A Musician Slave Changed Fashion, Music, and Dining in the Middle Ages
A Musician Slave Changed Fashion, Music, and Dining in the Middle Ages

A Musician Slave Changed Fashion, Music, and Dining in the Middle Ages

Patrick Lynch - May 27, 2017

A Musician Slave Changed Fashion, Music, and Dining in the Middle Ages
Ziryab. flashmagonline.net

Fashion Guru & Neat Freak

If you hate fashion magazines and their insistence on changing clothes according to ‘season,’ you can blame Ziryab. Before his arrival in Europe, the norm involved changing wardrobes twice a year. Ziryab started a trend by changing outfits according to the season and the weather which meant a total of four different wardrobes. As well as spreading the idea of wearing more colorful clothes, Ziryab introduced the use of salt in the laundry to make clothes even cleaner.

Not content with changing the way Europeans wore and washed clothes, Ziryab also introduced a variety of new hairstyles to replace the standard which involved long hair divided by a stripe in the center. He cut his hair with the bangs straight across his forehead and down to the eyebrows. Also, he advocated the use of salt and fragrant oils to improve the condition of the hair. There is also a suggestion that he opened beauty parlors for the women of Cordoba, but there is little evidence to back it up.

You can also thank Ziryab for smelling good because he popularized the use of perfumes and deodorants and persuaded the people of Cordoba to bathe twice a day; an unheard of level of cleanliness which unquestionably reduced disease. He even created a cosmetology school and introduced the practice of regular shaving amongst men and eyebrow care amongst women. There are also claims that he invented a form of toothpaste which became popular in the Islamic world. The ingredients are unknown but reports state that it was not only functional but also had a pleasant taste.

Ziryab the Gourmand

As well as improving the way people looked and smelled, Ziryab focused on adding delicious new cuisine. He introduced new vegetables including asparagus and came up with the idea for a three-course meal which consisted of soup, a main course, and dessert. He also invented his own dishes, some of which are still eaten in parts of Spain and Algeria. The multi-course custom quickly spread across the Iberian Peninsula and then the rest of Europe and is still widely used today.

Before his arrival, Europeans drank from metal vessels, but Ziryab introduced crystal containers which were far more effective than metal. There are reports of him cutting crystal goblets which support this claim. Before his innovations, meals were served on platters on bare tables as per the Roman tradition. Ziryab changed all of this as dinners became a grand occasion with fancy table setting, additional courses, and fine drinking goblets.

A Musician Slave Changed Fashion, Music, and Dining in the Middle Ages
Interior of one of the main buildings that bears Ziryab’s name. restaurantleziryab.com

A Man of Science

On top of everything else, Ziryab loved learning and was a scholar in several fields including astronomy, geography, and medicine. His debating skill was known across the Islamic world as its aristocracy journeyed to Spain simply to have the privilege of debating with him. Ziryab sought to extend his learning by bringing in Jewish doctors from North Africa and learned men from India who popularized the game of chess in Europe.

Ziryab quickly became a favorite of Abd ar-Rahman II, the Emir of Cordoba, and was one of his closest companions by all accounts. The prince gave him a monthly salary of 200 gold dinars and often asked for his advice on political matters. Ziryab was one of the most revered and beloved scholars of his generation and was held up as an example of how such an individual should act.


Details surrounding his death are sketchy, but it seems likely that he died of natural causes in 857 at the age of 68. He left behind eight sons and two daughters, and at least five of his children became musicians of great renown. Ziryab completely revolutionized the court of Cordoba and introduced a number of innovations in a variety of fields that stood the test of time.

Although his name is practically unknown in European circles, his deeds are well known in the Muslim world. Indeed, there are numerous streets, hotels, clubs and cafés named after him in various Muslim countries. As well as improving fashion, cuisine, and hygiene, his contributions to the world of music are incredible. He was a true genius and visionary and laid the groundwork for classic Spanish music.