Open menu


Open menu


Open menu
three pairs of lovers with space



The following two related stories from The Thousand Nights and One Night form a single narrative within The Tale of King Umar al-Numān and his Two Remarkable Sons, Sharkān and Du al-Makān, and were told to the said Du al-Makān by his wazīr.

The translation presented here is Powys Mathers’ celebrated translation of Mardrus’s translation into French. Important differences with the translations of Sir Richard Burton and Malcolm Lyons, both more scholarly but less desirable in other ways, are pointed out in the footnotes.

The characters mentioned are fictitious and the date at which the stories are set is vague.  They must precede chronologically the enveloping story of the equally fictitious King Umar. He is said to have reigned in Baghdad, which was not founded until AD 762, but “before the Caliphate of Abd al-Malik bin Marwán”[1], which began in AD 685.

The Tale of Azīz and Az
īzah, and of Prince Tāj al-Mulūk, Crown of Kings

This first of the two related tales[2] opens the hundred-and-seventh night of Shahrazād’s story-telling. The only part of it of Greek love interest is the following description of the newly-born son and heir of Sulaimān Shāh, King of “a city called Green City, behind the mountains of Isfahān in Persia.” (I 641):

... he shone so fair that they called him Tāj al-Mulūk.

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


SHE said:

HE WAS BROUGHT up amid kisses and the fairest breasts, while the years passed by. When he was seven, his father called together the wisest professors of calligraphy, literature, deportment, syntax, and civil law, who stayed with the child and taught him these things until he was fourteen. After he had learnt all that his father wished, he was given a master among riding-masters, who taught him horsemanship, lance play, the conduct of the javelin, and the art of hawking for deer. It was not long before Prince Tāj al-Mulūk became the most accomplished cavalier of his time and he was already so beautiful that, whether he went out on foot or on horseback, those who saw him were damned for their thoughts.

By the time he was fifteen[3], his charms were the main theme for the most loving verses of the poets, while the chastest of philosophers felt their hearts and livers confounded by the seduction of his presence. An amorous poet wrote this about him:

Musk kisses,
To faint under musk,
To feel his body bend like a wet branch
That has eaten of the west wind and drunk dew.

Musk kisses,
To madden without wine;
Should I not know, who get drunk each sunset
With the musk, musk, musk wine of his mouth?

Musk kisses,
Beauty looked into his mirror at morning
And turned from her own shadow
To love the musk, musk, musk of his nakedness.

This when he was only fifteen! When he was eighteen[4], it was the same thing, but increased a thousandfold. A young down shadowed his cheeks’ flesh of roses, and black amber had sketched a beauty spot on the whiteness of his chin. He ravished both sight and reason, even as a poet had said of him:


Boast, if you will, the magic chance
             Which took you safely through the fire;
             A greater wonder I require
        If you would parallel that glance
                  Of jet,
                  Which has not harmed me yet.

        You tell me other cheeks can show
             Soft down as they approach a man’s;
             Not so the cheeks of my romance,
        For that which I see overgrow
                  Their milk
                  Is ghost of gilded silk.

        When we converse of magic streams
             Replete with youth-returning springs,
             You tell me there are no such things
        And I am credulous it seems;
                   Yet I
                  Would venture this reply:

        The spring of youth’s delightful joy
             Myself have tasted where it slips
             For ever from the dark red lips
        Of a slim-waisted deer-swift boy….
                  My tongue
                  Remembers and is young.  [I 650-52]

The Tale of Princess Dunya and Prince
Tāj al-Mulūk

This story, similarly narrated to Du al-Makān by his wazīr, is a direct continuation of the preceding one.  What has happened since the charms of Prince Tāj al-Mulūk were described is that he has formed a steadfast friendship with Azīz, a merchant’s son, who has determined him to marry the beautiful Princess Dunya, whose father reigned over “the Seven Isles of Camphor and Crystal”. She having rejected his suit presented through an embassy, Tāj obtained his father’s approval to go to woo her himself in her father’s capital, accompanied by Azīz and his father’s wazīr, and with all of them disguised as merchants. It was by now the hundred-and-thirty-first night of Shahrazād’s story-telling.

At the end of a month they arrived at the capital of the Isles of Camphor and Crystal. As they entered the great market, Tāj al-Mulūk felt the weight of his cares lighten within him and his heart beat joyously. On the advice of Azīz they dismounted at the great khān and hired for themselves all the shops on the ground floor and all the rooms above, until such time as the wazīr should obtain a house for them in the city. In the shops they disposed their bales of merchandise and, after resting for four days in the khān, went to visit the merchants of the chief silk market.

As they walked there, the wazīr said to the other two: “Before we can attain our object there is one thing which we must do.” “Tell us what that is,” they answered, “for old men are fruitful in inspiration, especially when, like you, they have been trained in policy.” “My idea is,” said the wazīr, “that, instead of leaving all our goods shut up in the khān where no one can see them, we ought to open a large shop for you, my prince, in the silk market itself. You will stay at the entrance to show and sell your goods, while Azīz remains at the back of the shop to pass you the fabrics and unroll them. As you are exceedingly beautiful and Azīz is not less so, in a very short time your shop will be the most popular in the market.” “That is an excellent idea,” said Tāj al-Mulūk and, dressed just as he was in his beautiful robe, he made his way to the silk market followed by Azīz, the wazīr, and all their slaves.

When the merchants saw Tāj al-Mulūk passing, they were stricken into inactivity by his beauty and ceased to attend to their customers. Those who were cutting silk stopped with their scissors in the air, those who were buying forgot their parcels. Some asked themselves: “Has not the porter Ridwān, who holds the keys of the gardens of Paradise, forgotten to shut the gates? Has not this youth escaped that way?” Others exclaimed: “Yā Allāh! we did not know that angels were so beautiful!”

The friends enquired where the chief merchant might be found, and went straight to his shop. Those who were sitting there rose in their honour, thinking: This venerable old man is the father of these beautiful youths.” The wazīr asked for the chief merchant and, on his being pointed out, saw a tall old man with a white beard, a dignified expression, and a smiling mouth. This personage hastened to do the honours of his shop with many cordial expressions of welcome; he bade them sit upon the carpet at his side, and said: “I am ready to help you in any way I can.”

Then said the wazīr: “Urbane chief merchant, for some years I have been travelling with these two boys through many cities and far countries, to teach them the diversity of peoples, to complete their education, and instruct them in the arts of buying, selling, and taking advantage of the various customs among which they find themselves. We have come to spend some time in this place, so that my children may rejoice in the beauty of your city and learn politeness from its inhabitants. We beg you, therefore, to let us some spacious and well situated shop, where we may traffic in the goods of our own far country.”

“It will be a great pleasure to do this for you,” answered the chief merchant, and, so saying, he turned towards the two young men to see what they were like. A single glance at their beauty threw him into a measureless sea of confusion, for he openly and madly adored young men, preferring boys to girls and regaling himself with the sharp taste of immaturity.

Thinking to himself: “Glory and praise to Him who created and moulded these exquisite creatures from lifeless dust!” he rose and, treating them as if he had been their slave, put himself entirely at their disposition. He showed them many shops and ended by choosing one for them right in the middle of the market. It was the fairest and best lighted of all; it had greater accommodation and was more advantageously situated than any; it was built in a gay and handsome style, with fronts of carved wood, and alternate shelves of ivory, ebony and crystal. The street outside was well swept and watered; the door was the one chosen by preference at night for the market guard to lean against. After payment had been made, the chief merchant gave the keys to the wazīr, saying: “Allāh bless and prosper your shop from this white day! May the young men do well!”

The wazīr had all the merchandise, the silks and the brocades, and the inestimable treasures from the presses of Sulaimān Shāh, carried to the shop and carefully arranged there. When this work was over, he took the two young men with him to bathe in the hammām which stood near the great gate of the market. It was well known for its cleanliness, its shining marble, and the five steps which led up to it, on which the wooden clogs were ranged in order.

As the two friends took their bath quickly and were in great haste to reach their shop, they did not wait for the wazīr to finish his, but joyously left the building. The first person they met was the chief merchant, who was passionately waiting on the steps for them to come out.

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


SHE said:

THE BATH HAD given the last touch of perfection to their beauty and fresh colouring; the old man compared them in his soul with two fawns. He saw that the roses had come to full bloom in their cheeks, that midnight had returned upon their eyes, that they were like two slender branches covered with their fruit or two moons milky and sweet. He recalled these lines of the poet:

Seeing that a simple pressure of the hand
Can make the symbol of my senses stand,
What if I saw your body, where unite
The lure of water and the gold of light?

He went up to them and said: “My children, I hope that you enjoyed your bath. May Allāh never take its benefit from you, but renew it eternally.” Tāj al-Mulūk answered in his most charming way: “Would that we might have shared that pleasure with you.” The two young men pressed in respectfully about the old man and walked before him because of his age and rank, opening up a path and leading him towards their shop.

As they were going in front of him, he was able to see the beauty of their walking and the movement of their haunches below their robes. With shining eyes, unable to repress his transport, he sighed and snuffled and recited these doubtful lines:

          If I see their bottoms tremble
               Though of fine and solid flesh,
          The hot moons which they resemble
               Tremble in the night’s blue mesh.

Though they heard these words the two youths were far from understanding the lechery of the chief merchant; rather they thought that he was but treating them with civility, and, being touched by the honour, they attempted to persuade him, as a mark of friendship, to accompany them to the bath again. The old man refused a little, for form’s sake, and then accepted with his heart on fire.

When they entered, the wazīr, who was drying himself in one of the private apartments, saw them and came out to them as far as the central basin where they had paused. He warmly invited the chief merchant to enter his own apartment, but the old man excused himself, saying that this was too much honour. Then Tāj al-Mulūk and Azīz took him, each by a hand, and led him to their own apartment, while the wazīr retired to his.

As soon as they were alone, Azīz and Tāj al-Mulūk undressed the old man, after taking off their own clothes, and began to rub him energetically, while he cast furtive burning glances. Tāj al-Mulūk swore that to him should fall the honour of soaping and Azīz requested that for him should be reserved the honour of pouring water from the little copper basin. Between the two of them, the chief merchant thought that he had reached Paradise already.

They went on rubbing, soaping, and pouring water until the wazīr arrived, to the great dissatisfaction of the old man. They sponged him with warm napkins, then dried him with cool perfumed ones, and lastly, when they had dressed him, set him upon the dais and offered him musked sherberts with rose-water.

The old man pretended to take an interest in what the wazīr was saying, but in reality he had only eyes for the two youths, coming and going gracefully to serve him. When the wazīr made him those salutations which are usual after the bath, he answered: “Your entry into our city is a blessing upon us, a blessing and a great pleasure!” and he recited this poem:

          They came. Our hills put on their green
          And the yellow flower of the sun did bloom again.
          “Ah, goodbye pain,
          For frost is dead
          And the first violet seen,”
          We said.

The three thanked him for his urbanity, and he replied: “May Allāh grant you the life you desire and preserve your beautiful children from the evil eye, O illustrious merchant!” “And may, by Allāh’s grace,” replied the merchant, “your bath give you a double portion of health and strength. Is not water the true beatitude of life upon this earth? Is not the hammām the house of joy?” “By Allāh, that is so!” returned the chief merchant. “The bath has inspired some of our greatest poets to admirable lengths. Do you not know some of their compositions?”

Tāj al-Mulūk was the first to cry: “Listen to this:    

          Hammām of delicious bathing,
          Admirable, sense-defying;
          Silver vapour, scented plaything,
          Half to die and after dying
          Half to live in sleepy swathing,
          Hammām of delicious bathing.”

Then Azīz cried: “I also know a poem about the hammām.” “Rejoice our ears with it,” said the chief merchant, and Azīz rhythmically recited:

          Take from the lichened rocks their broideries
          And set them round delightful heat,
          With golden breasts and silver feet,
          That is the hammām bath complete;
          And of all sweet
          God’s paradise devoider is.

As he made an end of his recitation, Azīz sat down beside Tāj al-Mulūk. The chief merchant marvelled at their talent and cried: “As Allāh lives, you know how to combine beauty with eloquence. Let me, in my turn, say certain lines to you, or rather sing them; for the rhythms of our songs are made manifest in music.” He leaned his head on his hand, half shut his eyes, wagged his head a little, and sang:


Tāj al-Mulūk (the youth being held) in an illustration from the 1897 edition of Burton's translation

          As the hammām fire renews
          Ageing heart and tired thews,
          I lie and love the kissing air,
          The brightness of the basins there,
          Falling water, falling light
          On the marble hard and white,
          Rooms of shadow filled with blue
          Wreaths of incense, driven through
          By a breeze which carries too
          All the sweet the furnace sends
          From the bodies of my friends.
          Eternal shade, eternal heat,
          There’s analogy complete,
          Hammām, dark for all your fires,
          Of my soul and my desires.

Then the old man looked at the youths, allowed his soul to wander for a moment in the garden of their beauty and, thus inspired, recited these two stanzas:

          They welcomed me with silent smiling,
               They warmed me at their fire,
          I found their manners most beguiling
               At the hammām.

          Though none of them are my relations,
                They give all I require,
          Good company, sweet conversations,
                At the hammām.

After this song and recitation, they could not but be charmed at the old man’s art; they thanked him with effusion and, as night was falling, accompanied him to the door of the hammām. He tried hard to persuade them to sup with him at his house, but they excused themselves and took their leave, while the old man stood still and looked after them.

They entered their rooms in the khān and, after eating and drinking, slept all night in perfect happiness. In the morning they rose and made ablution and prayer. Then, as soon as the market was open, they hastened to their shop and entered it for the first time.

The slaves had arranged the place with considerable taste, stretching out the silks to their best advantage and setting in convenient places two royal carpets worth a thousand dīnārs and two gold cushions worth a hundred. On the ivory, ebony, and crystal shelves the merchandise and kingly treasures were skilfully displayed.

Tāj al-Mulūk sat on one of the carpets, Azīz on the other, and the wazīr placed himself between the two in the exact centre of the shop; the slaves stood round, rivalling each other in the speed with which they fulfilled the least command of their masters.

Soon the people of the city heard of this admirable shop, and customers hurried to it from all parts, eager to receive their purchases from the hand of the young man Tāj al-Mulūk, the fame of whose beauty had turned every head. The wazīr saw that all was going very well, so he recommended great discretion to the two young men and went to repose himself at the khān.

Things went on in this way until Tāj al-Mulūk, seeing and hearing nothing of Princess Dunya, began to get impatient, and finally despaired so utterly that he lost all his sleep.

At this point Shahrazād saw the approach of morning and discreetly fell silent.  [I 709-18]

[1] As stated in the opening of Burton’s and Lyons's versions of his tale, on the forty-fifth night.

[2] In Burton’s version, the first story appears in the “Tale of Taj Al-Muluk and Princess Dunya, and the second as part of the tale within it “of Aziz and Azizah.”

[3] Burton and Lyons say “fourteen.”

[4] Again, Mathers appears to have upped his age.  Burton says “when he reached the eighteenth year of his age”, ie. seventeen, though Lyons also says "eighteen".

[5] Anthony Reid in his The Eternal Flame vol. 1 (Elmhust, New York, 1992) p. 290, translates this poem thus:
     Happy the masseur, whose skilled fingers soap
          Some horizontal youngster, nude and fresh,
     Sensing a subtle magic with each grope,
          And coaxing carnal pleasure from his flesh.




If you would like to leave a comment on this webpage, please e-mail it to greek.love.tta@gmail.com, mentioning in the subject line either the title or the url of the page so that the editor can add it.