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Ziryab: A Social Trendsetter Missing from the Western Hall of Fame

posted on: Jul 21, 2021

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

The first time that I walked the streets of Cordoba, once Moorish Spain’s world-renowned capital, I could not believe my eyes.The city’s Arab era had not been forgotten.

Statues had been erected to many of her Moorish sons such as Ibn Rushd, al-Ghafiqi, Maimonides, the Caliph al-Hakim II, Ibn Hazm, ibn Zaidun and Walladah. However, “Where is Ziryab?”

I thought to myself as I searched in vain for his statue. A genius that had contributed much to world social history, his should have been among the first to be erected in that historic city.

Abu l-Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi‘, better known as Ziryab was born in Persia, possibly of African and Arab or Persian mixed descent. Said to have been a liberated black slave, he first achieved fame as a performer at the Abbasid court of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid in Baghdad, not only as a musical artist but as a man of science and letters as well.

A gifted pupil of the great musician and composer, Ishaq al-Mawsili, his skills as a musician and singer were soon to surpass those of his teacher, enraging al-Mawsili and forcing Ziryab to flee Baghdad.

He travelled through North Africa to Tunisia, where he performed for a while at the Aghlabid court in Kairoun. Hearing of his skills, the Umayyad ruler of Al-Andalus, al-Hakam I invited him to his court.

However, the ruler died soon thereafter, but his son, Abd ar-Rahman II, who succeeded his father, renewed the invitation, personally writing to invite him. Ziryab left soon thereafter and arrived in Córdoba in 822.

His arrival in Al-Andalus, where he soon became the trendsetter for high society, was to be one of the most important events in European history.

Ziryab introduced numerous standards of excellence such as setting new social norms for better hygiene, table behaviour and elegant and noble manners among the upper classes.

Ziryab was also an expert on etiquette and subsequently introduced new leisure activities and table manners that were non-existent in Iberia before his time.

Perhaps, one of the first people in the world to stress seasonal wear and style, Ziryab’s ideas, his legacy to prosperity in this field have come down to our times. He was the first to come up with the revolutionary idea of the seasonal change of clothing – not just more or less layers but in various styles, starting the trend of wearing brightly coloured silk robes for spring, pure white clothing in the summer and fine furs and quilted gowns for winter’s cold.

His influence at court led to the growth of a medieval fashion industry in and around Cordoba. His ideas have come down to our times – now we have fashion houses turning out styles for the four seasons.

Hand in hand with his fashion innovations, he also found time to introduce the toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant. While the going style in al-Andalus was wearing hair long and parted on the forehead, Ziryab prescribed something new – bangs trimmed low on the brow.

Even more significant was the impact he left on our dining tables – his introduction of dividing the meal into courses to be served in a specific order. Before his time, in Europe, eating was a freestyle event, even at the tables of the ruling class. From fruit and sweets to meat, all food was placed in one big heap on a table, even at grand court banquets.

Ziryab, a gastronome extraordinaire, revolutionized all this seemingly feeding frenzy by inventing the multi-course meal, beginning dinner with a soup course, then an entrée and ending it with dessert, a custom that rapidly caught on in the Iberian Peninsula then spread to the rest of Europe and is still used all over the world today.

To enhance the dining experience further, Ziryab added asparagus, considered a lowly weed until then, to the many fruits, spices and vegetables with which the Arabs had enriched the European table.

He concocted many new dishes – his most famous, an asparagus dish, Tiqlayat Ziryab carrying his name, is still cooked today. Also, even more importantly, he introduced the drinking glass made from glass or crystal instead of the earthenware, copper, gold or silver drinking utensils used at the time.

Yet, all these contributions pale with his many new ideas in the field of music and song. Abd al-Rahman II, a great patron of the arts and a scholarly ruler, supported Zyriab in his introduction of new ideas to the court, especially in the field of entertainment. Nicknamed the ‘Black Bird’ Ziryab, who became an intimate companion of the ruling emir, was a marvellous entertainer, enchanting the royal court at Cordoba for years with his wit, music and songs.

He established the world’s first known conservatory of music in Europe in which a great number of students, including his concubine Mut’ah and his daughter Hamdunah, were trained. They became famous for their singing, dancing and musical compositions – his daughter becoming head of the conservatory. The graduated singers and musicians influenced musical performance for generations to come.

Ziryab introduced into Europe the ‘ud (lute) that later became the Spanish guitar. Considered to be the best ‘ud player in the Muslim world of his time, he made major changes to this instrument – to the Arabs, the king of all the musical devices. He added a fifth string to the ‘ud and made it lighter and used an eagle’s talon instead of a wooden plectrum to pluck the instrument, allowing longer life to the strings and even improving their tone – changes that have lasted to our day.

He knew over 10,000 songs by heart and was the finest musician and singer in his day. He introduced the passionate songs, music and dances of the East into the Iberian Peninsula, which in later centuries, influenced by Gypsy entertainment, evolved into the famed Spanish flamenco.

Ziryab had a great influence on Spanish music, combining the rhythms, modes and melodies of Middle Eastern with North African music to create a distinctively Andalusian type of music.

He also left an imprint on Spanish and to, some extent, other European music, and created a unique style of musical presentation that was performed in Spain long he had left the scene. Louie Provencal, the famous historian of Spanish civilization writes that Ziryab, “… was a genius and his influence in Spanish society of the time not only encompassed music but also all aspects of society.”