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Dean's Distinguished Lecture 2015

Dean's Distinguished Lecture highlights coffee and the city of Mocha

By Christine Murray

For Nancy Um, an associate professor of art history, the dilapidated city of Mocha, once one of Yemen's great port cities, presented a new way to think about buildings.

Um first went to Mocha in 1996 and again in 2000. She presented some of her research as this year's lecturer in the Harpur College Dean's Distinguished Lecture Series on Feb. 20 in Old Union Hall.

This new way involved focusing on two particular buildings — a mosque and tomb — that were built in honor of 'Ali bin 'Umar al-Shadhili, a Sufi mystic from the late 1300s to the early 1400s, and the city's patron saint. Both of these buildings still stand today and are maintained in "pristine condition."

"They are admittedly quite humble," Um said. "They are not the type of architectural gems that are touted for their prowess or their aesthetic innovations. In fact when I first arrived in the city, I overlooked these two buildings, because they seemed to me to be unrelated to the international dimensions of trade that I was so interested in. But I've come to realize that these two buildings can serve as lenses through which we can view the changing fortunes of this port city."

Part of this changing fortune can be observed through the development of coffee in Yemen as a cash crop, the importance of Mocha's ports in the coffee trade and the connection of coffee and al-Shadhili.

"The story of [al-Shadhili] goes far beyond the conventional significance of any regional saint in this geography, because after his death he became associated with coffee," Um said.

As the consumption of coffee as a beverage became more popular, many myths about its creation emerged. Several featured al-Shadhili as the father of the beverage.

"It is the case that coffee drinking as a habit we know today emerged in the costal regions of Yemen in the early 15th century," Um said. "It's certainly possible that [al-Shadhili] interacted with coffee, the myth that he created the beverage must be called into question."

While Um may question the veracity of al-Shadhili as the founder of modern-day coffee, the myth helped to shape the importance of Mocha as a port city for the coffee trade.

"[The myths] were developed in the 16th century at a time when coffee was spreading through the Middle East to help these new consumers make sense of its dispersal from the lowlands of Yemen in the limited world of Sufi circles to the much broader usage around the Mediterranean," Um said.

Mocha's establishment as a port city is believed to have happened under Ottoman rule in the 16th century. Mocha was used to seal off the Red Sea from Portuguese incursions, rendering the Red Sea the "Ottoman Lake" as it is often referred to.

One of the ways the Ottomans attempted to maintain their control over Yemen was through the construction and expansion of certain buildings to further the Ottoman political power in Yemen. The renovations to al-Shadhili's tomb and the building of a mosque also in his name were two particular instances of this.

"The Ottomans built most of the city's facilities.... They were also essential to the expansion of al-Shadhili's legacy, who they linked themselves to through the act of architectural patronage," Um said.

As Ottoman occupation was challenged in other parts of Yemen by the Zaidi, a Shi'a group, the work that Ottomans ordered and completed on buildings such as al-Shadhili's tomb and mosque were an attempt by the Ottomans to keep their power. This view of buildings as political instruments colors even the form and aesthetic decisions of the Ottoman constructions.

"This particular view of building as reflections of foreign power ... is a much more active role for the building, which allows us to see much more agency," Um said.

Even after the Ottomans were expelled from Yemen in 1598, Mocha remained an important city for trade. "While [coffee] was never grown and rarely sold there, Mocha and coffee became associated together," Um said. "When you order your mocha Frappuccino it is because of this particular moment that Mocha was frequented as a port to ship coffee that the name became associated with it enduringly."

After Europeans, who had been trading coffee through the Mocha port, began to grow coffee in the Atlantic, Yemen lost its place as a prime coffee port. But the tomb and mosque of al-Shadhili still stand in Mocha and speak to the rich history of the city.

"The reason these two buildings are so interesting to me is that they help us to understand the shifting but important place of the city between the various oceanic spheres and commercial networks deeply embed in it," Um said. "These two buildings help to focus the types of land that renders complex, intersecting global histories legible at their smallest materials."


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Last Updated: 3/1/17