This story from 1001 Nights tells of hidden treasure and magical powers. It will remind you a little of Aladdin or Ali Baba, but it’s more serious. The Blind Beggar of Baghdad is a warning about how greed can drive you mad.
This has some basis in fact. Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid was a true-life ruler of Baghdad. The Dervishes were holy men and sources of wisdom, medicine, and poetry. As for the blind beggar of the story, it’s hard to say whether he really lived or not – but many like him did!
Adapted by Bertie.
Read by Natasha. Duration 24.28.
Proofread by Jana Elizabeth.
The Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid sat in his palace, wondering if there was anything left in the world that could possibly give him a few hours’ of amusement, when Giafar the grand vizier, his old and tried friend, suddenly appeared before him. Bowing low, he waited, as was his duty, till his master spoke, but Haroun-al-Raschid merely turned his head and looked at him, and sank back into his former weary posture.
Now Giafar had something of importance to say to the Caliph, and had no intention of being put off by mere silence, so with another low bow in front of the throne, he began to speak:
“Commander of the Faithful,” said he. “May I remind your Highness of your plan to observe how justice is done and order is kept throughout the city? For this is the day you have set apart to devote to this aim. Perhaps in fulfilling this duty, you may find some distraction from the melancholy to which, as I see to my sorry, you are prey.”
“You are right,” returned the Caliph, “I had forgotten all about it. Go and change your coat, and I will change mine.”
A few moments later they both re-entered the hall, disguised as foreign merchants, and passed through a secret door, out into the open country. Here they turned towards the Euphrates, and crossing the river in a small boat, walked through that part of the town which lay along the further bank, without seeing anything to call for their interference. Much pleased with the peace and order of the city, the Caliph and his vizier made their way to a bridge, which led straight back to the palace, and had already crossed it, when they were stopped by an old and blind man, who begged for alms.
The Caliph gave him a piece of money, and was passing on, but the blind man seized his hand, and held him fast.
“Charitable person,” he said, “whoever you may be grant me yet another prayer. Strike me, I beg you, one blow. I have deserved it richly, and even a more severe penalty.”
The Caliph, much surprised at this request, replied gently: “My good man, that which you ask is impossible. Of what use would my alms be if I treated you so ill?” And as he spoke he began to loosen the grasp of the blind beggar.
“My lord,” answered the man, “pardon my boldness and my persistence. Take back your money, or give me the blow which I crave. And if you knew all, you would feel that the punishment is not a tenth part of what I deserve.”
Moved by these words, and perhaps still more by the fact that he had other business to attend to, the Caliph yielded, and struck him lightly on the shoulder. Then he continued his road, followed by the blessing of the blind man. When they were out of earshot, he said to the vizier: “There must be something very odd to make that man act so–I should like to find out what is the reason. Go back to him; tell him who I am, and order him to come without fail to the palace tomorrow, after the hour of evening prayer.”
The next day, after evening prayer, the Caliph entered the hall, and was followed by the vizier bringing with him the two men of whom we have spoken, and a third, with whom we have nothing to do. They all bowed themselves low before the throne and then the Caliph bade them to rise, and ask the blind man his name.
“Baba-Abdalla, your Highness,” said he.
“Baba-Abdalla,” returned the Caliph, “your way of asking alms yesterday seemed to me so strange, that I almost commanded you then and there to cease from causing such a public scandal. But I have sent for you to inquire what was your motive in making such a curious vow. When I know the reason I shall be able to judge whether you can be permitted to continue to practice it, for I cannot help thinking that it sets a very bad example to others. Tell me therefore the whole truth, and conceal nothing.”
I was born, Commander of the Faithful, in Baghdad, and was left an orphan while I was yet a very young man, for my parents died within a few days of each other. I had inherited from them a small fortune, which I worked hard night and day to increase, till at last I found myself the owner of eighty camels. These I hired out to travelling merchants, whom I frequently accompanied on their various journeys, and always returned with large profits.
One day I was coming back from Balsora, where I had taken a supply of goods, intended for India, and halted at noon in a lonely place, which promised rich pasture for my camels. I was resting in the shade under a tree, when a dervish, going on foot towards Balsora, sat down beside me, and I inquired whence he had come and to what place he was going. We soon made friends, and after we had asked each other the usual questions, we produced the food we had with us, and satisfied our hunger.
While we were eating, the dervish happened to mention that in a spot only a little way off from where we were sitting, there was hidden a treasure so great that if my eighty camels were loaded till they could carry no more, the hiding place would seem as full as if it had never been touched.
At this news I became almost beside myself with joy and greed, and I flung my arms round the neck of the dervish, exclaiming: “Good dervish, I see plainly that the riches of this world are nothing to you, therefore of what use is the knowledge of this treasure to you? Alone and on foot, you could carry away a mere handful. But tell me where it is, and I will load my eighty camels with it, and give you one of them as a token of my gratitude.”
The dervish saw quite well what was passing in my mind, but he did not show what he thought of my proposal.
“My brother,” he answered quietly, “you know as well as I do, that you are behaving unjustly. Before I reveal to you the secret of the treasure, you must swear that, after we have loaded the camels with as much as they can carry, you will give half to me, and let us go our own ways. I think you will see that this is fair, for if you present me with forty camels, I on my side will give you the means of buying a thousand more.”
I could not of course deny that what the dervish said was perfectly reasonable, but, in spite of that, the thought that the dervish would be as rich as I, was unbearable to me. Still there was no use in discussing the matter, and I had to accept his conditions or bewail to the end of my life the loss of immense wealth. So I collected my camels and we set out together under the guidance of the dervish. After walking some time, we reached what looked like a valley, but with such a narrow entrance that my camels could only pass one by one. The little valley, or open space, was shut up by two mountains, whose sides were formed of straight cliffs, which no human being could climb.
When we were exactly between these mountains the dervish stopped.
“Make your camels lie down in this open space,” he said, “so that we can easily load them; then we will go to the treasure.”
I did what I was bid, and rejoined the dervish, whom I found trying to kindle a fire out of some dry wood. As soon as it was alight, he threw on it a handful of perfumes, and said a few words that I did not understand, and immediately a thick column of smoke rose high into the air. He separated the smoke into two columns, and then I saw a rock, which stood like a pillar between the two mountains, slowly open, and a splendid palace appear within.
But, commander of the faithful, the love of gold had taken such possession of my heart, that I could not even stop to examine the riches, but fell upon the first pile of gold within my reach and began to heap it into a sack that I had brought with me.
The dervish likewise set to work, but I soon noticed that he confined himself to collecting precious stones, and I felt I should be wise to follow his example. At length the camels were loaded with as much as they could carry, and nothing remained but to seal up the treasure, and go our ways.
Before this was done, however, the dervish went up to a great golden vase, beautifully chased, and took from it a small wooden box, which he hid in the bosom of his dress, merely saying that it contained a special kind of ointment. Then he once more lit the fire, threw on the perfume, and murmured the unknown spell, and the rock closed.
The next thing was to divide the camels, and to load them with the treasure. The demon of envy filled my soul. “What does a dervish want with riches like that?” I said to myself. “He alone has the secret of the treasure, and can always get as much as he wants.”
“My brother,” I exclaimed, as soon as I could speak, “almost at the moment of our leave-taking, a reflection occurred to me, which is perhaps new to you. You are a dervish by profession, and live a very quiet life, only caring to do good, and careless of the things of this world. You do not realise the burden that you lay upon yourself, when you gather into your hands such great wealth, besides the fact that no one, who is not accustomed to camels from his birth, can ever manage the stubborn beasts. If you are wise, you will not encumber yourself with more than thirty, and you will find those trouble enough.”
“You are right,” replied the dervish, who understood me quite well. “I confess I had not thought about it. Choose any ten you like, and drive them before you.”
I selected ten of the best camels. I had got what I wanted, but I had found the dervish so easy to deal with, that I rather regretted I had not asked for ten more. I looked back. He had only gone a few paces, and I called after him.
“My brother,” I said, “I am unwilling to part from you without pointing out what I think you scarcely grasp, that large experience of camel-driving is necessary to anybody who intends to keep together a troop of thirty. In your own interest, I feel sure you would be much happier if you entrusted ten more of them to me, for with my practice it is all one to me if I take two or a hundred.”
As before, the dervish made no difficulties, and I drove off my ten camels in triumph, only leaving him with twenty for his share. I had now sixty, and anyone might have imagined that I should be content.
But, commander of the faithful, there is a proverb that says: “The more one has, the more one wants.” So it was with me. I could not rest as long as one solitary camel remained to the dervish; and returning to him I redoubled my prayers and embraces, and promises of eternal gratitude, till the last twenty were in my hands.
“Make good use of them, my brother,” said the holy man. “Remember riches sometimes have wings if we keep them for ourselves, and the poor are at our gates expressly that we may help them.”
My eyes were so blinded by gold, that I paid no heed to his wise counsel, and only looked about for something else to grasp. Suddenly I remembered the little box of ointment that the dervish had hidden, and which most likely contained a treasure more precious than all the rest. Giving him one last embrace, I observed accidentally: “What are you going to do with that little box of ointment? It seems hardly worth taking with you; you might as well let me have it. And really, a dervish who has given up the world has no need of ointment!”
Oh, if he had only refused my request! But then, supposing he had, I should have got possession of it by force, so great was the madness that had laid hold upon me. However, far from refusing it, the dervish at once held it out, saying gracefully: “Take it, my friend, and if there is anything else I can do to make you happy you must let me know.”
Directly the box was in my hands I wrenched off the cover. “As you are so kind,” I said, “tell me, I pray you, what are the virtues of this ointment?”
“They are most curious and interesting,” replied the dervish. “If you apply a little of it to your left eye you will behold in an instant all the treasures hidden in the bowels of the earth. But beware lest you touch your right eye with it, or your sight will be destroyed for ever.”
His words excited my curiosity to the highest pitch. “Make trial on me, I implore you,” I cried, holding out the box to the dervish. “You will know how to do it better than I! I am burning with impatience to test its charms.”
The dervish took the box I had extended to him, and, bidding me shut my left eye, touched it gently with the ointment. When I opened it again I saw spread out, as it were before me, treasures of every kind and without number. But as all this time I had been obliged to keep my right eye closed, which was very fatiguing, I begged the dervish to apply the ointment to that eye also.
“If you insist upon it I will do it,” answered the dervish, “but you must remember what I told you just now–that if it touches your right eye you will become blind on the spot.”
Unluckily, in spite of my having proved the truth of the dervish’s words in so many instances, I was firmly convinced that he was now keeping concealed from me some hidden and precious virtue of the ointment. So I turned a deaf ear to all he said.
“My brother,” I replied smiling, “I see you are joking. It is not natural that the same ointment should have two such exactly opposite effects.”
“It is true all the same,” answered the dervish, “and it would be well for you if you believed my word.”
But I would not believe, and, dazzled by the greed of avarice, I thought that if one eye could show me riches, the other might teach me how to get possession of them. And I continued to press the dervish to anoint my right eye, but this he resolutely declined to do.
“After having conferred such benefits on you,” said he, “I am loth indeed to work you such evil. Think what it is to be blind, and do not force me to do what you will repent as long as you live.”
It was of no use. “My brother,” I said firmly, “pray say no more, but do what I ask. You have most generously responded to my wishes up to this time, do not spoil my recollection of you for a thing of such little consequence. Let what will happen I take it on my own head, and will never reproach you.”
“Since you are determined upon it,” he answered with a sigh, “there is no use talking,” and taking the ointment he laid some on my right eye, which was tight shut. When I tried to open it heavy clouds of darkness floated before me. I was as blind as you see me now!
“Miserable dervish!” I shrieked, “so it is true after all! Into what a bottomless pit has my lust after gold plunged me. Ah, now that my eyes are closed they are really opened. I know that all my sufferings are caused by myself alone! But, good brother, you, who are so kind and charitable, and know the secrets of such vast learning, have you nothing that will give me back my sight?”
“Unhappy man,” replied the dervish, “it is not my fault that this has befallen you, but it is a just punishment. The blindness of your heart has wrought the blindness of your body. Yes, I have secrets; that you have seen in the short time that we have known each other. But I have none that will give you back your sight. You have proved yourself unworthy of the riches that were given you. Now they have passed into my hands, whence they will flow into the hands of others less greedy and ungrateful than you.”
The dervish said no more and left me, speechless with shame and confusion, and so wretched that I stood rooted to the spot, while he collected the eighty camels and proceeded on his way to Balsora. I should soon have been dead of hunger and misery if some merchants had not come along the track the following day and kindly brought me back to Baghdad.
From a rich man I had in one moment become a beggar.
This, commander of the faithful, is my story.
When the blind man had ended the Caliph addressed him: “Baba-Abdalla, truly your sin is great, but you have suffered enough. Henceforth repent in private, for I will see that enough money is given you day by day for all your wants.”
At these words Baba-Abdalla flung himself at the Caliph’s feet, and prayed that honour and happiness might be his portion for ever.
And that was the story of the Blind Beggar of Baghdad. I do hope that you enjoyed it.