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Coffee Cup Holders

Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia but coffee drinking was perfected as an art in Turkey. The new beverage was served in tiny china cups without handles, placed in metal holders known as zarf, which both protected the cup and prevented the drinker from burning their fingers. Since it was the holder which was visible this became a work of art decorated with numerous techniques.

Ethiopian pilgrims to Mecca carried coffee with them as a remedy for tiredness on the long and exhausting journey. They in turn had learnt of this drink made by boiling coffee beans from shepherds, who as legend has it noticed that their goats became more lively when they ate the beans. They tried it as a means of keeping awake, and added it to their repertoire of herbal remedies. But coffee was rediscovered by Turkish pilgrims who tried it in Mecca and introduced it to Istanbul, where in time coffee became an integral part of the rituals of etiquette and hospitality. Foreign envoys were served coffee when they paid official visits to Turkish statesmen, and so it spread westwards, eventually to become the most popular beverage in the world.

In the past Turkish coffee cups were made of glass and wood as well as china and porcelain. Those made of fine pipe clay with painted designs were often exquisite, as were those made in Żznik and Kütahya. Not all Turkish coffee cups were made in Turkey. First China and later European porcelain factories such as Meissen in Saxony and Sevres in France made cups for the Turkish market. The zarf in which they fitted were generally locally made, and reflect the styles of the periods and regions to which they belong. So many varied and fascinating examples of coffee cups, zarf and the other paraphernalia of coffee drinking and preparation exist that they could fill museums devoted to this subject alone.

Coffee zarf were often but not invariably made of metals, whether gold, silver, copper or brass. Others were made of hard and scented woods, such as ebony, coconut or agallocum, and still others of substances like tortoiseshell, ivory or horn.

Metal zarf were sometimes filigree work, sometimes decorated with chasing, engraving, niello, or studded with gems or coral. Chased zarf were made by first beating out the metal into a sheet 1-1.5 mm thick and either beating it into the desired shape to fit the cup or forming it into a cylindrical shape and welding the join. Once shaped it was filled with a mixture of tar, asphalt, horasan (a mortar made of pounded brick dust and lime) and paraffin, to cushion the blows of the implements while the metal was being decorated. Once the design was completed the zarf would be heated up so that the filling softened and could be poured out. It was then possible to further work the design from inside the holder, and so accentuate the motifs. Finally the foot was made and fixed to the holder by a screw. Silver was the most common metal used for zarf, followed by copper and brass which were affordable by more people. Copper zarf were often gilded to prevent tarnishing by a technique involving the application of a mixture of gold and mercury. This type of copper gilt was known as tombak.

Engraved decoration in similar designs to those of chasing were produced by using sharp steel styluses to gouge out fine lines in the metal. Filigree work was made by first drawing metal wires 1 mm thick, then weaving into the desired shape and finally welding the ends. Alternatively individual motifs were made and then welded together to form the zarf.

Regrettably very few wooden zarf have survived. They were fragile but often extremely lovely, as those which remain to us show. This type of zarf was favoured because of their fragrance as well as beauty. Some were decorated with motifs cut out of fine silver sheet with a fretsaw, and had silver wire around the rim to prevent them cracking. Before the lathe was in widespread use, these wooden zarf were made by bowsaws or carved.

Tortoiseshell, horn and ivory holders required special skill to make. In the first two cases sheets of tortoiseshell or horn were softened in hot water and then clamped between female and male moulds of metal or hard wood. Once shaped they were sometimes decorated with gold or silver inlay. Ivory was carved or sawn into shape by the same methods as used for wood, and then carved decoration applied. Since ivory was so precious great care was taken with the decoration.

Guests were presented with their coffee in these delicate cups and holders, together with water in crystal glasses. In wealthy homes or palace circles the ceremonial of serving coffee in past centuries was lengthy and complex. Coffee was far more than a pleasant substance to drink, but a symbol of hospitality and respect for the guest. So it was no wonder that so much artistry and fine workmanship was poured into these tiny objects.

Ottoman Cup Holders
By M. Zeki Kužošlu