The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, also known as 1001 Arabian Nights, or simply the Arabian Nights, is a piece of classic Arabic literature in the style of a frame tale. Shahryar (or Schriyar), king of an unnamed island "between India and China", is so shocked by his wife's infidelity that he kills her and gives his vizier an order to get him a new wife for every night (in other versions, every third night). After his time with her he kills her. When this has been going on for some time, Scheherazade, daughter of the vizier1, volunteers to become the king's wife, and begins to tell him stories that end in cliff-hangers, so the king's curiosity will prevent him from having her killed. In the end of all those nights she has given birth to three sons and the king has long ago changed his mind.
The tales vary widely; they include historical tales, love stories, tragedies, comedies, poems, burlesques and Muslim religious legends. Some of the famous stories Scheherazade spins are Aladdin's Lamp, Sindbad the Sailor, and the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Numerous stories depict djinns, magicians and legendary places. Real life historical caliph Harun al-Rashid is a common protagonist. Frequently, tales are wrapped inside other tales wrapped inside still others and so on, adding to the fantastic texture.
Scheherazade has been taken by story-tellers as a symbol of themselves, the woman that saves her life just by telling tales.
The original Arabic compiler is reputedly storyteller Abu abd-Allah Muhammed el-Gahshigar in the 9th century. The frame-story of Scheherezade 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.
The first European version was a translation into French (1707 - 1717) by Antoine Galland of an earlier compilation that was written in Arabic. This book, Les Mille et une nuits, contes arabes traduits en français 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). Both Arabic and Persian written versions have been lost to modern readers. 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 work is made up of a collection of stories thought to be from traditional Arabic, Persian, 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 17-volume translation was not bowdlerized. Though published in the Victorian era, it contained all the sexual and moribund detail of the source material.
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.'
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