Do you ever stop to think how your everyday life has been shaped by people from the distant past?
Well, If you play the guitar, brush your teeth, or eat dessert after a meal, you owe a debt of gratitude to a Muslim musician who lived 1,200 years ago.
Abul-Hasan, better known as Ziryab, was a commoner born in Baghdad around 789 A.D. His family likely descended from North Africa, as his skin was black. Abul-Hasan had a gift for song that attracted the notice of the caliph, ruler of Baghdad, who summoned the young artist to perform at the palace. The caliph was so impressed by Abul-Hasan’s skill that he gave him the name “Ziryab,” meaning “Blackbird,” a reference to his beauty, dark skin, and talent. The moniker stuck with him for life.
Ziryab’s natural ability made other musicians jealous. When the caliph died in 813, "Blackbird" was exiled from Baghdad. Without a steady patron, Ziryab wandered the Islamic world for a decade, performing wherever he went. He eventually made his way to Al-Andalus, in the territory we now know as Andalusia, Spain.
The Emirate of Córdoba, which ruled over Al-Andalus, was then the wealthiest and most advanced country in Europe. The city of Córdoba boasted running water, paved streets, free schools, libraries, and 300,000 citizens at a time when Paris struggled to house 30,000. The new emir was enamored with music, and valued musicians above all other occupations. Ziryab settled in Córdoba in 822. He was welcomed there and so remained for the rest of his life.
The foreign musician immediately became a sensation. He introduced the Baghdadi oud instrument, the predecessor to the lute. He added an extra string to his oud, a step towards the evolution of the Spanish guitar. And he established the first-ever music conservatory in the city. His innovations kindled an Andalusian musical movement that continued for centuries. Andalusian classical music, or musiqa al-ala, is still a popular musical form in Morocco.
Ziryab became so influential that his own personal taste in fashion transformed Córdoban society. Men began to cut their hair short and shave daily to emulate Ziryab’s style. In addition, he taught locals how to make deodorant and toothpaste, something he likely discovered in his travels. Ziryab even opened a beauty parlor for ladies, where he taught women how to shape eyebrows, remove unwanted body hair, and cut their hair into bangs.
Instead of piling food onto platters, as was the custom at the time, Ziryab ate his meals in three separate courses, consisting of a soup, main dish, and sweet dessert served atop a tablecloth. Sound familiar? Each time you sit down to a three-course dinner, you are following in the 1,200 year-old footsteps of Ziryab.
By the time Ziryab died in 857, his innovations had become ingrained in Córdoban society. Centuries later during the European Renaissance, Andalusian music and culture spread to France and Italy, where its Islamic origins were eventually forgotten. Ziryab’s manners, fashion sense, and music shaped the standards by which most Europeans lived and became part of the fabric of the modern Western world.
That's why he's a Time Traveler Tours' #HistoryHero. Thanks to Tim R. Noddings for bringing this incredible influencer to our attention and for writing this beautiful tribute to his many contributions.