The Forgotten Blackbird

Abu Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi was born near Baghdad circa 789. The son of a freed Ethiopian slave and a Kurd 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).

Ziryab showed an immense talent for music, claiming later in life that his compositions were given to him in his dreams by a Jinn. One day Ishaq Al-Mawsili was asked by the Caliph, Harun Al-Rashid, to show off his students to the court. As the most talented student, Ziryab was put forward for the immense honour of playing for the ruler of the world’s largest empire. Ziryab performed to perfection and the Caliph was greatly impressed. When he was finished the Caliph talked at length with Ziryab about the young musician’s skill. At the end of this conversation Ziryab is said to have proclaimed “I can sing what the other singers know, but most of my repertory is made up of songs suitable only to be performed before a Caliph like Your Majesty. The other singers don’t know those numbers. If Your Majesty permits, I’ll sing for you what human ears have never heard before”. The Caliph ordered Ishaq to hand Ziryab his lute so that he might hear these compositions. At this Ziryab protested “If the caliph wants me to sing in my master’s style, I’ll use his lute. But to sing in my own style, I need my own”. “They look alike to me” replied the Caliph, somewhat taken aback. “At first glance, yes,” said Ziryab, “but even though the wood and the size are the same, the weight is not. My lute weighs about a third less than Ishaq’s, and my strings are made of silk that has not been spun with hot water—which weakens them. The bass and third strings are made of lion gut, which is softer and more sonorous than that of any other animal. These strings are stronger than any others, and they can better withstand the striking of the pick”. Ziryab’s pick was also unusual: rather than being a customary wooden pick, Ziryab ostentatiously used an eagle’s claw. There was also a fifth string on the traditionally four string instrument. Ziryab had coloured each of his strings after the four Aristotelian Humours (choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic and melancholy). The fifth string was coloured red and symbolised the soul. Ziryab, by all accounts, lived up to his boasting and greatly moved the Caliph with his playing.

Having seen, for the first time, the true talent of his pupil and how that talent dwarfed his own, Ishaq grew jealous and angry. After the performance Ishaq cornered Ziryab and threatened to kill him if he did not leave Baghdad immediately. Ziryab duly left. Ishaq explained the absence to the Caliph as being the result of Ziryab’s anger at not having received a gift from the Leader of the Faithful for his performance.

Ziryab wandered for many years moving first into Syria, through Palestine to Egypt and on to Tunisia. Whilst in Tunisia he was contacted by a certain Abu Al-Nasr Mansur, the Jewish Chancellor to the Emir of Cordoba, Rahman II. Spain, at the time, was simply the farthest flung corner of the Muslim Empire and something of a backwater. Mansur had taken it upon himself to make Spain a new centre of culture to rival Baghdad and Damascus. He he had hired many famous musicians over the years, but upon hearing of Ziryab and his subsequent exile, made every effort to lure him to Spain. Ziryab arrived in Cordoba in 822 and soon rose to prominence as the adviser of all things a la mode.

Appalled by the rough nature of Spain, Ziryab embarked on a mission to civilize this final outpost of Islam. Ziryab then proceeded to introduce set course meals of soup, followed by fish, followed by a main course of meat, and finally a sweet final course. Whilst not a novelty elsewhere in the Empire this style of eating had not been seen in Western Europe since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire 400 years earlier and can still be seen in our own eating habits today. Having set out what to eat, Ziryab set about curbing the gluttonous manner of eating. Noticing that most seemed to eat with their hands, Ziryab introduced sets of cutlery and tablecloths to encourage people to eat more cleanly. He is even said to have re-designed the spoon to discourage shoveling food into the mouth and to instead encourage appreciation of flavour and cleanliness (i.e.not to get any soup in one’s beard).

This focus on cleanliness was carried over into other elements of life. Ziryab brought toiletries over from the orient. Every noble had to have the full set of perfumes, cosmetics, toothpaste and underarm deodorant. An extension of this was Ziryab’s insistence that men be clean-shaven. In an age where, to western eyes, the beard forms part of the image of the pious Muslim this sounds like a very radical change for the musician to make. Grooming wasnt limited to the beard though, hairstyles became a vital part of the fashion and everyone was eager to copy Ziryab’s hairstyles. Ziryab is also credited with establishing the first hair removal clinic in Western Europe. In Muslim Spain excess body hair was a social sin for both men and women.

Ziryab did not limit him self to cuisine, cleanliness and grooming. Fashion was, for the first time, altered into something recognisable to us in the modern era. Ziryab introduced winter and summer fashions as well as dress for the “half-seasons” (the seasons between seasons) with set dates for when one should switch. Under his regime fashion industry became a huge part of Spain’s appeal introducing coloured striped fabrics and translucent coats both of which can still be found in Morocco today.

It was not just the public exterior that was changed. Ziryab invaded the home with the insistence that colourless glass be used for drinking vessels rather than metal goblets. Leather furniture was also introduced as a vital component of the houses of the wealthy.

In addition to this Ziryab encouraged Mansur to invite to Cordoba a whole range of people from across the Empire. Jewish doctors from North Africa and Iraq, and astrologers brought from India (as well as chess and polo). Under Ziryab’s guidance Cordoba would become one of the most important cities of the Muslim world in matters of science and culture, easily matching if not exceeding the courts of Damascus and Baghdad. Spain also became a symbol of religious tolerance in a golden age of collaboration between the Jews, Christians and Muslims, glimpses of which we can see of in cities like Toledo.

Perhaps Ziryab’s greatest contribution to the field of music was instruction. He founded a conservatory of music in Cordoba, the first of its kind. He introduced a curriculum consisting of three stages: First the study of rhythm, meter and the words of songs taught to the accompaniment of musical instruments; second, the mastery of the melody; and third an introduction to za’ulah (gloss). He would have a student sit down on a round cushion and make him use the full power of his voice. If he found the voice of the student was weak, he would tie a turban around the waist to “increase” the voice. If the student stammered or clenched his teeth, Ziryab would put in his mouth a small piece of wood in order to expand the jaws, and he would order them to say certain words, which if done clearly would gain admission for the student. It was in this conservatory that a great number of students, including his concubine Mat’ah and his daughter Hamdunah, were trained and became famous for their singing, dancing and musical composition. There is a theory proclaimed by some that the tradition of Flamenco, with many of their traditional songs originating in Iraq, was started during this time of Ziryab’s music school and it is quite possible that he brought many traditional Iraqi songs when he came to Spain. If so this would be an indelible testament to Ziryab’s hidden influence throughout the centuries. What is clearly stated is that Ziyab’s music college around 200 years later was still a great centre of music credited with developing counterpoint and polyphony.

As a result of his huge contribution Emir Rahman II lavished Ziryab with gifts and an immense salary. Ziryab was paid 200 gold dinars a month with a bonus of 500 gold dinars on Midsummer and New Years, and an additional 1000 gold dinars on Islamic holidays. On top of this he was given a small palace in Cordoba and several land owning villas across Spain. On one of these villas Ziryab is said to have started growing asparagus introduced from the east, among the first to be grown in Spain.

This popularity and favour undoubtedly drew the envy of others. One of them was the poet, Ibn Habib, who wrote “I am hard pressed, yet what I wish is an easy thing for the Merciful’s power. One thousand red ones, or even less, would accept a scholar, whose wish may have been too great: Ziryab was given this sum, no more, no less yet my profession is surely nobler than his”. On one occasion a satirist, Yahrya’b al Hakim, was exiled for making fun of the polymath.

On the whole Ziryab’s contribution to the life and culture of Cordoba and Spain were greatly appreciated and helped to developed a golden age for the Muslim state. In time Cordoba’s power and prestige would grow to the point that it established its own Caliphate and became one of the world’s most important centres of learning. There is a tendency in the West to ignore the achievements of Muslim Spain and as a result characters like Ziryab have been mostly forgotten by us. In the Muslim world, however, he is still highly celebrated as a paragon of Muslim achievement and high culture. Today there is not a single country in the Muslim world that does not have Ziryab’s name on a street, hotel, cafe or club. The Blackbird had an enormous impact on Muslim Spain and therefore, by extension, Christian Spain and Western Europe as a whole. His introductions of culinary etiquette, fashion, grooming and music can still be seen in our everyday lives.

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5 comments

  1. That’s absolutely fascinating, I had never heard of this person who had made such a massive impact on Western culture. He should be better known.

  2. ElKurdo Guitarra · · Reply

    as a good musician a Kurd (like all Kurds)i just learned about Ziyrab (Zoraw in Kurdish) and i feel proud to be our blood one is also founder of Flamenco.when i was watching Copla spanish and Dengbej Kurdish music and songs style is similar and unique in the world.for example our dengbejs sometimes sings one week none stop.and i hope this cultures can be protected .Greetings from Kurdistan to Spain.Cordoba ,Kurdava.

  3. ElKurdo Guitarra · · Reply

    Ziyrab ,but mostly known as in Kurdish Zeyrab,zeyrav,zeyrab,Zeraw Zirab, means goldwater

  4. flamenco, gracias

  5. Ziryab word roots in Persian, not Arabic, it means that (zir(zaar)= gold) and (yab= seeking)

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