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.
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.