Ziryab, the Musician, Astronomer, Fashion Designer and Gastronome
Abul-Hasan Alí Ibn Nafí, known as Ziryab, was born in Iraq in 789.
He was nicknamed Ziryab because of his melodious voice and his dark complexion, features which people compared with mir it, a singing bird of black plumage.
He was a gifted pupil of Ishaq al-Mawsili, a renowned musician in Baghdad and a favourite of the Abbassid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid.
Ziryab's talent and excellence in music slowly overtook the position of his teacher, which brought him close to the Caliph and his court. Al-Hakem, the Umayyad Caliph and father of Abd-Al-Rahman II invited him to Andalusia.
Zaryab settled in the court of Cordoba in 822, which was then under the Caliph Abd-Al-Rahman II. His arrival coincided with a new impetus, which was given, by Abd-Al-Rahman II, to cultural life leading Andalusia to one of its major flowering periods. There, Ziryab found prosperity, recognition of his art and fame without precedents. 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 creation brake free from any boundaries. He did not only revolutionise music but also made significant improvements to medieval lifestyle and fashion.
In music, he was the first to introduce the lute (Al-U'd) to Spain and Europe in general. He is credited, with Al-Kindi, for the addition of the fifth bass string to it and substituted the wooden plectrum with the eagle's pen. In Spain, as well as North Africa, he substituted the singing system of Medina with that of Iraq (Reference: Plaencia, G. (1928), ' History of Literature Arabic-Spanish', Barcelona, page 41).
He established the first conservatory in the world, which included the teaching of harmony and composition and was to develop even further in the following centuries. Regarding musical theory, he rearranged it completely, setting free the metrical and rhythmical parameters and creating new ways of expression (mwashah, zajal, and nawbah suites). Many, like Julian Ribera, even maintain that counterpoint and polyphony were first developed in the Cordoba conservatory around 1000 AD. Ziryab is credited with compiling a repertoire with 24 Nawbaat (vocal and instrumental suites). Each Nuba was a composite of vocal and instrumental pieces organised in nine movements and each movement had its own rhythm. He knew more than one thousand songs, of which some, according to Al-Maqqari, belong to Ptolemy.
He transformed social customs as seen in the dress and the hair styling, in the kitchen and the way people eat, socialise and relax, and in the furniture and tools he invented to follow this living transformation. He replaced the gold glasses by others made of glass and crystal. (Soon initiated their manufacture in Andalusia., see Lévi-Provençal, Évariste (1950), 'Histoire de l'Espagne musulmane; Le califat umaiyade de Cordoue', Nouvelle édition, rev. et augm. G. P. Maisonneuve - (Histoire du Monde de l'Islam), Paris).
He spread the use of the tablecloth and the wearing of white dress in the summer. He also introduced new culinary recipes, new tableware, new sartorial fashions and even the games of chess and polo. Reference: (Ree Hans, (1999), ‘The Human Comedy of Chess', Russell Enterprises, English Algebraic Notation).
Ziryab's achievements gained him respect of the following generations, even till the present day. In the Muslim world, there is not a single country that does not have a street, a hotel, a club or a café named after him. In the West, scholars and musicians still pay him tribute today. An example of them is Henry Terrace (see above) the following:
"After the arrival of this oriental (Ziryab), a wind of pleasure and luxurious life blew through Cordoba. An atmosphere filled with poetry and exquisite delight surrounded Ziryab; he composed his songs at night in the company of two servants who played the lute. He gave his art an unprecedented value, nearly magic, especially as he explains the symbolic significance of the strings of the lute. He maintained that the first four represented the bile (bitterness of temper), the coolness, blood and the black moods, while the fifth he considered as the soul. He was also scholar renown for his knowledge in astronomy and geography.
Ziryab became connected to themes of elegance; with his refined and luxurious tastes he defined the court of the Caliphs. He brought from the Orient, the toilet accessories (perfumes, cosmetics, toothpaste) and new modes, which left great impact. Most Cordobans imitated his hairstyle. This great artist was also a gastronome introducing a number of exotic unknown recipes.
Ziryab launched a number of modes and fashions, which lasted for centuries. He brought to Spain crystal glasses and leather furniture. He introduced winter and summer dresses, setting exactly the dates when each fashion is worn. He also added dresses of half season for between seasons. Through him, the luxurious dress of the Orient was introduced in Spain. Under his influence a fashion manufacturing was set up producing coloured striped fabric and coats of transparent fabric, which is still found in Morocco today.
Without a doubt, a lone man could not achieve this transformation. It is rather the development, which shook the Muslim world in general although the historic legend attributes all these changes to the figure of Ziryab and his promoter, Abd-Al-Rahman II." (Translated from French) Terrace, H. (1958) 'Islam d'Espagne' une rencontre de l'Orient et de l'Occident", Librairie Plon, Paris, pp.52-53.
by: FSTC Limited, Fri 13 June, 2003