One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of folktales compiled in Baghdad during the Islamic Golden Age. It is often known in English as the Arabian Nights from the first English language translation, 1706, which rendered the title as “The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment.” The work was not written by a single author but instead assembled over many centuries by various authors, translators and scholars across Asia. Caliph Harun al-Rashid was in charge of one of the main editions. He also featured in some of the stories themselves. Other stories retell plots popular in Indian, Persian and Arabic folklore and include historical tales, love stories, tragedies, comedies, poems and burlesques. There are murder mysteries and horror stories featuring jinns, ghouls, sorcerers and magicians. Many of the stories – such as “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” or “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” – were not parts of Harun al-Rashid’s compilation but were instead added by European translators. They too, however, are tales with their origin in the Middle East.
All the editions of The Arabian Nights share the same framing device. It tells the story of a Persian king who despairs at the infidelity of women. In order to make sure that his wife is faithful to him he decides to marry a succession of virgins and have each one killed on the day after their wedding night. Eventually the king’s vizier, whose duty it is to provide the women, cannot find any more virgins for the king. This is when Scheherazade, the vizier’s own daughter, offers herself as the king’s next bride. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell him a tale, but without finishing it. Curious to hear the conclusion to the story, the king postpones her execution. The following night, as soon as she finishes a tale, Scheherazade begins a new one, and the king is once again forced to let her live. This ruse was repeated for 1,001 consecutive nights. Eventually Scheherazade’s life was spared.