Stories as old as 1,000 years. Arabic short stories as fascinating as the Arabian nights. Stories that have slept for four centuries in the mosques of Istanbul, where the Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim took them after looting Cairo. Stories that now, over a millennium later, can be read in English for the first time.
The “Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange,” as Robert Irwin decided to call them, were sleeping in the library of the great mosque of Aya Sofya, when a German orientalist bumped into them in 1933. Intrigued by their mysticism and fascinated by their beauty, Irwin persevered until the work was translated and published this November.
Written by anonymous authors, these tales date back to the 14th century, which means that they are more ancient than the oldest substantially surviving manuscript of One Thousand and One Nights – and perhaps, an even more surreal one.
“The narrative is one long carnival of extravagant fantasy,” he writes in an article on The Independent. “Several of the stories in Tales of the Marvellous are explicit about the hunger to see or hear about amazing things.”
A mechanical vulture, a herder of giant ostriches, thrones of wrath and of mercy, a fortress guarded by talismans, and the sacrifice of virgins to the Nile are only some of the images that stretch the boundaries of fantastic literature to a realm which nobody knows how it came about.