Coffee in Belgrade: the first 500 years

During the first year of his reign, in 1521, Suleiman the Magnifient decided to out-do his great predecessor, Mehmed the Conqueror by trying to take two major bastions standing in the way of Ottoman expansion. The first was the island of Rhodes, then held by the Knights of St John, and the other one was Belgrade, a major fortress protecting Central Europe, held by the underage, politically weak Hungarian King, Louis II.

Belgrade was the easier pick of the two, and Suleiman realised that the key to taking the city was to change the approach from the one taken in the unsuccessful Ottoman attack of 1456, when the Ottoman forces were defeated by Jan Hunyadi and St John Capistrano, a victory still commemorated daily by ringing of the noon bells in churches.

Rather than just having forces advance from Balkan hinterlands and be at risk from surprise attacks of defenders who can be supported from across the rivers (as happened in 1456) he decided to also attack it from the Sava after taking Šabac and Srem, and thus have a safe stable position in Zemun from which to launch the attack. Another thing that worked in Suleiman’s favour, was that the situation in Belgrade was dire: fortifications were in bad shape and the garrison including the river flotilla of Šajkaši led by Petar Ovčarević was both small and badly paid by the Hungarian king.

Although the bombing of the city started in June, the real attempts to take the city from both the Sava and the Šumadija hinterland started in August. The brunt of the attack was the lower town at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube, and the Ottomans used the Great War island to launch attacks, and were also constructing a bridge to help them cross to the city. In the end, after one of the main Hungarian defenders decided to flee the city in the night of 28th August which spelled the end of the battle. The city was handed over to Suleiman either on 28th or 29th August. Although some of the citizens decided to transfer to the Ottoman service, the rest were forcibly moved to Istanbul around Belgradei Kapi and the Belgrade forest. With Belgrade in his hands, Suleiman was free to continue his expansion into the Pannonian plains, which was settled exactly 5 years after the fall of Belgrade during the 1526 battle of Mohacs. Meanwhile, in 1522, Rhodes also fell into the Ottoman hands in 1522, after a protracted siege and great standing by the Knights of St John, who were allowed to leave the Island and move to Malta.

While these losses were catastrophic for Christian Europe, they had a silver lining in that they spread the relatively advanced Ottoman culture to Serbia, including the ritual of coffee drinking, which Suleiman spread throughout his empire.

Although present in the Arab world since 13th century when it was first drunk by Sheikh Szeli, a dervish, during a pilgrimage, coffee only became widespread in 15th century when first coffee houses were opened in Damascus and Cairo. The Ottoman adoption of coffee is considered to coincide with their conquest of Egypt in early 16th century which, with the conquest of Mecca and Medina, made the Ottoman Sultan the Caliph of the whole Muslim Ummah.

Although the first official coffee house was opened in Istanbul in 1555 by two merchants from Aleppo and Damascus, coffee’s popularity with the Sufis, who considered it a divine drink and served it to keep awake during long prayers, means that it could have reached Belgrade as a drink in some form just after the conquest in 1521.

As Michel Pollan writes in his excellent recent “This is your mind on plants”, in 16th century Istanbul had almost 600 coffee houses, which served not only as places of gossip but also for mental stimulation, need for ever more advance scholarship of Maths and Sciences. Indeed, Pollan links the intellectual Golden Age of the Ottoman and Arabic scholarship, as well as the Enlightenment, to the stimulation from caffeine which was also adopted due to the prohibition of alcohol.

Suleiman’s successes and Ottoman cultural pre-eminence in 16th century, helped coffee spread around Europe and become a beloved drink, as well as a key part of many social rituals.

In Belgrade, like in the rest of the Ottoman empire, “kafana” which initially solely focused on coffee, became a central social gathering place, with people of various backgrounds and faiths rubbing shoulders. Over time, the non-Muslim owned ones, extended their offering to alcohol which made them rowdier, and they attracted all sorts of performers, and with them brawls and troubles. Even as the Ottoman power was withdrawing from Serbia, kafana (much like a lot of Ottoman foods and customs),  came to be seen as part of a society, rather than a foreign imposition.

A number of Belgrade’s 19th century artists who modernised the country, were famous patrons of kafanas that lie just outside of the old city ramparts, in what is to become Skadarlija, although they tended to prefer rakija and wine to coffee.

Although Belgrade does not have any coffee shops that reach that far back in its Ottoman past, there is still “?” which gives a glimpse of how coffee could have been enjoyed in mid-19th century, along with ratluk (Turkish delight). The actual oldest standing kafana in the city, Beli medved in Zemun, which dates at least to the 18th century, is (as always, allegedly) in the process of restoration and I am keeping my fingers crossed that it will reopen.

Throughout the time and across classes, most coffee was consumed at home, as it was the obligatory part of offering any hospitality. The preparation was done using the old Ottoman style equipment and method: beans were roasted at home, then ground using beautiful hand-operated brass mills and then boiled in “džezva“, to be served either in „fildžani“ or more European looking cups, usually accompanied with slatko (a fruit preserve) and/or ratluk. Coffee was bought in the markets and shops (at various stages of preparation), but also often received as a gift.

After the rustic, Ottoman/Balkan style kafanas, richer Belgraders came to enjoy their coffee in more Europeanised surroundings either in the grand old hotels (Moskva, Majestic, Bristol, etc.) or elaborately decorated modern kafana-restaurants like Dva Jelena. The offering was also extended beyond the one prepared in Turkish style, so coffee with milk (like kapuciner or bela kafa) became available. The rest drank it in neighbourhood frill-free kafanas like Kajmakčalan.

After WWII, as much of the urban kafana business became nationalised, you could enjoy Turkish coffee with your friends (or, rather, comrades) in places like Proleće and Kalenić. However, thanks to Yugoslavia’s openness to the world, the Western and especially Italian influence soon became felt, as Belgraders wanted to emulate what they saw on their shopping trips abroad. Espresso became all the rage after the legendarily chic café “Zlatni papagaj” opened in Đure Jakšića. Although Papgaj is no longer, you can get the vibe of the 80s espresso mania in nearby Galerija and Cvetić, which were also popular coffee stops.

The crisis of 1990s in a way helped the spread of cafe culture in the city, as many new entrepreneurs decided to capitalise on the relative liberalsation of the economy Belgarders’ love of going out and spending, ever diminishing income.

The first to attempt to elevate coffee and create a chain, was Greenet in 1998, who opened a very dainty shop and cafe in Nušićeva with many coffee varieties and prepared in various styles. As foreign coffee chains had little in interest in still relatively poor Belgrade, it was Greenet and CoffeeDream (which opened in 2000s) which allowed Belgarders to enjoy coffee on the go.

Third wave coffee arrived to the city in 2010s and is now all the rage. The most successful places to popularise it are Koffein, Lokal, Pržionica, Užitak and, most recently, a very stylish cafe in the old Hotel Beograd. Although Costa coffee tried to get into the market, the franchise failed, but ever since 2019 Belgarde has Starbucks (a source of pride for some, much like McDonald’s was in 1989).

Probably none of this would have been possible without that faithful battle, which not only paved the way for Suleiman the Magnificent to become of the most successful Ottoman Sultans, but also probably the most important coffee influencer.


Pokretači ep:  Dragutin Hadži Popović – Užitak

Pokretači ep: Nenad Stojanović

Jutrić Kafica

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