No one person from the Umayyad period of Islamic Spain (755-1000CE) better illustrates its attainments in culture and civilization better than the man known as Ziryab.
Imagine one man who combines the talents and sensibilities of Jimmy Hendrix, Robert Graves, Ferran Adrià, Giorgio Armani and Martha Stewart – and you come close to a portrait of Ziryab.
Abu Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi was born near Baghdad circa 789. The son of a freed Ethiopian slave and a Kurd, he would become one of the most influential men in history, a paragon of the culture of the Empire of Islam, and yet he is almost completely unknown in the Western world. In the histories he his known simply as Ziryab, which means the Blackbird (possibly a reference to his skin colour). Very little is known of his station or of his childhood. His father must have been an important member of the court of the Caliph as the first we hear of Ziryab is under the tutelage of the court musician, Ishaq Al-Mawsili (sometimes called Isaac of Mosul). From an early age he showed immense talents as a musician.
He arrived in Córdoba in 821, having been exiled from Baghdad by Ishaq Al-Mawsili, who accused him of trying to replace him in the favours of the Caliph.
To welcome Ziryab and his family, the Emir of Córdoba – Abd Al-Rahman II (the great-grandson of Abd al-Rahman I) gave him a mansion, sent him his daily provisions and provided him with a handsome wage. Although only young – at 33 the same age as the Emir – he was already renowned throughout the Arab world.
All this before he had even heard Ziryab sing and play. It is said when he finally did, he would never listen to any other singer.
With the backing of the Emir, he served as what we would today call a Minister of Culture. In this role, his first act was to found a school of music. And not just any school of music but one that encouraged experimentation and innovation.
He had already revolutionized the Oud, the stringed instrument of the day, by adding a fifth string to it and using, as a plectrum, an eagles talon or quill, heightening the instrument’s flexibility.
As well as a singer, composer and song writer, he was also a poet, a student of astronomy and geography. And he loved to eat and dine well.
Under his influence, palace dinners were served in a fixed sequence of dishes, as opposed to just being piled on the table. He taught craftsmen to produced tooled and fitted leather table coverings, he replaced the heavy gold and silver goblets used since Visigothic times with delicate crystal, and re-designed the bulky soup spoon with a lighter model. All this to the delight of and with the approval of the Emir.
But his inventiveness and refinement also appeared on the table. It was Ziryab who introduced Córdobans to asparagus, previously dismissed as a weed. He invented dishes, including guirlache, a confection of walnut honey and sesame, still made today in Zaragoza.
Many other dishes bear or bore his name: taqliyat Ziryab, meatballs and triangular pieces of dough fried in coriander oil: ziriabi, roasted and salted broad beans; zalabia, spirals of fried batter soaked in saffron syrup.
He is said to have invented toothpaste, although we have no idea of the ingredients. He opened a beauty parlour not far from the Emir’s palace, where he created women’s hairstyles, taught the shaping of eyebrows and the use of depilatories for removing bodily hair.
He introduced new perfumes and cosmetics. Some of Ziryab’s fashion tips he borrowed from the elite social circles of Baghdad, then the world’s most cosmopolitan city. Others were twists on local custom. Most became widespread simply because Ziryab advocated them He was a celebrity, and people gained status simply by emulating him.
He decreed Spain’s first seasonal fashion calendar. In springtime, men and women were to wear bright colors in their cotton and linen tunics, shirts, blouses and gowns. Ziryab introduced colorful silk clothing to supplement traditional fabrics. In summer, white clothing was the rule. When the weather turned cold, Ziryab recommended long cloaks trimmed with fur, which became all the rage in Al-Andalus.
But beyond fashion, food and music, Ziryab’s influence was felt in the Emir’s court in matters of state. Abd al-Rahman II re-organised the administration away from Roman Visigothic model, and Ziryab’s hand can be seen in this as well.
Abd a-Rahman II died in 852, and his friend and adviser Ziryab followed him five years later. But Ziryab’s influence lived on through his eight sons and two daughters all of whom were musicians and singers.
His legacy was a cultivated and civilized Córdoba, a cultural capital and seat of learning. A contemporary account said of him: ‘Kings and great people took him for a pattern of pattern of manners and education, and his name became for ever celebrated among the inhabitants of Andalus.’
As the first millennium drew to a close, students from France, England and the rest of Europe flocked to Córdoba to study science, medicine and philosophy and to take advantage of the great municipal library with its 600,000 volumes. When they returned to their home countries, they took with them not only knowledge, but also art, music, cuisine, fashion and manners. Europe found itself awash with new ideas and new customs, and among the many streams that flowed northward from the Iberian Peninsula, more than one had been channeled by Ziryab.