three pairs of lovers with space



Salāh al-Dīn (1137-93), known in English as Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria from 1174, captured Jerusalem from the Christians in 1187 and withstood the attempt of the Third Crusade to recapture it.  He was widely regarded as “great-hearted,” not only by Moslems (as recounted here), but by his Christian enemies.

The following anecdote about him from The Thousand Nights and One Night is the first of several which the narrator, Shahrazād, took “from the Recitals of Generosity and Conduct”, beginning on the seven-hundred-and-fourteenth night of her story-telling.

The translation presented here is Powys Mathers’ celebrated translation of Mardrus’s translation into French, volume III pp. 474-8. Important differences with Sir Richard Burton’s more scholarly and reliable but archaic translation[1] are pointed out in the footnotes.


IT IS RELATED, O auspicious King, that the wazīr[2] of the victorious Salāh al-Dīn had a young Christian boy among the number of his favourite slaves, who was so beautiful and tender that the eyes of all men loved him. One day, as the wazīr was walking with this child, he was seen by Salāh al-Dīn and commanded to approach. The Sultān, casting a delighted glance upon the boy,[3] asked the wazīr whence he came. ‘From Allāh, my lord,’ answered the wazīr a little uncomfortably. As Salāh al-Dīn went on his way, he smiled and said: ‘Now, O our wazīr, you have found a way to control us by the beauty of a star and prison us in the enchantment of a moon.’

A probable portrait of Saladin in a manuscript of ca. 1185

This made the wazīr reflect, and he said to himself: ‘I cannot keep this child now that the Sultān has remarked him.’ So he prepared a rich present and called the Christian lad to him, saying: ‘O youth, I swear by Allāh that I would never consent to be separated from you were it not necessary.’ Then he gave the boy the present, and added: ‘You will carry this to the Sultān, and be yourself part of the present, for I give you up to our master.’ Lastly he gave him a note to hand to Salāh al-Dīn, on which were written these lines:

     I had a soul once, even I,
     My lord,
     But now unstarred and earthy it.
     Here is a white moon for your sky,
     My lord,
     Because your sky is worthy it.

This gift pleased Salāh al-Dīn intensely, and, as he was great-hearted by nature, he recompensed the wazīr for his sacrifice by loading him with riches and favour, and making him feel on all occasions that the two were friends.

At this point Shahrazād saw the approach of morning and discreetly fell silent.


SHE said:
IT HAPPENED THAT the wazīr soon afterwards acquired a most delightful and accomplished girl for his harīm, and, from the moment she came, she drew his heart towards her. But, before he would allow himself to place his affection with her as he had placed it with the boy, he said to himself: ‘It is possible that the fame of this new pearl of mine will reach the Sultān’s ears. It will be better for me to send her to him as a gift before I grow to love her. The sacrifice will be less and the loss not so cruel’ He called the girl to him and gave her a richer present than before, telling her to carry this to the Sultān and to say that she herself was part of the gift. He also gave her, for Salāh al-Dīn, these lines traced on a piece of paper:

     Dear lord, there was a silver moon,
     And a gold sun came after soon
          Into the royal sky;
     Now they will dance, a moon and sun,
     In pretty constellation
          To please a royal eye.

For this the wazīr’s credit redoubled with Salāh al-Dīn, who lost no opportunity of showing his gratitude. Thus it was that the wazīr soon had hosts of envious enemies, who tried to damage his credit in order to bring about his fall. With statements and hints they attempted to make Salāh al-Dīn believe that the wazīr still had a great inclination towards the Christian boy and that, when the fresh breeze of the North brought memories of their old-time walks, he would desire the boy and call to him with all his soul.[4] They let it be understood that he bitterly repented his gift, biting his nails and tearing at his teeth in spite. Instead of listening to these unworthy reports, Salāh al-Dīn, who had confidence in his wazīr, cried angrily to the calumniators: ‘Let these cursed tongues be still or the heads which hold them shall answer for it!’ Then, as he was also just, he added: ‘Nevertheless, I will put your lies to the proof, so that your barbs may return against you.’ He called the boy, and learning that he could write, said to him: ‘Take paper and pen, and write to my dictation.’ The boy therefore wrote, as if coming from himself, the following letter to the wazīr:

by Frederick William Pomeroy, 1888

‘Old master of my love, you must know from your own feeling how great is my tenderness for you, how sweet the memory of our delights. I am sad in this palace, for nothing here can make me forget your goodness, and the majesty of the Sultan prevents me from tasting his favours. I pray you find some way of taking me back; for the Sultān has never been alone with me and you will find me as I was.’[5]

The Sultān sent a little slave, who gave the letter to the wazīr, saying: ‘The Christian lad, who was once yours, gave me this letter for you.’ The wazīr took the letter, looked at it for a moment, and then, without unsealing it, wrote on the back:

     I, who am wise, will not be setting
          My body whole
     In lion’s teeth, or lifting the red coal
          Of cast regretting,
     Nay, my soul given, I’ll not bear the fretting
          Which was that soul.

The Sultān exulted when he had read this answer, and took care to recite it before the fallen faces of those envious others. He called the wazīr to him and, after renewed assurance of friendship, asked him: ‘O father of wisdom, can you tell us how you come to have such control over yourself?’ Then said the wazīr: ‘I never let my passions come even to the threshold of my will.’

But Allāh knows all!


[1] In Burton’s version, the story was recounted on the 697th to 698th nights.

[2] Burton gives his name, Abu Amir bin Marwan.

[3] [Note by Burton:] “He was a Kurd and therefore fond of boys (like Virgil, Horace, etc.), but that perversion did not prey prevent his being one of the noblest of men. He lies in the Great Amawi Mosque of Damascus and I never visited a tomb with more reverence.”

[4] Burton translates this into stronger language: they alleged that “there still lurked in [the wazīr] a hot lust for the boy and that he ceased not to desire him, whenever the cool northern breezes moved him, and to gnash his teeth for having given him away.”

[5] This apparent claim that he had not been intimate with Salāh al-Dīn is absent from Burton’s version of the letter.