A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Time rendered the city of Mocha a forgotten place; however, its legacy is the world’s most famous beverage, Mocha coffee. Five centuries ago, Mocha rapidly flourished, but then fell swiftly, as if it had never existed. This swift demise was as if the city had one noble mission: introducing humanity to a beverage that would change the world forever. There isn’t a historical precedent for a newly formed city to fall as quickly as Mocha did; its demise pales in comparison to old Yemeni cities that existed during the times of Troy and Persepolis. Never to even witness the European Renaissance… So, how did the old city of Mocha fall?
During the 15th century, on the shoreline of an area called Mocha – Mktan, as it was referred to in old Ḥimyarite scriptures – a small number of straw huts were erected around the hut of a Sufi sheik called Abu al-Hasan Ali bin Omar al-Shathily. It is said that al-Shathily introduced coffee to entice his disciples and help them learn. Sufis in Yemen were credited with drying and roasting coffee beans. The practice is still performed during modern Sufi rituals in Yemeni cities like Taiz, Zabid, Hadramout, and Beida. It’s still referred to in some parts of Yemen as Shathily coffee.
In time, the settlement expanded, and by the end of the 15th century Mocha was a thriving city with modern amenities. By the 16th century it was world famous for exporting coffee, and the name Mocha coffee is attributed to the city’s port. Despite the fall of Mocha, the port continued exporting goods such as silver, frankincense, oils and gum until the 19th century.
Descriptions of the city
Map of Mocha city (Jack Nickolas Belen, 1776).
Mocha was built 75 kilometers from Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, in a very dry area. Seasonal winds blow from the north six months a year, and from the south for the remaining six months. There was only one water well in the city, dug next to al-Shathily’s shrine. This well was used only by rich inhabitants. The poor inhabitants of Mocha had to walk four kilometers to fetch water from a nearby city called Mawza’a. Mocha was enclosed in a big mud wall, protected by ten mud fortresses. It had five gates: al-Amoudi gate to the north, al-Shathily gate to the east, Fajir gate to the southeast, Sandal gate to the south and the seaside gate to the west. Four neighborhoods resided outside of the city walls, al-Shathily neighborhood to the east, the Jewish neighborhood to the southeast, the Somali neighborhood to the southwest and the European neighborhood to the north. Many neighborhoods were harbored within the city walls, the most important of which are the English quarters to the northeast, French quarters to the southeast, Banian neighborhood to the north and Dwares neighborhood to the northwest. Dwares had a big square and a Muslim graveyard. During my research, I wasn’t able to find any old references or maps to any other neighborhoods, especially around the city’s downtown and high-rise buildings.
All that remains of the port, once 30 to 50 meters long, are some broken pillars buried in the sand. Some remains exist, resembling a mosque next to circle-like stones, which were used for grinding grains. The shipyard was 480m2, topped by a big copper plate connected to iron stairs. The beach was enclosed with sea barriers linked to the city walls from both ends, stretching 32 meters into the sea. It was built in such a manner so as to isolate the city and avoid customs, as well as ensuring legal departure from the main gates.
Three main fortresses equipped with canons guarded the city, two on the sea front and one south of the wall. Altayar fortress was next to the port, its name from a sheik who was buried nearby. To the opposite side, a smaller fortress called Abdulrab al-Shathily, after one of al-Shathily’s sons who was buried within. Malta fortress was the biggest, built next to Sandal gate on the southern wall.
Mocha’s produce market was the largest in the city, stretching through multiple southern neighborhoods, surrounded by beautiful blue and white four story mansions. On the outskirts of Mocha there were mansions built with stones and bricks, resembling those in Sana’a’s Bir al-Azab neighborhood, except more elaborately built, according to German orientalist Carsten Niebuhr. Unorganized mud and straw houses riddled the north of the city. The Customs Building was Mocha’s greatest building, built in front of the port, only separated by a square, which housed government buildings. The governor’s mansion was also built on this square, a beautiful three story building donning arches and inscriptions flanked by tents serving as barracks for soldiers.
All but two of Mocha’s mosques were destroyed. The first of which, al-Rahma mosque, has a 25-meter minaret. The mosque’s original name remains unknown since most mosques in Yemen usually bare the names of kings or benefactors who contributed to building costs, a practice widely used in Yemen until the 1980s. There are no longer many buildings surrounding the mosque, but there are a few half buried ones.
View of the port, the governor’s mansion to the left along with horses and soldiers (George Ansley, 1804).
The second surviving mosque is al-Shathily mosque. This is where Abu al-Hasan Ali bin Omar al-Shathily is buried, located half a kilometer east of the city. It was renovated in 1987. Many Sufi rituals take place in this mosque, including a commemorative ritual for al-Shathily, a celebratory occasion involving delicious food and drinks. One of the gates leading to this mosque was named after him as a symbol of his importance.
Only five centuries after Mocha’s inception, the city crumbled. This is contrary to accounts by some Yemeni scholars who claim that the city was built in the 6th century, based on an old Himyarite scripture explaining King Yusif Asar’s (Dhu Nuwas) campaign to push Abraha, an Axumite army general, out of the Arabian Peninsula. It’s said that after succeeding in pushing the Axumite army from Yemen, Mocha was built to stop future invasions. However, this is unlikely as no Yemeni cities were built on the western shoreline until the 14th century, when sea trade from the Red Sea commenced. Old cities required an open source of water, fertile farmland and a relatively cool environment to thrive; but Mocha’s environment is very hot and humid, and suffers from a water shortage. Mocha only survived for four centuries because of its reliance on the coffee trade.
The first floors of mansions are buried under the sand next to al-Rahma mosque (Eric Lafforgue).
These tough realities explain why no cities were built on Yemen’s western shoreline before the sea trade era, and sheds light on Mocha’s very rapid rise followed by its dramatic demise. After the coffee trade was abandoned, there was no incentive for people to tolerate the harsh environment, except for fishermen and merchants trading in Ethiopia. Low-income families moved to higher fertile lands and took up farming, while middle-income craftsmen and educated people moved to bigger Yemeni cities such as Hodeidah, Taiz and Sana’a. Foreign diplomats and merchants went back to their countries, and those who remained moved to Aden, which became Yemen’s trading and intellectual city by the 20th century.
By the 1980s, enough of Mocha’s residents began moving out of the city’s original borders for it to be referred to as ‘The old city’. With no consideration to its historical value, recent governments neglected Mocha, even after various calls to renovate the old city. The city keeps slowly and quietly deteriorating, becoming a desolate place with half buried buildings and packs of wild dogs.
Al-Shathily mosque surrounded by emptiness and eroded pillars (Eric Lafforgue).
Two kilometers east of Mocha there is a small town called ‘New Mocha’; 8,000 people inhabit it, in scattered houses lacking any proper utilities or drinking water. Not many families permanently reside here, and people come seasonally to fish, work as mechanics, or smuggle illegal cigarettes and expired medicine.
Coffee is now an international multibillion-dollar industry employing more than 20 million people worldwide, and is the second most traded commodity after oil. If you visit Mocha now, you won’t find coffee markets or streets full of people from around the globe. It’s hard to identify any surviving buildings from within the pebble-sized eroded bricks, and when the hungry crows stop cawing after sunset, silence is heard like never before.