What is the Arabian Nights?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Arabian Nights is a collection of stories from regions of the ancient Middle East and Asia such as India, Persia, Turkey, and Yemen. These stories run a gamut from traditional folktales to songs, and there are a number of versions featuring various story collections, translated into a wide variety of languages. The collection is perhaps one of the better known works of Arabic literature, much to the frustration of some scholars, as this hodge-podge of folklore mixes stories, traditions, and dialects rather promiscuously.

A map of the Middle East.
A map of the Middle East.

In Arabic, the stories are known as Alf Layla Wa Layla, which means “One Thousand and One Nights,” and many people know the book by this alternate title. According to historical information, the first formal collection of such stories appears to have been made around 800 CE, although many of the individual stories are much older. The vast repertoire reflects the diverse and varied cultures of the regions it comes from, making the stories an interesting cultural record in addition to a form of entertainment.

According to legend, the Arabian Nights were inspired by Scheherazade, wife of the Persian ruler Shahryar. Shahryar had a rather nasty habit of executing his wives after their wedding night in attempt to get revenge on his first wife, who had cheated on him. Scheherazade came up with the ploy of telling her husband a story, ending each night on a cliffhanger so that he could not execute her. Eventually, she was granted a pardon.

Many collections pay homage to the legend about the origins of the stories, framing them within the larger story of Scheherazade. Many of the stories are interrupted in the middle with smaller sub-stories, and sometimes the characters pause to have extended discourses about science, philosophy, and other matters, which could be viewed as either charming or irritating, depending on how the reader feels about this sort of thing. Quite a few of the stories come from oral folklore traditions, which makes them a marked departure from more traditional formal written Arabic literature.

When Westerners were introduced to the Arabian Nights, they became captivated, and many of the stories began to be circulated in translation, including the stories of Sinbad the Sailor and Aladdin and his lamp. Many of the tales inspired stage and musical performances, ranging from operas to concertos, and the stories continue to captivate people all over the world.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


I remember watching a Hallmark movie called Arabian Nights. This movie had a mad sultan and a friend tried to console him by telling him stories.

These stories included the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the story of Aladdin and his lamp.

I think people are intrigued by the exotic mystery these stories represent. Of course the movie had a happy ending, but that is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the Arabian Nights.


The Disney story of Aladdin is the most familiar thing to me when it comes to the Arabian Nights.

While this is interesting and entertaining, it would be interesting to know how the original story is told.

I don't know very many kids who aren't fascinated by Aladdin and his magic lamp. Who wouldn't want to have a lamp like that? I think everyone has probably imagined what that would be like once in awhile.


@burcinc-- I like Aladdin from Arabian Nights the most. I saw the Disney movie when I was little but the original story is a little different.

Arabian Nights reminds me a little of Shakespeare's works. I don't read it in Arabic obviously but the English translation. The book I have though is written in contemporary English, so it's much easier to understand than Shakespeare. I really like the way they have been written though. It's pretty captivating and even though it takes me an hour or more to read one story, I don't get bored.

You're right that you also get to learn about old Persia and Muslim culture. I find the culture described in these stories really interesting.


I've read a few tales of the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights in English. My favorite is the story about the sisters who envied.

It's about two sisters who were jealous of their youngest sister who became the Queen of Persia by marrying the King. They were so jealous that they took away the Queen's three children as soon as they were born and sent them away in a basket in the river. The King punished and sent away the Queen for not bearing him children and the sisters were happy.

Eventually though, the children are raised by a gardener and the King finds out that they are his children. He brings them back to his Kingdom.

I really like this story because it helps me visualize and learn about what life was like in Medieval Persia. There is also a great lesson to be taken, that evil plans will eventually fail and everyone will get their due.

There are many more Arabian Nights tales and I hope to get to read them all eventually.

Anyone else a fan of Arabian Nights' stories? Which is your favorite?


I went to Arabian Nights dinner theater in Orlando, Florida last year. I had heard about the Arabian Nights tales in school and thought that this would be a great opportunity to watch the tales as a play.

It turns out that this dinner theater in Florida is basically an acrobatic horse riding show in costumes. The costumes and backgrounds were quite good and I can see how people who enjoy watching horses and horse riding would have fun. But personally, I found it very far from the original tales of Arabian Nights which I had heard about growing up.

So if you're more into literature and theater, I suggest that you seek a different play than this one to watch Arabian Nights.

Post your comments
Forgot password?