It is believed that what would become The Thousand and One Nights originated in ancient India. By the 9th century, a vast collection of Indian stories, written in Sanskrit, had been carried west where Persian and Arab scholars translated the tales and gave them new life. Over the next centuries, Middle Eastern scholars and storytellers reshaped the collection, edited the preexisting stories, and added new tales to the compiled text. This process of revision and growth continued until the 15th or 16th century. By then, The Thousand and One Nights had largely become the text as it is known today, give or take a few stories. Yet, the westward journey of The Thousand and One Nights was not yet over.
A French scholar and antiquarian named Antoine Galland (c. 1647-1715) fortuitously came across a manuscript of The Thousand and One Nights, which he translated (with quite a bit of artistic and editorial license) for readers in Europe and its colonies. This task occupied his time from the year 1704 until his death in 1715—some of his volumes even had to be published posthumously. Interestingly, several of the most famous stories in Galland’s edition of The Thousand and One Nights did not come from the manuscript he discovered. The beloved tales of Sindbad the Sailor, Ali Baba, and Aladdin are among the so-called orphan or apocryphal stories that were spliced into the original collection by Galland.
Sindbad the Sailor was a fictional character with his own stand-alone series of adventures dating back to the 8th or 9th century. Antoine Galland found a manuscript of these Sindbad tales and published a translation in 1698. It was during his translation and publication of the Sindbad stories that Galland was tipped off about the existence of The Thousand and One Nights text. Upon receiving this information, he evidently came to the false conclusion that the Sindbad adventures he had just translated were a piece from The Thousand and One Nights that had somehow, over time, become separated from the rest of the compiled stories. Therefore, when he obtained and started translating the Nights, he added the tales of Sindbad, apparently thinking that was where the accounts of the sailor’s adventures belonged.
After adding Sindbad to the Thousand and One Nights, Galland began to wonder if there were other tales missing from the manuscript that had been removed and lost from the collection. While such thoughts were on the translator’s mind, a Syrian friend of his by the name of Hanna Diyab brought to Galland’s attention the existence of other stories that had been allegedly circulating in Syria and Turkey. Antoine Galland copied these stories from his Syrian friend and included them in his translation of the Nights—among the tales Galland learned from Diyab were ‘The Story of Aladdin, or the Magic Lamp’ and ‘The Story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.’ Cynical and pessimistic observers have suggested that Galland might have included these later tales in his translations not because of ignorance or misinformation, but because of pressure from his publishers and the demands of his ravenous readers. Whether or not the tales of Sindbad, Aladdin and Ali Baba truly belong in The Thousand and One Nights, their popularity with Antoine Galland’s European readers has solidified their place in the collection ever since.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Magic Carpet, by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin (1876-1942), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Introduction of Robert Irwin for Tales from 1,001 Nights, Translated by Malcolm c. Lyons and Ursula Lyons. Penguin Classics, 2010, 2019.