The Book of One Thousand and One Nights

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Picture of Ali Baba by Maxfield Parrish (1909).

The Book of One Thousand and One Nights ( Hazār-o Yak Šab, Arabic: كتاب ألف ليلة و ليلة Kitāb 'Alf Layla wa-Layla; also known as The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, One Thousand and One Nights, 1001 Arabian Nights, Arabian Nights, The Nightly Entertainments or simply The Nights) is a medieval Middle Eastern literary epic which tells the story of Scheherazade (Šahrzād in Persian), a Sassanid Queen, who must relate a series of stories to her malevolent husband, King Shahryar (Šahryār), to delay her execution. The stories are told over a period of one thousand and one nights, and every night she ends the story with a suspenseful situation, forcing the King to keep her alive for another day. The individual stories were created over many centuries, by many people and in many styles, and many have become famous pieces of Arabic literature in their own right. Notable examples include Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.

While these stories have long since been adapted and revised and no longer reflect the original versions from traditional, Middle Eastern culture, they nonetheless retain some of the original spirit of their cultural origins. As such, they reflect the values of that culture. In particular they are ultimately the story of Scheherazade herself, who must prove her fidelity and loyalty to her king, who suspects that all women are unfaithful. While the stories themselves are about adventure and bravery, she shows her own bravery and nobility in the process. Sexual fidelity as always been the core social concern.


The nucleus of the stories is formed by a Pahlavi Sassanid Persian book called Hazār Afsānah ("Thousand Myths", in Persian: هزارافسانه), a collection of ancient Indian and Persian folk tales. During the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid in the 8th century C.E., Baghdad had become an important cosmopolitan city. Merchants from Persia, China, India, Africa, and Europe were all found in Baghdad. It was during this time that many of the stories, which were originally folk stories transmitted orally, are thought to have been collected and later compiled into a single book. The later compiler and translator into Arabic is reputedly storyteller Abu abd-Allah Muhammed el-Gahshigar in the ninth century C.E. The frame story of Shahrzad seems to have been added in the fourteenth century. The first modern Arabic compilation was published in Cairo in 1835.


The story takes place in the Sassanid era and begins with the Persian king Shahryar. The king rules an unnamed island "between India and China" (in modern editions based on Arab transcripts he is king of India and China). When Shahryar discovers his wife plotting with a lover to kill him, he has the pair executed. Believing all women to be likewise unfaithful, he gives his vizier an order to get him a new wife every night (in some versions, every third night). After spending one night with his bride, the king has her executed at dawn. This practice continues for some time, until the vizier's clever daughter Sheherazade ("Scheherazade" in English, or "Shahrastini," a Persian name) forms a plan and volunteers to become Shahrayar's next wife. With the help of her sister Dunyazad, every night after their marriage she spends hours telling him stories, each time stopping at dawn with a cliffhanger, so the king will postpone the execution out of a desire to hear the rest of the tale. By the end, she has given birth to three sons, and the king has become convinced of her faithfulness and revokes his decree.

The tales vary widely; they include historical tales, love stories, tragedies, comedies, poems, burlesques and Muslim religious legends. Some of the famous stories Shahrazad spins in many western translations are Aladdin's Lamp, the Persian Sindbad the Sailor, and the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves; however Aladdin and Ali Baba were in fact inserted only in the eighteenth century by Antoine Galland, a French orientalist, who claimed to have heard them in oral form from a Maronite story-teller from Aleppo in Syria. Numerous stories depict djinn, magicians, and legendary places, which are often intermingled with real people and geography; the historical caliph Harun al-Rashid is a common protagonist, as are his alleged court poet Abu Nuwas and his vizier, Ja'far al-Barmaki. Sometimes a character in Scheherazade's tale will begin telling other characters a story of his own, and that story may have another one told within it, resulting in a richly layered narrative texture.

On the final (one-thousand-and-first) night Sheherazade presents the King with their three sons and she asks him for a complete pardon. He grants her this and they live in relative satisfaction.

The narrator's standards for what constitutes a cliffhanger seem broader than in modern literature. While in many cases a story is cut off with the hero in danger for his life or some other deep trouble, in some parts of the full text Scheherazade stops her narration in the middle of an exposition of abstract philosophical principles or abstruse points of Islamic theology. In another case she ends during a detailed description of human anatomy according to Galen. In all these cases the king's curiosity is sufficiently aroused to buy her another day of life.


The work is made up of a collection of stories thought to be from traditional Persian, Arabic, and Indian stories. The core stories probably originated in an Iranic Empire and were brought together in a Persian work called Hazar Afsanah ("A Thousand Legends"). The Arabic compilation Alf Layla (A Thousand Nights), originating about 850 C.E., was in turn probably an abridged translation of Hezar Afsaneh. Some of its elements appear in the Odyssey. The present name Alf Layla wa-Layla (literally a "A Thousand Nights and a Night," i.e. "1001 Nights") seems to have appeared at an unknown time in the Middle Ages, and expresses the idea of a transfinite number since 1000 represented conceptual infinity within Arabic mathematical circles.

The first European version of Arabian Nights from an earlier compilation that was written in Arabic was a translation into French (1704–1717) by Antoine Galland. This 12 volume book, Les Mille et une nuits, contes arabes traduits en français ("Thousand and one nights, Arab stories translated into French") probably included Arabic stories known to the translator but not included in the Arabic compilation. Aladdin's Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves appeared first in Galland's translation and cannot be found in the original writings. He wrote that he heard them from a Syrian Christian storyteller from Aleppo, a Maronite scholar, Youhenna Diab, whom he called 'Hanna'.

John Payne, Alaeddin and the Enchanted Lamp and Other Stories, (London 1901) gives details of Galland's encounter with 'Hanna' in 1709 and of the discovery in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris of two Arabic manuscripts containing Aladdin and two more of the 'interpolated' tales. He instances Galland's own experience to demonstrate the lack of regard for such entertainments in the mainstream of Islamic scholarship, with the result that

…complete copies of the genuine work were rarely to be met with, collections… and the fragmentary copies which existed were mostly in the hands of professional story-tellers, who were extremely unwilling to part with them, looking upon them as their stock in trade, and were in the habit of incorporating with the genuine text all kinds of stories and anecdotes from other sources, to fill the place of the missing portions of the original work. This process of addition and incorporation, which has been in progress ever since the first collection of the Nights into one distinct work and is doubtless still going on in Oriental countries, (especially such as are least in contact with European influence,) may account for the heterogeneous character of the various modern manuscripts of the Nights and for the immense difference which exists between the several texts, as well in actual contents as in the details and diction of such stories as are common to all.

Perhaps the best-known translation to English speakers is that by Sir Richard Francis Burton, entitled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885). Unlike previous editions, his ten volume translation was not bowdlerized. Though printed in the Victorian era, it contained all the erotic nuances of the source material, replete with sexual imagery and pederastic allusions added as appendices to the main stories by Burton. Burton circumvented strict Victorian laws on obscene material by printing an edition for subscribers only rather than formally publishing the book. The original ten volumes were followed by a further six entitled The Supplemental Nights to the Thousand Nights and a Night which were printed between 1886 and 1888.

More recent versions are that of the French doctor J. C. Mardrus, translated into English by Powys Mathers, and, notably, a critical edition based on the fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale, compiled in Arabic by Muhsin Mahdi and rendered into English by Husain Haddawy, the most accurate and elegant of all to this date.

In 2005, Brazilian scholar Mamede Mustafa Jarouche started publishing a thorough Portuguese translation of the work, based on the comparative analysis of a series of different Arabic manuscripts. The first two volumes of a planned five or six volume set have already been released, making up for the complete Syrian branch of the book. The remaining volumes will be a translation of the later Egyptian branch.[1]

The Book of One Thousand and One Nights has an estranged cousin: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki. A Polish noble of the late 18th century, he traveled the Orient looking for an original edition of The Book... but never found it. Upon returning to Europe, he wrote his masterpiece, a multi-leveled frame tale.



Edgar Allan Poe wrote a "Thousand and Second Night" as a separate tale, called "The Thousand And Second Tale Of Scheherazade." It depicts the eighth and final voyage of Sinbad the Sailor, along with the various mysteries Sinbad and his crew encounter; the anomalies are then described as footnotes to the story. While the king is uncertain- except in the case of the elephants carrying the world on the back of the turtle- these mysteries are actual modern events that occurred in various places during, or before, Poe's lifetime. The story ends with the king in such disgust at the tale Scheherazade has just woven, that he has her executed the very next day.

Bill Willingham, creator of the comic book series Fables used the story of 1,001 Arabian Nights as the basis of his Fables prequel, Fables 1,001 Nights of Snowfall. In the book, Snow White tells the tales of the Fables, magical literary characters, to the Sultan in order to avoid her impending death.

Two notable novels loosely based on the Arabian Nights are Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz, and When Dreams Travel by Githa Hariharan.

The Arabian Nights has also inspired poetry in English. Two examples are Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, Recollections of the Arabian Nights (1830), and William Wordsworth's The Prelude, Book V (1805).

Film and Television

There have been many adaptations of the Nights, for both television and the big screen, with varying degrees of faithfulness to the original stories.

The atmosphere of the Nights influenced such films as Fritz Lang's 1921 Der müde Tod, the 1924 Hollywood film The Thief of [[Baghdad starring Douglas Fairbanks, and its 1940 British remake. It also influenced The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), the first surviving feature-length animated film.

One of Hollywood's first feature films to be based on the Nights was in 1942, with the movie named Arabian Nights. It starred Maria Montez as Scheherazade, Sabu Dastagir as Ali Ben Ali and Jon Hall as Harun al-Rashid. The storyline bears virtually no resemblance to the traditional version of the Nights. In the film Scheherazade is a dancer, who attempts to overthrow Caliph Harun al-Rashid and marry his brother. Unfortunately Scheherazade’s initial coup attempt fails and she is sold into slavery, many adventures then ensue. Maria Montez and Jon Hall also starred in the 1944 film Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

The most commercially successful movie based on the Nights was Aladdin, the 1992 animated movie by the Walt Disney Company, which starred Scott Weinger and Robin Williams. The film led to several sequels and a television series of the same name.

The Voyages of Sinbad have been adapted for television and film several times, the most recent of which was in the 2003 animated feature Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, which starred Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Perhaps the most famous Sinbad film was the 1958 movie The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, produced by the stop-motion animation pioneer, Ray Harryhausen.

Other notable versions of the Nights include the famous 1974 Italian movie Il fiore delle mille e una notte by Pier Paolo Pasolini and the 1990 French movie Les 1001 nuits, which starred Catherine Zeta-Jones as Scheherazade. There are also numerous Bollywood movies, such as Aladdin and Sinbad in which the two named heroes get to meet and share in each other's adventures; in this version, the lamp's djin is female and Aladdin marries her rather than the princess (she becomes a mortal woman for his sake).


In 1888, Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed his Op. 35 Scheherazade, in four movements, based upon four of the tales from the Arabian Nights; The Sea and Sinbad's Ship, The Kalendar Prince, The Young Prince and The Young Princess, and Festival At Baghdad.

There have been several "Arabian Nights" musicals and operettas, either based on particular tales or drawing on the general atmosphere of the Book. Most notable are Chu Chin Chow (1916), and Kismet (1953), not to mention several musicals and innumerable pantomimes on the story of Aladdin.


  1. Cristiane Capuchinho, Lançada a primeira tradução do árabe d'As Mil e Uma Noites, USP Online, Universidade de São Paulo, 6 May 2005.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Moss, Joyce. Middle Eastern Literatures and their times. Thomas Gayle, 2004. ISBN 0787637319
  • Ouyang, Wen-chin and van Gelder, Geert Jan, (eds.). New perspectives on Arabian nights : ideological variations and narrative horizons. Routledge, 2005. ISBN 0415366984
  • Yamanaka, Yuriko and Tetsuko Nishio. The Arabian nights and orientalism : perspectives from East & West. I.B. Tauris, 2006. ISBN 1850437688

External links

All links retrieved April 30, 2023.


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