Ali and the Merchant of Baghdad ~ Folktale Stories for Kids
This story takes place over a thousand years ago, when a good and kind king named Haroun al-Raschid ruled the land of Persia.
In the capital city of Baghdad where the king lived, there also lived a merchant named Ali. Ali needed to travel on a long journey, and so he sold nearly all of his household goods and rented out his home. The only thing left for Ali to do was to find a safe place to leave his private treasure - one thousand pieces of gold. Finally, he decided to put the gold coins into a large jar and cover the coins with olives. When he had closed the cover of the jar, he carried it to a friend of his, who was also a merchant, and said to him, "You know, my friend, in a few days I plan to leave for my journey. I beg you to take charge of this jar of olives, and keep it for me till I return."
The merchant promised that he would. In a friendly manner he said, "Here, take the key of my warehouse. Set your jar where you like. I promise you shall find it there when you return."
Ali's journey lasted much longer than he expected. In fact, he was seven years gone from Baghdad, when he finally was able to return.
All this time his friend, with whom he had left his jar of olives, did not think of him or of the jar. One evening this merchant was having supper with his family and the conversation happened to fall upon olives. The merchant's wife mentioned that she had not tasted any for a long time.
"Now that you speak of olives," said the merchant, "you remind me of a jar that Ali left with me seven years ago. He put it in my warehouse to be kept for him until he returned. What has become of him I do not know. When the caravan came back, they told me he had gone on to Egypt. Certainly he must be dead by now, since he has not returned in all this time. We may as well go ahead and eat the olives, if they are still good. Give me a plate and a candle. I will fetch some of them and we'll taste them."
"Please, husband," said the wife, "do not commit so base an action. You know that nothing is more sacred than what is committed to one's care and trust. Besides, do you think the olives can be good, after they've been kept so long? They must be all moldy and spoiled. Besides, what if Ali were to return? He would find out his jar had been opened, and what would he think of your honor? I beg of you to leave them alone."
Just the same, after supper the merchant entered the warehouse. He found the jar, opened it and found the olives moldy. But to see if they were all in the same condition down to the bottom, he shook the jar and some of the gold coins tumbled out.
The merchant noticed at once that the top only was laid with olives, and everything else in the jar was gold coins. He immediately put the coins back into the jar again, covering them with the olives as before, and returned to his wife. "Indeed, wife," said he, "you were in the right to say that the olives were all moldy for I found them so. I have made up the jar just as Ali left it. He will not notice that they had been touched, if he should ever return."
In the days ahead, the merchant could think of nothing else but how he might appropriate Ali's gold for his own use, and yet escape detection in case his old friend should return and ask for the jar. The next morning the merchant went and bought some olives of that year, then secretly went and emptied the jar both of the old moldy olives and of the gold. Filling the jar entirely with new olives, he covered it up and put it in the place where Ali had left it.
About a month later, Ali arrived back to Baghdad. The next morning he went to pay a visit to his friend, the merchant, who expressed great joy at his return after so many years away.
After the usual compliments on both sides, Ali asked the merchant to return him the jar of olives which he had left with him, and thanked him for having kept the jar safely for all this time.
"My dear friend," replied the merchant, "your jar has been no inconvenience. There is the key of my warehouse. Go and fetch your jar. You will find it where you left it."
Ali went into the merchant's warehouse, took his jar, and after having returned the key, and thanking his friend once again for the favor, he returned with the jar to where he was temporarily lodged. But on opening the jar, and putting his hand down as low as the pieces of gold had lain, he was greatly surprised to find no gold pieces in the jar! At first he thought he might perhaps be mistaken. To discover the truth, he poured out all the olives, but without so much as finding one single gold coin. For some time, he stood entirely still. Then he cried out, "Is it possible?"
Ali immediately returned to the merchant. "My good friend," he said, "be not surprised to see me come back so soon. I know that the jar of olives is the same one I placed in your warehouse, but with the olives I put into the jar a thousand pieces of gold, which I do not find. Perhaps you might have used them in your business? If so, they are at your service till it may be convenient for you to return them. Only give me an acknowledgment of my loan to you, after which you may repay me at your own convenience."
The merchant, who had expected that Ali would come with such a complaint, was prepared with an answer. "Friend Ali," said he, "when you brought your jar to me, did I touch it? Did I not give you the key to my warehouse? Did you not carry it there yourself? And did you not find it in the same place, covered in the same manner as when you left it? And now that you have come back, you demand one thousand pieces of gold! Did you ever tell me such a sum was in the jar? I wonder you do not demand diamonds or pearls! It is easy enough for you to storm into my house, make a crazy accusation, insult me, and tarnish my good name. Be gone!"
These words were pronounced in such passion that those in the warehouse started to gather around. Neighboring merchants came out of their shops to learn what the dispute was about. Ali shared with one and all the injustice done to him by the merchant, and the merchant continued to hotly deny any wrongdoing.
Ali speedily summoned the merchant to court. To the judge, Ali accused the merchant of having stolen his thousand pieces of gold, which he had left with him. The judge asked him if he had any witnesses, to which he replied that he had not taken that precaution because he had believed the person he entrusted his money with to be his friend, and always took him for an honest man.
Then the merchant made the same defense he had before, saying that though it's true that he had kept Ali's jar in his warehouse, he had never once meddled with it. The merchant swore that as far as he knew, the jar contained only olives. Once again, he strongly objected that he should be brought to court on the basis of such unfounded accusations. He proposed to make an oath that he never had the money he was accused of taking, and to swear that he did not so much as know such a sum ever existed. The judge agreed to take his oath. After the merchant swore his ignorance of the entire matter, the judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence.
Ali, extremely upset to find that he must accept the loss of so large a sum of money, returned to his lodgings and drew up a petition to seek justice from the ruler, Harun al-Raschid himself. He forwarded his petition to the officer of the palace, who presented it to the king. The king told the officer to notify Ali that an hour would be scheduled for the next day for the complaint to be heard at the palace. The officer was also told to notify the merchant to appear.
That same evening the king, accompanied by the grand vizier, went disguised through the town as it was his custom occasionally to do. On passing through a street, the king heard a noise. He came to a gateway through which he saw ten or twelve children playing by moonlight. The king heard one of the children say, "Let's play courtroom."
As the affair of Ali and the merchant was widely discussed in Baghdad, the children quickly agreed on the part each one was to act.
The children will solve this case.
How will they do it? How would you do it?
The pretend judge asked the make-believe Ali to speak. Ali, after bowing low, related every detail and begged that he might not lose so considerable a sum of money. The pretend judge turned to the merchant and asked him why he did not return the money. The child playing the part of the merchant gave the same reasons as the real merchant had done, and quite heartily, too. Then he also offered to give an oath that what he had said was the absolute truth.
"Not so fast," said the pretend judge to the merchant. "Before you give your oath, I should like to see the jar of olives." The child playing the part of Ali bowed low, walked away and in a few moments returned. He pretended to set a jar before the judge, telling him that it was the same jar he had left with the merchant. The supposed judge turned to the make-pretend merchant and asked him to confirm that it was in fact the same jar, which he did confirm. Then the judge ordered Ali to take off the cover, and the pretend judge made believe as if he looked into it.
"They are fine olives," said he, "let me taste them." Pretending to eat some, he added, "They are excellent, but I cannot think that olives will keep seven years and be so good. Therefore we must call before this court some olive merchants, and let me hear what is their opinion."
Two other boys, posing as olive merchants, presented themselves. "Tell me," said the sham judge, "how long will olives keep fit to eat?"
"Sir," replied the two pretend merchants, "no matter how great the care taken of them, olives will hardly be worth anything the third year, for then they have neither taste nor color."
"If that is so," answered the judge, "look into that jar and tell me how long it has been since those olives were put into it."
The two merchants pretended to examine and to taste the olives. They told the judge that they were new and good. "But," said the judge, "Ali himself said he put them into the jar seven years ago."
"Sir," replied the pretend merchants, "we can assure you they are of this year's growth, and we will maintain that any olive merchant of repute in Baghdad would say the same."
The pretend judge pointed an accusing finger at the merchant. "You are a rogue!" he cried. "And you deserve to be punished!" The children then concluded their play, clapping their hands with great joy. Seizing the feigned criminal, they pretended to carry him off to prison.
Words cannot express how much the king admired the boy who had passed so just a sentence, in an affair which was scheduled to be pleaded before himself the very next day.
"Take notice of this house," said the caliph to the vizier, "and bring the boy to me tomorrow, that he may appear in court with me to try this case himself. Take care also to remind the real Ali to bring his jar of olives with him. And to bring two olive experts as well."
The next day Ali and the merchant pleaded one after the other at the palace before the boy, whom the caliph had seated on the throne beside him. When the merchant proposed his oath to the court as before, the child said, "It is too soon. It is proper that we should see the jar of olives first."
At these words Ali presented the jar and placed it at the caliph's feet. The boy asked the merchant whether this was in fact the jar that had been left in his warehouse for seven years, and the merchant agreed that it was so. Then the boy opened the jar. The caliph looked at the olives, took one and tasted it, giving another to the boy. Afterwards the merchants were called, who examined the olives and reported that they were good, and of that year. The boy told them that Ali had said that it was seven years since he had put the olives in the jar. Therefore, the boy concluded, the jar must have been tampered with since that time.
The wretch who was accused saw plainly that the opinions of the olive merchants would convict him. He confessed to his crime, and revealed where the thousand pieces of gold were hidden. The fortune was quickly located and restored to Ali. The king sternly told the merchant that it was good for him that he decided to confess and to return the gold. Otherwise he would have received one hundred floggings in addition to his sentence of ten years in prison!
The caliph turned to the judge who had tried the case before and advised him to take a lesson from the child so that he would perform his duty more exactly in the future. Embracing the boy, the monarch sent him home with a purse of a hundred pieces of gold as a token of his admiration.
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"Ali Cogia and the Merchant of Baghdad" is based on "The Story of Ali Cogia, a Merchant of Bagdad," a story from The Arabia Nights' Entertainments by The Reverend George Flyer Townsend (Federick A. Stokes Company: New York, 1891), pp. 158-170. Adapted by Elaine Lindy ©1998. All rights reserved.
A very similar story called "Ali Sundos" is sourced to Cairo (The Black Prince and Other Egyptian Folk Tales Doubleday & Company, Inc.: 1971). At the time of the reign of Caliph Harun (or Haroun) al-Raschid, the territory of his caliphate stretched from Egypt, through the Arabian peninsula, north to Turkey and west to Iraq.
Under the reign of Caliph Haroun al-Raschid (c.764-809) the city of Baghdad, already a major capital of the Muslim world, reached its intellectual and economic peak. Scholars and artists from various parts of the empire and beyond flocked to Haroun al-Raschid's court to enjoy his patronage. The caliph was the hero of the Thousand and One Nights, a series of tales which portray the fabulous life in Baghdad in the ninth century. An able general, Haroun al-Raschid greatly extended his empire. He carried on diplomatic relations with China and with Charlemagne, emperor of the Franks. Baghdad fell to the Mongols in 1258, and so thorough was the destruction wrought by them that hardly any traces remain of the city's former splendor.