Abul-Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi, nicknamed Ziryab, was Chief Entertainer of the Court of Cordoba in 822AD. He revolutionized medieval music, lifestyle, fashion, hairstyles, furniture and even tableware. He transformed the way people ate, socialized, and relaxed.
Born 789 AD, Ziryab was a significant personality in Islamic culture but remains anonymous in European history in spite of his single-handedness in laying down the groundwork for traditional Spanish music. He was a highly educated North African slave.
He left Baghdad during the reign of the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun (d. 833) and moved to Córdoba in southern Iberian Peninsula, where he was accepted as a court musician in the court of Abd ar-Rahman II of the Umayyad Dynasty (822-52).
He was nicknamed Ziryab, probably from a name of a black singing bird in Arabic, a gold hunter or gold digger in Persian, and is also known as Pajaro Negro, meaning blackbird in Spanish.
Zaryab settled in Cordoba in 822 at the court of the then Caliph Abd-Al-Rahman II. His arrival coincided with a new impetus given by Abd-Al-Rahman II to cultural life, leading Andalusia to one of its major flowering periods. In Cordoba, Ziryab found prosperity, recognition of his art and unprecedented fame. He became the court entertainer, with a monthly salary of 200 golden Dinars in addition to many privileges. This promotion gave him a great opportunity to let his talent and creative spirit break free from any boundaries. He not only revolutionized music, but also made significant improvements to lifestyle and fashion.
In music, he was the first to introduce the lute (Al-U’d) that later became the Spanish guitar. He is credited, with Al-Kindi, with the addition of the fifth bass string to it and substituted the wooden plectrum for the eagle’s quill.
He was the first to come up with the revolutionary idea of the seasonal change of clothing – not just more or fewer layers, but 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. Ziryab also suggested different clothing for mornings, afternoons and evenings.
Ziryab is known to have invented an early toothpaste, which he popularised throughout Islamic Spain. The exact ingredients of this toothpaste are not currently known, but it was reported to have been both “functional and pleasant to taste.” He also introduced under-arm deodorants and “new short hairstyles leaving the neck, ears and eyebrows free”, as well as shaving for men.
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.
He concocted many new dishes – his most famous being an asparagus dish. 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.
He knew over 10,000 songs by heart and was the finest musician and singer of 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 revolutionized the court at Cordoba and made it the stylistic capital of its time. Whether introducing new clothes, styles, foods, hygiene products, or music, Ziryab changed al-Andalusian culture forever. The musical contributions of Ziryab alone are staggering, laying the early groundwork for classic Spanish music. Ziryab transcended music and style and became a revolutionary cultural figure in 8th and 9th century Iberia.