Flight of the Blackbird
Written by Robert W. Lebling Jr.
Illustrated by Norman MacDonald
If you eat asparagus, or if you start your meal with soup
and end with dessert, or if you use toothpaste, or if you
wear your hair in bangs, you owe a lot to one of the
greatest musicians in history.
was known as Ziryab, a colloquial Arabic term that
translates as "blackbird." He lived in Medieval Spain more
than a thousand years ago. He was a freed slave who made
good, charming the royal court at Córdoba with his songs. He
founded a music school whose fame survived more than 500
years after his death. Ibn Hayyan of Córdoba, one of Arab
Spain's greatest historians, says in his monumental Al-Muqtabas
or The Citation that Ziryab knew thousands of songs by
heart and revolutionized the design of the musical
instrument that became the lute. He spread a new musical
style around the Mediterranean, influencing troubadours and
minstrels and affecting the course of European music.
He was also his generation's arbiter of taste, style and
manners, and he exerted enormous influence on Medieval
European society. How people dressed, what and how they ate,
how they groomed themselves, what music they enjoyed all
were influenced by Ziryab.
If you've never heard of this remarkable artist, it's not
surprising. With the twists and turns of history, his name
has dropped from public memory in the Western world. But the
changes he brought to Europe are very much a part of the
reality we know today.
One reason Ziryab is unknown to us is that he spoke Arabic,
and was part of the royal court of the Arab empire in Spain.
Muslims from Arabia and North Africa ruled part of Spain
from 711 until 1492. The last remnant of Arab rule in the
Iberian Peninsula, the Kingdom of Granada, was conquered by
the armies of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the same
year that Columbus sailed for the New World.
The Arabs called their Iberian domain Al-Andalus a direct
reference to the Vandals, who occupied the peninsula in the
fifth century and whose legacy was still pervasive when
Muslim forces arrived in the eighth and that name
survives today in the name of Spain's southern province,
Andalusia. At its peak, Al-Andalus experienced a golden age
of civilization that was the envy of all Europe, and which
set the stage for the European Renaissance that followed.
Muslims, Christians and Jews interacted in a convivencia a "living-together" of tolerance and cooperation
unparalleled in its time. Influences from Arab Spain spread
to France and throughout Europe, and from there to the
Americas. It was in this context that the achievements of
Ziryab became part of western culture.
Ziryab's achievements were not forgotten in the Arab world,
and it is from historians there that we know of his life and
accomplishments. As the 17th-century Arab historian al-Maqqari
says in his Nafb al-Tib or Fragrant Breeze, "There
never was, either before or after him, a man of his
profession who was more generally beloved and admired."
Blackbird was actually named Abu al-Hasan 'Ali ibn Nafi',
and he was born in about the year 789 in the land now called
Iraq, perhaps in its capital, Baghdad. Some Arab historians
say he was a freed slave apparently a page or personal
servant whose family had served al-Mahdi, the caliph or
ruler of the Baghdad-based Abbasid empire from 775 until his
death in 785. In those days, many prominent musicians were
slaves or freedmen, some of African origin, others from
Europe or the Middle East (including Kurdistan and Persia).
Historians differ over whether Ziryab was African, Persian
or Kurdish. According to Ibn Hayyan, 'Ali Ibn Nafi' was
called Blackbird because of his extremely dark complexion,
the clarity of his voice and "the sweetness of his
Blackbird studied music under the famous singer and royal
court musician Ishaq al-Mawsili or Isaac of Mosul. Ishaq,
his even more celebrated father, Ibrahim, and Ziryab are the
three artists known as the fathers of Arabic music.
Baghdad was then a world center for culture, art and
science. Its most famous ruler was Harun al-Rashid, who
succeeded al-Mahdi. Harun was a lover of music, and brought
many singers and musicians to the palace for the
entertainment of his guests. Ishaq, as Harun's chief
musician, trained a number of students in the musical arts,
among them Blackbird. Ziryab was intelligent and had a good
ear; outside his lessons, he surreptitiously learned the
songs of his master, which were said to have been complex
and difficult even for an expert. Ishaq did not realize how
much Ziryab had learned until Harun himself asked to hear
the young musician.
In Ibn Hayyan's account (as related by al-Maqqari), Ishaq
told the caliph, "Yes, I've heard some nice things from
Ziryab, some clear and emotional melodies particularly
some of my own rather unusual renditions. I taught him those
songs because I considered them especially suited to his
Ziryab was summoned, and he sang for Harun al-Rashid.
Afterward, when the caliph spoke to him, Ziryab answered
"gracefully, with real charm of manner." Harun asked him
about his skill, and Blackbird replied, "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."
raised his eyebrows, and ordered that master Ishaq's lute be
handed to Ziryab. The Arabian lute or 'ud, model of
the European lute and relative of the guitar, was an
instrument with four courses of strings, a body shaped like
half a pear, and a bent, fretless neck.
Ziryab respectfully declined the instrument. "I've brought
my own lute," he said, "Which I made myself, stripping the
wood and working it, and no other instrument satisfies me.
I left it at the palace gate and, with your permission, I'll
send for it."
Harun sent for the lute and he examined it. It looked like
Ishaq al-Mawsuli's instrument
"Why won't you play your master's lute?" the caliph asked.
"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 this
"They look alike to me," Harun said.
"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 a sharpened eagle's claw, rather than the
usual piece of carved wood. He had also,
added a fifth course of strings to the instrument.
Harun was satisfied. He ordered Ziryab to perform, and the
young man began a song he had composed himself. The caliph
was quite impressed. He turned to al-Mawsuli and said, "If I
thought you had been hiding this man's extraordinary
ability, I'd punish you for not telling me about him.
Continue his instruction until it's completed. For my part,
I want to contribute to his development."
Ziryab had apparently concealed his finest talents from his
own teacher. When Ishaq was finally alone with his pupil, he
raged about being deceived. He said frankly that he was
jealous of Ziryab's skill, and feared the pupil would soon
replace the master in the caliph's favor.
"I could pardon this in no man, not even my own son," Ishaq
said. "If I weren't still somewhat fond of you, I wouldn't
hesitate to kill you, regardless of the consequences. Here
is your choice: Leave Baghdad, take up residence far from
here, and swear that I'll never hear from you again. If you
do this, I'll give you enough money to meet your needs. But
if you choose to stay and spite me I warn you, I'll risk
my life and all I possess to crush you. Make your choice!"
Ziryab did not hesitate; he took the money and left the
Abbasid capital. Ishaq explained his protégé’s absence by
claiming that Ziryab was mentally unbalanced and had left
Baghdad in a rage at not receiving a gift from the caliph.
"The young man is possessed," Ishaq told Harun al-Rashid.
"He's subject to fits of frenzy that are horrible to
witness. He believes the jinn speak with him and
inspire his music. He's so vain he believes his talent is
unequaled in the world. I don't know where he is now. Be
thankful, Your Majesty, that he's gone."
There was a germ of truth in Ishaq's tale: According to Ibn
Hayyan and others, Ziryab did believe that in his dreams he
heard the songs of the jinn, the spirit beings of
Islamic and Arab lore. He would wake from a dream in the
middle of the night and summon his own students, teaching
them the melodies he had heard in his dreams.
As Reinhart Dozy notes in Histoire des Musulmans
d'Espagne, "None knew better than Ishaq that there was
no insanity in all this. What true artist, indeed, whether
believing in jinn or not, has not known moments when
he has been under the sway of emotions hard to define, and
savoring of the supernatural?"
Ziryab and his family fled from Baghdad to Egypt and crossed
North Africa to Kairouan in present-day Tunisia, seat of the
Aghlabid dynasty of Ziyadat Allah I. There he was welcomed
by the royal court. But he had no intention of staying in
Kairouan; his eyes were on Spain. Under the Umayyads,
Córdoba was fast becoming a cultural jewel to rival Baghdad,
and Blackbird thought Córdoba might be a fit setting for his
Ziryab wrote to al-Hakam, ruler of the emirate of Al-Andalus,
and offered his musical skills. Al-Hakam, delighted with the
prospect of adding a Baghdad musician to his court, wrote
back inviting Ziryab to proceed to Córdoba. He offered the
musician a handsome salary. Ziryab and his family packed
their bags and headed overland to the Strait of Gibraltar, where they embarked on a ship bound for Algeciras, Spain.
When Ziryab arrived in Spain in the year 822, he was shocked
to learn that al-Hakam was dead. Devastated, the young
musician prepared to return to North Africa. But thanks to
the glowing recommendation of Abu al-Nasr Mansur, a Jewish
musician of the Córdoban royal court, al-Hakam's son and
successor 'Abd al-Rahman II renewed the invitation to Ziryab.
meeting with the 33-year-old wonder from Baghdad, 'Abd
al-Rahman who was about the same age made him an
attractive offer. Ziryab would receive a handsome salary of
200 gold pieces per month, with bonuses of 500 gold pieces
at midsummer and the new year and 1000 on each of the two
major Islamic holidays. He would be given 200 bushels of
barley and 100 bushels of wheat each year. He would receive
a modest palace in Córdoba and several villas with
productive farmland in the countryside. Naturally, Ziryab
accepted the offer; overnight he became a prosperous member
of the landed upper class in Islamic Spain.
Abd al-Rahman's objective in hiring the young musician was
to bring culture and refinement to the rough-and-ready
country of Al-Andalus, the wild west of the Arab world and
not too long ago a "barbarian" Gothic land far from the
civilized centers of Damascus and Baghdad. The ruler's own
Umayyad family had come as exiles from Damascus, where they
had ruled an Islamic empire for several hundred years. Now
the power rested with the Abbasids in Baghdad, and that city
had become a magnet for scientists, artists and scholars of
In fact, 'Abd al-Rahman offered Ziryab employment before
even asking him to perform. And when he eventually did hear
Ziryab's songs, contemporaries say the ruler was so
captivated that he would never again listen to another
singer. From that day forward, 'Abd al-Rahman and Ziryab
were close confidants, and would often meet to discuss
poetry, history, and all the arts and sciences.
Ziryab served as a kind of minister of culture for the
Andalusi realm. One of his first projects was to found a
school of music, which opened its doors not only to the
talented sons and daughters of the higher classes but also
to lower-class court entertainers. Unlike the more rigid
conservatories of Baghdad, Ziryab's school encouraged
experimentation in musical styles and instruments. While the
academy taught the world-famous styles and songs of the
Baghdad court, Ziryab quickly began introducing his
innovations and established his reputation as, in the words
of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, "the founder of the
musical traditions of Islamic Spain."
He created the rules governing the performance of the
nuba (or nauba), an important Andalusian Arab
music form that survives today in the classical music of
North Africa, known as maluf in Libya, Tunisia and
eastern Algeria, and simply as andalusi music farther
west. Ziryab created 24 nubas, one for each hour of
the day, like the classical ragas of India. The nuba form became very popular in the Spanish Christian community
and had a pronounced influence on the development of
Medieval European music.
Adding a fifth pair of strings to the lute gave the
instrument greater delicacy of expression and a greater
range. As music historian Julian Ribera wrote in the 1920's,
the Medieval lute's four courses of strings were widely
believed to correspond to the four humors of the body. The
first pair was yellow, symbolizing bile; the second was red
for blood; the third white for phlegm; and the fourth, the
bass pair, was black for melancholy. Ziryab, it was said,
gave the lute a soul, adding another red pair of strings
between the second and third courses.
Ziryab heightened the lute's sensitivity by playing the
instrument with a flexible eagle's talon or quill, rather
than the traditional wooden pick. This innovation spread
quickly, and soon no skilled musician in Córdoba would
consider touching wood to the strings of his lute.
Ziryab reputedly knew the words and melodies of 10,000 songs
by heart. Though this claim may be exaggerated, his memory
was certainly prodigious. He was also an excellent poet, a
student of astronomy and geography, and a dazzling
conversationalist, according to Ibn Hayyan and al-Maqqari.
He often discussed the customs and manners of nations
throughout the known world, and he spoke extensively of the
high civilization centered in Baghdad. As his popularity in
Al-Andalus grew, so did his influence. His suggestions and
recommendations became the popular fashion. Many of his new
ideas gradually migrated into the land of the Franks. France, Germany, northern Italy and beyond.
loved well-prepared food almost as much as he did music. He
revolutionized the arts of the table in Spain, in ways that
survive to this day.
Before Ziryab, Spanish dining was a simple, even crude,
affair, inherited from the Visigoths, the successors of the
Vandals, and from local custom. Platters of different foods
were piled together, all at the same time, on bare wooden
tables. Table manners were nonexistent.
A wide array of foods was available in Al-Andalus meats,
fish and fowl, vegetables, cheeses, soups and sweets. Ziryab
combined them in imaginative recipes, many originating in
Baghdad. One of these dishes, consisting of meatballs and
small triangular pieces of dough fried in coriander oil,
came to be known as taqliyat Ziryab, or Ziryab's
fried dish; many others bore his name as well. He delighted
court diners by elevating a humble spring weed called
asparagus to the status of a dinner vegetable. Ziryab
developed a number of delectable desserts, including an
unforgettable treat of walnuts and honey that is served to
this day in the city of Zaragoza. In his adopted home,
Córdoba, the musician-gourmet is remembered today in an old
dish of roasted and salted broad beans called ziriabí.
The staying power of Blackbird's reputation is such that
even today in Algeria, where Andalusi influence continues to
echo, the sweet orange Arab pastry known as zalabia here it takes the form of a spiral of fried batter soaked
in saffron syrup is believed by many Algerians to derive
its name from Ziryab, a claim impossible to confirm or
refute. An Indian version of zalabia, the jalebi,
can be traced back to the 15th century within India but no
earlier, and it could be a borrowing from the Arabs and
ultimately from Ziryab.
With the emir's blessing, Ziryab decreed that palace dinners
would be served in courses according to a fixed
sequence, starting with soups or broths, continuing with
fish, fowl or meats, and concluding with fruits, sweet
desserts and bowls of pistachios and other nuts. This
presentation style, unheard of even in Baghdad or Damascus,
steadily gained in popularity, spreading through the upper
and merchant classes, then among Christians and Jews, and
even to the peasantry. Eventually the custom became the rule
throughout Europe. The English expression "from soup to
nuts," indicating a lavish, multi-course meal, can be traced
back to Ziryab's innovations at the Andalusi table.
up the plain wooden dinner table, Ziryab taught local
craftsmen how to produce tooled and fitted leather table
coverings. He replaced the heavy gold and silver drinking
goblets of the upper classes a holdover from the Goths
and Romans with delicate, finely crafted crystal. He
redesigned the bulky wooden soupspoon, substituting a
trimmer, lighter model.
Ziryab also turned his attention to personal grooming and
fashion. He developed Europe's first toothpaste (though what
exactly its ingredients
were, we cannot say). He popularized shaving among men and
set new haircut trends. Before Ziryab, royalty and nobles
washed their clothes with rose water; to improve the
cleaning process, he introduced the use of salt.
For women, Blackbird opened a beauty parlor/cosmetology
school not far from the Alcazar, the emir's palace. He
created hairstyles that were daring for the time. The women
of Spain traditionally wore their hair parted in the middle and
covering their ears, with a long braid down the back. Ziryab
introduced a shorter, shaped cut, with bangs on the forehead
and the ears uncovered. He taught the shaping of eyebrows
and the use of depilatories for removing body hair. He
introduced new perfumes and cosmetics. Some of Ziryab's
fashion tips were borrowed from the elite social circles of
Baghdad, then the world's most cosmopolitan city. Others
were twists on local Andalusi custom. Most became widespread
simply because Ziryab advocated them; he was a celebrity,
and people gained status simply by emulating him.
As an arbiter of courtly dress, he
decreed Spain's first seasonal fashion calendar. In
springtime, men and women were to wear bright colors in
their cotton and linen tunics, shirts, blouses and gowns.
Ziryab introduced colorful silk clothing to supplement
traditional fabrics. In summer, white clothing was the rule.
When the weather turned cold, Ziryab recommended long cloaks
trimmed with fur, which became all the rage in Al-Andalus.
Ziryab exercised great clout at the emir's court, even in
political and administrative decision-making. 'Abd al-Rahman
II has been credited with organizing the "norms of the
state" in Al-Andalus, transforming it from a Roman-Visigothic
model to one set up along Abbasid lines. Ziryab is said
to have played a significant role in this process.
Ziryab brought in astrologers from India and Jewish doctors
from North Africa and Iraq. The astrologers were grounded in
astronomy, and Ziryab encouraged the spread of this
knowledge. The Indians also knew how to play chess, and
Ziryab had them teach the game to members of the royal
court, and from there it spread throughout the peninsula.
surprisingly, Ziryab's all-encompassing influence incurred
the jealousy and resentment of other courtiers in Córdoba.
Two celebrated poets of the day, Ibn Habib and al-Ghazzal,
wrote scathing verses attacking him. Al-Ghazzal, a prominent
Andalusi satirist, probably viewed the Baghdadi Ziryab as a
high-toned interloper. Ziryab maintained the friendship and
support of the emir, however, and that was all that
Abd al-Rahman II died in about 852, and his remarkable
innovator Ziryab is believed to have followed about five
years later. Ziryab's children kept alive his musical
inventions, assuring their spread throughout Europe. Each of
his eight sons and two daughters eventually pursued a
musical career, though not all became celebrities. The most
popular singer was Ziryab's son 'Ubayd Allah, though his
brother Qasim was said to have a better voice. Next in
talent was 'Abd al-Rahman, the first of the children to take
over the music school after their father's death, but arrogance was said to be his downfall, for he ended up
alienating everyone, according to Ibn Hayyan.
Ziryab's daughters were skilled musicians. The better artist
was Hamduna, whose fame translated into marriage with the
vizier of the realm. The better teacher was her sister 'Ulaiya,
the last survivor among Ziryab's children, who went on to
inherit most of her father's musical clients.
As 'Abd al-Rahman II and Ziryab departed the stage, Córdoba
was coming into its own as a cultural capital and seat of
learning. By the time another 'Abd al-Rahman, the third, took power in 912, the city had become the intellectual
center of Europe. As historian James Cleugh said of Córdoba
in Spain in the Modern World, "there was nothing like
it, at that epoch, in the rest of Europe. The best minds in
that continent looked to Spain for everything which most
clearly differentiates a human being from a tiger."
As the first millennium drew to a close, students from
France, England, and the rest of Europe flocked to Córdoba to
study science, medicine, and philosophy and to take advantage
of the great municipal library, with its 600,000 volumes.
When they returned to their home countries, they took with
them not only knowledge, but also art, music, cuisine,
fashion, and manners.
Europe found itself awash with new ideas and new customs,
and among the many streams that flowed northward from the
Iberian Peninsula, more than one had been channeled by
Robert W. Lebling, Jr. is head of electronic publishing for
Saudi Aramco in Dhahran. His academic background includes
studies in the history, politics and anthropology of Arab
North Africa and Al-Andalus. He is collaborating on a book
on natural remedies of Arabia.
Norman MacDonald is a Canadian free-lance illustrator who
lives in Amsterdam. He has been sketching the war-crimes
trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic in The