The Book of One Thousand and One Nights

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The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (كتاب ألف ليلة و ليلة in Arabic or هزار و یک شب in Persian), also known as The book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, 1001 Arabian Nights, or simply the Arabian Nights, is a piece of medieval Arabic literature in the style of a frame tale. The original Arabic compiler is reputedly storyteller Abu abd-Allah Muhammed el-Gahshigar in the 9th century. The frame-story of Shahrazad seems to have been added in the 14th century. The first modern Arabic compilation, made out of Egyptian writings, was published in Cairo in 1835.

During the reign of Harun al-Rashid, Baghdad rose to a world metropolitan city. Merchants from China, India, Persia, Africa, and Europe were all found in Baghdad. Its during this time that many of the stories, which are originally folk stories, are thought to have been collected orally over many years and later then compiled to include them in a single book.

The story starts with Shahrayar, king of an unnamed island "between India and China" (in modern editions based on Arab transcripts he is king of India and China), is so shocked by his wife's infidelity that he kills her and, believing all women to be likewise unfaithful, 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 Shahrazad (the name is perhaps better-known in English as "Scheherazade" or "Shahrastini") forms a plan and volunteers to become Shahrayar's next wife. Every night after their marriage, she spends hours telling him stories, each time stopping at dawn with a cliff-hanger, so the king will postpone the execution out of a desire to hear the rest of the tale. In the end, she has given birth to three sons, and the king has been convinced of her faithfulness and revoked 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, 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 18th century by Antoine Galland, a French orientalist, who had heard them in oral form from a Maronite story-teller from Aleppo. Numerous stories depict djinns, magicians, and legendary places, which are often intermingled with real people and geography; the historical caliph Harun al-Rashid is a common protagonist. 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.


The first European version (and first printed edition) was a translation into French (1704 - 1717) by Antoine Galland of an earlier compilation that was written in Arabic. This book, Les Mille et une nuits, contes arabes traduits en franais (in 12 volumes) probably included Arabic stories known to the translator but not included in the Arabic compilation. The Arabic compilation Alf Layla (A Thousand Nights), originating about 850 C.E., was in turn probably an abridged translation of an earlier Persian work called Hazar Afsanah (A Thousand Legends) but probably originated in India. 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. Legend has it that anyone who reads the whole collection will become mad.

The work is made up of a collection of stories thought to be from traditional Persian, Arabic, and Indian stories. Some elements appear in the Odyssey. However, Aladdin's Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves appeared first in Antoine Galland's translation and cannot be found in the original writings. He heard them from a Syrian Christian storyteller from Aleppo, a Maronite scholar, Youhenna Diab, whom he called 'Hanna'.

Perhaps the best-known translation to English speakers is that by Sir Richard Francis Burton, published as The Arabian Nights. Unlike previous editions, his 16-volume translation was not bowdlerized. Though published in the Victorian era, it contained all the erotic nuances of the source material. More recent and more legible versions are that of the French doctor J. C. Mardrus, translated into English by Powys Mathers, and, notably, a critical edition based on the 14th century Syrian manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale, compiled in Arabic by Muhsin Mahdi and rendered into English by Husain Haddawy, the most accurate and elegant of all to this date.

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 Bibliotheque 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 MSS. 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.'

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.

References and external links

  • Stories From One Thousand and One Nights, (Lane and Poole translation): Project Bartleby edition (

de:Tausendundeine Nacht es:Las mil y una noches eo:Mil kaj Unu Noktoj fr:Mille et une nuits it:Mille e una notte he:סיפורי אלף לילה ולילה nl:Duizend-en-n nacht ja:千夜一夜物語 pl:Baśnie z tysiąca i jednej nocy pt:As Mil e Uma Noites ru:Тысяча и одна ночь sl:Tisoč in ena noč fi:Tuhat ja yksi yt tt:Me d ber ki zh:一千零一夜


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