There are very few periods in medieval history where people of different faiths rubbed shoulders with one another, exchanged their writings, debated the burning issues of the day and in the end were able to peacefully create a synthesis of diverse cultures. One such epoch was in Moorish Spain, under a slew of tolerant and prosperous Muslim rulers, also known as the period of “La Convivencia” (The Coexistence).
Then, under the Moors, a symbiosis of diverse cultures and peoples gave birth to some of history’s greatest personalities and their amazing creations. Muslim Spain was far from perfect but ensured a degree of coexistence and harmony never witnessed in the Iberian Peninsula before.
From this fertile period of learning in the Iberian Peninsula emerged the charismatic polymath Ziryab, trying his hand in subjects as varied as fashion design, music, poetry, gastronomy, astronomy, and branches of science. The legacy of this great polymath is rarely heard of and talked about, which is particularly surprisingly as his legacy imbues almost every aspect of our modern times.
Ziryab’s fairytale like life started in the sandy dunes of the Arabian Peninsula, where he was born into slavery, in Mosul, in modern-day Iraq, in 789 AD. Mosul was a part of an expanding Abbasid empire, which itself was ushering an age of learning and enlightened scholarship.
Called AbuI-Hasan or Ali Ibn Nafi, he was nicknamed Ziryab for the black colour of his skin and his melodious singing. This flamboyant powerhouse did not limit his talent to any one field in particular.
After being tutored by the finest musician-teachers in Baghdad and Mosul, and consequently being threatened by his rivals, who had been mainly his mentors in Baghdad, Ziryab ventured out to Cordoba, which was being ruled by Arab-Berber Muslims. There, in the court of the enlightened ruler, Abdul Rahman III, Ziryab was pulled in as the Court Entertainer in 822 AD.
Ziryab was very much adored by his audience, and it was said he knew and composed more than 10,000 songs, and also brought innovation into music by recrafting the lute with rare materials like a lion cub’s gut for strings. His lasting contribution to this day in the field of music remains his improvement and mastery of the Oud, a middle eastern short neck lute type musical instrument, which to this day, is played in his native Iraq and also in his adopted homeland of Spain— a true performer winning hearts everywhere.
Ziryab is often credited with introducing perfumes to the lands he visited and the European continent at large. When it came to looking great and exuding panache, he was pioneering as well. He introduced shaving for men and short haircuts for both genders, with bangs that came to eye level, as a fashionable way of beating the fiercely hot weather conditions in those lands.
A true gastronome extraordinaire, Ziryab’s influence is nowhere more prevalent than on the dinner table where we are presented with the structure of the traditional three-course meal consisting of entrée, the maincourse, and dessert. The tablecloth, which was supposedly derived from Erasmus’s set of table manners actually came from his idea of covering the tables with leather covers and drinking from glassware rather than large, heavy goblets.
This great artist is also credited with introducing a number of exotic recipes which are now part and parcel of Spanish cuisine.
Like many of the educated class at the time who experimented in alchemy and other sciences, Ziryab’s intellectual reach also extended to clothing, for which he invented colourful dyes and chemicals and introduced the idea of seasonal fashions.
He also created a chart for what clothing one should wear during the different times of the day. When it came to looking presentable, Ziryab was at the forefront for change, he introduced a type of toothpaste, encouraged twice-daily baths and developed the world’s first deodorant.
From the dining space to the living hall to the baths to the podium, Ziryab’s influence in our modern day and age has touched us all. A famed Yale historian, Maria Rosa Menocal, called Muslim Spain, “The Ornament of the World” and the epithet stands true for Ziryab as well, as he was one of the great ornaments who have graced the heritage of a spectrum of cultures.