Arabian Nights - One Thousand and One Nights
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Arabian Nights

Persian miniature
Princess (ca. 1540 AD)

February 2017 - People in India and Persia have been telling these stories for a long time - nobody knows how long. Around 850 AD, a Persian writer in the Abbasid Empire collected a bunch of stories into a book called "Alf Layla wa Layla", or the Thousand and One Nights - which we also call the Arabian Nights. The book is about a Sassanian king, Shahryar, who decides to make sure his wife is always faithful to him by marrying a new girl every night and killing her in the morning.

King Shahryar's vizier is in charge of finding a new girl every day to marry the king. One day, the vizier's own daughter Scheherazade comes to him and insists that she should marry the king. Scheherazade (shuh-HAIR-ah-zadd) explains that she has a plan to stop the king from killing all these women, so the vizier unhappily agrees to let her marry the king.

So Scheherazade marries King Shahryar. That night at bedtime, she offers to tell her new husband a story. She tells a great story, but just at the most exciting part she stops because the sun is coming up and it's time for her to be killed. But King Shahryar wants to hear the end of the story, so he agrees to let Scheherazade live another day.


Scheherazade continues her story that night, and again she ends at the most exciting part, and again the king lets her live. She does that every night, for a thousand and one nights, and finally King Shahryar sees that this was a dumb idea and lets Scheherazade live as his queen.

Here are some of the stories Scheherazade told the king:

Aladdin and the Lamp
Sinbad the Sailor
Noureddin and the Persian Woman

You could compare this story to the older story of Esther, from the Bible, or to the story of Salome. It's a common story about how women and power (but think about this: it marginalizes women by telling us that we can only get power through tricks, but in real life there were women who ruled in the Islamic Empire). Possibly it's being retold here in order to show how bad Sassanian kings were before they converted to Islam and saw the light.

Bibliography and further reading about the Arabian Nights and Scheherazade:

Islamic poetry
African stories
Medieval stories
Greek mythology
Islamic Empire
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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