Sindbad the Sailor

One of the more notable stories from the compilation commonly called The Arabian Nights or 1001 Arabian Nights concerns the tales of Sindbad the Sailor. The stories were collected over the course of several hundred years, from the eighth century until sometime around the sixteenth century. Finally translated into English in the early eighteenth century, explorer Sir Richard Burton created the definitive English translation of The Arabian Nights in the 1880s.

The story of Sindbad the Sailor starts in Baghdad, when a porter named Sindbad, tiring of carrying a heavy load of goods to the market, sits down in the shade of a beautiful mansion. Servants invite him inside after hearing him recite poetry, and he is introduced to the master of the house. As luck would have it, the master's name is also Sindbad, and he takes a liking to the humble, talkative porter. Seating him at a table full of food, the master of the house leans back and begins to tell of the miraculous adventures that befell him as a sailor and traveling merchant, years before.

Sindbad did not start out as a sailor. His father was a wealthy merchant and landowner who died when Sindbad was a young man. Finding himself suddenly quite wealthy and with little reason to go out and find a job, Sindbad lived a life of ease. He ate the finest foods, drank the finest wines and wore the finest clothes until his money finally ran out. Shocked and ashamed by his own behavior and subsequent poverty, he sold everything he owned and used the money to buy trade goods. Finding a convenient ship down the Euphrates River in the port of Basra, he signed aboard as a merchant and sailor, in hopes of reviving his family fortune.

Through seven separate voyages, Sindbad managed to land himself in some sort of difficult situation, and only through sheer dumb luck was he able to escape. On the first voyage, his ship landed on an island, which turned out to be the back of an enormous fish. He is presumed drowned and the ship sails away. There’s a happy ending, though, when he is reunited with his shipmates (after having traversed the sea in a wooden washtub) and, more importantly, his trade goods. Finding himself rich again, he returns to his wasteful spending habits of opulent dinner banquets and fine clothes.

Sindbad always returns to identifiable Middle East ports: Baghdad or Basra. Every place he visits on his adventures has a fanciful name that does not correspond with places on the map. And yet most seem to bear some connection with known East African and Oriental locales. He meets hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, elephants and orangutans, all of which populate areas in the Indian Ocean. While the original storytellers who came up with Sindbad's adventures were not geographers, they inadvertently provided readers with clues as to where it was Sindbad was going. His seven voyages mirrored period trade routes between the centers of Middle East commerce in modern day Iraq, and the Eastern centers of the spice, silk and ivory trades.

In subsequent tales, Sindbad meets the ruhk, a bird so enormous that it feeds its young elephants, as well as an assortment of sea horses, cannibals, and more than a few pirates. What drives Sindbad back to the sea in each tale is some sort of twisted wanderlust, despite the constant hardships. He finds life on land boring, a common refrain among those who have been to sea, and yearns to get back on the water. There is also a streak of greed that runs through Sindbad; he wants to make a profit along with satisfying his love of adventure. Ironically, each tale starts with Sindbad safe and sound in his mansion, grateful to have returned alive from his latest voyage. But soon, he forgets how dangerous life at sea is (at least in his case…), and makes that fateful trek down to the riverfront to try his luck again.