Tea drinking as a symbol of cosiness, the family hearth and friendly communication has existed in Russia and Turkey for hundreds of years. Part of the tea traditions common to both countries is the custom of gathering together with family and friends at the tea table in the garden or outdoors in nature.
It is thought that tea appeared in Russia in the first half of the 17th century: several chests of dry tea leaves were presented to Tsar Michael I of Russia as a tribute from the Altan Khan. However, the distance to China made the transportation of tea too expensive, and drinking tea was a curious rarity for quite a long time. At the beginning of the 18th century, tea was served only in rich aristocratic homes, influenced by European fashion. In 1727, the town of Kyakhta was founded on Russia’s border with China (and still exists today). It was there that the Kyakhta Agreement was signed, establishing trade relations between the two states. Tea began being sold at fairs, and gradually it became an everyday drink for various social classes. Tea became especially popular among Russian merchants. When negotiating with Chinese partners, and later amongst themselves, each deal was accompanied by a long session of tea drinking. The first tea plantations in the Russian Empire appeared at the turn of the 20th century near the town of Batum (Georgia).
An essential part of the tea tradition in Russia is the samovar. A similar pot with an integrated brazier (sbitennik) was in use until the late 18th century, when several workshops that manufactured samovars for tea were opened in the town of Tula. A large samovar used for extended family gatherings was considered a sign of wealth and prosperity. In peasant houses the samovar was one of the most valuable household items.
In summer, tea was served outdoors in the gardens of merchant houses and manors. Those who had no private garden often went on picnics in one of the city parks, and in Moscow specialized “tea gardens” featured hot samovars and tables set for tea. Country summer houses, or dachas, became popular in the 19th century among the aristocracy, and later among other social classes. The development of the railroad made trips to the country more accessible to many. A veranda or gazebo with a view on the garden or the water is still the perfect place for family members and guests to take their tea.
Samovars began falling out of use in the 20th century, but tea traditions continue to bring people together in an atmosphere of warmth and cosiness. As social life became “democratized”, many city parks were constructed where people were able to drink tea in outdoor cafes or tea houses.
In Turkey, tea likely made its first appearance in the 17th century, but only began being consumed by the masses in the 20th. In 1918, the Turkish botanist Ali Riza Erten studied the tea plantations near Batum and came to the conclusion that the climate of the Turkish province of Rize was also suitable for cultivating tea. Large-scale production of tea started in Rize in 1938. Subsequently, Turkey became one of the largest producers of tea, as well as the country with the highest rate of its consumption.
Turkish tea drinking culture has some rather interesting features. On the streets one will sometimes come across a çaycı – a tea seller with a metal tray full of tea cups. Tea is served in shops in bazaars, in more modern stores and at other venues. Large companies will hire an individual solely to make and serve tea to the staff.
Turkey had the semaver for making tea, which is very similar to the Russian samovar in its structure and workings, and even in name. But nowadays the more widely used device is the çaydanlık, a pot with a teapot on top which is heated on the stove. Another Turkish tea accessory, and an all-around symbol of tea drinking, is the ince belli (“slim waist”) glass. The shape allows the tea to remain hot longer.
Çay bahçesi is a traditional Turkish outdoor tea house, usually situated in a garden. Atatürk’s reforms in the first half of the 20th century included the construction of city parks, which gave rise to numerous tea houses. By the mid-1950s these had become very popular among residents and tourists alike. Usually a çay bahçesi is located near water (be it a fountain or the Bosporus), where the picturesque view and cool shade facilitates friendly, extended conversations. Tea is served with traditional simits (ring-shaped baked goods sprinkled with sesame seeds) and other snacks.
The tea drinking traditions of Turkey and Russia have much in common. In both countries tea has become an integral part of everyday life and has acquired and retained a historical significance as a symbol of good will, the family and hospitality.
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