Medieval & Early Modern History Research article

A very short history of One Thousand and One Nights

  The origins of Scheherazade’s stories are as complex as they are mysterious

6 minute read

In her new translation of the Alf Layla wa Layla – the One Thousand and One Nights – Yasmine Seale captures the intimacy of the moment in which the story-telling contract is issued between Scheherazade and King Shahryar, the powerful tyrant engaged in acts of murder against the women of his lands.

‘[Scheherazade] turned to the king and said, ‘May I tell a story?’

‘Yes’ he said.

And she said, ‘Listen” (Seale, Arabian Nights, 2021)

In her call to ‘Listen’ both as command and invitation, Scheherazade engages the King and us, listeners of different kinds, as active participants in the story-telling process, as she artfully weaves together captivating narrative cycles that generate new story upon story to keep the King on tenterhooks and crucially, keep her, and her fellow female compatriots, alive. While Scheherazade encapsulates the Nights as the singular authorial woman whose voice not only bookends the narrative cycles, but echoes and is weaved throughout the tales, her ingenious storytelling is the result of multiple skilful storytellers, most unknown, who composed, expanded, and translated these fictional tales in places, languages, and traditions that stretch from premodern India to 18th century France and indeed, our own contemporary present-day.

An oil-on-canvas portrait of Scheherazade, painted by Danielle Gengembre Boás Anderson.

Scheherazade as painted by Danielle Gengembre Boás Anderson.

There is no singular way to recount the Nights’ rich and complex history. As a literary text, it’s known for its lack of a discrete origin story – there is no single author, date or manuscript to which we can pinpoint the exact beginning of its history. Its roots lie both in the ancient Indian frame-tale fables written in Sanskrit and Persian storytelling evinced in the Persian origins of the names of Scheherazade and Shahriyar, but it was catalysed into the One Thousand and One Nights through an Arabic literary tradition. The earliest physical trace of the tale of Scheherazade is found in a fragment of a ninth century Arabic manuscript from Cairo. Across the next five centuries, Scheherazade’s witty, lively and dynamic voice was taken up by storytellers across the cultivated urban centres of Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and al-Andalus, with influences from multiple traditions, including Greek, Coptic, North African, and Hebrew converging to create poly-generic and wondrous stories that by the twelfth century were circulating in book form under the title of the One Thousand and One Nights.

‘Across the next five centuries, Scheherazade’s witty, lively and dynamic voice was taken up by storytellers’

Its reach went beyond the premodern Islamic world. The nesting structure of a tale within a tale caught on in late medieval Europe seen in the Decameron by the Italian poet Boccaccio and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and discrete stories circulated in ways not easily traceable but seen in the imprint of motifs and themes used by medieval poets writing in French, Italian, and English. It was in the eighteenth century, with the work of the French orientalist, Antoine Galland and the Syrian Christian, Hanna Diyab, that the first full-scale translation of the One Thousand and One Nights took place. Between 1704-1717, Galland rendered the Alf Layla wa Layla into French as Les Mille et Une Nuits. The Nights took on another life here with Galland’s inclusion of new material, ‘orphan stories’ that have become synonymous with the Nights in Western culture, including Aladdin and the Story of the Magic Lamp and Ali Baba and the Fourty Thieves. The origin of these ‘orphan stories’ has long perplexed historians of the Nights until most recently – the latest discovery of Hanna Diyab’s memoirs, translated into English as The Book of Travels, demonstrates his authorship of these popular tales, a revelation that serves to further nuance the complex ties between French and Arabic literary history.

Once Galland’s Les Mille et Une Nuits began gaining traction, a series of English orientalists took up projects to translate the Nights into English. Between 1838-41, the Arabophile and philologist, Edward Lane produced a translation while working in Cairo accompanied by wood engravings by William Harvey. Forty years later, the Victorian explorer, Sir Richard Burton, through whom the Nights were re-titled as the Arabian Nights Entertainment, retranslated Galland (from Hindi rather than Arabic) and merged orientalist, eroticised fantasies into the narrative cycles.

An illustration from The Arabian Nights' Entertainments, designed by William Harvey.

An illustration from the English edition of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, from original designs by William Harvey.

In the din of empire, imperialism, and orientalism that catalysed the One Thousand and One Nights into a Western consciousness, it can be easy to lose the voice of the woman who not only holds the centre of the ever-evolving Nights, but is credited as its ultimate story-teller. As the opening frame of the Nights, one of the stable features of the narratives as it travelled across languages, traditions, and geographies, Scheherazade is described as a deeply learned, knowledgeable, cultivated woman:

‘[Scheherazade] had read a lot of books, science and philosophy, knew poetry by heart, had studied history and myth and the wisdom of kings, and she was practiced at clear thinking and full feeling and close reading” (Seale, Arabian Nights, 2021)

Scheherazade is clever, and her cleverness is vital for the stories that are accredited to her narrative voice, stories that were once dismissed as low-brow and simple, but are deeply sophisticated seen in the complex, enveloping structures that connect the macro themes to the micro images, ideas, and motifs found within and across narrative cycles – cycles that spin using rhetorical tricks and techniques that would have been as dizzying and enthralling to listen to as they are to read.

‘Scheherazade is clever, and her cleverness is vital for the stories that are accredited to her narrative voice’

The cleverness and guile of women echoes throughout the narrative cycles. Across stories, women appear in a range of character forms taking on themes that speak to injustice, misogyny, betrayal, revenge, and love using their cunning, their wit, their knowledge, their words. Such strong-willed, smart, and powerful women are found across the Arabic literary tradition, especially in the genre that is most closely-associated with the Nights, the sirah, loosely translated as epic or romance. Women warriors, those who harness physical strength akin to chivalric knights, are a key feature of the sirah seen for instance in the Sirat Dhat al-Himma, which centres on the heroine, Dhat al-Himma, who is currently finding new audiences in Melanie Magidow’s recent abridged English translation of The Tale of Princess Fatima.

Five actors gathered around on a candelit stage, the back wall is covered in large stones, resembling a dungeon.

‘The cleverness and guile of women echoes throughout the narrative cycles.’ Photographer: Ellie Kurttz

In recounting even very brief histories of the Nights, one cannot help but foreground the role that male storytellers and translators have played in keeping the Nights alive, from those who performed tales in coffeehouses and squares in Damascus or Cairo to those who undertook translations into French and English. Women have, however, always been avid listeners and readers of the Nights whether they lived in twelfth-century al-Andalus or nineteenth-century London (including Lady Burton wife to Richard, and both Mary Shelley and George Eliot who are thought to have known the Nights). And indeed modern and contemporary women writers such as the Egyptian activist Nawal el-Saadawi and the novelist Hanan al-Shaykh have sought to retell the Nights, while its influence is clear in G Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, and S. A Chakraborty’s City of Brass. Women translators of the Nights are few in number however, with the accolade of the first woman translator given most recently to Yasmine Seale, whose translation strips away the orientalist fantasies and recovers Scheherazade’s voice, asking us to ‘Listen’ closely, carefully, and attentively to the sophistication of the women speaking.


Further reading:

The Annotated Arabian Nights: The 1001 Nights trans. Yasmine Seale ed. Paulo Lemos Horta (Norton, 2021)

Hanna Diyab, The Book of Travels (New York University Press, 2021)

The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat al-Himma trans. Melanie Magidow (Penguin Classics, 2021)

Marina Warner, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (Harvard University Press, 2013)

Robert Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion (Allen Lane, 1994)

Read more blogs from Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs).

Hakawatis: Women of the Arabian Nights is a co-production with Tamasha and plays in our Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 14 January 2023 as part of our Winter 2022/23 season.