1001 nights – Persian origins
Since the 18th century, stories from the 1001 nights, most commonly known in English as The Arabian nights, have been enormously popular in the West. The origins of this collection of wondrous tales are complex and not fully known. While a collection existed in Arabic from around the 8th or 9th century, the names of the characters in the overriding ‘frame narrative’, including the storyteller, Sheherazade, and the ruler, Shahriyah, are Persian.
This narrative, as well as some of the individual tales with which Sheherazade beguiles Shahriyah over 1001 nights, may have been drawn from an earlier collection known as Hazar Afsana, Persian for ‘one thousand tales’. This collection has not survived, but many of the stories within the 1001 nights are thought to have Persian or Indian origins.
From around the 10th to the 12th centuries, hundreds of tales – many of Arab origin – were added to the frame narrative of Sheherazade and Shahriyah, and earlier tales deleted, to form Alf Layla wa Layla, Arabic for ‘one thousand nights and a night’. The stories that make up the collection vary between versions, but all include a huge range of genres: epics, fairy tales, love stories, adventures, ghost stories, mysteries and tragedies – many comprising stories within stories.
Arising from an oral tradition, these tales are likely to have travelled along trade routes to reach the West. A printed version first appeared in Europe when Antoine Galland, a linguist and traveller, began publishing his French translation in 1704. English translations of Galland’s edition soon followed, after which translations from the Arabic were published by scholars such as Edward William Lane and Sir Richard Francis Burton. The tales have inspired hundreds of stories within the ‘oriental tale’ genre, as well as the work of writers as diverse as Voltaire, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Bronte, Jorge Luis Borges, Salman Rushdie and AS Byatt.
Traditionally manuscripts of the 1001 nights have not been illustrated. Unlike some stories that were seen as appropriate literature for the court and therefore often copied into richly illustrated volumes, the 1001 nights were generally viewed as frivolous, often ribald, tales from the street or the marketplace.
Love & devotion in the UK
The Bodleian Libraries is showing its own presentation of the Love and devotion exhibition at the Exhibition Room, Bodleian Library, in Oxford, England, between 29 November 2012 and 28 April 2013.
Learn more about how you can visit this exhibition on the Bodleian Libraries website.
Love and devotion: Persian Cultural Crossroads
This two-day conference held in April 2012 featured distinguished international guests and Australian specialists exploring cultural convergences in literature, the arts and architecture, history and philosophy within Persia's cultural sphere and Europe, from the 11th century to the present day.
For information on keynote speakers & topics discussed, visit our conference page
Visit the exhibition
The Love and devotion exhibition took place from 9 March to 1 July 2012. In-depth information about the exhibits and themes can be found on this website.
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Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, Tel +61 3 8664 7000