When it comes to stories from the medieval Middle East, One Thousand and One Nights looms large. But its popularity in the Western world likely owes as much to the timing of its original translation as it does to its entertaining tales. Though the Nights has ancient roots in Persia and India, the lively world it recreates in Arabic is that of what is often called the Islamic Golden Age. Though there’s some scholarly disagreement on this term, the Islamic Golden age roughly corresponds with the rise and fall of the Abbasid Caliphate (762-1258 CE). This was a vast and sophisticated world, a cultural continuity that stretched from Spain to the Sumatra. Long-distance travel was commonplace for both trade and scholarship; and indeed, scholars such as Ibn Battuta and Ibn Jubayr left extraordinary accounts of their journeys in a rihla, a literary genre chronicling such quests for knowledge. Tales of heroes and marvels of creation populated both the written works and oral tales of the times, passing down through the centuries to storytellers even today.
Theirs is a world which has always fascinated me, and one which inspired my own fiction. Here I’ve selected five works, both historical and modern—and from a very, very long original list!—to take you beyond One Thousand and One Nights and on a trip to the medieval Middle East.