He is remembered as the blackbird, el pajaro negro, in Spain to this day. He is credited with introducing the lute, toothpaste, deodorant, tablecloths, glass tableware and the three-course meal to the court at Cordoba, as well as asparagus, a new hairstyle and seasonal fashions. He was reportedly a composer who memorised 10,000 songs himself and was the founder of a music school.
The legends continue. He is said to have designed a new, lightweight style of lute with an extra, fifth string. The first four strings were said to symbolise the four humours. This new fifth string, he is reported to have said, represented the soul.
His name was Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Nafi’. He was born around 789 somewhere in the middle east. Persia, Kurdistan and Mesopotamia have all been suggested. The accounts agree that he studied music in Baghdad as a young man. They also agree on his nickname, Zaryab or Ziryab, but not its meaning or origin. Does it come from the arabic word for blackbird, shahrur, or from the persian words for liquid gold, zar ab? This is a political minefield that I prefer not to enter. In Baghdad the religion came from the arabs but a large part of the civilisation came from the persians, so there was probably a degree of tension between the two cultures.
The accounts all agree that he was forced to leave Baghdad, but the reasons given vary. Was it political exile after the civil war between the caliph al-Amin and his brother al-Mansur? If he was a protege of al-Amin it would have been prudent to make himself scarce after al-Mansur took over. The story told by ibn Khaldun several centuries later was that he excelled his music master, who became jealous and paid him to leave. However, that story had been told before, about a musician at the Persian court a couple of centuries previously. Maybe it was too good a tale to waste.
It is agreed that he travelled across north Africa, and spent some time at the court of the emir Ziyadat Allah I in Ifriqiya, modern Tunisia. From there he was invited to Cordoba. The emir who had issued the invitation, al-Hakam, was dead by the time he and his family arrived in 822, but al-Hakam’s son and successor, Abd al Rahman, upheld it. He was given a villa in the city, land in the countryside and a stipend of 200 gold pieces per month, guaranteed for thirty years.
Ziryab repaid Abd al-Rahman’s investment. He systematised the study of music and founded a conservatoire. His teaching methods were replicated across north Africa. The styles of music he explored, combining middle eastern traditions with the indigenous music of al-Andalus, are the basis of a large part of the musical traditions in Spain and north Africa to this day.
He is also remembered for his contributions to civilised city living. He made it popular for men to be clean-shaven and for women to have short hair with a fringe on the forehead (US: bangs). He invented a soap with rosewater and salts. He introduced seasonal fashions: fresh colours in spring, white in the heat of the summer, fiery reds and yellow in autumn and dark, warm furs in winter.
At the table, he replaced the traditional metal drinking goblets with drinking vessels of crystal. He is credited with inventing the leather tablecloth and the three-course meal of soup or starter, followed by a main course and finishing with a dessert or nuts. This latter was a completely new invention. Not even Baghdadis had three-course meals. Many dishes are named after him. It is possible that the Indian sweet dish, the jalebi, derives its name from Ziryab.
He invited other learned men from his homeland. Indian visitors brought the game of chess. He invited doctors and astrologers from elsewhere in the arabic-speaking world to come to Cordoba to share their learning.
He died in 857. His children continued his work. One of his daughters married the court vizier. His legacy is fondly remembered in Spain.
A christian and a muslim playing lutes, cover of the cantigas de santa Maria by Alfonso el Sabio, king of Toledo, 13th century.