The story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is the most famous of the Arabian Nights tales – a set of Arabic folklore stories in a compilation known as The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.
The earliest mention of the Arabian Nights tales is in a 10th century Arabic translation of the Persian book, Hezār Afsān, meaning “The Thousand Stories”. No physical evidence of the Hezār Afsān book itself has survived.
French archaeologist Antoine Galland was the first European to translate the tales from Arabic. They were then published over 12 volumes, entitled Les Mille et Une Nuits, between 1704 and 1717. This was a ground-breaking moment in the history of literature – the birth of the artistic literary and musical movement, Romanticism.
The plot of the best-known story, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, revolves around merchant’s son Ali Baba and his brother, Cassim, who take different paths in life after their father’s death.
Cassim marries a wealthy woman and expands their father’s business, becoming well-to-do, while Ali Baba marries an impoverished woman and becomes a woodcutter to make ends meet.
While Ali Baba is collecting wood in the forest one day, he stumbles upon a gang of 40 thieves, who are visiting their hidden treasure. It is stored in a cave with a magical door that can be opened by saying the words, “Open Sesame!”
Ali Baba is unable to resist temptation and after the thieves have gone, he sneaks into the cave himself and takes a bag of gold, weighing it when he gets home on his sister-in-law’s scales. However, she is spying on him, wondering why he needs to borrow her scales.
When she finds out he has a bag of gold coins, she tells her husband, Cassim, who bullies Ali Baba into revealing the secret of the cave.
Greedy Cassim goes to the cave himself and utters the magic words to open the doors, which then close with the words, “Close Sesame!”
He steals as much gold as possible – unlike Ali Baba, who has taken only what he needs. However, in his excitement on stealing so much gold, Cassim panics and forgets he must say, “Open Sesame!” to leave the cave again. The thieves return, find him trapped there and brutally kill him.
Ali Baba, on looking for his missing brother and finding his body, takes him home for a funeral service, pretending he has died of natural causes to avoid any awkward questions.
However, on realising the body has gone, the thieves know someone else has been to the cave and discovered their secret – so they head into the village, intent on wreaking revenge on whoever has dared encroach on their territory.
Every attack planned by the thieves is thwarted by Morgiana, a brave and intelligent slave girl who works in Cassim’s household. Eventually, vengeance is wreaked when all the thieves are killed and Morgiana is given her freedom as a result.
The story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves has been re-told in popular culture many times, including in a 1902 silent film directed by Ferdinand Zecca, in an Alvin comic book in 1965 when the Chipmunks meet Ali Baba in ancient Persia and even in a podcast produced by the Los Angeles-based company Parcast in May 2018.
The most famous adaptation is the 1944 adventure film, directed by Arthur Lubin and starring American actor Jon Hall as Ali Baba and prolific Italian actor Frank Puglia as Cassim. This was one of more than 150 film roles Puglia had won during his 55-year career.
The plot of the film was transposed to the aftermath of the Mongolian conquest of Bagdad in the 13th century. Cassim has become a cowardly prince and Ali Baba is the son of the Caliph Hassan, played by Moroni Olsen. The character of Morgiana, who plays a key role in the original Arabian Nights, doesn’t exist in this adaptation.
After Ali Baba is orphaned when his father is killed by the Mongols, he runs off into the forest and finds the hidden treasure cave, uttering the famous phrase, “Open Sesame!” to enter. However, he falls asleep inside and the thieves find him. Impressed by his bravery, their leader, Old Baba, adopts him and brings him up as his own son.
The thieves in the film aren’t ruthless cut-throats, like in the original tale, but are more like a version of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, robbing from the rich to give to the poor.
Folklore of “Open Sesame!”
The famous phrase that magically opened the cave doors first appeared in Galland’s translation of the Arabian Nights in 1704 as, “Sésame, ouvre-toi!”
This was translated to “Sesame, open!” in English, although the words were swapped around over the passage of time, until everyone knew them as “Open Sesame!”
In his book, Galland presumes it refers to a sesame seed and has Cassim confusing it with other seeds. This leads to his downfall when he can’t remember the correct phrase to open the cave door and is shouting out the names of various other seeds.
There have been numerous theories suggesting why “sesame” was chosen. One theory is that sesame seeds grow in a pod that matures and splits open – so this is associated with opening the doors and unlocking the treasures within.
Another suggestion is that sesame is based on the old Hebrew Talmudic word, “šem-šamáįm”, meaning “name of heaven”, while a third viewpoint is that sesame is connected to the sesame oil used in Babylonian magic practices.
A fourth school of thought suggests it is based on the word “simsim”- a rare literary word for “gate”, so the French translation, “Sésame, ouvre-toi,” would literally translate to, “Gate, open yourself!”
Although we don’t manufacture a door that opens itself by magic when you shout, “Open Sesame!”, Automatic Access offers plenty of other automatic door solutions for a wide range of public buildings, private businesses and educational establishments – our doors are designed to be completely user-friendly and in compliance with the Equality Act 2010.
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