"Travelling Stories", an Exhibition at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin in Collaboration with the Kunstbibliothek


With the help of some two hundred objects, the multimedia exhibition Travelling Stories, a collaboration between the University Library of the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Kunstbibliothek of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, illuminates the diverse channels of transmission and forms of appearance of the Thousand and One Nights story collection. The presentation is on view from 20 November 2019 to 18 January 2020.

Starting with the Persian and East Indian origins of the folktales, the exhibition explores the Arab world’s lore, oral narrative traditions and its literary culture, as well as the multifaceted European reception of these stories through translations, literary works and book art. Old Arabic manuscripts, rare historical prints, illustrated luxury editions, commercial graphics and elaborately designed children’s books testify to a centuries-long intriguing and fruitful interrelationship between the Arab world and Europe. Visitors to the exhibition are greeted in the lobby of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin by cinematographer Thomas Ladenburger’s video and audio installations.

The Story Collection of A Thousand and One Nights

More than three hundred tales are considered to belong to the realm of A Thousand and One Nights. It is an open-ended collection of stories, fables and fairy tales, whose composition has been influenced by the Arab world’s oral traditions as well as through their subsequent European translations and adaptations.

Coming from India via Iran, an initial early Arabic version of the story collection appeared in the 8th century. Over time, many additional tales were added to the basic narrative, for instance, legendary events to do with the Caliph of Baghdad, Hārūn al-Rashīd (d. 809), and fantastic stories from Egypt. Some of the most popular of these stories in Europe, such as those about Aladdin and Ali Baba, found their earliest known written expression in the multi-volume French edition by Antoine Galland (published 1704–17).

Galland’s French adaptation led to the tales of A Thousand and One Nights becoming extremely popular in 18th century Europe. At the time they shaped the Western World’s notions of the Arab world like no other work and inspired innumerable authors and book illustrators to inventive interpretations. The background story, in which Scheherazade uses her storytelling skills to dissuade King Shahryar from carrying out his murderous intentions, has not only become a symbol of a strong and imaginative woman but also an allegory for the power of storytelling.