The Greatest Stories From One Thousand and One Nights

| Photo by Katerina Niuman on Unsplash
Courtney Stanley

1,001 Nights, also known as The Thousand and One Nights or Arabian Nights, is a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folk tales that were originally published together during the Islamic Golden Age. The stories — from historical tales to tragic romances to comedies — were collected over many centuries by a huge range of scholars and authors. Read below to find ten of the most standout stories.

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Shahryar and Scheherazade

This frame story for the entirety of the work is the common thread between each edition of Nights. Shahryar is a king who rules over India and China. He becomes aware of his wife’s infidelity and has her executed, and afterward, in anger and sadness, decides all women are guilty and must be executed. Shahryar marries and executes several virgins, each on the morning after they are married. When the king takes Scheherazade as his wife, she tells him a story on the night of their marriage, but she doesn’t have time to finish it. The king postpones her execution to find out the end of the story. The next night she finishes her story but begins a new one, and Shahryar postpones her execution again. They continue this for 1,001 nights.

Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp

Although it wasn’t added to the collection until the 18th century by French scholar Antoine Galland, ‘Aladdin’ is one of the most popular tales from 1,001 Nights because of its modern Disney adaptation. In the original tale, Aladdin is a poor, young man in ‘one of the cities of China.’ A sorcerer deceives Aladdin and persuades him to steal an oil lamp from a magic cave. Aladdin accidentally releases a genie from the lamp, and so a series of events unfold in which Aladdin’s every wish comes true, but only to be dismantled by the villain. Thankfully, a Disney-approved happy ending is in store.

The Three Apples

In this tale, a fisherman discovers a chest in the Tigris River that he sells to Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid Caliph. Harun finds that it contains the body of a dead woman and orders his adviser, Ja’far, to solve the crime. The dead woman’s husband and father both claim to have killed her, but the caliph believes the story of the husband who believed her to have been unfaithful. The husband had bought three unique apples for his wife when she was ill, and when he found a slave with one of the apples, the slave claimed his girlfriend gave it to him. In a rage, the man killed his wife. The slave who stirred up all the trouble ends up being Ja’far’s slave, and Ja’far begs for a pardon.

The Tale of the Hunchback

In Basrah, a tailor and his wife came upon an amusing hunchback who they decided to invite to their home for dinner. While the hunchback was eating and joking, he choked on a huge, sharp fishbone. The two wrapped the dead man up in cloth and pretended he was a child with smallpox so everyone would leave them alone. The two left the hunchback at the doctor’s house and ran away. The doctor was eager to see his patient, and he tripped down the stairs, falling onto the hunchback. Believing he killed a patient, the doctor pawns the dead body off on his neighbor. The hunchback is passed around until the king’s broker is found with the dead body, and just as the broker is about to be executed, a string of confessions comes from all the assumed murderers. But it turns out the hunchback was never dead at all – a barber brings him back to life.

The Vizier and the Sage Duban

Duban is a sage, or a wise healer, who works for King Yunan who has leprosy. Yunan’s advisor warns the king that Duban is going to try to kill him, and Yunan executes the healer, fearing for his life. Duban gives the king a magic book just before he is beheaded. After the execution, the king reads through the book and later dies because of a secret poison Duban left on the pages.

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

This famous tale is another that was added by Galland in the 18th century. Ali Baba is a poor but hardworking woodcutter who finds a thieves’ hideout protected by magic, which he enters by saying, ‘Open Sesame.’ The den is filled with treasures, and Ali Baba lets the secret out to his brother Cassim, who is killed by the thieves while trying to steal the treasure. The thieves find out Ali Baba knows how to get into their hideout, so they set off to kill him, but they are outwitted by Ali Baba’s clever slave, Morgiana.

The Fisherman and the Jinni

A poor fisherman casts out his net after calling upon God and pulls out a copper jar. When he opens it, pleased to have found something so valuable, a powerful genie is released. Having been kept captive in the jar for so long, the genie is furious with humanity and vows to kill whoever released him. The fisherman, a wise old man, has no success pleading with the genie, so he tricks the genie into returning to the jar. Trapped again, the genie pledges to reward the fisherman with a lake full of exotic fish if he is released. The fisherman agrees and sells the fish to the sultan as the genie instructed. When the sultan investigates the lake where the fish came from, he meets a prince who is half stone. The sultan helps the prince and continues to stay friends with the fisherman.

The Lovers of Bassorah

Harun al-Rashid, the caliph in the story, asks the famous writer al-Asma’i and the poet Husayn al-Khali to tell him a story. Husayn tells him of visiting Bassorah to present a poem. Husayn went inside a house to ask for a glass of water, and there he met a beautiful woman who confessed her love for a young man who used to pass by the house, but stopped when he saw the woman playing with her slave. Husayn decides to help her meet him again by taking him a note, but the man refuses to come back. When he visits the house a year later, however, he finds the two married.

The Three Princes and the Princes Nouronnihar

Three princes all want to marry their cousin Nouronnihar, and the Grand Sultan, their father, guarantees the woman’s hand to the brother who finds the item with the highest value. They each work to bring the best item to the table, including a magic carpet to ride, a magical tube that shows the viewer his deepest wishes, and a healing apple. After finding the items, the princes hear that Nouronnihar is ill, and rather than fighting over her, they bring all of their items together to save her life.

The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor

A famous sailor named Sinbad tells the stories of his Homeric travels to a poor porter. The tales include shipwrecks, ferocious beasts, the Old Man of the Sea, and other dangers. The thrill of life at sea leads Sinbad to keep exploring despite the danger, but after his seventh voyage, Sinbad finally decides to settle down. Sinbad’s stories are another famous section of the collection, but they weren’t added until later compilations – they date back to a Turkish collection in 1637.

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