You may recognize the painting. It’s Ferdinand Keller’s Scheherazade and Sultan Schariar. You will almost certainly recognize the story—or, rather, stories—behind the subjects of the work.
When people ask me why I originally picked this image to wallpaper all over my website, I ask if they’ve seen the 1992 Disney animated classic Aladdin. Most of the time, the answer is yes. Even if it isn’t, I’ll sing the first few lyrics from one of the Genie’s songs and watch their eyes light up with recognition.
The second line in “Friend Like Me” from Disney’s Aladdin alludes to one of the most well-known frame narratives ever.
It revolves around a young woman and the power of story.
Allow me to tell you the tale.
In it, we meet a sultan, Schariar. After his first wife is unfaithful to him, Sultan Schariar decrees he will take a new virgin bride every day, murder her after the wedding night, and marry again. It’s said that he killed 1,001 women before he was wed to Scheherazade.
Scheherazade was unique in more ways than one. As the vizier’s daughter, she had access to education in the arts, sciences, and most notably, history. By the time she was introduced to the sultan, Scheherazade already had hundreds of poems and stories memorized.
Horrified by the death toll, Scheherazade volunteered to be the sultan’s next wife. This terrified her father, who didn’t yet know what his elder daughter had up her sleeve.
After the extravagant wedding, Scheherazade immediately asked for her younger sister. The sultan granted her wish, and Dunyazad was brought into the bedchambers with the newlyweds.
Little did the sultan know what the clever sisters had in store.
Dunyazad asked for a story before she went on her way. With Sultan Schariar’s permission, Scheherazade obliged. She spun a yarn so long it could not be finished in a single night.
The sultan, captivated by Scheherazade’s passionate storytelling, agreed to keep her alive until the following night to hear the ending of her tale.
The next day, Scheherazade finished her first story and launched into another. Again, she stopped midway through and promised to finish in the morning.
Scheherazade and her sister kept this pattern for as long as they could. As long as they had another story in their pocket, they figured, they could live forever.
Finally, at the end of 1,001 nights of storytelling, Scheherazade ran out of stories for the sultan. She told him this, and expected to be beheaded as all her predecessors had been before her.
But he surprised her. The stories—some romantic, some comedic, some serious—had softened the sultan’s heart. He’d fallen deeply in love with Scheherazade, and stayed married to her for the rest of his days.
That wasn’t all. The hundreds of historical events Scheherazade shared with Sultan Schariar had taught him valuable lessons, morals, and empathy. He was a better ruler for having listened to her tales.
It is this passion for story that I share with Scheherazade.
More specifically, I mean her love of historical narratives. I believe our best bet for preparing for our future—whether we’re running a kingdom or running a household—lies in analyzing our past and applying the knowledge we find there to build a brighter future for ourselves and posterity.
I wish, hope, dream of having 1,001 stories credited to me. I’ve already started working on it!
I’m not one for believing in any mythology, but it’s a secret fantasy of mine that I’ll somehow discover that I am a reincarnation of Scheherazade. Or, at the very least, called such by future generations.