The 1001 Nights

“The Kitab Alf Laylah wa-Laylah—‘The Book of the Thousand and One Nights’—has inspired countless films, musicals, and novels. The original tales are breathtakingly inventive, vulgar, and discursive, full of cliff-hanger action, scented with sex, royalty, and magic. Western scholars have been arguing over their origin, composition, and textual tradition for some 300 years, a debate animated by the schism between an eighteenth-century French translation of a Syrian manuscript and a later English translation of an Egyptian one. It seems clear that there is an ancient Persian, Indian, and Mesopotamian collection of stories at the core of ‘the Nights,’ which came together as a coherent whole in Arabic in ninth-century Baghdad, was then embroidered by Iraqi storytellers, and further embellished by tales added from the streets, cafes, and imaginations of the medieval cities of Egypt, North Africa, and Syria.

Long known as ‘The Thousand Nights,’ the collection did not become ‘A Thousand and One’ until the twelfth century. Curiously, too, many of the celebrated adventures such as ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ and ‘Aladdin and his Lamp’ were added at the very last ‘textual’ moment by the first French translator (Antoine Galland), sourced from a Maronite story-teller in Aleppo.”             

Excerpted from: Rogerson, Barnaby. Rogerson’s Book of Numbers: The Culture of Numbers–from 1,001 Nights to the Seven Wonders of the World. New York: Picador, 2013.

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