The Story Of Ali Colia Merchant Of Bagdad
: The Arabian Nights Entertainments
In the reign of Haroun-al-Raschid, there lived in Bagdad a merchant
named Ali Cogia, who, having neither wife nor child, contented himself
with the modest profits produced by his trade. He had spent some years
quite happily in the house his father had left him, when three nights
running he dreamed that an old man had appeared to him, and reproached
him for having neglected the duty of a good Mussulman, in delaying so
ong his pilgrimage to Mecca.
Ali Cogia was much troubled by this dream, as he was unwilling to give
up his shop, and lose all his customers. He had shut his eyes for some
time to the necessity of performing this pilgrimage, and tried to atone
to his conscience by an extra number of good works, but the dream
seemed to him a direct warning, and he resolved to put the journey off
The first thing he did was to sell his furniture and the wares he had
in his shop, only reserving to himself such goods as he might trade
with on the road. The shop itself he sold also, and easily found a
tenant for his private house. The only matter he could not settle
satisfactorily was the safe custody of a thousand pieces of gold which
he wished to leave behind him.
After some thought, Ali Cogia hit upon a plan which seemed a safe one.
He took a large vase, and placing the money in the bottom of it, filled
up the rest with olives. After corking the vase tightly down, he
carried it to one of his friends, a merchant like himself, and said to
"My brother, you have probably heard that I am staffing with a caravan
in a few days for Mecca. I have come to ask whether you would do me
the favour to keep this vase of olives for me till I come back?"
The merchant replied readily, "Look, this is the key of my shop: take
it, and put the vase wherever you like. I promise that you shall find
it in the same place on your return."
A few days later, Ali Cogia mounted the camel that he had laden with
merchandise, joined the caravan, and arrived in due time at Mecca.
Like the other pilgrims he visited the sacred Mosque, and after all his
religious duties were performed, he set out his goods to the best
advantage, hoping to gain some customers among the passers-by.
Very soon two merchants stopped before the pile, and when they had
turned it over, one said to the other:
"If this man was wise he would take these things to Cairo, where he
would get a much better price than he is likely to do here."
Ali Cogia heard the words, and lost no time in following the advice.
He packed up his wares, and instead of returning to Bagdad, joined a
caravan that was going to Cairo. The results of the journey gladdened
his heart. He sold off everything almost directly, and bought a stock
of Egyptian curiosities, which he intended selling at Damascus; but as
the caravan with which he would have to travel would not be starting
for another six weeks, he took advantage of the delay to visit the
Pyramids, and some of the cities along the banks of the Nile.
Now the attractions of Damascus so fascinated the worthy Ali, that he
could hardly tear himself away, but at length he remembered that he had
a home in Bagdad, meaning to return by way of Aleppo, and after he had
crossed the Euphrates, to follow the course of the Tigris.
But when he reached Mossoul, Ali had made such friends with some
Persian merchants, that they persuaded him to accompany them to their
native land, and even as far as India, and so it came to pass that
seven years had slipped by since he had left Bagdad, and during all
that time the friend with whom he had left the vase of olives had never
once thought of him or of it. In fact, it was only a month before Ali
Cogia's actual return that the affair came into his head at all, owing
to his wife's remarking one day, that it was a long time since she had
eaten any olives, and would like some.
"That reminds me," said the husband, "that before Ali Cogia went to
Mecca seven years ago, he left a vase of olives in my care. But really
by this time he must be dead, and there is no reason we should not eat
the olives if we like. Give me a light, and I will fetch them and see
how they taste."
"My husband," answered the wife, "beware, I pray, of your doing
anything so base! Supposing seven years have passed without news of
Ali Cogia, he need not be dead for all that, and may come back any day.
How shameful it would be to have to confess that you had betrayed your
trust and broken the seal of the vase! Pay no attention to my idle
words, I really have no desire for olives now. And probably after all
this while they are no longer good. I have a presentiment that Ali
Cogia will return, and what will he think of you? Give it up, I
The merchant, however, refused to listen to her advice, sensible though
it was. He took a light and a dish and went into his shop.
"If you will be so obstinate," said his wife, "I cannot help it; but do
not blame me if it turns out ill."
When the merchant opened the vase he found the topmost olives were
rotten, and in order to see if the under ones were in better condition
he shook some out into the dish. As they fell out a few of the gold
pieces fell out too.
The sight of the money roused all the merchant's greed. He looked into
the vase, and saw that all the bottom was filled with gold. He then
replaced the olives and returned to his wife.
"My wife," he said, as he entered the room, "you were quite right; the
olives are rotten, and I have recorked the vase so well that Ali Cogia
will never know it has been touched."
"You would have done better to believe me," replied the wife. "I trust
that no harm will come of it."
These words made no more impression on the merchant than the others had
done; and he spent the whole night in wondering how he could manage to
keep the gold if Ali Cogia should come back and claim his vase. Very
early next morning he went out and bought fresh new olives; he then
threw away the old ones, took out the gold and hid it, and filled up
the vase with the olives he had bought. This done he recorked the vase
and put it in the same place where it had been left by Ali Cogia.
A month later Ali Cogia re-entered Bagdad, and as his house was still
let he went to an inn; and the following day set out to see his friend
the merchant, who received him with open arms and many expressions of
surprise. After a few moments given to inquiries Ali Cogia begged the
merchant to hand him over the vase that he had taken care of for so
"Oh certainly," said he, "I am only glad I could be of use to you in
the matter. Here is the key of my shop; you will find the vase in the
place where you put it."
Ali Cogia fetched his vase and carried it to his room at the inn, where
he opened it. He thrust down his hand but could feel no money, but
still was persuaded it must be there. So he got some plates and
vessels from his travelling kit and emptied out the olives. To no
purpose. The gold was not there. The poor man was dumb with horror,
then, lifting up his hands, he exclaimed, "Can my old friend really
have committed such a crime?"
In great haste he went back to the house of the merchant. "My friend,"
he cried, "you will be astonished to see me again, but I can find
nowhere in this vase a thousand pieces of gold that I placed in the
bottom under the olives. Perhaps you may have taken a loan of them for
your business purposes; if that is so you are most welcome. I will
only ask you to give me a receipt, and you can pay the money at your
The merchant, who had expected something of the sort, had his reply all
ready. "Ali Cogia," he said, "when you brought me the vase of olives
did I ever touch it?"
"I gave you the key of my shop and you put it yourself where you liked,
and did you not find it in exactly the same spot and in the same state?
If you placed any gold in it, it must be there still. I know nothing
about that; you only told me there were olives. You can believe me or
not, but I have not laid a finger on the vase."
Ali Cogia still tried every means to persuade the merchant to admit the
truth. "I love peace," he said, "and shall deeply regret having to
resort to harsh measures. Once more, think of your reputation. I
shall be in despair if you oblige me to call in the aid of the law."
"Ali Cogia," answered the merchant, "you allow that it was a vase of
olives you placed in my charge. You fetched it and removed it
yourself, and now you tell me it contained a thousand pieces of gold,
and that I must restore them to you! Did you ever say anything about
them before? Why, I did not even know that the vase had olives in it!
You never showed them to me. I wonder you have not demanded pearls or
diamonds. Retire, I pray you, lest a crowd should gather in front of
By this time not only the casual passers-by, but also the neighbouring
merchants, were standing round, listening to the dispute, and trying
every now and then to smooth matters between them. But at the
merchant's last words Ali Cogia resolved to lay the cause of the
quarrel before them, and told them the whole story. They heard him to
the end, and inquired of the merchant what he had to say.
The accused man admitted that he had kept Ali Cogia's vase in his shop;
but he denied having touched it, and swore that as to what it contained
he only knew what Ali Cogia had told him, and called them all to
witness the insult that had been put upon him.
"You have brought it on yourself," said Ali Cogia, taking him by the
arm, "and as you appeal to the law, the law you shall have! Let us see
if you will dare to repeat your story before the Cadi."
Now as a good Mussulman the merchant was forbidden to refuse this
choice of a judge, so he accepted the test, and said to Ali Cogia,
"Very well; I should like nothing better. We shall soon see which of
us is in the right."
So the two men presented themselves before the Cadi, and Ali Cogia
again repeated his tale. The Cadi asked what witnesses he had. Ali
Cogia replied that he had not taken this precaution, as he had
considered the man his friend, and up to that time had always found him
The merchant, on his side, stuck to his story, and offered to swear
solemnly that not only had he never stolen the thousand gold pieces,
but that he did not even know they were there. The Cadi allowed him to
take the oath, and pronounced him innocent.
Ali Cogia, furious at having to suffer such a loss, protested against
the verdict, declaring that he would appeal to the Caliph,
Haroun-al-Raschid, himself. But the Cadi paid no attention to his
threats, and was quite satisfied that he had done what was right.
Judgment being given the merchant returned home triumphant, and Ali
Cogia went back to his inn to draw up a petition to the Caliph. The
next morning he placed himself on the road along which the Caliph must
pass after mid-day prayer, and stretched out his petition to the
officer who walked before the Caliph, whose duty it was to collect such
things, and on entering the palace to hand them to his master. There
Haroun-al-Raschid studied them carefully.
Knowing this custom, Ali Cogia followed the Caliph into the public hall
of the palace, and waited the result. After some time the officer
appeared, and told him that the Caliph had read his petition, and had
appointed an hour the next morning to give him audience. He then
inquired the merchant's address, so that he might be summoned to attend
That very evening, the Caliph, with his grand-vizir Giafar, and
Mesrour, chief of the eunuchs, all three disguised, as was their habit,
went out to take a stroll through the town.
Going down one street, the Caliph's attention was attracted by a noise,
and looking through a door which opened into a court he perceived ten
or twelve children playing in the moonlight. He hid himself in a dark
corner, and watched them.
"Let us play at being the Cadi," said the brightest and quickest of
them all; "I will be the Cadi. Bring before me Ali Cogia, and the
merchant who robbed him of the thousand pieces of gold."
The boy's words recalled to the Caliph the petition he had read that
morning, and he waited with interest to see what the children would do.
The proposal was hailed with joy by the other children, who had heard a
great deal of talk about the matter, and they quickly settled the part
each one was to play. The Cadi took his seat gravely, and an officer
introduced first Ali Cogia, the plaintiff, and then the merchant who
was the defendant.
Ali Cogia made a low bow, and pleaded his cause point by point;
concluding by imploring the Cadi not to inflict on him such a heavy
The Cadi having heard his case, turned to the merchant, and inquired
why he had not repaid Ali Cogia the sum in question.
The false merchant repeated the reasons that the real merchant had
given to the Cadi of Bagdad, and also offered to swear that he had told
"Stop a moment!" said the little Cadi, "before we come to oaths, I
should like to examine the vase with the olives. Ali Cogia," he added,
"have you got the vase with you?" and finding he had not, the Cadi
continued, "Go and get it, and bring it to me."
So Ali Cogia disappeared for an instant, and then pretended to lay a
vase at the feet of the Cadi, declaring it was his vase, which he had
given to the accused for safe custody; and in order to be quite
correct, the Cadi asked the merchant if he recognised it as the same
vase. By his silence the merchant admitted the fact, and the Cadi then
commanded to have the vase opened. Ali Cogia made a movement as if he
was taking off the lid, and the little Cadi on his part made a pretence
of peering into a vase.
"What beautiful olives!" he said, "I should like to taste one," and
pretending to put one in his mouth, he added, "they are really
"But," he went on, "it seems to me odd that olives seven years old
should be as good as that! Send for some dealers in olives, and let us
hear what they say!"
Two children were presented to him as olive merchants, and the Cadi
addressed them. "Tell me," he said, "how long can olives be kept so as
to be pleasant eating?"
"My lord," replied the merchants, "however much care is taken to
preserve them, they never last beyond the third year. They lose both
taste and colour, and are only fit to be thrown away."
"If that is so," answered the little Cadi, "examine this vase, and tell
me how long the olives have been in it."
The olive merchants pretended to examine the olives and taste them;
then reported to the Cadi that they were fresh and good.
"You are mistaken," said he, "Ali Cogia declares he put them in that
vase seven years ago."
"My lord," returned the olive merchants, "we can assure you that the
olives are those of the present year. And if you consult all the
merchants in Bagdad you will not find one to give a contrary opinion."
The accused merchant opened his mouth as if to protest, but the Cadi
gave him no time. "Be silent," he said, "you are a thief. Take him
away and hang him." So the game ended, the children clapping their
hands in applause, and leading the criminal away to be hanged.
Haroun-al-Raschid was lost in astonishment at the wisdom of the child,
who had given so wise a verdict on the case which he himself was to
hear on the morrow. "Is there any other verdict possible?" he asked
the grand-vizir, who was as much impressed as himself. "I can imagine
no better judgment."
"If the circumstances are really such as we have heard," replied the
grand-vizir, "it seems to me your Highness could only follow the
example of this boy, in the method of reasoning, and also in your
"Then take careful note of this house," said the Caliph, "and bring me
the boy to-morrow, so that the affair may be tried by him in my
presence. Summon also the Cadi, to learn his duty from the mouth of a
child. Bid Ali Cogia bring his vase of olives, and see that two
dealers in olives are present." So saying the Caliph returned to the
The next morning early, the grand-vizir went back to the house where
they had seen the children playing, and asked for the mistress and her
children. Three boys appeared, and the grand-vizir inquired which had
represented the Cadi in their game of the previous evening. The eldest
and tallest, changing colour, confessed that it was he, and to his
mother's great alarm, the grand-vizir said that he had strict orders to
bring him into the presence of the Caliph.
"Does he want to take my son from me?" cried the poor woman; but the
grand-vizir hastened to calm her, by assuring her that she should have
the boy again in an hour, and she would be quite satisfied when she
knew the reason of the summons. So she dressed the boy in his best
clothes, and the two left the house.
When the grand-vizir presented the child to the Caliph, he was a little
awed and confused, and the Caliph proceeded to explain why he had sent
for him. "Approach, my son," he said kindly. "I think it was you who
judged the case of Ali Cogia and the merchant last night? I overheard
you by chance, and was very pleased with the way you conducted it.
To-day you will see the real Ali Cogia and the real merchant. Seat
yourself at once next to me."
The Caliph being seated on his throne with the boy next him, the
parties to the suit were ushered in. One by one they prostrated
themselves, and touched the carpet at the foot of the throne with their
foreheads. When they rose up, the Caliph said: "Now speak. This
child will give you justice, and if more should be wanted I will see to
Ali Cogia and the merchant pleaded one after the other, but when the
merchant offered to swear the same oath that he had taken before the
Cadi, he was stopped by the child, who said that before this was done
he must first see the vase of olives.
At these words, Ali Cogia presented the vase to the Caliph, and
uncovered it. The Caliph took one of the olives, tasted it, and
ordered the expert merchants to do the same. They pronounced the
olives good, and fresh that year. The boy informed them that Ali Cogia
declared it was seven years since he had placed them in the vase; to
which they returned the same answer as the children had done.
The accused merchant saw by this time that his condemnation was
certain, and tried to allege something in his defence. The boy had too
much sense to order him to be hanged, and looked at the Caliph, saying,
"Commander of the Faithful, this is not a game now; it is for your
Highness to condemn him to death and not for me."
Then the Caliph, convinced that the man was a thief, bade them take him
away and hang him, which was done, but not before he had confessed his
guilt and the place in which he had hidden Ali Cogia's money. The
Caliph ordered the Cadi to learn how to deal out justice from the mouth
of a child, and sent the boy home, with a purse containing a hundred
pieces of gold as a mark of his favour.