The Martha Stewart of A.D. 800 Was an Arabic Dude

The Martha Stewart of A.D. 800 Was an Arabic Dude

Why you should care

Because without toothpaste and deodorant, we’d be a lot smellier — and lonelier.

Spreading a dinner table with decorative tablecloths and setting out crystal wineglasses, fine china and silverware for a three-course meal is something civilized hosts do the world over. Yet few of them have raised a glass to Abu l-Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi, a highly educated North African — possibly a freed slave — known as Ziryab, who is largely responsible for introducing Islamic Spain to dining etiquette and decor. He remains virtually unknown in European history, yet he is among the most significant figures in Islamic culture … and not just because he was the Martha Stewart of medieval Europe.

Ziryab — the colloquial Arabic word for “blackbird” and a name he earned for the color of his skin and his birdlike singing — almost single-handedly also laid the groundwork for traditional Spanish music, working his way up to becoming a revered composer and musician. But arguably his most impressive talent was for innovation: Born and raised in Baghdad, the flamboyant gadfly invented a popular type of toothpaste, encouraged twice-daily baths and developed the world’s first deodorant. He told folks to apply a solution of protoxyde of lead to ward off underarm odors, according to The Literature of Al-Andalus, an anthology of ancient Arabic literature.

If you’ve ever been to or hosted a dinner party, Ziryab was there in spirit, checking out your table manners and spread.

As one blogger put it, had Old Spice been around in A.D. 800, Ziryab “would’ve been the PR director, research department and CEO.” His reach also extended to clothing, for which he invented dyes and chemicals and introduced the idea of seasonal fashions, even bringing new — and daringly transparent — styles to the Andalusian peninsula, according to John Gill, author of Andalucia: A Cultural History. This “fabric queen,” says Gill, was likely “the most iconic intellectual figure of Islamic Córdoba,” a then caliphate. Ziryab’s interest in fashion led some to question his sexuality, despite his marriage and 10 children.

Ziryab quickly made a name for himself, supposedly earning such a high salary that Córdoba’s leader had to pay him from his private funds, according to The Literature of Al-Andalus. It’s no surprise, then, that Ziryab acquired luxurious tastes: He is credited with introducing perfumes to the continent and popularizing shaving for men and short haircuts for both genders, with bangs that came to eye level, as a stylish way of beating the fierce Mediterranean heat.

If you’ve ever been to or hosted a dinner party, Ziryab was probably there in spirit, checking out your table manners and spread. He came up with the structure of the traditional three-course meal of soup, entrée and dessert; he topped wooden, hard-to-clean tables with leather covers — popularizing the tablecloth — and encouraged drinking from fine glassware in place of heavy goblets. He brought etiquette and polite conversation to rowdy meals by infusing order and elegance, and he refined the meals’ ingredients by adding what were then considered mere weeds, like asparagus, to fancy dishes.

But to the people of the Middle East, these skills were secondary to Ziryab’s mastery of the oud, a lute-like string instrument used in Eastern music and upon which his reputation rests. Ziryab was adored by his audience, memorizing more than 10,000 songs and innovating music by recrafting the lute with rare materials like a lion cub’s gut for strings. He may not have been the only person to promote high culture, but he was popular and emulated by many, according to Arabist and historian Robert Lebling. Ziryab was “very imaginative, very persuasive as a speaker and quite influential in royal circles,” Lebling says. Noting how Ziryab influenced nobles, with teachings that in turn trickled down to average citizens, Lebling adds that he “wanted the royal court and nobility of Spain to share in the civilizational accomplishments of his homeland.”

Although Ziryab’s impact eventually spread to Europe, people “had no idea who had sparked the changes in culture, customs and manners,” Lebling points out. All they knew was that somehow soap was important and good food even more so. The limited understanding of Ziryab’s origins has led many to question whether he was even Arab or in fact Persian, Kurdish or Black African.

Ziryab’s legacy can be traced, hundreds of years later, as that of a key figure who not only invigorated Europe’s culture but also modernized music and style to set the “stage for the artistic and scientific accomplishments of the Renaissance,” Lebling says. So the next time you draw a bath or throw a dinner party, take a moment to toast the slave turned culture maven who made it all happen.

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