Monday, 14 December 2015

Open sesame

One Thousand and One Nights (Arabic: كِتَاب أَلْف لَيْلَة وَلَيْلَة‎ kitāb ʾalf layla wa-layla) is a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age.

Most scholars agreed that the Nights was a composite work and that the earliest tales in it came from India and Persia. At some time, probably in the early 8th century, these tales were translated into Arabic under the title Alf Layla, or 'The Thousand Nights'. This collection then formed the basis of The Thousand and One Nights. The original core of stories was quite small. Then, in Iraq in the 9th or 10th century, this original core had Arab stories added to it – among them some tales about the Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Also, perhaps from the 10th century onwards, previously independent sagas and story cycles were added to the compilation. Then, from the 13th century onwards, a further layer of stories was added in Syria and Egypt, many of these showing a preoccupation with sex, magic or low life. In the early modern period yet more stories were added to the Egyptian collections so as to swell the bulk of the text sufficiently to bring its length up to the full 1,001 nights of storytelling promised by the book’s title."

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (علي بابا والأربعون لصا) is a story which is included in many versions of the One Thousand and One Nights. In the story, Ali Baba is a poor woodcutter who discovers the secret of a thieves' den, which can be opened and entered with the phrase "Open Sesame". The thieves learn this and try to kill Ali Baba, but Ali Baba's faithful slave-girl foils their plots. Ali Baba gives his son to her in marriage and keeps the secret of the treasure.

The tale was added to the story collection One Thousand and One Nights by one of its European translators, Antoine Galland, who called his volumes Les Mille et Une Nuits (1704–1717). Galland was an 18th-century French Orientalist who may have heard it in oral form from a Middle Eastern story-teller from Aleppo, in modern-day Syria. In any case, the first known text of the story is Galland's French version. Richard F. Burton included it in the supplemental volumes (rather than the main collection of stories) of his translation (published as The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night) and thought its origins were Greek Cypriot.

"Open Sesame" (Arabic: افتح يا سمسم‎ iftaḥ yā simsim) is a magical phrase in the story of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" in One Thousand and One Nights. The phrase first appears in writing in Antoine Galland's "Les Mille et une nuits" (1704–1717) as "Sésame, ouvre-toi" meaning "Sesame open yourself". The phrase has been variously translated from the French into English as "Sesame, Open", "Open, Sesame" and "Open, O Simsim".

There are many theories about the origin of the phrase. Indeed, it is not certain what the word sesame or simsim actually means. 

Some older theories include:

1. Sesame is a reduplication of the Hebrew šem 'name' i.e. God or a kabbalistic word representing the Talmudic šem-šamáįm ("shem-shamayim"), 'name of heaven'.
2. Sesame is connected to Babylonian magic practices which used sesame oil.

I believe that there is another possible etymology for this word or phrase, one that fits perfectly the actual use of the word in the story about Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. However this etymology would open quite a few questions about the origin of the "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" story. 

In the story, Ali Baba is at work collecting and cutting firewood in the forest, and he happens to overhear a group of 40 thieves visiting their treasure store. The treasure is in a cave, the mouth of which is sealed by magic. It opens on the words "open sesame" and seals itself on the words "close sesame". 

This is very interesting. The cave opens by itself when it is commanded "open sesame" and it closes by itself when it is commanded "close sesame". 

In Serbian if you wanted to command the cave to open "by yourself" you would say "otvori se sam" and if you wanted to command the cave to close "by yourself" you would say "zatvori se sam"...

In Serbian the phrase "se sam" means "by yourself"...

In Serbian the word "sam" means alone, by yourself, without anyone's help. My son when he was small used to shout "sam! sam!" when he wanted to do something by himself without the help of adults. Is this where "simsim" comes from? Is "simsim" just bastardisation of "sam! sam!" which happened after the meaning of the original phrase was forgotten?

If we look at the etymology of the Serbian word "sam" we see that the word "sam" meaning alone, by oneself is a Slavic wide word. The "so called" cognates include. You will se why I say "so called" from the actual list of "cognates":

Germanic: *samaz - same, equal but not alone, by oneself. Probably not a cognate at all
Ancient Greek: ὁμός ‎(homós) - same, common, joint but not alone, by oneself. Probably not a cognate at all
Sanskrit: सम ‎(sama) - same, even, equal, homogeneous but not alone, by oneself. Probably not a cognate at all
Avestan: ‎(ham) - ?
Kurmanji: hev - o have, nothing to do with alone, by oneself. Probably not a cognate at all
Sorani: haw - ?
Zazaki: hem - and, nothing to do with alone, by oneself. Probably not a cognate at all
Old Persian: ‎(hama) - ?
Middle Persian: (ham) - ?
New Persian: هم ‎(ham) - also, too, similarly, nothing to do with alone, by oneself. Probably not a cognate at all

From here you can see that the phrase "se sam" meaning "by yourself" and "sam! sam!" meaning "by yourself, alone" could only have come from Slavic languages. 

I was just told that another possible Serbian etymology is "otvori se za me" meaning "open yourself for me"... 

As we can see, this etymology gives the meaning to the words (phrases) "sesame", "simsim" which  perfectly match the use of the words (phrases) in the actual story "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves". But if this is the real etymology, and it is the only normal sounding etymology so far, how did this Serbian (Slavic) expression end up in Arabian folk tale? As I already said, most scholars agreed that the "One Thousand and One Nights" are a composite work and that the earliest tales in it came from India and Persia. But is it possible that some of these stories came from Slavic countries, or from territories in Asia Minor inhabited by Slavic people who were settled there during Byzantine times? As I said already, It is believed that Galland, the 18th-century French Orientalist, who was the first to record the "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" story, may have heard it in oral form from a Middle Eastern story-teller from Aleppo, in modern-day Syria. And Syria was at the time of the Slavic settlement in Asia minor the border area between the Byzantine empire and the Umayyad Caliphate. And the Slavs were specifically settles in the Asia Minor to protect the Byzantine borders against the Muslims.  

Asia Minor Slavs refers to the historical South Slav communities relocated to Anatolia by the Byzantine Empire, from the Balkans. After Maurice's Balkan campaigns (582-602), and subsequent subduing of Slavs in the Balkans during the 7th and 8th centuries, large communities were forcefully relocated to Asia Minor as military, fighting the Umayyad Caliphate.

In 658 and 688/9 the Byzantines invited groups of Slavic settlers to Bithynia.

The best known Slavic settlement there was the city of Gordoservon (Serbian: Srbograd, Grad Srba, Гордосервон, Greek: Γορδόσερβα) is mentioned, whose name is derived from the Serbs resettled in Asia Minor (in ca 649 or 667) by Byzantine Emperor Constans II (641–668), who came from the areas "around river Vardar". Isidor, the Bishop of Gordoservon is mentioned in 680/681, and the fact that this town was an episcopal seat gives ground to the thesis that it had a large Serbian population. Around the year 1200 this city is mentioned as 'Servochoria' (Serbian habitation).

Constantine III settled captured Slavs in Asia Minor, and 5,000 of these joined Abdulreman ibn Khalid in 664-665.

Justinian II (685-695) also settled in Asia Minor as many as 30,000 Slavs from Thrace, in an attempt to boost military strength. Most of them however, with their leader Neboulos, deserted to the Arabs at the Battle of Sebastopolis in 692.

Military campaigns in northern Greece in 758 under Constantine V (r. 741–775) prompted a relocation of Slavs under Bulgar aggression, again in 783. The Bulgar expansion caused massive Slav migrations, and in 762, more than 200,000 people fled to Byzantine territory and were relocated to Asia Minor.

The most prominent among the Asia Minor Slavs was Thomas the Slav. Thomas the Slav (c. 760 – October 823 AD) was a 9th-century Byzantine military commander, most notable for leading a wide-scale revolt in 821–23 against Emperor Michael II the Amorian (ruled 820–29).

An army officer of Slavic origin from the Pontus region (now north-eastern Turkey), Thomas rose to prominence, along with the future emperors Michael II and Leo V the Armenian (r. 813–820), under the protection of general Bardanes Tourkos. After Bardanes's failed rebellion in 803, Thomas fell into obscurity until Leo V's rise to the throne, when Thomas was raised to a senior military command in central Asia Minor. After the murder of Leo and usurpation of the throne by Michael the Amorian, Thomas revolted, claiming the throne for himself. Thomas quickly secured support from most of the themes (provinces) and troops in Asia Minor, defeated Michael's initial counter-attack and concluded an alliance with the Abbasid Caliphate. After winning over the maritime themes and their ships as well, he crossed with his army to Europe and laid siege to Constantinople. The imperial capital withstood Thomas's attacks by land and sea, while Michael II called for help from the Bulgarian ruler Omurtag. Omurtag attacked Thomas's army, but although repelled, the Bulgarians inflicted heavy casualties on Thomas's men, who broke and fled when Michael took to the field a few months later. Thomas and his supporters sought refuge in Arcadiopolis, where he was soon blockaded by Michael's troops. In the end, Thomas's supporters surrendered him in exchange for a pardon, and he was executed.

Thomas's rebellion was one of the largest in the Byzantine Empire's history

The Slavs of the Opsician Theme (Sklabesianoi) are still attested as a separate group in the 10th century, serving as marines in the Byzantine navy. 

So did these Asia Minor Slavs use phrases "otvori se sam" (open yourself) and "otvori se! sam! sam!" (open yourself! by yourself! by yourself!) or "otvori se za me" (open yourself for me) phrases in their retelling of the story about the magic cave which can open and close itself by itself? And is this how we ended up with "open sesame", "open simsim"?


  1. I remember reading Ali Baba when I was young, but never in a million years would I have guessed that Serbs might have played a role in inspiring the cave's password.

    Good find. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Me neither. I never once thought about the meaning of the phrase until two days ago. Then when I read about the Asia Minor Slavs....

  2. So wonderful to read this! I've been trying to see how *Xyam fits with other languages, never did I guess it linked to "Open Sesame".
    Shema(Hebrew) the one and only ~ sole/sol ~ self
    Homós(Greek) same
    Sama (Malay) same

    Xyambuatlay is my paleo-keyword that opens the door to the ancient human language of the people who left the tropical rainforest to become the "Open Sky People" around the world, Xya sky/shy, Xyam shine/shame, Xyambua shadow/shanty etc.

    Slav = Xyuambu = covered/clothed/slough/sledge + sky + amble/avenue/aura, or so, but I don't know exact meaning, since every word is a song of oral history going way way back in time and travel. Thank you Serbian Irish, slainte!

  3. In Swedish ensam means alone, with en related to one, en or ett.I thought sam meant people or group, as used in words such as samhälle =community

  4. Ancient Greek, Latin, Ancient Arabic, Hebrew and Assyrian too...all have similar sounding words and meanings to sesame/alone/by oneself etc.
    Serbian language is an Indo-European language. Hence many of its words would have similarities with other Indo-European languages like Ancient Persian and Ancient Sanskrit and/or Pali.
    Since the original '1001 Nights' stories were compiled from Persia(Ancient Persian language) and India(Sanskrit language), it is logical to think that the phrase originates in either of these languages.
    However Antoine Galland, the French writer, was the first to include the 'Ali Baba' story in the '1001 nights' collection. This story does not appear in the earliest Arabic manuscript. He claimed it's a Syrian tale he'd heard... (but it's equally likely he made it up!). Anyway, since Arabic is spoken in Syria it's more likely that the phrase 'sesame' originates from Ancient Arabic.

  5. Story of Ali baba and Thomas the Slav kinda connects somehow, after reading all of this.
    Maybe 40 people was all Thomas had in the end?
    And the people telling the story would probably originate from in or around Syria.

    Wouldn't surprise me if we would find something of historical value if we looked into it more, imagine if Thomas the Slav is Ali baba.