The rababa, meaning ‘a bowed (instrument)’ is probably the oldest string instrument, dating at least as far back as the 8th Century, when it was found in Arabia and Persia. It is almost certainly the direct ancestor of the European violin. Islamic trading routes helped to spread it over much of North Africa, the Middle and Far East from the 10th Century onwards.
The rababa usually consists of a small, usually rounded body, the front of which is covered in a membrane such as parchment or sheepskin and has a long neck attached. There is a long thin neck with a peg box at the end and there are one, two or three strings. The instrument is held upright, either resting on the lap or on the floor. The bowed variety often has a spike at the bottom to rest on the ground, and is thus called a spike fiddle in certain areas. The bow is usually more curved than that of the violin.
The rababa is used in a wide variety of musical ensembles and genres. In Egypt the two-string ‘fiddle of the Nile’ is used. It can have a body made of half a coconut shell. The more sophisticated versions have a metal sound box and the front may be half-covered with beaten copper, and half with cow skin.