions we should ask are which parts of Iran he visited,
whether his journey took him to just the main cities and the roads
connecting them or into rural and nomadic territory as well, in what
company he traveled, and what were his standards for comparing
When we take into account the three variables of geography,
the urban-rural division, and social status coupled with financial
means, the variety of observations becomes less bewildering, simple
notions of coffee versus tea disappear, and a new, more varied picture emerges. What stands out most clearly from this picture is that
the distribution of the consumption of coffee and tea in Iran in
the first half of the nineteenth century was, first and foremost, a
matter of financial means. Outside the monied classes, tea was available mostly in the north, while coffee figured predominantly in the
Numerous travelers from the early to the mid-nineteenth century
report being offered both coffee and tea at once. Invariably, such references are to receptions and invitations by high officials, ranging from
the shah himself to local khans. The Frenchman P. Amde Jaubert

43 Gaspard Drouville, Voyage en Perse fait en 1812 et 1813, 2 vols. (St. Petersburg,
181920), 1:78.


journal of world history, fall 1996

was treated to both beverages in Qazvin in 1806, as a guest of Fath Ali

Shah.44 His compatriot J. M. Tancoigne was served both in Tehran by
the same ruler.45 In 1811 the members of the Ouseley embassy drank
coffee and tea in Bushihr, on the Persian Gulf, and again on the road
to Kazerun in Fars.46 Count von Kotzbue was regaled with coffee and
tea at various receptions in Soltaniyeh and Tehran in 1817.47 During
Lady Sheils visit to the shahs mother in Tehran in 1850, tea, coffee,
and pipes were brought in repeatedly.48 E. Flandin in the 1850s spoke
of the comfortable middle class (classe moyenne, mais aise) as offering the qaliyan, tea, and coffee to their guests.49 Comte de Gobineau
drank both beverages as a guest of Prince Tahmasp Muayyid alDaulah in Shiraz in 1855.50 T. M. Lycklama a Nijeholt in the 1860s
was served both at the court of Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 184896).51
Finally, in Carla Serenas description from the 1870s, coffee alternates
with tea as the beverage presented to the foreign guest.52
These examples suggest that receptions given by the ruling class of
Iran commonly included both coffee and tea. A more explicit statement comes from Kerr Porter, who called these drinks luxuries of ceremonious meetings, adding that the lower classes . . . live principally
upon bread, fruits, and water.53 Porters observation is confirmed by
the same Drouville who claimed that all Iranians drank coffee when
he noted that the middle class that could not afford beverages consumed sugared water (sharbat) or simply water mixed with honey, to
which vinegar was added (sirkanjibin).54
While coffee and tea were regularly served by the wealthy and the
powerful, their distribution among the less fortunate appears to have
been more distinctly tied to market supply and thus to a combination
44 P. Amde Jaubert, Voyage en Armnie et en Perse fait dans les annes 1805 et 1806
(Paris, 1821), p. 206.
45 J. M. Tancoigne, A Narrative of a Journey into Persia, trans. from French (London,
1820), p. 101.
46 Sir W. Ouseley, Travels in Various Countries in the East, More Particularly Persia, 3 vols.
(London, 1819), 1:189, 267.
47 M. von Kotzbue, Narrative of a Journey into Persia in the Suite of the Imperial Russian
Embassy in the Year 1817 (London, 1819), pp. 167, 235, 294, 297.
48 M. L. Sheil, Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia (London, 1856), p. 133.
49 E. Flandin and P. Coste, Voyage en Perse de M. M. Eugne Flandin, peintre, et Pascal
Coste, architecte, 184041, 2 vols. (Paris, 185054), 2:5556.
50 Comte de Gobineau, Trois ans en Asie (Paris, 1859), p. 168.
51 T. M. Lycklama a Nijeholt, Voyage en Russe, au Caucase, et en Perse, 4 vols. (Paris,
187275), 2:358.
52 Carla Serena, Les hommes et les choses en Perse (Paris, 1883), p. 67.
53 Porter, Travels, 2:41.
54 Drouville, Voyage, 1:6869.

Matthee: From Coffee to Tea Consumption in Qajar Iran


of pricing and geography. The most telling observation with regard to

the link between cost and consumption comes from Peter Gordon,
who in 1820 noted that tea is very little used in Persia on account of
its price.55 The clearest statement concerning geographical differentiation is that of Fraser, who in the 1820s asserted that there are many
parts of Persia remote from the gulf or from the great marts, where this
favorite oriental beverage [coffee] is to be had only in small quantities,
or not at all.56 Fraser had traveled thousands of miles throughout Iran
and had visited urban areas as much as remote rural and tribal regions
of the country, so his empirical observations deserve to be taken seriously. In northeastern Khorasan, he noted, coffee was seldom to be
seen, and was given only in the house of the richest nobles. Tea, on
the other hand, was always procurable, and was offered to guests in its
place. Until he reached the Caspian province of Mazandaran, Fraser
did not remember any place where either the one or the other of
these refreshments was not in occasional use, and to be purchased in
the public market.57
Tea, then, was fairly common in the northern parts of Iran. The
term north, however, is too vague here, for within the northern reaches
of Iran a great deal of variety existed. In Khorasan the availability of
tea was not limited to the brick tea of the Uzbegs and other northern
nomadic peoples.58 In what may have been a long-standing tradition,
green China tea was used for ceremonial purposes in urban centers
such as Mashhad.59 On the other hand, the drink does not seem to
have been common in northwestern regions, such as Armenia and
Georgia, in the early 1800s. The German M. Freygang, who visited
Tabriz from Tiflis as a representative of the Russian tsar in 1812,
claimed to speak for Iranians when he listed a diet that did not include
tea or coffee. In reality, however, his itinerary limited the validity of

55 Peter Gordon, Fragment of the Journal of a Tour through Persia in 1820 (London,
1833), p. 100.
56 James B. Fraser, Travels and Adventures in the Persian Provinces on the Southern Banks of
the Caspian Sea (London, 1826), p. 105.
57 Ibid.
58 For nineteenth-century references to tea among the Uzbegs, see M. Elphinstone, An
Account of the Kingdom of Caubul (London, 1815), p. 470; Arthur Conolly, Journey to the
North of India Overland from England through Russia, Persia, and Affghaunistan, 2 vols.
(London, 1834), 1:5455; and Lieutenant Alexander Burnes, Travels to Bokhara, Being an
Account of a Journey from India to Cabool, Tartary, and Persia . . . in the Years 1831, 1832,
and 1833, 3 vols. (London, 1834), 1:221, 2:43637. See Xavier Hommaire de Hell, Les
steppes de la mer caspienne, 2 vols. (Paris, 1843), 2:104, for tea drinking among the Kalmyks.
59 See James B. Fraser, Narrative of a Journey into Khorasan in the Years 1821 and 1822
(London, 1825), p. 489; Conolly, Journey to the North of India, 1:301.


journal of world history, fall 1996

his observations to Armenia and Azerbaijan.60 That tea was uncommon in the northwest is further suggested by the absence of a reference
to either by Freygangs wife in her letters from Tiflis, then still a mass
of ruins, and other places in the Caucasus. Some of these letters
include references to food. Her description of an elaborate dinner
would surely have mentioned tea had it been offered.61 Caucasian
peoples, such as the Karatchai and the Ossetes, did not consume tea
either in this period.62
A similar situation emerges from Gilan and Mazandaran, the two
Caspian provinces that were separated from the rest of Iran by high
mountains and where Fraser noted the general absence of either tea or
coffee in the early 1820s. He was able to procure a small quantity of tea
only with great difficulty and at a high price. When he asked local
inhabitants about coffee, he wrote, they were ignorant of the name.63
William Richard Holmes, who traveled through Azerbaijan, Gilan,
and Mazandaran twenty years later, repeatedly told of receptions by
local khans that included tea, but he never referred to tea being sold in
the market or being available in the public sphere.64 According to
him, only a very small quantity of tea was imported from Russia to
Astarabad, Irans gateway from Turkistan.65
There seems to be a clear correlation between geography and the
degree of penetration and distribution of tea, with the examples of
Gilan and Mazandaran suggesting the obstacles posed by inaccessible
terrain. At the same time, these travelers observations also illustrate
the differentiating effect of financial means. The visitors failure to
find tea in the markets implies that common people did not consume
tea. More specifically, Frasers remarks about the eating habits of the
Turkmen tribes of Khorasan suggest that the diet of the poorer
nomadic population of the north did not include tea. The Turkmens,
he noted, consumed only what they themselves produced, except for
sugar. They drank a mixture of buttermilk and water (dugh) with their

60 M. Freygang, Account of a Journey to Tabriz, in M. Freygang and F. K. Freygang,

Letters from the Caucasus and Georgia, trans. from French (London, 1823), p. 341. This
work was apparently first published in German.
61 Ibid., pp. 132, 13436, 16365.
62 See J. Klaproth, Voyages au Mont Caucase et en Gorgie, 2 vols. (Paris, 1823), 1:299,
63 Fraser, Travels and Adventures, p. 105.
64 William Richard Holmes, Sketches on the Shores of the Caspian (London, 1845), pp.
61, 73, 268.
65 Ibid., p. 282.

Matthee: From Coffee to Tea Consumption in Qajar Iran


meals.66 This drink even accompanied the use of the waterpipe, a role
elsewhere invariably reserved for tea or coffee.67
The difference between the consumptive patterns of Turkmens and
Uzbegs may have been the result of financial means and affordability.
Until the mid-twentieth century, when Iran cultivated its own tea, the
poor in the countrys remote parts could not afford tea. In the nineteenth century, when all tea was imported, many more people must
have been unable to afford it. Various observers in the 1800s attest to
its high cost. Edward Sterling noted that tea was brought via Bukhara
from the northern parts of China and cost forty rupees per mann (13
pounds). As far as he knew, coffee was seldom offered for sale and was
not to be found in the market.68
The south resembled the north in terms of the social distribution of
caffeinated beverages. While traveling from Khuzistan, in the southwest of Isfahan, through Bakhtiyari territory in 1831, the English traveler J. H. Siddon noted that the diet of the Bakhtiyari tribes consisted
of mast (yogurt), goat meat, goat milk, and acorns. The implication
that the Bakhtiyari did not drink either tea or coffee is reinforced by
the same observers remark that the traveler in these areas was bound
to fast rather frequently during his journey, as accident alone will
bring him to a tenanted spot, where a little mas and milk will be
obtained.69 The impression that in the early to mid-nineteenth century neither coffee nor tea was common among Irans nomads is
strengthened by Baron de Bodes observation that the favored drink of
the nomads in the southwest was a mixture of sour milk, water, and
With these caveats, it can still be argued that tea was a northern
drink, while coffee was mainly encountered in the south, the southwest, and the western regions bordering on Ottoman territory.
W. Hollingbery was offered coffee in Shiraz in 1800.71 Scott Waring
drank coffee in Bushihr on the Persian Gulf in 1802.72 Henry Pottinger
66 James B. Fraser, A Winters Journey from Constantinople to Tehran, 2 vols. (London,
1838), 2:151; Fraser, Narrative of a Journey into Khorasan, pp. 264, 283.
67 Fraser, Narrative of a Journey into Khorasan, p. 603.
68 Edward Sterling, The Journals of Edward Sterling in Persia and Afghanistan 18281829,
ed. Jonathan L. Lee (Naples, 1991), p. 179.
69 J. H. Stocqeler (pseudonym of J. H. Siddon), Fifteen Months Pilgrimage through
Untrodden Tracts of Khuzistan and Persia, 2 vols. (London, 1832), 1:119, 121.
70 Baron C. de Bode, Travels in Luristan and Arabistan, 2 vols. (London, 1845), 2:108.
71 W. Hollingbery, A Journal of Observations Made during the British Embassy to the Court
of Persia in the Years 17991801 (Calcutta, 1814), p. 50.
72 Edward Scott Waring, A Tour to Sheeraz (London, 1817), p. 8.


journal of world history, fall 1996

enjoyed the drink in Kerman in 1810.73 Claudius James Rich had

coffee in Senneh (modern Sanandaj) in Kurdistan in 1820.74 Siddon
drank it in Dauraq in Khuzistan and in Behbehan in 1831.75 In 1856,
at a time when elsewhere tea had begun to replace coffee as the
favored drink, William A. Shepherd was invited to coffee in Bushihr.76
Just as tea was far from common in the north, so coffee was not
ubiquitous in the south, and the lack of it was not limited to poor
nomads. Siddon was quite explicit about the relative rarity of coffee,
even in southern Iran, as compared with the lands to the west and
southwest. He noted that the moment a stranger enters the tent of
the wildest Arab, or the hut of the poorest Osmanli, coffee and the
chibouk [pipe] are offered him; yet the instance he has crossed the
frontier, and finds himself in Persia, he detects a change in the form of
hospitality, and forgets the black and bitter stomachic in the refreshing
draught of sherbet and the soothing qualities of the kaleeoun.77
The conclusion to be drawn, then, is that neither coffee nor tea
was widely consumed in early Qajar times, and that there were important regional differences in consumption patterns. Together with economic means, geography determined the availability of these beverages. Geography, in particular, may account for the fact that both
coffee and tea remained predominantly urban drinks.
From Coffee to Tea
What of the supposed change from coffee to tea in Qajar Iran? The
shift from coffee to tea in various countries, as well as the regional and
religious differentiation between the two drinks, has thus far received
little attention from historians, no doubt because many see coffee and
tea as being too similar to warrant much separate discussion. For example, the ramifications of the change in taste from coffee to tea in
England have been downplayed by Schivelbusch, who called it not

Henry Pottinger, Travels to Beloochistan and Sinde (London, 1816), pp. 21011.
Claudius James Rich, Narrative of a Residence in Koordistan, 2 vols. (London, 1836),

75 Stocqeler, Pilgrimage, 1:75, 99100, noted that coffee in Behbehan was not drunk but
eaten as a kind of bon-bon in a powdered and roasted state, without having had any connexion with hot water. Fine coffee in Iran was commonly eaten in this manner. See
G. Troll, Die Genussmittel des Orients: Kaffee, sterreichische Monatschrift fr den Orient
16 (1890): 59.
76 William Ashton Shepherd, From Bombay to Bushire, and Bussora (London, 1857), pp.
134135, 148.
77 Stocqeler, Pilgrimage, pp. 21314.

Matthee: From Coffee to Tea Consumption in Qajar Iran


drastically significant because it occurred within a culture of consumption first revolutionized by coffee.78 Others have similarly minimized the differences between the two drinks by drawing attention to
the fact that both are nonfermented and caffeinated.79 This view, however, perhaps focuses too narrowly on consumption and fails to take
into account patterns of social, economic, and political life, at the
intersection of which stimulants tend to operate.
A survey of sources suggests that metropolitan Iran did witness,
first, a gradual phasing out of coffee as a regularly consumed beverage
and, second, an overall increase in tea consumption and a greater
availability of tea throughout the country, including places where it
had not previously been common. Iran thus resembles England in first
taking to coffee and only turning to tea at a later perioda development exemplified by the fact that the ubiquitous Iranian qahvahkhanah, or coffeehouse, has long served tea rather than coffee. Although Fraser was not able to find tea in Mazandaran in the 1820s,
Richard Wilbraham was treated to an excellent tea in the provincial
capital Barforush (modern Babol) in 1838.80 The same traveler referred to tea in Tiflis, where twenty years earlier Freygangs wife had
failed to mention it.81 While Tancoigne and Porter in the early decades
of the century had mentioned coffee in connection with breakfast,82
Robert B. M. Binning in 1851 noted that breakfast was taken with
tea.83 A final example of the profound changes that took place in the
first half of the 1800s is found in the contrast between a passage on
coffee written by John Malcolm in 1800 and one on tea written sixty
years later by Lycklama a Nijeholt. Malcolm failed to mention tea but
expressed astonishment at how the ritual of offering and consuming
tobacco and coffee reflected the intricacies of social rank and intimacy
in Iran.84 The careful observer Lycklama a Nijeholt, by contrast, did
not mention coffee as a common drink in Iran. Instead, he noted how
tea . . . forms the ordinary drink of the various inhabitants of Persia.85
Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise, p. 83.
Hlne Desmet, Approches mthodologiques pour ltude des cafs dans les socits
du Proche-Orient, in Contributions au thme du et des cafs, ed. Desmet-Grgoire, p. 35.
80 Richard Wilbraham, Travels in the Transcaucasian Provinces of Russia (London, 1839),
p. 466.
81 Ibid., p. 179.
82 Tancoigne, Narrative, p. 175; Porter, Travels, 1:241.
83 Robert B. M. Binning, A Journal of Two Years Travel in Persia, Ceylon, etc., 2 vols.
(London, 1857), 1:317.
84 Sir John Malcolm, Sketches of Persia from the Journals of a Traveller in the East (Philadelphia, 1828), pp. 7980.
85 Lycklama a Nijeholt, Voyage, 2:105, 243.


journal of world history, fall 1996

It is impossible to identify a precise moment for Irans conversion

from tea to coffee, since this was evidently a gradual and long-term
development rather than a sudden transformation. The beginning of
the change is commonly situated in the period between 1830 and
1850. The German physician Jacob E. Polak claimed in the 1850s that
tea had fallen out of consumption following the civil wars of the eighteenth century. He asserted that according to the Iranians, tea had
been reintroduced in the 1830s when the Iranian crown prince
Abbas Mirza received a few little packages of it as a present.86 The
modern Iranian historian Firaydun Adamiyat, in a similar and oftrepeated claim, has argued that tea began to be imported with the
introduction of samovars in the time of the Qajar chief minister Amir
Kabir, that is, in the late 1840s.87
Both sources might be faulted for creating the impression that the
popularization of tea was the outcome of a single event. Their claim
that tea returned to Iran sometime between the 1820s and the
1850s, however, though perhaps untrue in the literal sense, is corroborated by a contemporary reference to the reemergence of coffeehouses in Irans urban centers. Coffeehouses, Comte de Gobineau
stated in the 1850s, were a recent invention in Iran.88
The completion of the process of popularization of tea is as difficult
to situate as its beginning. The Iranian politician and author Abd
Allah Mustaufi, who was born in 1876, indicated in his autobiography
how long it took for tea to become a household drink in Iran. He wrote
that in his early youth tea was not customary and that tea began to
replace fruit juice only later.89 Overall, it is safe to say that before the
1880s tea was still a drink that the poor could not afford. By the turn of
the twentieth century, however, all classes of the urban population
consumed tea in considerable quantities.90 Further popularization in
rural areas of Iran was stimulated by the introduction of tea cultivation
in Iran at the turn of the twentieth century and continued into recent
times. As late as the 1960s the consumption of tea and sugar was still
new and infrequent among poor families in remote areas.91
Jacob E. Polak, Persien, das Land und seine Bewohner, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1865), 2:265.
Firaydun Adamiyat, Amir Kabir va Iran, 4th ed. (Tehran, 1354/1975), pp. 21618.
De Gobineau, Trois ans en Asie, p. 467.
89 Abd Allah Mustaufi, Sharh-i zindigani-yi man ya tarikh-i ijtima i va idari-yi daurah-i
qajar, 3 vols. (Tehran, 1360/1981), 1:182.
90 The American missionary Samuel Wilson, whose observations were made in the
1890s, noted that tea in a teahouse cost half a cent. See S. G. Wilson, Persian Life and Customs (London, 1900), p. 253.
91 See Tapper, Blood, Wine and Water, p. 218. For the introduction of idigenous tea
cultivation in Irans Caspian provinces at the turn of the twentieth century, see Thuraya
Kazimi, Hajji Muhammad Mirza Kashif al-Saltanah, pidar-i chay (Tehran, 1372/1993).

Matthee: From Coffee to Tea Consumption in Qajar Iran


None of this explains the circumstances in which the shift from

coffee to tea occurred, or why tea returned to Iran while coffee failed
to regain even its former regional popularity. Venturing into the realm
of speculation, we might first hypothesize a cultural predisposition
for the eventual triumph of tea. The operative substance here is sugar.
Iranians never took their coffee with sugar, but, as Olearius implied,
sugar accompanied tea in Iran long before drinking sweetened tea became customary in Europe. Indeed, the Iranian example may well have
contributed to the adoption of the habit in England and Holland in
the late 1600s.92 In Safavid times many a foreign traveler noted the
sweet tooth of the Iranians. Sugar was used in abundance by a court
that regularly treated guests to a sugar banquet, and great quantities
of it were imported for use in the kitchens of the wealthy. Therefore,
we might posit a convergence between a traditional propensity for
sweetened food and beverages and a drink to which sugar appeared a
natural additive, especially if consumed simultaneously but separately.93
Positing a predisposition to tea begs the question of why Iranians
did not express a clear preference for tea long before the nineteenth
century, but it also draws attention to the multifaceted nature of
changing taste. The difficulty of establishing a precise causal framework for shifts in taste is illustrated by the complex story of the popularization of tea in England and the Netherlands, societies that are far
better documented than Iran. In England consumer inclination toward
tea was clearly stimulated by its elevation in the eighteenth century to
the rank of a high-brow beverage. Tea was hailed by social reformers
and publicists as a fashionable and respectable drink, an antidote to
alcohol, and, in general, a wholesome beverage with salutary effects on
physical discipline and moral vigilance. In the Netherlands, the diffusion of coffee and tea and the growing popularity of the latter as a daily
beverage followed changes in social relations, the transformation of
peoples diets, and questions of social status.94
Nothing in the sources indicates that increased tea consumption
in Iran was in any way associated with a clerical or governmental
campaign against alcohol (which has historically been consumed in
92 For the introduction of the habit of sweetening tea in Europe, see Smith, Complications of the Commonplace.
93 Since the seventeenth century, the Iranian way of drinking tea has been to put a
lump of candy sugar between the teeth before imbibing the liquid, which dissolves the sugar
as it passes into the mouth. See Pre Jacques Villote, S.J., Voyages dun missionnaire de la
Compagnie de Jsus en Turquie, en Perse, en Arabie et en Barbarie (Paris, 1730), pp. 52125.
94 See Johannes Jacobus Voskuil, Die Verbreitung von Kaffee in den Niederlanden, in
Wandel der Volkskultur, ed. Bringus et al., pp. 40728.


journal of world history, fall 1996

remarkably great quantities in Islamic Iran) or coffee. The English case

(and the Dutch) might still serve to illuminate the Iranian situation,
for there are indications that the growing popularity of tea was linked
to an increased status appeal similar to that in England and Holland.
The gist of the story of tea being offered to Abbas Mirza in the 1830s,
mentioned above, is preserved in an alternative story, which holds that
the first Russian samovar was presented in 1821 to the governor of
Rasht, the capital of Gilan. This official subsequently offered the
device, as well as the harem girl who had learned how to prepare tea
with it, to the reigning Qajar monarch, Fath Ali Shah.95 Although
they differ on the precise date of the reintroduction and the first
recipient of tea, both sources suggest that tea was initially associated
with the royal court. In the second story, moreover, it is said that court
ministers and nobles soon took to the use of samovars and that gradually the middling ranks of society followed suit. Outside observers and
later Persian-language sources confirm that tea was first served and
consumed among the upper strata of society and that it then gained
acceptance among larger groups of consumers who adopted the samovar as a common household utensil. R. Mignan in the 1830s noted
that tea was becoming more fashionable, remarking that all who can
afford it are now in the habit of drinking tea throughout the day: it is
even usual in Azerbijan, for the people to greet their visitors with a
cup of tea. The use of this beverage is becoming very general throughout the northern parts of Persia, although as yet it bears a high price.96
The ascendancy of tea is further confirmed by J. Perkins, whose
observations, like Mignans, date from the 1830s. He stated that tea is
the customary treat, in exchanging calls, among the higher classes in
Persia. Sometimes both coffee and tea are brought forward; and a more
formal attention still is tea, coffee and rose-waterthe latter for scenting a beardbut neither coffee, nor rose-water, nor both together can
properly supersede tea, where much respect is intended.97 Less than a
generation later, Polak implied a further advancement of tea when he
noted that these days tea is so common in the cities that there is
hardly a well-to-do family which does not own a Russian samovar.98
In the next thirty years or so tea spread even further. The important

See Iraj Afshar, Gushah-i az tarikh-i chay, Ayandeh 17 (1370/1991): 768.

R. Mignan, A Winter Journey through Russia, the Caucasian Alps, and Georgia, 2 vols.
(London, 1839), 1:17576.
97 J. Perkins, A Residence of Eight Years in Persia, among the Nestorian Christians: with
Notices of the Muhammedans (Andover, Mass., 1843), p. 270.
98 Polak, Persien, 2:265.

Matthee: From Coffee to Tea Consumption in Qajar Iran


Figure 2. Ismail Jalair, Ladies around a Samovar, third quarter of the nineteenth century. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Persian source Al-maathir va al-athar noted in the 1880s that while

formerly tea had been restricted to a small elite, it now was a general
drink (mashrub-i am) consumed by all, from urbanites to rural folk, at
breakfast and dinner.99 In other words, similar to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century trends in England and Russia, tea in Iran over time
underwent a downward movement. The crucial ingredients of this
process were status appeal and affordability, of tea as much as of loafsugar. The Al-maathir va al-athar notwithstanding, it is unclear how far
this process extended to the impoverished rural parts of the country,
where there were almost no coffeehouses and where the cost of tea and
sugar remained prohibitive for many people well into the twentieth
The references, cited earlier, to tea being consumed primarily in
the north suggest that its popularization was not simply a matter of dif99 Mirza Muhammad Hasan Khan Itimad al-Saltanah, Kitab al-maathir va al-athar
(Tehran, 1306/188889), pp. 101102.
100 See Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 5 (Costa Mesa, Cal., 1992), s.v. Chay, p. 103.


journal of world history, fall 1996

fusion from the court down. A further conduit for the switch from
coffee to tea must be sought in the enhanced political and social interaction between Iran and the outside worldmost notably tea-drinking Russia and England, the very trade partners that accounted for the
growing importation of tea. The growth in Russian influence on Iran
dates from the early nineteenth century, the period of the emergence
of the Qajar dynasty and of Russias southward expansion. As Russia
conquered Georgia and Turkistan and integrated these areas into the
political and economic sphere of its metropolitan area, Irans center of
gravity moved north with the establishment of Tehran as the capital of
the Qajars, who were themselves northern in origin. The precise effect
on Iranian taste of the rapid Russian conversion to tea in the nineteenth century remains a matter of speculation, but references to the
existence of a Russian merchant community in Tabriz and its use of
samovars seem to indicate that labor migration and expanding commercial ties fostered a certain convergence in consumption habits.101
Many Iranians also took up residence in Russia. The Italian botanist
F. de Filippi in 1862 estimated that at least fifty thousand Iranians
lived in Transcaucasia, having migrated there in search of work.102 In
addition, as of the 1830s, when Russia allowed the export of specie to
Central Asia and Iran, Iranian merchants began to visit the annual
summer fair of Nizhnii Novgorod, where Chinese tea was one of the
main commodities.103 By the 1880s they were said to be the largest group
of Asian merchants visiting the fair.104 Conversely, as of the 1830s
more and more Russians, most of whom were engaged in trade, were
living in towns in northern Iran, such as Tabriz, Rasht, Anzali,
Ardabil, Astarabad, and Tehran, and they often stayed for years. The
spread of the samovar in Iran was no doubt a function of all these
developments. The British resident Colonel Pelly in 186162 was
struck all along the route of North Persia with the unvarying presence
of Russian lumbersome tea-urns (Samawar) brought from the great
fairs beyond the Caspian.105 No comparable pattern of influence can
See Afshar, Gushah-i az tarikh-i chay, p. 768.
F. de Filippi, Note di un viaggio in Persia nel 1862 (Milan, 1865), p. 51.
103 N. G. Kukanova, Ocherki po istorii russko-iranskikh torgovykh otnoshenii v XVII-pervoi
polovinie XIX veka (Saransk, 1977), p. 205; and M. v. Bulmerincq, Die Jahrmrkte Russlands, insbesondere jener von Nischni-Nowgorod, Globus, illustrierte Zeitschrift fr Lnderund Vlkerkunde 6 (1864): 298301; and Anne Lincoln Fitzpatrick, The Great Russian Fair:
Nizhnii Novgorod, 184090 (Basingstoke, 1990), pp. 82, 91.
104 Nicolaus v. Nassakin, Von der Messe in Nishni-Nowgorod, sterreichische
Monatschrift fr den Orient 12 (1886): 168.
105 Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Pelly, Remarks on the Tribes, Trade and Resources
around the Shore Line of the Persian Gulf, Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society
17 (186364):55.

Matthee: From Coffee to Tea Consumption in Qajar Iran


be detected with regard to the other European nationals present in

It is tempting to ascribe at least part of the spread of tea beyond its
initial high-brow status to the influx of foreigners, many of them
Englishmen, who began to visit Iran and to take up residence in the
main cities in large numbers as of the 1870s. Some support for this is
found in the Persian Jughrafiya-yi Isfahan, written in the late 1870s,
which held that tea was associated with foreigners and travelers.106
Unfortunately, no other concrete evidence exists that would permit us
to verify this conjecture.
Status appeal, rising standards of living of urbanites, and cultural
and social diffusion appear to be the main factors in the spreading popularity of tea in Iran. Still, greater demand combined with affordability
would not have been possible without a matching increase in supply.
Tea remained an import commodity in Iran until the beginning of
indigenous cultivation in the early twentieth century. Therefore, it is
reasonable to look for further clues with regard to price and distribution in (changing) patterns of outside political and commercial influence. The growing supply and popularization of tea over coffee in England was in part the result of the gradual monopolization of the tea
trade by the powerful East India Company. In contrast, the commerce
in coffee remained in the hands of small independent merchants with
a less well-developed distribution network.107 Does Iran exhibit similar
In the seventeenth century all coffee consumed in Iran came from
the Arabian peninsula, and more specifically al-Mukha (Mocca), the
port city of Yemen that functioned as the commercial outlet for the
regions production. In the early eighteenth century the Dutch East
India Company, a major supplier of coffee to Iran, attempted to use its
control of the east Indian archipelago to turn the island of Java into
the principal supplier of the beans. Its success in doing so was shortlived, however, at least with regard to Iran. As the Dutch commercial
activities in the Persian Gulf faltered, Arabia resumed its role as the
main provider of coffee, with local Arab and Iranian merchants acting
as the main suppliers. Arabia seems to have provided most of Irans
coffee in the late 1700s and the first decades of the nineteenth century,108 even though some coffee continued to be imported from Java
106 Mirza Husayn Khan, Jughrafiya-yi Isfahan, ed. Manuchihr Situdah (Tehran, 1342/
1963), pp. 12021.
107 Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise, pp. 7985.
108 See John Malcolm, The Melville Papers, in The Economic History of Iran, 1800
1914, ed. Charles Issawi (Chicago, 1971), p. 264; William Milburn, Oriental Commerce, 2



journal of world history, fall 1996

and Ceylon.109 Some shipments entered the country via the Persian
Gulf ports, while others were probably carried overland via the Baghdad route, which in the late eighteenth century was an important and
perhaps the principal commercial connection between Iran and the
outside world.110 As late as the 1820s Iran apparently imported some
coffee from Baghdad via Sulaymaniya.111 The predominantly southern
spread of coffee in the early nineteenth century appears logical in light
of the provenance of the beans and the main channels of importation.
Tea traditionally came from China, but in the 1800s it also arrived
from Bengal and Coromandel. Khorasan in the northeast and the central parts of the country as far south as Kerman continued to receive
tea from Bukhara in Central Asia in the early years of the century.112
Although the importation of tea from India to Bushihr is recorded as
early as the turn of the nineteenth century,113 the quantities involved
for the time being were too small to affect the predominance of coffee
in the south.
Until the early nineteenth century these import patterns remained
fairly stable. Change, when it came, occurred under the influence of
several economic, political, and social developments. The most important of these was a greatly increased volume of trade between Iran and
the outside world. In the 1820s Iran was opened up to foreign merchants, and Russia was the first beneficiary of this policy. In the aftermath of the tsarist military expansion into the Caucasus, culminating
in the Treaty of Turkomanchay of 1828, and the Russian institution of
a short-lived tax-free transit trade to Iran in 1821, commercial traffic
with Iran increased tremendously. A great volume of European goods
began to be transported into Iran via the Russian Black Sea ports and
through Tiflis and other points in Transcaucasia. Thus, the volume of
goods imported into Iran through Russia increased from 397,000 rubles
in 1825 to almost 2 million in 1829.114 Eager to secure a preeminent
commercial position in Central Asia as well, Russia similarly began to

vols. (London, 1813), 1:123, 129. See also Fraser, Travels and Adventures, p. 371, who
stated: Coffee is, I believe, entirely brought from Arabia by the ports of the Gulf. I do not
know if any attempt has been made to introduce this article from other quarters.
109 Jaubert, Voyage, pp. 28687.
110 Issawi, Economic History, p. 74.
111 Rich, Narrative, 1:305.
112 Pottinger, Travels, p. 226.
113 A. Dupr, Voyage en Perse fait dans les annes 1807, 1808, 1809, 2 vols. (Paris, 1819),
114 N. G. Kukanova, Russko-iranskaya torgovlya 3050-e gody XIX veka (Sbornik dokumentov) (Moscow, 1984), pp. 67.

Matthee: From Coffee to Tea Consumption in Qajar Iran


extend its trade lines across the Caspian Sea from Astrakhan and
Orenburg. The effects on the tea trade were noted by Arthur Conolly,
who observed how the large tea supplies coming in from Russia were
edging out the traditional supply into northeastern Iran via Bukhara in
Central Asia.115
As a result of this change, Mignan in the 1830s could claim that
the Iranian tea trade was monopolized by the Russians.116 The main
participants in the trade, however, were neither Russians nor Iranians
but Georgian and Armenian merchants, who in the 1830s began to
import the leaves from Germanywhere the annual fair of Leipzig
became an important marketand later from England, which became
a source for transshipment for tea destined for the Russian market as
well. The term chay namsah (German, literally Austrian, tea) used in
Iran for high-quality tea suggests that much of the early tea supply
came via Germany.117
The Russian transit route did not retain its monopoly for long. In
1831 the Russian government, concerned about foreign competition,
imposed custom duties on the Transcaucasian transit trade. This measure did not stem the flow of goods; it merely prompted merchants to
find different outlets for their commerce. Much of the international
transit trade between Europe and Iran was transferred to the southern
shores of the Black Sea in the 1830s, when the Ottoman government
opened its ports to foreign shipping, thus allowing merchants to ship
their wares across as far as the port of Trabzon, from where they were
transported overland to Iran.118 Agents of Greek trading houses, Caucasian Armenians, Iranians, and Russian merchants thus transported
tea from England via Constantinople and Erzurum to Tabriz.119 Tabriz
and Khoi, Irans gateways in the northwestern province of Azerbaijan,
became the busiest entrept markets for transit trade from Trabzon and
In 1846 the Russians lowered import tariffs on the Transcaucasian

Conolly, Voyages, 1:347.

Mignan, Winter Journey, pp. 17576.
117 See Polak, Persien, 2:266; and Johan Schlimmer, Terminologie mdico-pharmaceutique
et anthropologique franais-persane (Tehran, 1874), p. 542.
118 A. S(epsis), Perse: Du commerce de Tauris, Revue de lOrient 5 (1844): 13334.
119 F. A. Bakulin, Ocherk vneshnei torgovli Azerbaidzhana 187071 gg. Vostochniy
Sbornik 1 (1877): 22021.
120 See Wilbraham, Travels, p. 68. For recent analyses, see Charles Issawi, The TabrizTrabazon Trade 18301900, International Journal of Middle East Studies 1 (1970): 1827;
and Manfred Schneider, Beitrge zur Wirtschaftsstruktur und Wirtschaftsentwicklung Persiens
18501900 (Stuttgart, 1990).


journal of world history, fall 1996

Table 1. Value of Tea Imports from England to Iran, 187887, in Pounds









Source: E. Fg. Law, British Trade and Foreign Competition in North Persia, Constantinople, 6 December 1888, in British Documents on Foreign Affairs: Reports and Papers from the
Foreign Office Confidential Print, part 1, series B, vol. 13: Persia, Britain and Russia 18861907, ed.
David Gillard, appendix 4, p. 45.

route in an attempt to regain their market share, but by that time the
northern supply line had already begun to be challenged, and not just
by the Trabzon trade. Following the signing of the Anglo-Persian
Commercial Treaty of 1841, the British increased their share in trade
with Iran until they dominated the Iranian market with supplies of
cheap Indian tea. Tea began to be imported from India to Bushihr and
from there to Muhammarah (Khorramshahr) on the Shatt al-Arab, as
well as to Bandar Abbas and from there to places like Yazd in the interior. The annual supply via the latter channel around 1850 is given as
from fifteen hundred to two thousand cases of 474 mann (6,162
pounds) each.121 A growing volume of tea imported by Iran came from
India, carried via the maritime route and even overland via Qandahar.
In the Persian Gulf Bushihr became the most important port of entry.
The rising figures for tea imports through this and other southern ports
illustrate the trend. Thus, in 1863 tea in the amount of 80,000 rupees
was imported from India to Iran via Bushihr.122 Table 1 shows the
growing volume of tea exported from England to Iran between 1878
and 1887.

121 Trade Report by Mr. Consul Abbott in 184950, in Cities and Trade: Consul Abbott
on the Economy and Society of Iran 18471866, ed. Abbas Amanat (London, 1983), pp. 91,
122 For the import figures from Russia in the latter part of the century, see Marvin
Entner, Russo-Persian Commercial Relations, 18281914 (Gainesville, 1965), pp. 10, 66, 70.
Tea and coffee imports in 1863 are found in Pelly, Remarks on the Tribes, p. 47. This
source, pp. 5455, only notes the overland tea connection. For figures of goods imported
through the various entry points for the period 187882, see also F. Stolze and F. C.
Andreas, Die Handelsverhltnisse Persiens, mit besonderer Bercksichtigung der deutschen Interessen, Ergnzungsheft 77 zu Petermanns Mittheilungen (1885): 6983.

Matthee: From Coffee to Tea Consumption in Qajar Iran


All this was part of a more comprehensive long-term shift of Irans

center of gravity in external trade, toward the Persian Gulf basin. A
decisive factor in this shift was the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869,
which greatly diminished the duration as well as the freight price of
the voyage between Europe and Asia. The outbreak of the TurkoRussian war in 1877 further reduced the appeal of Russia as a trading
partner.123 Very small quantities at that time still reached Iran through
the Caucasian route via Tiflis, while an equally small volume was
transported in transit via the northern cities of Astarabad, Mashhad,
and Herat.124 Benefiting from much lower transportation costs, the English were able to underbid the Russians to the point where Chinese
tea began to be smuggled into Russia from Western customhouses,
such as Hamburg and Leipzig. (The official transshipment of Chinese
wares via Europe was prohibited by the Russian government.)125 As a
result, Iran in this period ceased to receive supplies from Russia,
despite a continuing popular perception of Russia as the main source
of tea consumed in Iran. Indeed, as tea was now much cheaper in Iran
than in Russia, and as Russian tariffs on Indian and English goods were
exorbitant, Iranian merchants began to smuggle tea from Iran into
In the last decade of the nineteenth century Russia managed to
recapture some of its former position in trading with Iran. This process
was facilitated by the completion of the Caucasian railway, which
reached Petrovsk in 1894 and Baku in 1900, as well as competitive
Russian railway charges and low sea freights from the East in the oil
steamers returning to Batum on the Black Sea. Anzali on the south
shore of the Caspian Sea now became the port of entry for tea arriving
123 For a discussion of the impact on the trade of southern Iran, see Roger T. Olson,
Persian Gulf Trade and the Agricultural Economy of Southern Iran in the Nineteenth
Century, in Continuity and Change in Modern Iran, ed. Michael E. Bonine and Nikki R.
Keddie (Albany, 1981), pp. 15354.
124 Bakulin, Ocherk vneshnei torgovli Azerbaidzhana; and Bakulin, Ocherk russkoi
torgovli v Mazandarane i b Asterabade v 1871 g., Vostochniy Sbornik 1 (1877): 277, 289,
300, 302.
125 A. M. Petrov, Foreign Trade of Russia and Britain with Asia in the Seventeenth to
Nineteenth Centuries, Modern Asian Studies 21 (1987): 63031.
126 See Polak, Persien, 2:266; and Otto Blau, Commerziele Zustnde Persiens (Berlin,
1858), p. 143; as well as the report from Tabriz by Sir Henry Rawlinson to the secretary of
state for India, 14 November 1859, in British Documents on Foreign Affairs: Reports and
Papers from the Foreign Office Confidential Print, ed. Kenneth Bourne and D. Cameron Watt,
part 1, series A, vol. 1: Russia, 18591880, ed. Dominic Lieven (Frederick, Md., 1983),
p. 8. Tea imports into Russia doubled in the 1870s as compared to the previous decade. See
the import figures in Joseph Schtz, Russlands Samowar und russischer Tee: Kulturgeschichtlicher Aufriss (Regensburg, 1986), p. 28.


journal of world history, fall 1996

from Russia and destined either for Iran or for the Trans-Caspian
region of Russian Turkistan.127 This trade revival is reflected in the
Russian share in Irans tea supplynearly 40 percent by 1910.128 There
was no fundamental change, however, in the provenance of the tea.
Most of the tea now entering Iran, even supplies transshipped via
Russia, continued to originate in British India, Indian tea having replaced Chinese tea as the most popular kind, even in Central Asia.129
There is little doubt that the diminishing price of tea as a result of
lower transportation costs contributed greatly to the rapid spread of
the drink in late nineteenth-century Iran. The same was true even in
Russia, where cheaper sea-borne tea is said to have been an important
factor in the growing popularity of tea in the same period.130
The shift in commercial and political patterns that is visible in the
shifting importation and consumption of tea in Iran reflects a secular
change of global import: the extension of Western economic and
political hegemony to parts of the world where Europeans had hitherto
played a minor, or at least a less than dominant, role. Iran was one of
those areas. Although the country had been the object of European
commercial penetration since the seventeenth century, it had never
become fully integrated into the expanding world market. This situation changed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Although
Iran was never formally colonized, it lost economic independence and
became incorporated into a European-dominated trading network that
spanned the entire Asian continent. The main players in this network,
England and Russia, had both become tea-consuming societies in the
course of the nineteenth century, in part because their commercial
empires extended predominantly to regions where tea was or might be
cultivated. The nature of their home market made both countries
active in the tea trade, and by the mid-nineteenth century they
imported vast quantities of tea. The demand for tea in both cases led
to efforts toward import substitution. England in the 1830s began to
encourage tea production in its Indian dominions. In 1853 Russia

Sir Thomas Edward Gordon, Persia Revisited (London, 1896), p. 17.

Entner, Russo-Persian Commercial Relations, p. 72.
129 As of the 1860s Indian tea began to replace Chinese tea in Central Asia. High Russian toll tariffs notwithstanding, tea was increasingly carried to Turkistan by merchants
from Kabul and Qandahar. See H. Vambry, Die Anglo-russische Theeconcurrenz in
Turkestan, sterreichische Monatschrift fr den Orient 2 (1876): 106107. In 1874 a British
report claimed that six thousand camel loads worth three million rubles were annually carried into Central Asia from Afghanistan. See Abstract of Report of Colonel Glukovsky, 14
June 1874, in British Documents, ed. Bourne and Watt, part 1, series A, vol. 1, p. 237.
130 See Smith and Christian, Bread and Salt, pp. 23536.

Matthee: From Coffee to Tea Consumption in Qajar Iran


began a series of attempts to stimulate the cultivation of tea in the

Black Sea region, and indigenous cultivation took off in the 1880s.131
Given these developments and the intensity of the interaction with
Iran, it is only natural that, by way of commercial channels and cultural osmosis, the external stimulus fostered the consumption of tea
rather than coffee in Iran.
Both coffee and tea were consumed in Iran from at least the late sixteenth century. The available sources indicate that coffee was the
more popular drink. The scant evidence also suggests that the demise
of the Safavid state in the early eighteenth century greatly reduced the
number of coffeehouses, and possibly the overall consumption of coffee
as well. A natural function of the terror and destruction inflicted upon
the country throughout the century, this decrease was expressed as a
retrenchment of public life.
Although neither tea nor coffee ever disappeared from the Iranian
urban scene, both became more visible in the early nineteenth century, in part because of a greater abundance of sources from parts of the
country that had gone unreported in the eighteenth century and in
part because a revival of trade and social life brought about a real
increase in the consumption of imported commodities. The picture
that emerges from the sources in early Qajar times contradicts the
notion of a simple predominance of coffee. Instead, there is a clear distribution of the two drinks along lines of region and social stratification. The upper classes were in a position to serve both tea and coffee
at their ceremonies and receptions, regardless of geography. Otherwise,
tea predominated in the north, while coffee was the drink of choice in
the south.
The basic division notwithstanding, it is evident that tea not only
began to be consumed in parts of Iran where it had not been customary
before, but also began to edge out coffee in the south. Although less
dramatic than it appears at first sightboth, after all, are nonfermented
beverages containing the same addictive substancethis long-term
change is interesting mainly because of the larger social and economic
context in which it occurred.
131 See G. Radde and E. Koenig, Das Ostufer des Pontus und seine kulturelle Entwicklung im Verlaufe der letzten dreissig Jahre, Ergnzungsheft 112 zu Petermanns Mittheilungen (1894): 3435.


journal of world history, fall 1996

Beyond a possible cultural predisposition toward teathe sweettoothed Iranians had long consumed tea with sugarseveral sources
intimate that the growing popularity of tea involved issues of status
and changing taste. Although the presentation of samovars to the
royal court did not literally reintroduce tea to Iran, it did publicize
the drink and its preparation. Tea, moreover, was as expensive as the
sugar that invariably accompanied it, so that both were initially consumed primarily by the elite strata of society. The drink seems to have
evolved from a luxury into a staple and a necessity, a process epitomized by the tea-purveying coffeehouses that emerged in the countrys urban centers sometime in the 1850s. Unfortunately, we lack
detailed information about the nature and the stages of this process.
A further evolution toward an Iranian consumer society can be
seen in the 1870s and 1880s. Yet demand-oriented causes do not suffice to explain the rapid spread of tea in this period. Given the vulnerability of Iran to outside influence and the lack of internal economic
dynamism, an equally important stimulus has to be sought in the market and, more specifically, in the impact of changing international
delivery channels. Iran in the nineteenth century became incorporated into the world economy and began to interact commercially
with the Asian continent under the aegis of its two superpowers,
England and Russia. This trading network was at first dominated by
Russia, which initially drew Iran into its orbit. Russias hegemony
came to an end, however, when merchants began to explore the Trabzon route and when Great Britain opened up the Persian Gulf for its
commerce and thus established a direct and inexpensive link between
producers in India and consumers in Iran. For Iran to be drawn into
the Russian or the British sphere of influence made no difference as far
as its changing taste in caffeinated beverages was concerned: in either
case, the conversion to tea was a historical inevitability.