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Ziryab - Cultural Icon

The Early Life of Ziryab

A cultural icon of Iraqi/Persian origin named Abu l-Hasan 'Ali Ibn Nafi (c. 789 - 857 AD) was a true genius and a visionary. Possibly born into enslavement and of North African descent, but highly educated, he is considered a legend and a revolutionary who transformed the way people ate, socialized, and relaxed in Medieval Spain and whose achievements have shaped the lives of us all.

Abu l-Hasan 'Ali Ibn Nafi is known by the nicknames Ziryab or Zeryab which derive from the Arabic word for nightingale because of his melodious singing voice, or from the Persian word for “gold-hunter”. Ziryab is also known as Mirlo, blackbird, or “El Pájaro Negro” in Spanish.

Initially Ziryab achieved notoriety as the court entertainer of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, Iraq, which was the arbiter of style and decorum from the 8th to the 11th centuries. The court at Baghdad was a cultural mecca, where good taste in music, poetry, perfumes and clothes were measures of social distinction and a refined life-style.

Highly intelligent, Ziryab was a performer and a gifted student of the great Iraqi musician and composer, Ishaq al-Mawsili. When his skills as a musician surpassed those of his teacher, Ishaq al-Mawsili became furious and overcome with jealousy. He then

allegedly made Ziryab an offer to accept a sum of money and leave the court immediately or remain under threat of death. Ziryab was forced to flee Baghdad sometime after 813 AD, and began his long trek to Spain, which had been under Muslim control since 711 AD.

About 8th Century Spain Pre-Ziryab

Muslim expansionism had reached Spain in 711 A.D. when Berber troops invaded a nearly defenseless Hispania at Gibraltar. Spain at this time was ruled by the Visigoths. There was little resistance and they quickly took the Spanish capital of Toledo and within a few years had control of nearly the entire Iberian Peninsula.

Shortly after the invasion in 711, the city of Cordoba was made capital of Muslim Spain. By 720, the Muslims were in control of all of the Iberian Peninsula, except for a narrow strip along the north coast. They called their kingdom Al-Andalus, the southern part of which we now know as Andalusia.

In 756, Abd-al-Rhaman, the last descendent of the Umayyads of Damascus, settled there and proclaimed himself to be its ruler.

Ziryab Arrives in Spain

After leaving Baghdad, Ziryab travelled and performed along the Northern coast of Africa for some years until he wrote to Caliph Al-Hakam, the ruler of the emirate of

Al-Andalus, and offered his musical talents.

Delighted at the prospect of adding a Baghdadi musician to his court, the ruler agreed and offered Ziryab a handsome salary. Unfortunately, Caliph Al-Hakam was dead when Ziryab arrived.

The son of Al-Hakam, Caliph Abd Al-Rahman II, who was the fourth Umayyad ruler of Cordoba renewed the offer of a position and hired then 33-year-old Ziryab in 822 as Chief Court Musician/Entertainer. He was to serve as a Minister of Culture of sorts for all of Al-Andalus, which was soon to become the envy of Europe

Ziryab’s Many Accomplishments

As an arbiter of taste, style and manners, Ziryab is credited with a whole array of culture and etiquette principles that formed the bulk of Andalusi (and, later, North African) sophistication.


Ziryab, the musician is most known for revolutionizing medieval music. He was an expert player of the ‘Ud, a stringed musical instrument prominent in medieval and modern Islāmic music. It was the parent of the European lute.

Ziryab improved the instrument by adding a fifth bass string, and using an eagle's beak or quill instead of a wooden pick, which laid the groundwork for the invention of the guitar and classic Spanish music. It is said that his introduction of the music of the East into the Iberian Peninsula, paved the way for Spanish flamenco music centuries later.

According to Ziryab, the strings of the lute had symbolic meaning. He said the first four strings represented the bitterness of temper, the dark moods, blood, and coolness while the fifth string symbolized the soul.

Ziryab also established the first-ever music conservatory in Córdoba at the court of Abd Al-Rahman II, which gave rise to the genre of Andalusian classical music - Musiqa al-Ala—that is still a popular in Morocco today.


Ziryab’s many innovations continued in the field of personal hygiene. Ziryab is known to have invented an early toothpaste, introduced under-arm deodorants and persuaded the people of Cordoba to bathe twice a day; an unheard of level of cleanliness which unquestionably reduced disease.

He also introduced the use of salt for laundering clothing. Even today, salt is known to be a super stain remover and helpful in maintaining bright colors.


Ever the trendsetter, Ziryab is said to have also influenced local fashion. 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 colored silk robes for spring, pure white clothing in the summer and fine furs for winter.

Ziryab also suggested different clothing for mornings, afternoons and evenings.

He also left his mark in hair; suggesting bangs be added to hairstyles for women, and that men try new short hairstyles which would leave the neck, ears and eyebrows exposed. He also recommended shaving for men.


When Ziryab arrived in Al-Andalus, dining in Europe was a matter of crude consumption with little or no attention to refinement. Meals were served on platters on bare tables as per the Roman tradition.

A gastronome, Ziryab thought the presentation of food was an essential part of the aesthetic experience. He is credited with introducing the use of drinking glasses made from glass or crystal as a departure from the earthenware, or metalware drinking vessels of the time. He is also said to have introduced the first fork to be used in Córdoba.

A connoisseur of fine food, Ziryab introduced the concept of the multi-course meal. Dinner would now begin with a soup course, then an entrée and end with dessert. This custom rapidly caught on in the Iberian Peninsula and then spread all over the world.

Besides being the first to introduce the vegetable asparagus to the Iberian Peninsula, (my favorite of his cutting edge modernizations), Ziryab has to his credit modern-day versions of dishes such as Taqliyat Ziryab (a white bean stew), Zalabia (sweet fritters), and Ziriabi (a fried dough and meatball dish).

Although the name Ziryab is practically unknown in European circles, his deeds are well known in the Muslim world.

One reason for Ziryab's obscurity is because he spoke Arabic, and was part of the royal court of the Arab empire of Muslims from Arabia and North Africa who ruled most of Spain from 711 until 1492 when the Spanish armies of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella conquered them. This was in the same year that Columbus sailed for the New World.

Ziryab, whose achievements have shaped the lives of most humans should be highly respected among many.


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