Quintessential coffee at Ctesiphon, the bedouin way.

30/04/1867  —–  Yesterday, Tinco Lycklama left Baghdad for an excursion to the ruins of antique Ctesiphon. It’s not just for touching another remnant of antiquity. He is also going to herd sheep and experience life in the desert. And, he’ll learn how the bedouins make coffee. Real coffee.

The Tigris was still flooding part of the city, and the main roads were impractical, so Tinco and his companions used quffa boats to move themselves and their horses out of town.

The trip was organised by Hanouche Asfar, a prominent christian merchant from Damascus who lived close to Tinco in Baghdad. Asfar had to inspect his flock of over 2,000 sheep, at his desert camp about an hour south of Ctesiphon. He brought along his two sons – Djabouri and Rhedzouk.


Ctesiphon by Sandor Alexander Svoboda (1826 - 1896)
Ctesiphon prior to 1888, rendered by Hungarian artist Sandor Alexander Svoboda (1826 – 1896)


The party was joined by Father Damien, one of the missionaries of the Discalced Carmelites who had become close friends with Tinco. Our research tells us that father Damien was actually Pierre Batailley, a young French doctor from the Faculté de Médecine in Paris. When Father Marie-Joseph de Jésus, in his previous life Gustave Cancel, became the superior of the Baghdad mission in 1858, he briefly returned to France to find an assistant. He met Pierre Batailley by chance, and it was a godsend for the future of Baghad. Father Damien became the most prominent doctor in the city – and for over thirty years (until his death in 1898) he helped rich and poor through the many sanitary challenges of Baghdad in those days.

Father Damien thought of himself as a good huntsman, and he joined the excursion for a little break of desert hunting. Tinco amusedly reflects that Father Damien’s hunting skills were probably limited to rabbits and low-flying birds.

Tinco’s five-day trip to Ctesiphon – the ancient capital of the Sassanids – was instructive, not only for the opportunity to witness again another remnant from antiquity, but also because it was his first real experience with the bedouin life and a true immersion into their culture. The herdsmen of Hanouche Asfar were genuine Bedouins – a world apart from the people in the city.

The juxtaposition of the simple life of the bedouins, in the shadow of the monuments that ruled the Orient over two thousand years ago, was a striking sight to Tinco Lycklama.

Naqsh-i Rustam (Iran): Sasanian Relief Showing the Investiture of Ardashir I by the God Ahura Mazda (Hormizd)
A relief depicting Ardeshir I, at Naqsh-e Rustam, near Persepolis – visited by Tinco Lycklama in October 1876 (photo by Antoin Sevruguin in the 1890s)

The Sassanid Empire (224-651) had its origins at Estakhr, the lost city near Persepolis which Tinco Lycklama explored in October 1866. King Ardeshir I soon moved its capital to Ctesiphon, where the Sassanids rule until the dawn of the islamic period. At times, the empire covered the whole of the Middle East as far as modern-day Egypt, Turkey, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Ctesiphon was already a capital in the preceding Parthan Empire (247 BCE – 224 CE). Its real history started about 120 BCE around what was originally a military encampment near the old regional Parthian capital of Seleucia. It became the empire’s capital around 58 BCE.


Around the fourth century of our common era, the city of Ctesiphon measured about twice the size of Rome. It is also around that time that the remaining and remarkable archway of Tāq-i Kisrā was built. After the start of the islamic period, much of city was taken down for use as building material to construct the new Abbassid capital of Baghdad in the 8th century CE. Ctesiphon became a ghost town.

It is under the Tāq-i Kisrā archway that Tinco Lycklama is having coffee today – in the manner of the desert people.

In terms of constructions, the Taq-i Kisra is about the sole building that subsist from the old Ctesiphon. Tinco saw more of it than visitor’s can see today. Indeed, the northern façade collapsed in 1888 due to flooding by the Tigris river. The archway, with its monumental height of 37 meters, was the largest construction of its kind when it was built. The fact that it still stands is a witness to the incredible craftmenship of its architects.

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Genuine excavations of the Ctesiphon site were only conducted for the first time in the late 1920s and early 1930s. in 1867, Tinco was keen to undertake some digging himself, understanding the potential of what he saw as an ancient graveyard nearby. But, he didn’t have the tools nor the skilled manpower to undertake it, and contented himself with a few objects that he found laying bare in the sand.

But, for Tinco Lycklama, the experience of the desert life at Ctesiphon proved to as fascinating as the sight of the ancient site. He share the meals with the bedouins, saw them at work with the herds of sheep. He saw how different the people were, both physically and culturally, from the citizens of Baghdad. He reflected on the different roles of women. For their hard labour, women had far more value here in the desert than in the city. As a result, bedouin parents prized themselves when having many daughters, whereas parents in Baghdad were keen on raising many sons.


At Ctesiphon, Tinco also tasted the best coffee he ever had in his life. And, no doubt having us in mind – 150 years later, he even shared the recipee for making the best coffee – the bedouin way. Courtesy of Djérif, a sixty-year old chief herdsman at the service of Hanouche Asfar.

In a nutshell, here is how you must make your coffee:

  • Coffee in the desertPrepare three coffee pots of different sizes.
  • The largest pot holds the used coffee of the previous day. Boil it slowly.
  • Put a layer of freshly grinded coffee in a second, smaller pot, and pour the old coffee over it. Boil it for another fifteen minutes.
  • Then pour what you have into the third pot, the smallest one, and let the water evaporate as much as what suits your taste for stronger or lighter coffee.

Tinco Lycklama calls this the ‘quintessential coffee’ which has nothing to do with what we erroneously like to call ‘good coffee’. Just don’t drink it before you go to bed, he says.

Let’s assume that Tinco must have delighted his guests in Cannes, later in life, when serving coffee the bedouin way, after a delightful meal.



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