One of the most famous collections
of ancient tales is Alf Layla wa Layla, the Arabic
name of One Thousand and One Nights, commonly known
in English as The Arabian Nights. The original Arabic
compiler is reputedly the 9th century storyteller
Abu abd-Allah Muhammed el-Gahshigar.
These stories came to Europe
during the Middle Ages, but were not written down in a European
language until the beginning of the 18th century,
when Antoine Galland a French orientalist, translated them into
his own language. Translations into English by Edward Lane and
Sir Richard Burton followed in the 19th century.
Sources dating to the 10th
century AD which mention this collection allude to the existence
of a Persian book called Hezar Afsaneh (The Book of
a Thousand Tales), the story of a king, his vizier, and the
vizier's daughters Shahrazad and Dinazad. These same characters
appear in the story that frames One Thousand and One Nights,
though here the main plot is built around two brothers, the
Sassanian kings Shahzaman and Shahriyar, one of whom rules in
Samarkand and the other in India and China. Both find out that
their wives have been unfaithful, and all the women and slaves
involved in their affairs are beheaded.
Shahriyar, then gives his vizier
(meaning minister in Persian) an order to find 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 (better-known in English as "Scheherazade")
forms a plan to become Shahriyar's next wife. She persuades
her father to let her go to the king, taking her younger sister
Dinazad with her. After their marriage, she instructs Dinazad
to ask her for a story every night. She spends hours telling
her sister and the king stories, and each time she stops by
dawn, at a crucial point, thereby arousing the king's interest
in hearing the rest of the story the following night. She is
then able to make them last for one thousand and one nights.
During this period Shahrazad gives birth to three male children
by the king, and when her storytelling finally ends he offers
to grant her a wish. She asks the king to spare her life for
the sake of their young children, which he willingly agrees
to do, and they live happily ever after.
The names of Shahriyar (holder
of a kingdom; prince or king), Shahrazad (of noble lineage)
and Dinazad (exalting the goddess Den) are Iranian, and the
name of Shahriyar's brother Shahzaman consists of the Persian
shah (king) and Arabic zaman (time). It is believed that the
frame story of One Thousand and One Nights is of both
Persian and Indian origin.
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, who
had heard them in oral form from a Maronite story-teller from
Among the tales in the
collection which are believed to be of Persian origin are love
stories and fairy tales, which often include div (demon)
and pari (fairy), as well as magical animals and birds.
Other stories, such as The Ebony Horse, although beginning
with a description which fits perfectly into the Persian tradition,
are nevertheless believed to be of Indian origin. The Ebony
Horse, also known as The Magic Horse, is about
a magical horse presented as a gift to the king of Persia. The
king's young heir sits on the ebony horse to test the magic
and flies into the sky. He visits another country (Yemen), falls
in love with a princess, and after a series of adventures returns
to his father's court and marries the princess.
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
Shahrazad's's tale will begin telling other characters a story
of his own, and that story may have another one told within
it, and so on, adding to the fantastic texture.