The History Of Ali Cogia A Merchant Of Bagdad
: Favorite Fairy Tales
In the reign of the Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid there lived at Bagdad a
merchant named Ali Cogia, who was neither of the richest nor yet of
the lowest order. He dwelt in his paternal house without either wife
or children. He lived contented with what his business produced, and
was as free in his actions as in his will. During this period he had
for three successive nights a dream, in which an old man appeared to
a venerable aspect but a severe countenance, who reprimanded
him for not having yet performed a pilgrimage to Mecca.
This dream troubled Ali Cogia very much. As a good Mussulman, he was
aware of the necessity for this pilgrimage; but as he was encumbered
with a house and furniture, and a shop, he had always considered these
as excuses, and he endeavored to make up for the neglect by charitable
deeds. But since he had these dreams his conscience disturbed him, and
he was so fearful of some misfortune that he resolved no longer to
defer this act of duty.
To enable himself to perform this in the following year, Ali Cogia
began to sell his furniture; he then disposed of his shop, together
with the greatest part of the merchandise, reserving only such as
might be salable at Mecca; and he found a tenant for his house.
Having thus arranged everything, he was ready to set out at the time
that the caravan for Mecca was to take its departure. The only thing
which remained to be done was to find some secure place in which he
could leave the sum of a thousand pieces of gold, which remained over
and above the money he had set apart for his pilgrimage.
Ali Cogia chose a jar of a proper size, and put the thousand pieces of
gold into it, and then filled it up with olives. After having closed
the jar tightly, he took it to a merchant who was his friend.
"Brother," said he to him, "you are not unacquainted with my intention
of setting out on a pilgrimage to Mecca with the caravan which goes in
a few days; I beg the favor of you to take charge of this jar of
olives till my return." The merchant instantly replied: "Here, this is
the key of my warehouse; take the jar there yourself, and place it
where you think fit. I promise you that you shall find it in the same
place when you come for it again."
The day for departure arriving, Ali Cogia joined the caravan with a
camel laden with the merchandise he had made choice of, which also
served him as a sort of saddle to ride on, and he arrived in perfect
safety at Mecca. He, together with the other pilgrims, visited the
temple--that edifice, so celebrated and so frequented every year by
all the Mussulman nations, who repair thither from all parts of the
globe, to observe the religious ceremonies which are required of them.
When he had acquitted himself of the duties of his pilgrimage, he
exposed the merchandise he had brought with him for sale.
Two merchants, who were passing that way, and saw the goods of Ali
Cogia, found them so beautiful that they stopped to look at them,
although they did not want to purchase them. When they had satisfied
their curiosity, one said to the other as he was walking away: "If
this merchant knew the profit he could make of his goods at Cairo, he
would take them there in preference to selling them here, where they
are not of so much value."
This speech did not escape Ali Cogia, and as he had often heard of the
beauties of Egypt, he instantly resolved to travel to that country.
Having, therefore, packed up his bales, he joined the caravan that was
going to Cairo. When he arrived he found it so much to his advantage,
that in a few days he had disposed of all his merchandise with much
greater profit than he could possibly have expected. He then purchased
other goods, intending to go to Damascus, and while he was waiting for
the convenience of a caravan, which was to go in six weeks, he not
only visited everything that was worthy of his curiosity in Cairo, but
also went to view the pyramids, extended his journey to some distance
up the Nile, and inspected the most celebrated cities that are
situated on its banks.
As the caravan was passing through Jerusalem, Ali Cogia took the
opportunity to visit the temple, which is considered by all Mussulmans
as the most sacred after that of Mecca, and from which the place
itself has obtained the title of the Holy City. Ali Cogia found the
city of Damascus so delicious a spot, from the abundance of its
streams, its meadows, and enchanting gardens, that everything he had
read of its delights, in different accounts of the place, appeared to
be far below the truth, and he was tempted to prolong his stay. As,
however, he did not forget that he had to return to Bagdad, he at
length took his departure and went to Aleppo, where he also passed
some time, and from thence, after having crossed the Euphrates, he
took the road to Moussoul, intending to shorten his journey by going
down the Tigris.
But when Ali Cogia had reached Moussoul, the Persian merchants with
whom he had travelled from Aleppo, and had formed an intimacy, gained
so great an ascendancy over his mind by their obliging manners and
agreeable conversation, that they had no difficulty in persuading him
to accompany them to Shiraz, from whence it would be easy for him to
return to Bagdad, and with considerable profit. They took him through
the cities of Sultania, Rei, Coam, Kaschan, Ispahan, and then to
Shiraz, where he was induced to go with them to India, and then return
again to Shiraz.
In this way, reckoning also the time Ali Cogia resided in each city,
it was now nearly seven years since he had quitted Bagdad, and he
determined to return. Till this period the friend to whom he had
intrusted the jar of olives before he left that city had never thought
more of him or his jar. At the very time that Ali Cogia was on his
return with a caravan from Shiraz, one evening as his friend the
merchant was at supper with his family, the conversation by accident
turned upon olives, and his wife expressed a desire of eating some,
adding that it was a long time since any had been produced in her
"Now you speak of olives," said the merchant, "you remind me that Ali
Cogia, when he went to Mecca seven years since, left me a jar of them,
which he himself placed in my warehouse, that he might find them there
on his return. But I know not what is become of Ali Cogia. Some one,
it is true, on the return of the caravan, told me that he was gone
into Egypt. He must have died there, as he has never returned in the
course of so many years; we may surely eat the olives if they are
still good. Give me a dish and a light, and I will go and get some,
that we may taste them."
"In the name of God," replied the wife, "do not, my dear husband,
commit so disgraceful an action; you well know that nothing is so
sacred as a trust of this kind. You say that it is seven years since
Ali Cogia went to Mecca, and he has never returned; but you were
informed he was gone into Egypt, and how can you ascertain that he has
not gone still farther? It is enough that you have received no
intelligence of his death; he may return to-morrow or the day after
to-morrow. Consider how infamous it would be for you, as well as your
family, if he were to return, and you could not restore the jar into
his hands in the same state as when he intrusted it to your care. For
my part, I declare that I neither wish for any of these olives, nor
will eat any of them. What I said was merely by way of conversation.
Besides, do you suppose that, after so long a time, the olives can be
good? They must be spoiled. And if Ali Cogia returns, as I have a
foreboding that he will, and he perceives that you have opened the
jar, what opinion will he form of your friendship and integrity? I
conjure you to abandon your design."
This good woman argued at length, because she saw, by her husband's
countenance, that he was resolved to have his own way. In fact, he got
up, and, taking a light and a dish, went to his warehouse. "Remember
at least," said the wife, "that I have no share in what you are going
to do; so do not attribute any fault to me if you have hereafter to
repent of the action."
The merchant still persisted in his purpose. When he had entered the
warehouse he opened the jar, and found the olives all spoiled; but to
see whether those that were underneath were as bad as the upper ones
he poured some out into the dish, and as he shook the jar to make them
fall out the easier some pieces of gold fell out also. At the sight of
this money the merchant, who was naturally avaricious, looked into
the jar, and perceived that he had emptied almost all the olives into
the dish, and that what remained was money in pieces of gold. He put
the olives again into the jar, and, covering it, left the warehouse.
"You spoke the truth, wife," said he, when he returned. "The olives
are all spoiled, and I have stopped up the jar again, so that if Ali
Cogia ever comes back he will not discover that I have touched it."
"You would have done better to take my advice," returned the wife,
"not to have meddled with it. God grant that no evil may come of it."
The merchant paid as little attention to these last words of his wife
as he had done to her former remonstrance. He passed almost the whole
night in devising means to take possession of Ali Cogia's money in
such a way that he might enjoy it in security should the owner ever
return and claim the jar. The next morning, very early, he went out
to buy some olives of that year's growth. He threw away those which
had been in Ali Cogia's jar, and, taking out the gold, he put it in a
place of safety; then filling the jar with the fresh olives he had
just bought he put on the same cover, and placed it in the same spot
where Ali Cogia had left it.
About a month after the merchant had committed this treacherous act
Ali Cogia arrived at Bagdad, after his long absence from that city. As
he had leased his house before his departure he alighted at a khan,
where he took a lodging until he had informed his tenant of his
return, that the latter might procure himself another residence.
The next day Ali Cogia went to see his friend the merchant, who
received him with open arms, testifying the utmost joy at seeing him
again, after an absence of so many years, which he said almost made
him despair of ever beholding him any more.
After the usual compliments, Ali Cogia begged the merchant to return
him the jar of olives which he had left in his care, at the same time
apologizing for having troubled him. "My dear friend," replied the
merchant, "do not think of making excuses; your jar has been no
encumbrance to me, and I should have done the same with you had I been
situated as you were. Here is the key of my warehouse, go and take it;
you will find it where you put it yourself."
Ali Cogia went to the warehouse and took out the jar, and having given
the key to the merchant, he thanked him for the favor he had done him,
and returned to the khan where he lodged. He opened the jar, and,
thrusting his hand to the depth where he supposed the thousand pieces
of gold might be, he was extremely surprised at not feeling them. He
thought he must be deceived, and to relieve his doubts he took some of
the dishes and other utensils of his travelling kitchen and emptied
out all the olives without finding one single piece of money. He was
motionless with astonishment, and raising his eyes and hands towards
heaven, "Is it possible," he at length exclaimed, "that a man whom I
considered as my friend could be capable of so flagrant a breach of
Ali Cogia, exceedingly alarmed at the idea of so considerable a loss,
returned to the merchant. "My good friend," said he, "do not be
surprised that I should return to you so quickly; I confess that I
knew the jar of olives which I just now took out of your warehouse to
be mine; but I had put a thousand pieces of gold in it with the
olives, and these I cannot find; perhaps you have wanted them in your
trade, and have made use of them. If that be the case, they are much
at your service; I only beg of you to relieve my fears, and give me
some acknowledgment for them; after this you will return them to me
whenever it may be most convenient."
The merchant, who expected Ali Cogia to return to him, had prepared an
answer. "My friend," replied he, "when you brought me the jar of
olives, did I touch it? Did I not give you the key of my wareroom? Did
you not deposit it there yourself? and did you not find it in the same
place where you put it, exactly in the same state, and covered in the
same manner? If you put money in it, there you must find it. You told
me it contained olives, and I believed you. This is all I know about
the matter; you may believe me or not as you please, but I assure you
I have not touched it."
Ali Cogia used the gentlest means to enable the merchant to justify
himself. "I love peaceable measures," said he, "and I should be sorry
to proceed to extremities, which would not be very creditable to you
in the eyes of the world. Consider that merchants, such as we are,
should abandon all private interests to preserve their reputation.
Once more I tell you that I should be sorry if your obstinacy compels
me to apply to the forms allowed by justice, for I have always
preferred losing something of my right to having recourse to those
"Ali Cogia," resumed the merchant, "you confess that you have
deposited a jar of olives with me, that you took possession of it
again, and that you carried it away; and now you come to demand of me
a thousand pieces of gold. Did you tell me they were contained in the
jar? I am even ignorant that there were olives in it; you did not show
them to me! I am surprised that you did not require pearls and
diamonds rather than money. Take my advice: go home, and do not
assemble a crowd about my door."
Some people had already stopped before his shop; and these last
words, pronounced in an angry voice, not only collected a larger
number, but made the neighboring merchants come out of their shops to
inquire the reason of the dispute. When Ali Cogia had explained to
them the subject, the most earnest in the cause asked the merchant
what reply he had to make.
The merchant owned that he had kept the jar belonging to Ali Cogia in
his warehouse, but he denied having touched it, and made oath that he
only knew that it contained olives because Ali Cogia had told him so,
and that he considered them all as witnesses of the insulting affront
which had been offered to him in his own house.
"You have drawn the affront on yourself," said Ali Cogia, taking him
by the arm; "but since you behave so wickedly, I cite you by the law
of God. Let us see if you will have the face to say the same before
At this summons, which every true Mussulman must obey, unless he
rebels against his religion, the merchant had not the courage to offer
any resistance. "Come," said he, "that is the very thing I wish; we
shall see who is wrong, you or I."
Ali Cogia conducted the merchant before the tribunal of the cadi,
where he accused him of having stolen a thousand pieces of gold which
were deposited in his care, relating the fact as it took place. The
cadi inquired if he had any witnesses. He replied that he had not
taken this precaution, because he supposed the person to whom he had
intrusted his money to be his friend, and till now an honest man.
The merchant urged nothing more in his defence than what he had
already said to Ali Cogia in the presence of his neighbors, and he
concluded by offering to take his oath not only that it was false that
he had taken the thousand pieces of gold, but even that he had any
knowledge of their being in his possession. The cadi accepted the
oath, after which he was dismissed as innocent.
Ali Cogia, extremely mortified to find himself condemned to suffer so
considerable a loss, protested against the sentence, and declared to
the cadi that he would lay his complaint before the Caliph
Haroun-al-Raschid, who would do him justice; but the cadi did not
regard this threat, and he considered it merely as the effect of the
resentment natural to all who lose their cause, and he thought he had
performed his duty by acquitting one who was accused without any
witnesses to prove the fact.
While the merchant was triumphing in his success over Ali Cogia, and
indulging his joy at having made so good a bargain of the thousand
pieces of gold, Ali Cogia went to draw up a petition. And the next
day, having chosen the time when the caliph should return from midday
prayers, he placed himself in a street which led to the mosque, and
when he passed, held out his hand with the petition. An officer to
whom this function belongs, who was walking before the caliph,
instantly left his place and came to take it, that he might present it
to his master.
As Ali Cogia knew that it was the usual custom of the Caliph
Haroun-al-Raschid, when he returned to his palace, to examine with his
own eyes all the petitions that were presented to him in this way, he
therefore followed the procession, went into the palace, and waited
till the officer who had taken the petition should come out of the
apartment of the caliph. When he made his appearance he told Ali Cogia
that the caliph had read his petition, and appointed the following day
to give him an audience; and having inquired of him where the
merchant lived, he sent to give him notice to attend the next day
at the same time.
On the evening of the same day, the caliph, with the grand vizier
Giafar and Mesrour, the chief of the eunuchs, all three disguised in
the same manner, went to make his usual excursion into the city, as it
was his custom frequently to do. In passing through a street the
caliph heard a noise. He hastened his pace, and came to a door which
opened into a court, where ten or twelve children, who had not gone to
rest, were playing by moonlight, as he perceived by looking through a
The caliph, feeling some curiosity to know what these children were
playing at, sat down on a stone bench, which was placed very
conveniently near the door; and as he was looking at them through the
crevice he heard one of the most lively and intelligent among them say
to the others: "Let us play at the cadi. I am the cadi. Bring before
me Ali Cogia and the merchant who stole the thousand pieces of gold
These words of the child reminded the caliph of the petition which had
been presented to him that day, and which he had read; he therefore
redoubled his attention to hear the result of the trial.
As the affair between Ali Cogia and the merchant was a new thing, and
much talked of in the city of Bagdad, even among children, the rest of
this youthful party fully agreed to the proposal, and each chose the
character he would perform. No one disputed the part of the cadi with
him who had made choice of it; and when he had taken his seat with all
the pomp and gravity of a cadi, another, personating the officer who
attends the tribunal, presented two others to him, one of whom he
called Ali Cogia, and the next the merchant against whom Ali Cogia
preferred his complaint.
The pretended cadi then addressed the feigned Ali Cogia. "Ali Cogia,"
said he, "what do you require of this merchant?" He who personated
this character then made a low bow, and informed the cadi of the
facts, and concluded by beseeching him to be pleased to interpose his
authority to prevent his sustaining so considerable a loss. The
feigned cadi, after having listened to Ali Cogia, turned to the
merchant, and asked him why he did not return to Ali Cogia the sum he
demanded of him. This young merchant made use of the same arguments
which the real one had alleged before the cadi of Bagdad, and also in
the same manner asked him to suffer him to swear that what he said was
"Not so fast," replied the pretended cadi; "before we come to swearing
I should like to see the jar of olives. Ali Cogia," said he,
addressing the boy who acted this part, "have you brought the jar
with you?" As the latter replied that he had not, he desired him to go
and fetch it.
Ali Cogia disappeared for a few minutes, and then returning, pretended
to bring a jar to the cadi, which he said was the same that had been
deposited with the merchant, and was now returned to him. Not to omit
any of the usual forms, the cadi asked the merchant if he owned it to
be the same jar, and the merchant proving by his silence that he could
not deny it, he ordered it to be opened. The feigned Ali Cogia then
made a motion as if he were taking off the cover, and the cadi that of
looking into the jar. "These are fine olives; let me taste," said he.
Then, pretending to take one to taste, he added: "They are excellent.
But," continued he, "I think that olives which have been kept seven
years would not be so good. Order some olive merchants to be called,
and let them give their opinion." Two boys were then presented to
him. "Are you olive merchants?" he inquired; to which they having
replied in the affirmative, he added: "Tell me, then, if you know how
long olives, that are prepared by people who make it their business,
can be preserved good to eat?"
"Sir," replied the feigned merchants, "whatever care may be taken to
preserve them, they are worth nothing after the third year; they lose
both their flavor and color, and are only fit to be thrown away." "If
that be the case," resumed the young cadi, "look at this jar, and tell
me how long the olives have been kept that are in it."
The feigned merchants then pretended to examine and taste the olives,
and told the cadi that they were fresh and good. "You are mistaken,"
replied the cadi; "here is Ali Cogia, who says that he put them into
the jar seven years ago." "Sir," said the merchants, "we can assure
you that these olives are of this year's growth, and we will maintain
that there is not a single merchant in Bagdad who will not be of the
same way of thinking." The accused merchant was going to protest
against this testimony of the others, but the cadi did not allow him
time. "Silence!" said he; "thou art a thief, and shalt be hanged." The
children then clapped their hands, showed great marks of joy, and
finished their game by seizing the supposed criminal, and carrying him
off as if to execution.
It is impossible to express how much the Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid
admired the wisdom and acuteness of the boy, who had pronounced so
just a sentence on the very case which was to be pleaded before him on
the morrow. Taking his eyes from the crevice, he rose, and asked the
grand vizier, who had been attending to all that passed, if he had
heard the sentence given by the boy, and what he thought of it.
"Commander of the Faithful," replied Giafar, "I am astonished at the
wisdom evinced by this boy at so early an age."
"But," resumed the caliph, "do you know that to-morrow I am to give my
decision on this very affair, and that the true Ali Cogia has this
morning presented a petition to me on the subject?"
"So I understand from your majesty," replied the grand vizier. "Do you
think," said the caliph, "that I can give a juster sentence than that
we have now heard?" "If the affair be the same," returned the grand
vizier, "it appears to me that your majesty cannot proceed in a better
manner, nor give any other judgment." "Notice well this house, then,"
said the caliph, "and bring me the boy to-morrow, that he may judge
the same cause in my presence. Order the cadi, also, who acquitted the
merchant, to be at the palace, that he may learn his duty from this
child, and correct his deficiencies. I desire, too, that you will tell
Ali Cogia to bring with him his jar of olives, and do you procure two
olive merchants to be present at the audience." The caliph gave this
order as he continued his walk, which he finished without meeting with
anything else that deserved his attention.
On the morrow the grand vizier repaired to the house where the caliph
had been witness to the game the children had played at, and he asked
to speak to the master of it, but he being gone out, he was introduced
to the mistress. He asked her if she had any children; she replied
that she had three, whom she brought to him. "My children," said he to
them, "which of you acted the cadi last night as you were playing
together?" The eldest replied that it was he; and as he was ignorant
of the reason for this question, he changed color. "My child," said
the grand vizier, "come with me; the Commander of the Faithful wishes
to see you."
The mother was extremely alarmed when she saw that the vizier was
going to take away her son. "Sir," said she, "is it to take away my
son entirely that the Commander of the Faithful has sent for him?" The
grand vizier quieted her fears by promising that her son should be
sent back again in less than an hour, and that when he returned she
would learn the reason of his being sent for, which would give her
great pleasure. "If that be the case, sir," replied she, "permit me
first to change his dress, that he may be more fit to appear before
the Commander of the Faithful." And she immediately put on her son a
The grand vizier conducted the boy to the caliph, and presented him at
the time appointed for hearing Ali Cogia and the merchant.
The caliph, seeing the child rather terrified, and wishing to prepare
him for what he expected him to do, said to him: "Come here, my boy,
draw near. Was it you who yesterday passed sentence on the case of Ali
Cogia and the merchant who robbed him of his gold? I both saw and
heard you, and am very well satisfied with you." The child began to
gain confidence, and modestly answered that it was he. "My child,"
resumed the caliph, "you shall see the true Ali Cogia and the merchant
to-day; come and sit down next to me."
The caliph then took the boy by the hand, and seated himself on his
throne, and having placed him next to him, he inquired for the
parties; they advanced, and the name of each was pronounced as he
touched with his forehead the carpet that covered the throne. When
they had risen, the caliph said to them: "Let each of you plead your
cause; this child will hear and administer justice to you, and if
anything be deficient, I will remedy it."
Ali Cogia and the merchant each spoke in his turn; and when the
merchant requested to be allowed to take the same oath he had taken on
his first examination, the boy answered that it was not yet time, for
it was first necessary to inspect the jar of olives. At these words
Ali Cogia produced the jar, placed it at the feet of the caliph, and
uncovered it. The caliph looked at the olives, and took one, which he
tasted. The jar was then handed to some skilful merchants who had been
ordered to appear, and they reported it as their opinion that the
olives were good, and of that year's growth. The boy told them Ali
Cogia assured him they had been in the jar seven years, to which the
real merchants returned the same answer which the children as feigned
merchants had made on the preceding evening.
Although the accused merchant plainly saw that the two olive
merchants had thus pronounced his condemnation, yet he nevertheless
attempted to allege reasons in his justification; the boy, however,
did not venture to pronounce sentence on him and send him to
execution. "Commander of the Faithful," said he, "this is not a game;
it is your majesty alone who can condemn to death seriously, and not
I; I did it yesterday only in play."
The caliph, fully persuaded of the treachery of the merchant, gave him
up to the ministers of justice to have him hung; and this sentence was
executed after he had confessed where the thousand pieces of gold were
concealed, which were then returned to Ali Cogia. This monarch, in
short, so celebrated for his justice and equity, after having advised
the cadi who had passed the first sentence, and who was present, to
learn from a child to be more exact in the performance of his office,
embraced the boy, and sent him home again with a purse containing a
hundred pieces of gold, which he ordered to be given him as a proof of