• A receptacle designed to hold a coffee cup and protect the coffee drinker's hands from the hot beverage; historically they were very ornamental but today they are often merely plain cardboard.


Many of us cannot start our mornings without coffee. It's become a pretty widespread part of our culture today, and ours isn't the first culture to value coffee in this way. The first culture to adopt coffee drinking as an essential custom was the Ottoman Empire in Turkey in the 12th century. The Turkish people made coffee drinking a ritualized, artistic process, and one of the most beautiful accoutrements of this process was the zarf. The Turks drank their coffee in tiny cups without handles. In order to pick up these cups without burning themselves, they would place the cups inside zarfs. Poorer families would likely have a simple brass or copper zarf, but the wealthier families crafted elaborate, ornamental zarfs out of silver, gold, wood, ivory, or even tortoise shell.

You won't see many zarfs like that today, unless you are in a Turkish museum! We have not made coffee drinking an art form. Instead, we have discovered the most efficient ways to consume large amounts of coffee in a timely fashion. Yet, even so, a zarf of a sort has made a reappearance! You are likely familiar with the little cardboard sleeve which is usually placed around your coffee cup at coffee shops. It may not be an ornament of beauty, but that little sleeve is nonetheless a zarf. It's true that historically zarfs were shaped like cups, but the essential principle remains the same. A zarf is a receptacle which goes around the coffee cup to enable the drinker to hold the cup without burning himself. Whether it is painstakingly crafted from tortoise shell or simply mass produced from cardboard, a zarf is a zarf. So the next time you buy an extra-hot triple caramel macchiato, you'll know exactly why your fingers aren't being burned.

Example: Karen tried to imagine what it would have been like to drink out of the ornately fashioned ivory zarf which now sat on the museum's display shelf.

Example: Karen yelped in pain when she grabbed the hot cup of coffee in the museum's coffee shop, without first placing the brown paper zarf around it.


Zarf' derives from the Arabic term, transliterated as zarf, which refers to a vessel or container such as a sheath, envelope, or cup. In the 12th century, the Ottoman Turks applied the word particularly to ornamental vessels designed to hold coffee cups. This narrower usage then spread, along with the custom of coffee drinking, throughout the Levant. Zarf was introduced into English with its present meaning in the late 1830's.

In Literature

From Edward William Lane's An Account of the Manner and Custom of the Modern Egyptians:

The coffee is made very strong, and without sugar or milk. The coffee-cup (which is called "fingan") is small, generally holding not quite an ounce and a half of liquid. It is of porcelain, or Dutch ware, and, being without a handle, is placed within another cup (called "zarf"), of silver or brass, according to the circumstances of the owner, and, both in shape and size, nearly resembling our egg cup.

Here, Lane describes in detail the zarf and its use among the Egyptian people in the 1830's.


  • A zarf is a circular container for a cup, and its first two letters make a "full circle" of the alphabet since they are the last and first letters.
  • A zarf protects your fingers from hot coffee, like a scarf protects you from cold air.


Coffee, Cups, Turkey, History, Archeology

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of zarf. Did you use zarf in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.