One Thousand and One Nights (Arabic: Kitab alf laylah wa-laylah; also known in English as The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, The Arabian Nights and The Arabian Nights' Entertainment) is a collection of short stories connected by a framing device in which a woman, Scheherazade, saves herself from execution by telling a series of entertaining stories to a sultan. Some tales are embedded within other tales, a character in a story sometimes tells a story to another character. The stories themselves belong to a variety of different genres, including adventure, comedy, fantasy, tragedy and erotica. The characters include historical personages such as the caliph Harun al-Rashid, his poet Abu-Nuwas and his vizier Ja'far al-Barmaki. The stories are drawn from the folklore of India, Persia, Mesopotamia, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.
The standard Arabic text of One Thousand and One Nights today is the work of a series of anonymous authors writing over a period of more than a thousand years. The framing story of Scheherazade probably originated in 6th century India, later being passed on to Pre-Islamic Persia and then to Arabia. The collection was first referred to as One Thousand and one Nights in the 12th century, although at that time only a few hundred nights' worth of tales were included in it. The number of stories in the collection gradually increased, reaching its present form in 18th century Cairo. It is clear that One Thousand and One Nights is the work of several hands from the different moral attitudes taken in the various tales, some take a strict censorious tone whereas others celebrate low-lifes and describe sexual practices which are frowned on by Islam in explicit detail.
More tales have been added to One Thousand and One Nights by French and English translators. Today, outside of the Arab world, the best known stories from the collection are "Aladdin", "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" and "The Seven Voyages of Sindbad the Sailor". Although they are genuine Arabic folktales, they do not appear in any Arabic-language manuscript of One Thousand and One Nights.
King Shahryar returns home unexpectedly and finds his wife in bed with a slave. He instantly kills them both out of disgust. In order to put the experience behind him, Shahryar goes to visit his brother, however, while hiding in the gardens of his brother's palace, he witnesses his brother's wife taking part in a vast sex orgy with male and female slaves. He and his brother leave the palace and meet a woman who forces them both to have sex with her in front of her sleeping husband, threatening to wake up her husband, a genie who will kill them both, if they do not.
Convinced that all women are unfaithful by nature, Shahryar decides to take a new virgin wife every day and have her put to death the following morning, therefore not giving the woman time to betray him. After some time, it becomes increasingly difficult for the king to find a new wife, at which point the vizier's daughter Scheherazade volunteers to marry him.
On her wedding night, Scheherazade begins to tell the king an entertaining tale but does not finish it, promising to conclude it the following night. The king spares her life so that he can hear the end of the story. That evening, Scheherezade finishes the story and then begins to tell another one, stopping before she comes to the end of that tale. In order to hear the end of the story, the king is forced to postpone her execution for another day.
Scheherezade continues to entertain King Shahryar with her unfinished tales for a thousand and one nights, during which time the two have several children. When the thousand and one nights have come to an end, Shahryar has fallen deeply in love with Scheherazade, her life is spared and no other women are cruelly put to death by the king again.
Well-known stories in the collection
"Aladdin", "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves' and "The Seven Voyages of Sindbad the Sailor" are, outside of the Arab world, the most famous and best known stories from One Thousand and One Nights. The stories do not appear in any Arabic manuscripts of the collection, they were added to it by the French translator Antoine Galland and the English translator Sir Richard Francis Burton, although they do appear to be genuine Middle Eastern folktales.
In a town in China there lives a lazy and dishonest young man from a poor family whose name is Aladdin. One day, Aladdin is approached by a stranger. The man claims to be the brother of Aladdin's late father and promises to help set up the young man in business as a merchant. The man is really a magician from North Africa who has come to China in search of a magical lamp.
The magician loans Aladdin a magic ring and sends him into a booby-trapped cave to retrieve the lamp. When the African magician asks Aladdin to pass the lamp to him before the young man leaves the cave, Aladdin suspects that the magician will leave trapped inside the cave and refuses to hand the lamp over. The magician leaves without the lamp and Aladdin is stranded in the cave. When he rubs the magic ring, a genie appears who takes Aladdin home.
At home, Aladdin's mother cleans the lamp which the young man has brought back. A second, more powerful genie appears who grants every wish of the lamp's owner. With the help of the genie of the lamp, Aladdin becomes rich and marries Princess Badr al-Budur, daughter of the Emperor of China. The genie builds a palace for Aladdin and his wife which is much more luxurious than the palace in which the emperor lives.
The African magician returns to China. He tricks Princess Badr al-Budur, who does not know about the lamp's magical powers, into giving the lamp to him by offering "new lamps for old". The magician then orders the genie of the lamp to carry the palace and the princess to his home in North Africa.
Aladdin still has the magic ring. The less powerful genie of the ring cannot undo the genie of the lamp's magic but is able to carry Aladdin to North Africa. Once he has arrived there, Aladdin fights and kills the magician, rescues Princess Badr al-Budur and recovers the lamp.
Seeking revenge, the African magician's brother disguises himself as a wise old woman who is skilled in curing the sick. Badr al-Budur invites the "old woman" into her palace, so that someone will be ready to treat her whenever she falls ill. The genie of the lamp warns Aladdin of the danger that the "old woman' poses. Aladdin kills the imposter and discovers his real identity.
Aladdin eventually becomes Emperor of China and he and Badr al-Budur live happily for the rest of their lives.
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
Ali Baba and Cassim are brothers. Casssim inherited their father's vast fortune but Ali Baba is a poor woodcutter.
One day, Ali Baba sees a band of forty thieves approach a cave, the secret hide-out where they deposit their loot. The leader of the thieves uses the magic words "Open Sesame' to remove the seal from the cave's mouth and "Close Sesame" to block it again. Using the magic words, Ali Baba enters the cave and takes home a small part of the treasure that is inside.
Cassim finds out that his brother has come into some money and wants to know where he got it. Cassim enters the cave and prepares to carry off a large amount of the treasure. He then finds that he has forgotten the magic words that he needs to get out of the cave. The thieves return, kill Cassim and cut his body into four pieces.
When he returns to the cave, Ali Baba finds the four pieces of his brother's body. With the help of Cassim's clever slave-girl Morgiana, Ali Baba is able to trick Cassim's family into thinking that he died of natural causes. A tailor is hired to sew the four pieces of the body back together.
The thieves discover that Cassim's body has gone, meaning that another intruder has entered their cave. In town, one of the thieves overhears the tailor talking about how he sewed a dead man together. The thief forces the tailor to lead him to Ali Baba's house. The thief puts a chalk mark on the door, so that he and the other thieves can find the house later. Morgiana sees what has happened and puts similar marks on the doors of all the houses in town.
Another thief finds Ali Baba's house. So that he can find it later, he chips a piece out of the doorstep. Again, Morgiana saves Ali Baba's life by chipping a piece out of every dooorstep in town.
The two thieves whose plans failed are killed by their leader for their stupidity. The leader of the thieves finds Ali Baba's house. He pretends to be a merchant who asks Ali Baba's permission to temporarily store thirty-seven oil jars in the house. The jars really contain the other thieves, who plan to kill Ali Baba while he is sleeping. Morgiana discovers the plan and kills the remaining thieves by pouring boiling water into the jars.
Many years later, the leader of the thieves, now a merchant, has dinner with Ali Baba and his son. Morgiana recognizes him. She performs a dance with a dagger which she the uses to stab the thief to death. When Ali Baba discovers that Morgiana has saved his life again, he grants her her freedom and allows her to marry his son.
The Seven Voyages of Sindbad the Sailor
In Baghdad during the time of Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, Sindbad the Porter rests against the wall of a rich man's house. He complains out loud about the injustice of the world in which he has to work hard for a meager living while the rich live lives of leisure and luxury.
The owner of the house hears him and calls him inside. The owner of the house is also called Sindbad. He tells Sindbad the Porter that he was a sailor and that he became rich as a result of seven sea voyages.
Over the course of seven days, Sindbad the Sailor tells Sindbad the Porter the story of his seven voyages, giving the porter some money after telling each tale.
The First Voyage
On his first voyage, Sindbad and some other sailors come ashore on an island that turns out to be a whale on which trees have grown. When some of the sailors start a fire, the sleeping whale wakes up and dives down deep under the sea. Sindbad is saved from drowning by holding on to a passing wooden trough and floats to an island covered in thick forest.
On arrival, Sindbad sees a groom and a horse which he saves from being attacked by a sea monster. The horse belongs to the king, who rewards Sindbad by making him a courtier.
One day, the ship on which Sindbad originally set sail comes to the island. Sindbad's belongings are still on the ship. Sindbad gives them to the king and receives valuable presents in return. he returns to Bagdad a much wealthier man.
The Second Voyage
After some time, Sindbad grows restless and goes to sea again. On his second voyage, Sindbad is accidentally separated from the rest of his crew and stranded on an island which is home to elephants, giant snakes which eat the elephants and giant birds, known as rocs, which eat the snakes and the elephants.
The valley where the giant snakes live is littered with diamonds. Merchants are able to get hold of the diamonds by throwing pieces of meat into the valley. Diamonds become embedded in the meat. The rocs carry the diamond encrusted meat back to their nests where the merchants shoo the birds away and take the diamonds. Sindbad attaches a huge piece of meat to his back. A roc carries Sindbad to its nest where he finds a fortune in diamonds.
Sindbad is rescued by merchants and returns to Baghdad considerably richer.
The Third Voyage
During his third voyage, Sindbad and the rest of his ship's crew are shipwrecked on an island inhabited by a monstrous giant. The giant begins to eat the crew, starting with the captain because he is the fattest one of them.
Sindbad blinds the giant with two hot iron spikes and leads the remainining crew members in their escape. Unfortunately, many of the other crew members are killed by rocks thrown by the giant's wife, but Sindbad returns safely to Baghdad.
The Fourth Voyage
On his fourth voyage, Sindbad and the other sailors with him are shipwrecked on an island. The island is inhabited by a tribe who appear to be friendly at first. Sindbad is the only one of the crew who refuses the food that the tribe offers the men. He is right to do so, because the food is laced with a drug that robs the men of their reason and makes them easier to kill. The tribe are cannibals.
Sindbad continues to refuse the drug-laced food and the cannibals gradually lose interest in him. He is rescued by some pepper-gatherers who take him back to their own island.
On the island of the pepper-gatherers, Sindbad meets and marries a beautiful woman. When his wife suddenly dies, Sindbad finds out that, according to the custom of the island, he will be buried alive with her. Sindbad and his dead wife are lowered into a cave which serves as a communal tomb, a small amount of bread and water being provided for Sindbad. Eventually, Sindbad notices an animal which shows him the way out of the cave. Sindbad finds himself high above the sea and is rescued by a passing ship.
Sindabad returns home to Baghdad, richer because of the gold and jewels which he took from the corpses in the cavern tomb.
The Fifth Voyage
In spite of the unpleasant events of his fourth voyage, Sindbad grows restless and returns to sea again.
While passing an island, the crew on his ship spot an object which Sindbad recognizes as a roc's egg. The crew go ashore to look at it, break it and eat the chick which is inside. Sindbad knows that the sailors' behavior will have angered the chick's parents and orders them to leave immediately. They are too late. The angry rocs drop boulders onto the ship and sink it.
Sindbad is cast ashore on the island of the Old Man of the Sea. The old man makes Sindbad his slave, forcing him to carry him all day on his shoulders. Sindbad is able to escape enslavement by killing the old man after he has made him drunk on wine.
A ship takes Sindbad to the City of Apes, the inhabitants of which have to sleep in boats on the sea because their city is invaded by man-eating apes every night, before he eventually returns to Baghdad.
The Sixth Voyage
On Sindbad's sixth voyage, he suffers a disastrous shipwreck, his ship being dashed to pieces when it hits some tall cliffs. The other shipwrecked sailors gradually starve to death, Sindabd, the only survivor, discovers that an underground river flows beneath the cliffs. He builds a raft and sails on it, discovering that the underground river is filled with precious gems.
The raft eventually carries Sindbad to a city. The king receives Sindbad and is impressed by what he is told about Baghdad and Caliph Haroun al-Rashid. Sindbad is given gifts to take back to the caliph, which include a cup carved from a single enormous ruby and a bed made from the skin of an elephant-eating snake.
The Seventh Voyage
On his final voyage, Sindbad is shipwrecked again. The raft which he builds carries him to a city, some of the inhabitants of which can turn into birds. Sindbad marries the daughter of a rich merchant and inherits his wealth when the merchant dies soon afterwards.
Sindbad learns that the bird-people of the city are really demons, although fortuanately his wife is not one of them. Sindbad's wife encourages him to sell everything that he owns, leave the city of demons and return to Baghdad.
The former sailor finally settles down to a life of luxury in Baghdad and goes to sea no more.
- Sound file of public domain audiobook of "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp" from LibriVox
- Public domain sound file of "Aladdin" from Andrew Lang's The Blue Fairy Book (1889)
- Video of the 1902 silent film Aladin ou la lampe merveilleuse (intertitles in French)
- Video of the 1902 silent film Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs (intertitles in French)
- "The Flying Trunk"
- "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade"
- ↑ The story of Sindbad's third voyage is clearly based on an episode from Homer's Odyssey, in which Odysseus escapes from the man-eating Cyclops Polyphemus after blinding him.
- ↑ The events of Sindbad's fourth voyage draw on two separate events from Homer's Odyssey. Odysseus and his crew encounter the Lotus Eaters whose food puts them into a drugged state. On the island of the witch Circe, the sorceress uses magic to enslave them and turn them into farm animals.
- One Thousand and One Nights in Arabic and English on Wikisource.
- Free public domain audiobooks of One Thousand and and One Nights from LibriVox:
- Video of the 1917 American silent film Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp on Wikimedia Commons.
- Arabian Nights Wiki.
- Arabian Nights (Il fiorre delle Mille e una notte, 1974) on Moviepedia.