The culture of socializing in coffee houses in Iran has been around since the 16th century. The notion of getting together in public and conversing over coffee and tea can be traced back to a few centuries in Iran. These places were called Qahve Khaneh, meaning coffee house in Farsi. Pilgrims returning from Mecca introduced the idea of coffee houses to Iran. It is remarkable to know that Iran has been among the first few countries to have Coffee houses and people gathered there from diverse social groups.
The first Qahve Khaneh in Iran opened in the city of Qazvin, during the Safavids. Later, as Abbas the Great, the 5th Safavid shah of Iran came into power, Qahve Khaneh became more popular and grew significantly in number in big cities like Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan, and Rasht. During this time, Qahve Khaneh was established as a place where poets, writers and artists and others from the upper social class gathered.
Furthermore, Royal guests were received in these Qahve Khanehs. It is known that Shah Abbas the Great visited different Qahve Khanehs, unannounced and in disguise. It shows the significance of these places to the Shahs of Safavid.
During the Safavid Dynasty, Qahve Khanehs were the centre of social gathering and spending leisure time with friends exclusively for men. These people were mostly of the royal family and the novelties.
Upon the fall of the Safavid Dynasty, the Qahve Khaneh lost its status. Later on, with the Qajar coming to power, and the popularity of Coffee houses in Europe, Qahve Khanehs had a powerful comeback, but in another form. As sitting in the Qahve Khanehs for a cup of coffee and engaging in conversation, playing innocent games such as chess and hopscotch checkers were very popular.
Concurrently, Qahve Khanehs were home to folk arts such as dramatic performances such as naqqāli, Shahname Khani, and paintings that were connected and provided the context for flourishing each other. These folk arts included a painting style called Qahve khaneh Painting with significant importance. Some of the best qahveh-khane paintings are exhibited in the Reza Abbasi Museum in Tehran. Through these entertaining performances, ordinary people would have a better grasp of the rich and splendid Persian art and literature. Even itinerant artists who had no place to perform had been performing in Qahve Khanehs. Most of the owners of coffee houses have been amateur poets or musicologists.
Café, a new form of Qahve Khaneh was born in the mid-time of Qajars. Cafes turned out to be the hangout space for writers, poets, and elites conversing over a variety of topics, from politics to literature.
Conversely, Qahve Khaneh became more of a trade zone for businessmen. Over time, each Qahve Khaneh was known to be the hangout for a specific guild, and people knew where to find their counterparts. Other social groups such as sportsmen of the Zoorkhaneh were starting the day with exercise in the Iranian ancient gym and refreshing by drinking tea and watching naqqali performance in qahve khaneh.
The first time a foreign traveller mentioned drinking tea in Iran was in Adam Olearius’ travelogue. He travelled to Iran during the 17th century and later discussed Qahve Khanehs and Tea houses in Iran. The tea leaves were imported from China; however, late on the seeds were brought to Iran by an Iranian merchant called Kashef-Ol-Saltaneh, from India. People slightly changed their drinking habits from coffee to tea. However, the name of Qahve Khaneh remained unchanged even though coffee was no longer served there.
The architecture of qahve khane used to be very similar to the Iranian Hammams or public bathhouses’ Cold Room (Sarbineh). It was mostly a house with elevated halls and a spacious main area, mostly having a water basin in the middle. Around the room, were platforms- in different sizes, based on the size of the location- for people to sit and enjoy their time.
During the 18th century, with the social and structural changes and the introduction of mass media such as TV and radio the game changed for Qahve Khanehs. There are many aspects to choosing a café over Qahve Khaneh people in time. For instance, due to many travels to Europe by the Qajar kings, they came to such admiration for theatre and cinema that decided to introduce them to the residents of the Iranian capital Tehran. More Cafes and restaurants opened in Tehran, representing western culture within time. Also, unlike Qahve Khanehs, women were allowed in cafés.
However, some of these Qahve Khanehs have become touristic attractions. For instance, if you ever visit the Grand Bazar of Tehran, you should visit Haj Ali Darvish's tea house/ coffee house. It is hardly two square meters and is considered one of the smallest tea houses in Tehran. The owner has inherited the place from his father, who had inherited it from his father. This place dates back more than 100 years ago and serves tea with several traditional flavours and Turkish and espresso coffee with a unique taste.
Today, cafes in Tehran are no longer similar to what they were a generation or even a decade ago. From the Qajar onwards, cafés and Qahve Khanehs parted ways. Cafés became a place frequent to many dignitaries. Whereas, Qahve Khanehs became home to the working class, drinking tea and smoking shisha. People mostly go to cafés for either food or the mood. But in some regions, the life of coffee or tea houses is vibrant that you can find the original spirit of local life there, like Rasht teahouses, and Bushehr coffee houses that perform live folk music.
By Maryam Mobarhani / TasteIran