Ziryab, the Black scholar who has revolutionized Europe

While Africans and Arabs were ruling Spain, a phenomenal man introduced some habits that have changed Europe forever. The talent of that multidisciplinary genius, as you will see, made him one of the most influential men of all time.

Ziryab tenant son luth
Ziryab holding his lute (author of illustration unknown)

Abu al-Hassan ‘Abu Ibn Nafi’ was born in 5025 of the African era (789 AD) in present Iraq. We do not know whether he was a descendant of some Africans enslaved by the Arabs or a descendant of the first African inhabitants of Mesopotamia. Many falsifiers try to subtract that illustrious man from the black world’s legacy, yet the sources are clear about his appearance.

According to the data of the University of California in Santa Barbara, the oldest documented description of Ziryab is that of the Persian-Spanish named Isa al-Razi, son of the historian Ahmad al-Razi who was born 30 years after Ziryab’s death. Ahmad al-Razi, himself a descendant of a prestigious family of historians, lived in Cordoba, Ziryab’s town. He was certainly in touch with some contemporaries of the scientist. Isa al-Razi described Ziryab as a black slave; description taken in the 11th century by Ibn Hayyan and in the 17th century by Al-Maqqari. Finally, the reference book of history, the General History of Africa, written by the Unesco, in its third volume and on page 297, describes Ziryab as a Black man.

Very early, Abu al-Hassan showed some talent for music, and owing to his extremely black skin, his soft and singing voice and his highly distinguished manners, he inherited the pseudonym Ziryab, that is to say black bird.

Ziryab was the pupil or the slave of the renowned musician Ibrahim al-Mawsili in Baghdad. Quite quickly, he became more talented than his master, and at the request of Caliph Harun al-Rashid who wanted to hear something new, Mawsili introduced his apprentice to the sovereign. Ziryab, his lute in his arms, sang so well that al-Rashid, upset, said that he had to punish all those who had hitherto prevented him from knowing that man. Jealous and feeling his glory escaping him, Mawsili threatened Ziryab with all evils if he did not leave the country.

The black bird went into exile with his family, all financed by Mawsili. He settled in Kairouan in present Tunisia where he enriched his music, and soon became well-known for his talent. At that time, the black Berbers of the Maghreb – the so-called Moors or Saracens – and the Arabs had conquered Spain and Portugal for almost a century. The Iberian Peninsula was under the reign of the Arab and Black dynasty of the Umayyads, which preceded those of the black Almoravids and the black Almohads.

Ziryab’s reputation reached the ears of the Umayyad King al-Hakam, who took him to Cordoba, the capital of Moorish Spain. On his arrival in 5058, Ziryab heard the Sultan’s death, but his son, the new king Abd al-Rahman II, a great lover of science and arts, confirmed the invitation of the musician of Baghdad. He settled him with his family in a luxurious home, with a comfortable salary and gave him free rein to express his genius.

Music

Ziryab created the first music school in Cordoba, and was praised for his original teaching methods. A piece of wood between the teeth or a belt on the stomach enabled him to pull difficult vocal notes out of his students. He added a string to the 4 of the classical lute and revolutionized the instrument. With a phenomenal memory, he knew almost 1000 songs by heart. He became the official musician of Abd al-Rahman II. He is considered as the father of the Andalusian music and one of the fathers of the Arab world music.

Fashion and hygiene

La division de la mode occidentale en 4 saisons été-automne-printemps-hiver est dû à Ziryab
The division of the Western fashion in 4 seasons summer-fall-spring-winter was made thanks to Ziryab

Before the arrival of Ziryab, Europeans were changing their wardrobes twice a year. The black bird advised them to add two collections, to stick to the 4 seasons. This is how this indissociable habit from the western fashion till date was born, where we speak of summer-autumn-winter-spring collections. Ziryab also spread the use of more colorful fabrics and the use of salt in laundry which was making clothes cleaner. Women at that time used to wear long hair just divided by a stripe in the middle. Ziryab introduced a number of new hairstyles, among which the fringe made a fury.

He invented or at least popularized the use of toothpaste, and added to its functionality that pleasant taste notion that is known today. He created a cosmetology school and popularized the depilatory cream, the eyebrow care for women and the shaving for men. He created and popularized perfumes and deodorants, prompted the inhabitants to take two showers a day. He made himself the master of fashion in Europe. The least of his recommendations and innovations were applied already. He became a celebrity.

Cooking and culinary art

Ziryab invented some new dishes including desserts. Some are still consumed in Spain and Algeria. As a botanist, he introduced and promoted asparagus. He replaced the heavy golden and silver crockery by crystal sets. But above all, he revolutionized the way of serving meals. Before his arrival, the meal was fully served in the same plate. Ziryab is the man who split the meal into three phases: starter-main course -dessert. The famous art of the table which has built up the pride and arrogance of present Europeans finds its origin in a black man. How ironic!

Ziryab est à l'origine de l'art de la table en Europe avec la division du repas en entrée-plat de résistance-dessert
Ziryab is at the origin of the art of the table in Europe with the meal division in starter-main course -dessert

Exact sciences and politics

Ziryab was also a scholar in the fields of geography, astronomy, and knew a bit about all the exact sciences. The whole aristocracy was eager to debate with him. He brought in some Jewish physicians from North Africa and some Indian astrologists to enrich Moorish Spain. Those Indians popularized chess in Europe. The black bird was a senior adviser and friend of the Sultan, and was invited to give his opinion on political issues. The man became so great that one day Abd al-Rahman II traveled to visit him on his return from a journey. Ziryab was the man with whom it was necessary to be seen. The black genius died at the age of 68, leaving his 8 sons and 2 daughters to continue his legacy meaningfully.

That African from Iraq is thus at the origin of the 4 seasons in the European fashion concept, the famous art of the table with the division starter – main course -dessert, the hygienist notions in medieval Europe, and one of the Fathers of the Arab and Andalusian music. Through these absolutely major achievements, Ziryab is one of the most influential scholars of all time.

Hotep !

By: Lisapo ya Kama

Bibliography :

  • The Golden Age of the Moor by Ivan Van Sertima
  • Robert W. Lebling Jr for Saudi Aramco
  • Wikipedia
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