The glass of fashion

The court at Baghdad was doubtless much more urbane than upstart Cordoba’s. Baghdad was based in ancient Persian culture: its customs, food, musical instruments, poetry, and textiles. Even Abd al-Rahman, coming from Damascus, wasn’t as steeped in Persian luxuries as the Abbasids became. But help was not long in arriving, though too late for Abd I. Eventually, insider pushing and shoving in Baghdad sent one court musician flying: and he went straight to Cordoba.

His name was Ziryab. We have multiple accounts of who he was: Persian? Arab? Kurd? Other? He was a polymath with an outstanding education; he knew music, astronomy, languages, poetry, and mathematics. When he arrived in Cordoba in 822, he caused a sensation and, in many ways, left a permanent mark on European fashion. He was hired as the chief court musician, but his influence went beyond music.

Ziryab was the most fashionable thing anyone in Cordoba had ever seen. His haircut was copied by everyone, leading to the first fad for “bangs.” His clothing, speech, and all of his habits were copied. Cordoba had many newly-rich families who were looking for ways to compete with each other.

Ziryab brought the latest in dining fads from Persia; for several centuries, Ziryab’s innovations stayed only in Spain, but eventually the Spanish-Ziryabian style caught on all over. First, the use of white tablecloths as an ostentatious display of textile wealth. We know that by the High Middle Ages, all of Northern Europe’s aristocracy used white tablecloths, but in 850, they probably didn’t yet. Second, Ziryab brought in the idea of drinking from glass utensils. (Before this, the aristocratic cup of choice was silver or gold). Glassmaking industry in Spain grew to keep up with demand; it took Northern Europe a very long time to move from pottery cups to glass, even among the upper classes.

Third, Ziryab served food in set courses: soup, main course, dessert. Not only had Arabs never served food this way, nobody in Northern Europe had ever imagined it. Grand castle feasts required courses, just to serve enough food to a large crowd; but each “course” had the same kinds of things. The idea of differentiated courses became standard in Andalusia but did not move north until a number of Spanish princesses had married into England and France, bringing the fashion with them.

Ziryab also changed clothing fashions. Until his time, people tended to have robes, cloaks or tunics without regard to season. Ziryab brought the idea of having a lightweight outfit for summer and a heavier, warmer one for winter. Now I’m not going to claim that the Byzantines hadn’t thought of this first, and once again we run into the problem of biased sources: anyone paying attention to Ziryab at all is probably biased toward puffing his resume. However, that’s among the claims. They also say he influenced the weaving industry toward stripes.

It seems more certain that Ziryab influenced Cordobans toward not stinking. “Talc” is another of those Mozarabic words; Ziryab tried to get people to use deodorant. If their clothes were lighter weight in the summer, perhaps they sweated less, but he wanted them to try powders and perfumes.

Ziryab’s formal influence on Spanish music was considerable, of course. We’ve already done a general review of how many Eastern musical instruments came to Europe via Andalusia; Ziryab is often given personal credit for the oud, which came into English as the lute.

Overall, his influence made Cordoba into a cosmopolitan place, not a regional administrative center. This makes a difference, even if it seems like merely a cosmetic change. Once a city becomes known for its culture, it draws more cultured people. Ziryab’s fashions contributed much to making Cordoba into a center for mathematics and science in the 9th and 10th centuries.

This entry was posted in Muslim Empire and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply