Ten things you didn't know about Aladdin

Audiences are gearing up for the release of Disney’s live-action version of "Aladdin," but the true origins of this tale are surprising—and sometimes disturbing.

By Manal Khan
Published 27 May 2019, 09:27 BST
A still from the live-action version of Aladdin, in which actor Will Smith plays the genie ...
A still from the live-action version of Aladdin, in which actor Will Smith plays the genie of the lamp.
Photograph by Tcd, Prod.DB, Alamy

In 1992, Disney’s animated Aladdin hit the big screen, and audiences fell in love with the adventures of an orphan—the “Diamond in the Rough”—who crossed paths with a flying carpet, a powerful genie, and an independent princess. The movie became a classic, spawning a Broadway musical and a live-action remake that hits theatres this weekend. But how much does the big screen Aladdin resemble its source material? (The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners.)

1. Aladdin is only one of 1,001 tales.

Aladdin is part of a centuries-old stories-within-a-story called The Thousand and One Nights (also called The Arabian Nights). The heroine, Scherherazade, is married to a murderous king, who kills his new wives one day after wedding them. To save her life, she spins a story every night (“Aladdin” is one of many) for her husband, leaves out the ending, but promises to finish it later. Night after night, cliffhangers compel the curious king to delay Scherherazade’s death to find out what happens next. Some of the most famous tales are not only of Aladdin but also Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba.

Scheherazade captivates her husband with bedtime stories in A Thousand and One Nights, also known as The Arabian Nights.
Photograph by Illustration by Lebrecht Music & Arts, Alamy

2. The Arabian Nights aren’t just from Arabia.

Dating back as far as the 10th century A.D., these tales have origins in North African, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Indian, and East Asian cultures. In 947 Arab historian Al-Masudi, for example, describes a large collection of a thousand tales from all over the ancient world that he calls the Persian Hazar afsana (A Thousand Stories). The stories circulated for centuries, with new folk tales and renditions being added to the mix over the years.

In 1712, French scholar Antoine Galland translated an Arabic version of the tales into French. Galland added several new stories told to him by a Syrian named Ḥanna Diyab from Aleppo; “Aladdin and the Magical Lamp” was one of them.

3. Aladdin doesn’t come from Agrabah.

In the both Galland’s text and Richard Burton’s popular 1885 English translation, Aladdin lives “in a city of the cities in China.” Illustrations of the tales from the Victorian era depict the story and its characters as Chinese. The setting and the characters’ ethnicity begins to shift west to Arabia and the Middle East when the story is told on the big screen in the early 20th century.

4. Aladdin lives with his mum.

Unlike the Disney films, Aladdin isn’t an orphaned "street rat" in The Arabian Nights. His father, a tailor, is dead, but his mother, a poor widow, still lives. Aladdin’s mother is the one who first rubs the lamp and releases the genie.

5. Aladdin is no “diamond in the rough.”

In Disney’s telling of the story, Aladdin is clever, resourceful, and loyal, but underestimated because he is poor. In Richard Burton’s telling, the “hero” is shallow, lazy, greedy, and easily taken in by displays of wealth. His father dies because his son refuses to learn a trade.

Robin Williams gave an iconic performance as the genie in the 1992 animated version of Aladdin.
Courtesy Af Srchive, Alamy

6. There are not one, but two magical genies.

Aladdin employs two powerful genies who come to his aid in The Arabian Nights. One inhabits a magical lamp, and another a magical ring. Both spirits come to Aladdin’s aid at different points in the story, granting him wishes and helping him out of tight spots.

7. There are three bad guys.

Disney’s Aladdin faces off against the evil vizier Jafar, but in the original text, there are three villains. The first is an evil magician from Africa who poses as Aladdin’s long-lost uncle to trick the boy into retrieving the lamp. The second is the magician’s more evil brother. The third is the vizier’s son, rival to Aladdin’s affections for the princess.

8. The princess is already betrothed when Aladdin meets her.

After glimpsing the unveiled face of the sultan’s daughter, called Badr al-Budur (not Jasmine) in the story, Aladdin pursues her by lavishing presents on her father. The sultan accepts his gifts, but marries his daughter to the vizier’s son anyway.

Aladdin uses his genie to kidnap the groom and hold him in a cold, dark cell for two nights until the young man begs to have the marriage annulled, and the sultan complies.

9. There are way more than three wishes.

After Badr al-Budur is no longer married, Aladdin begins to woo her in earnest, using multiple wishes from the genie to dazzle her and her father with gold, jewels, a splendid palace, servants, soldiers and fine horses. After the pair are wed, the wishes continue, and more fabulous treasures and wealth are accrued.

10. There is a sequel.

Like any good movie, the story of Aladdin does have a part two—of sorts. After Aladdin and Badr al-Budur kill the evil magician (through a combination of seduction, poison, and stabbing), they begin to live happily ever after in China, until the dead man’s more powerful brother comes to China to get revenge.


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