Ziryab: The Slave Who Invented The Three Course Meal

Famous people, History

Ziryab: The Slave Who Invented The Three Course Meal

Everything has to start somewhere, and in the case of the traditional Three Course Meal, it is in the hands of a rarely mentioned slave. Ziryab was a slave who worked as an entertainer and performer in the Abbasid empire. He gained prominence and his legacy lives on in many, many ways.


The story of Ziryab is that of an ordinary person who did lots of simple things that have had an extraordinarily large impact. No, he hasn’t invented anything that will cure a disease. Likewise, he hasn’t developed a technology that transformed industry. Instead, his ideas seeped into culture and have transformed the way that we eat, drink, act at meal times and even crop our hair. It may not seem significant in the grander scheme of things but his impact affects many of us on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

Not much is known about Ziryab’s early life. We don’t even know for sure where he was born, though Baghdad is a popular best guess. We don’t even know anything about his background. He may have been African, Arab or mixed race.

What we do know of Ziryab is that he became a pupil of Ishaq al-Mawsili and went, with al-Mawsili, to Andalusia, Spain. He was clearly very talented as a musician. He garnered favour from the court and his personable nature allowed him to gain influence over the fashions of the day.


Ziryab changed the music of the Islamic court in Andalusia. He had brought with him the lute. He also amended the lute, adding an extra bass string. Sounds coming from the palace were slowly beginning to change: and those fashionable sounds were the ones mimicked elsewhere. Not only did he change the type of instrument but also the way that it was played. He introduced a plectrum – something that any guitar player will be quite familiar with.

Some sources credit Ziryab with composing and / or collating a huge array of music into what we would consider to be full symphonies. These incorporated 24 Nawaab, which are movements of 9 parts. In total, it is estimated that he personally had memorised over a thousand different compositions.


While his musical style may not be in daily usage in the modern world, his concepts for the kitchen and dining most certainly are.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Do you drink out of a glass?
  • Are you familiar with a table cloth?
  • Have you ever eaten a three course meal?
  • Have you seen water at restaurants in glass or crystal jugs?

All of those things were introduced to the Andalusian Court by Ziryab over a thousand years ago. Today, they are still considered to be ‘normal’ and his dining rules remain at the heart of what is considered to be good manners and etiquette.

Is that all?

Not really. Ziryab also introduced the idea of having a short haircut and having different styles of clothing for different seasons. He also was responsible for a ladies beauty parlour. That’s right. A beauty parlour, endorsed by the Islamic rulers of Andalusia 1200 years ago.

He was a fairly remarkable man. That is a mere snapshot of his legacy and achievements. The further reading section has much more information.

Further Reading

Islamic Spain

Lost Islamic History

Muslim Heritage



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