(The following is a post by Mary-Jane Deeb, Chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division.)
Of all the tales of “The Arabian Nights,” or the “Thousand and One Nights” those of the seven voyages of Sindbad the Sailor are perhaps the most familiar to people around the world. There have been numerous films made about Sindbad. There are many animated cartoons on Sindbad’s travels: as early as 1936, Paramount Pictures released “Popeye the Sailor meets Sindbad the Sailor,” and as late as 2003, “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” was produced by Dreamworks Animation. There are also TV series, video games, comic books, and many other items that feature Sindbad.
However, the stories featured in those various films and publications are unrelated to the original tales that we associate with the “The Arabian Nights.” These were first introduced to Europe in 1704 in a French translation from Arabic by Antoine Galland (1646–1715), a French orientalist and archeologist. His twelve volumes, “Les Mille et Une Nuits contes arabes traduits en Francais” (The Thousand and One Nights: Arab tales translated to French ) published between 1704 and 1717, were based, in part, on a four volume 16th century Syrian manuscript, as well as on orally transmitted sources, and included the seven voyages of Sindbad.
Very soon after its publication there began a debate about the origins of many of these tales, including those of Sindbad the Sailor. Western scholars agree today, that the “Arabian Nights” were never a single work, but a composite of popular stories originating from different parts of the world (today’s Iraq, Iran, Egypt, India, Central Asia and China). At first they were transmitted orally, before being committed to writing starting as early as the 10th century and probably continuing for another 600 years to around the 16th century. According to “Encyclopedia Britannica,” “most of the tales best known in the West—primarily those of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sindbad—were much later additions to the original corpus.”
The best known translation into English is that of Sir Richard Burton (1821–1890) a linguist, writer and explorer, who wrote his wildly popular 16 volume series on “The Arabian Nights Entertainments or the Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night,” published between 1885 and 1888. He was not the first though, as numerous versions of the Arabian Nights in English were published starting as early as 1785 and containing the “Seven Voyages of Sindbad.”
So what were the original stories of Sindbad’s travels about? The “Arabian Nights” are fables, morality tales from which the audience can learn “lessons” about life, about right and wrong, and about the consequences of one’s actions. Sindbad’s tales are no exception. They begin in Baghdad when a poor man called Sindbad the Porter because he “bore burdens on his head for hire” feeling hot and tired, espies a bench in front of a rich merchant’s house and stops to rest. From inside the house he can hear people playing the lute, singing and enjoying themselves. The air carries the delicious smell of savory food and delicate wines. Through the gate he sees a beautiful, well-tended garden and hears birds warbling in the trees. So he starts bewailing loudly his lowly status in life, and complaining about how unfair it is that some people have so much while others, like him, have so little. “Many others are in luck and from miseries are free; And Fortune never load them with loads the like o’ mine.” Someone hears him, and invites him inside the beautiful house to partake of a rich and delicious meal with the merchant and his guests. (Richard Burton, “Sindbad the Seaman and Sindbad the Landsman,” in “The Arabian Nights Entertainments or the Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night,” Modern Library Edition, New York, 1997, pp. 414-5.).
It is there that Sindbad the Porter, meets Sindbad the Sailor, the owner of the beautiful house, who tells him the story of his life, and how he made his wealth. Quoting an unnamed poet, Sindbad the Sailor tells Sindbad the Porter:
By means of toil man shall scale the height;
Who to fame aspires musn’t sleep o’night:
Who seeketh pearl in the deep must dive,
Winning weal and wealth by his main and might:
And who seeketh Fame without toil and strife
Th’ impossible seeketh and wasteth life. (Burton, 1997, pp. 417-8.)
Sindbad’s seven voyages should then be understood as tales of derring-do to achieve fame and fortune. On his first voyage, Sindbad sails to what he thinks is an island but instead is a huge whale, that dives deep into the sea when he and his sailors light a fire to cook. He is eventually rescued by a passing boat and ends on an island ruled by a king whose horse he saves and is rewarded with rich gifts, which he sells at huge profit. Eventually he returns to Baghdad a rich man.
Feeling restless in Baghdad, Sindbad embarks on his second trip with other merchants. He is accidentally abandoned by his shipmates on an island where there are roc birds, huge mythical birds, which lay giant eggs. When the female roc comes to rest on her egg Sindbad attaches himself to one of her legs, so that when she leaves her nest the next morning she carries him away from the island and drops him in a valley full of diamonds. With subtle ruse he manages to get the bird to carry him out of the diamond valley, and eventually returns to Baghdad, a much richer man than when he left it.
Unable to find satisfaction in his settled life, Sindbad embarks on his third journey, from Basra this time. Once again he and his shipmates are shipwrecked on an island, and are captured by huge ape-like creatures, headed by an ugly giant who begins eating the crew starting with the captain. Using his wits Sindbad, with the help of the remaining shipmates, uses two burning hot iron spits that the monster had used to skewer members of the crew, and blinds the monster while he lay asleep. Sindbad escapes and sails off to another island where he miraculously recovers merchandise he had thought had been lost at sea, and once again returns to Baghdad.
Yearning to return to sea, Sindbad sets off on his fourth journey landing with his shipmates on an island populated by cannibals who feed and drug the crew. Realizing the danger, Sindbad refuses to eat and escapes. An itinerant group of “pepper-gatherers” carry him to their king who befriends him, and gives him a beautiful woman in marriage. When the woman dies he realizes that the customs of that island requires that he be entombed with her. He eventually escapes after robbing the grave, and returns to Baghdad.
A while later, having “forgotten all … [he] had endured of perils and sufferings…” (Burton, 1997, p. 460), Sindbad decides to buy a new ship in Basrah, and once again sail the seas. He fills the boat with goods to trade, hires a captain and a crew and starts off on his fifth voyage. His boat is sunk by roc birds, he is enslaved by the Old Man of the Sea who rides on his back for weeks, and ends up in the City of the Apes. There he learns how to deal with the apes and gets them to pluck fruits and coconuts which he sells, building another fortune before returning home to Baghdad.
The sixth adventure begins well: Sindbad travels with other merchants, from city to city buying and selling merchandise until they are shipwrecked by a powerful storm on a rocky island that is devoid of edible foodstuffs, but is strewn with jewels and precious stones. Eventually the survivors of the shipwreck die of hunger and disease. Sindbad builds a raft and sails down a stream carrying some of the island’s jewels. He finds his way to a rural area where farmers, on hearing his story, take him to their King. The monarch is a Muslim and an admirer of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad. He befriends Sinbad and later helps him join other merchants and return to Basrah loaded with rich gifts.
The last voyage is no different from the others: he is shipwrecked on an island, but this time he discovers a beautiful city, and another kindly king, who takes him under his wing. He eventually tells Sindbad that as he is growing old and has no male heir, but only one daughter, he would like him to marry her and become his legitimate successor. Sindbad agrees and gets married to a very beautiful and wealthy woman, and when the King dies inherits the throne. The city has one peculiarity though: once a month some of the people turn into birds and fly out of the city. One day he decides to go with them to find out where they fly to. Riding on one of the birds, he rises high in the sky and hears angels glorifying God. So he too praises God, when fire descends from heaven and destroys almost all the birds. He eventually learns that these birds are evil spirits, who will turn against him, so he decides to return to Baghdad with his wife, and much of his wealth and never travel again.
Loved this! My grandmother gave me her beautifully illustrated copy of the “Thousand and One Nights.” Still remember the childhood thrill of it.
This is really fascinating. I always loved “Sinbad the Sailor” (as was the common Westernized spelling) and the Arabian Nights. I had a lavishly illustrated volume as a child which I regularly would crack open to admire the pictures, but never thought too much about the stories, where they came from or what they truly meant. It is refreshing to revisit the stories of my childhood with wiser eyes thanks to this very informative and educational post! Thanks!