Detail map of Al Shaghour, Damascus, Damascus Governorate, Syria,New Valley Governorate, Egypt,Chicago, Illinois, United States

A: Al Shaghour, Damascus, Damascus Governorate, Syria, B: New Valley Governorate, Egypt, C: Chicago, Illinois, United States

The Earliest-Known Manuscript Fragment of the Arabian Nights

Circa 825 CE
One side of the early 9th century fragment of the "Thousand Nights". Oriental Institute, Chicago, No. 17618.

One side of the early 9th century fragment of the "Thousand Nights". Oriental Institute, Chicago, No. 17618.

A fragment of the 1000 Nights, the first two folios of the earliest-known manuscript of the Alf Lailah, or Arabian Nights stories, written on brownish paper made from linen in Kufic-naskhi script, was discovered in Egypt in 1947 and purchased by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (Oriental Institute No. 17618). It consists of the title page and first page of text, used as scratch paper. Prior to this discovery, the earliest known manuscript of the Arabian Nights was dated to the mid-15th century. In 1949 Abbot p. 130 (reference below) called the fragment "the earliest known extant paper book in Islam and with a date of prime significance for the early history of the Nights." From a study of the text Abbot believed that the manuscript originated in Syria in the first quarter of the ninth century, and was taken to Egypt early in its history. The title reads in translation:

"A book of tales from a Thousand Nights. There is neither strength nor power except in God the Highest, the Mightiest."

"On the next page is the beginning of the first story.

"This much-tattered fragment was used as scrap paper. . . , with numerous scribblings and drawings on the flyleaf and margins. These include pious phrases, the draft of a letter, and five drafts of a legal formula written by on Ahamad ibn Mahfuz, and dated by him the last of Safar of the year six and sixty and two [hundred] corresponding to 20th October 879 A.D." (Bosch, Carswell, Petherbridge, Islamic Bindings & Bookmaking [1981] no. 98, 223-224).

Bloom, Paper Before Print. The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (2001) 58 and figure 26.

Abbott, "A Ninth-Century Fragment of the 'Thousand Nights.' New Light on the Early History of the Arabian Nights," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 8, no. 3 (July 1949) 129-164 (includes 4 illustrations of the fragment).

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