A Popular History of the Drinks of Antiquity – Part 3

Tea or Coffee?

Among the oldest civilizations of the vast African continent, there is one to which we owe one of the most consumed drinks in the world. As this is a very short popular history of the drinks of antiquity, mingled with some vague contemplations concerning our evolution, we will begin with one of those beverages that has not really contributed to changing (other than the colour of the water) the cosmic depths of the planet Earth, that false star lost in the univers

Time for Tea!

Tea is actually nothing more than a bunch of dried leaves infused in a bowl of boiling water. It is a technique that has not really changed for five thousand years. In the twenty-eighth century BC, Emperor Shennong, half man, half god, came into the world with a bull’s head and a transparent body. This mutant anatomy enabled him to specialize in agriculture and the study of medicinal herbs. Our X-Man of antiquity fell asleep one day at the foot of a tall tree (a tea plant, if it is not correctly pruned, can reach a height of twenty metres) with a cauldron of boiling water beside him; three or four leaves fell in and, voilà, through the dual magic of gravity and infusion, the first glass of drinkable tea was served to humanity.

That’s the end of the story or, rather, the beginning of the very dull saga of tea which, from millennium to millennium has not varied in either dosage or preparation and, not only that, but the teabag was invented not by an Englishman, but by a miserly New Yorker who preferred shipping his tea in small silk bags rather than an expensive metal tin. Let’s not forget either the ridiculous tradition of afternoon tea, introduced in Victorian times by an insatiable English duchess to imitate those “French Frogs.” For that matter, tea might be considered neither more nor less than an exotic drink competing unfairly (because it is exotic) with all the herbal infusions of free nations, of which we will mention Argentina’s maté, the infusion of Ephedra sinica drunk by the Mormons of Utah (who are forbidden caffeine in their diet), Kombucha, the Japanese kelp tea, Aubrac tea (100% made in France from Calmintha grandiflora) …

Coffee: An East-African Creation

Let us return to coffee, drunk by all peoples of the earth, except a few envious Englishmen and women and a good billion partisan Chinese. The story of this drink is far from being as imperial as that of its irritating competitor; this tale relies only on the perceptiveness of a poor Ethiopian goatherd. Long, long ago, the goats of Kaldi, an Abyssinian goatherd, ate the berries of a bush. They then began to display strange behaviour; the goatherd told his colleagues, who gathered for a parley, and the global drink was born.

Coffee has brought about its share of industrial innovations and given rise to no end of merchandising relating to coffee-drinking. Bringing coffee to the fore is also a good way of bringing at least part of the vast African continent into the story, namely East Africa and its most prestigious representative.

That’s the end of this story too, except that coffee is a little more difficult to produce, the process of creating it being long and requiring undeniable skill, making its spread across the globe all the more merit-worthy. Moreover, coffee has brought about its share of industrial innovations and given rise to no end of merchandising relating to coffee-drinking. Bringing coffee to the fore is also a good way of bringing at least part of the vast African continent into the story, namely East Africa and its most prestigious representative.

Ethiopia, cradle of humanity, the first Solomonic Empire, headquarters of the OAU, the sources of the Nile, promised land of original coffee and Rastafarians, a land of thirteen months of sun … This region is one of the rare African nations to possess its own alphabet (although there is no doubt about its South Arabian origins) and, above all, a quasi-Biblical ancestry on a continent that is still heavily steeped in religious influences that relate solely to the God of Abraham.

Back to the Beginning

Laying claim to the heritage of King Solomon, Prophet of the one God, source of wisdom, poet, lover of fine wine and beautiful women is not an easy thing to do, especially when there are many nations with Abrahamic monotheism as their official religion, vying for this claim to fame. However, in this multicultural African nation, every inhabitant will tell you that their people are the true descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Following the collapse of the Marib dam in Yemen, the legendary queen, called Makada by some or Bilqis by others, installed a new Sabaean colony, with the help of her father, Abou Foutouh, in the cool shade of the wooded high Ethiopian plateaux. One day, the Queen of Sheba heard tell of Solomon, covered in celestial glory, endowed with splendid wealth, and decided to undertake a diplomatic trip to Jerusalem.

Laying claim to the heritage of King Solomon, Prophet of the one God, source of wisdom, poet, lover of fine wine and beautiful women is not an easy thing to do […] However, in this multicultural African nation, every inhabitant will tell you that their people are the true descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Queen Bilqis, whose beauty was as legendary as the king she was going to meet, presented herself to Solomon, who invited her to spend a night at the palace. Bilqis feared the worst. Knowing the reputation of the Hebrew King, said to have a harem of 1000 wives, Queen Bilqis demanded some assurances. Solomon agreed to them, on condition that she took nothing in the palace that belonged to him without his express permission. In the evening, a feast was given in honour of the Queen of Sheba, who took some of the highly spiced dishes the king, in his wisdom, suggested. After the feast, Solomon offered Bilqis a bed in the royal bedchamber, saying that he would sleep on another cot placed in the same room, but separated by a thick, heavy hanging. The king then repeated his warning: “If you should take what does not belong to you, you shall be mine!”

During the night, the Queen of Sheba awoke and could not fall back to sleep … on a low table, close to her bed, she saw a ewer full of water, the ideal beverage to quench the raging thirst caused by her overly spicy meal. She seized the vase and lifted it to her lips. Waiting behind the thick curtain, King Solomon suddenly appeared and was quick to remind the queen of her obligations … Bilqis returned to her Ethiopian kingdom, swearing never again to set foot on Israeli soil. The child conceived that night was born, grew, and became a man. He one day decided to pay a visit to his father and set off for Jerusalem with a small retinue. King Solomon received the young man as a foreign ambassador, but the young man laid claim to the throne. Solomon, almost senile in his old age, grew angry and muttered: “Man Ilek? Who has sent him?” The son of the Queen of Sheba, instead of being proclaimed the true heir, had acquired a name: Menelik. Fearing for his life, as there were many conspirators in the court of the king of kings, the young Menelik fled with the Ark of the Covenant and a small band of loyal Hebrews who would form the first Solomonic dynasty (officially coming to power in 1270 AD), which would last until the fall of Haile Selassie, the sixty-fifth and last representative of one of the oldest reigning royal houses in the world.

This is the end of another legendary tale, which began with a glass of water … water, the source of all life, without which we could not quench this almost mystical thirst for understanding.

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