Over a thousand years ago, in the reign of the famous Caliph Haroun al-Raschid, there lived in Baghdad a merchant who needed to travel on an extended journey. He sold nearly all of his household goods and rented out his home. The only thing left for him to do was to find a safe place to leave his private treasure - one thousand pieces of gold. Finally, he decided to put the thousand pieces of gold into a large jar and cover the gold with olives. When he had closed the mouth of the jar, he carried it to a friend of his, who was also a merchant, and said to him, "You know, my friend, that in a few days I plan to depart on my journey. I beg you to take charge of a jar of olives, and keep it for me till I return."
The merchant promised that he would, and in an obliging manner said, "Here, take the key of my warehouse and set your jar where you please. I promise you shall find it there when you return."
Ali Cogia's journey was extended much longer than he expected. In fact, he was seven years absent from Baghdad, when he finally decided to return.
All this time his friend, with whom he had left his jar of olives, neither thought of him nor of the jar. One evening this merchant was supping with his family and the conversation happened to fall upon olives. The merchant's wife mentioned that she had not tasted any for a long while.
"Now that you speak of olives," said the merchant, "you remind me of a jar that Ali Cogia left with me seven years ago. He put it in my warehouse to be kept for him until he returned. What has become of him I know not, though when the caravan came back, they told me he had gone to Egypt. Certainly he must be dead by now, since he has not returned in all this time, and we may go ahead and eat the olives, if they are still good. Give me a plate and a candle. I will fetch some of them and we'll taste them."
"Please, husband," said the wife, "do not commit so base an action; you know that nothing is more sacred than what is committed to one's care and trust. Besides, do you think the olives can be good, after they've been kept so long? They must be all moldy and spoiled. Besides, if Ali Cogia should return and find that they had been opened, what would he think of your honor? I beg of you to let them alone."
Nevertheless, after supper, the merchant entered the warehouse, found the jar, opened it and found the olives moldy. But to see if they were all in the same condition to the bottom, he shook the jar and some of the gold pieces tumbled out.
The merchant noticed at once that the top only was laid with olives, and what remained was gold coin. He immediately put the olives into the jar again, covered it up, and returned to his wife. "Indeed, wife," said he, "you were in the right to say that the olives were all moldy for I found them so, and have made up the jar just as Ali Cogia left it. He will not notice that they had been touched, if he should ever return."
In the days ahead the merchant thought only about how he might appropriate Ali Cogia's gold to his own use, and yet escape detection in case his old friend should return and ask for the jar. The next morning the merchant went and bought some olives of that year, and then secretly went and emptied the jar both of the old moldy olives and of the gold. Then, filling the jar entirely with new olives, he covered it up and put it in the place where Ali Coglia had left it.
About a month later, Ali Cogia arrived at Baghdad. The next morning he went to pay a visit to his friend, the merchant, who expressed great joy at his return after so many year's absence.
After the usual compliments on both sides on such a meeting, Ali Cogia asked the merchant to return him the jar of olives which he had left with him, and thanked him for having kept the jar safely for all this time.
"My dear friend," replied the merchant, "your jar has been no inconvenience. There is the key of my warehouse. Go and fetch your jar; you will find it where you left it."
Ali Cogia went into the merchant's warehouse, took his jar, and after having returned the key, and thanking his friend once again for the favor, he returned with the jar to where he was temporarily lodged. But on opening the jar, and putting his hand down as low as the pieces of gold had lain, he was greatly surprised to find no gold pieces in the jar. At first he thought he might perhaps be mistaken, and to discover the truth, he poured out all the olives, but without so much as finding one single piece of gold. For some time, he stood motionless. Then he cried out, "Is it possible?"
Ali Cogia immediately returned to the merchant. "My good friend," said he, "be not surprised to see me come back so soon. I know that the jar of olives is the same one I placed in your warehouse, but with the olives I put into the jar a thousand pieces of gold, which I do not find. Perhaps you might have used them in your business; if so, they are at your service till it may be convenient for you to return them. Only give me an acknowledgment of my loan to you, after which you may repay me at your own convenience."
The merchant, who had expected that Ali Cogia would come with such a complaint, was prepared with an answer. "Friend Ali Cogia," said he, "when you brought your jar to me, did I touch it? Did I not give you the key of my warehouse? Did you not carry it there yourself? And did you not find it in the same place, covered in the same manner as when you left it? And now that you have come back, you demand one thousand pieces of gold. Did you ever tell me such a sum was in the jar? I wonder you do not demand diamonds or pearls! It is easy enough for you to storm into my house, make a crazy accusation, insult me, and tarnish my good name. Be gone!" These words were pronounced in such passion that those in the warehouse started to gather around. Neighboring merchants came out of their shops to learn what the dispute was about. Ali Coglia shared with one and all the injustice done to him by the merchant, and the merchant continued to hotly deny any wrongdoing.
Ali Cogia speedily summoned the merchant to court. To the judge, Ali Cogia accused the merchant of having stolen his thousand pieces of gold, which he had left with him. The judge asked him if he had any witnesses, to which he replied that he had not taken that precaution because he had believed the person he entrusted his money with to be his friend, and always took him for an honest man. Then the merchant made the same defense he had before, saying that though it's true that he had kept Ali Coglia's jar in his warehouse, he had never once meddled with it. The merchant swore that as far as he knew, the jar contained only olives. Once again, he strongly objected that he should be brought to court on the basis of such unfounded accusations. He proposed to make an oath that he never had the money he was accused of taking, and to swear that he did not so much as know such a sum ever existed. The judge agreed to take his oath. After the merchant swore his ignorance of the entire matter, the judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence.
Ali Cogia, extremely upset to find that he must accept the loss of so large a sum of money, returned to his lodgings and drew up a petition to seek justice from the Caliph Harun al-Raschid himself. He forwarded his petition to the officer of the palace, who presented it to the caliph himself. The caliph told the officer to notify Ali Coglia that an hour would be scheduled for the next day for the complaint to be heard at the palace. The officer was also told to notify the merchant to appear.
That same evening the caliph, accompanied by the grand vizier, went disguised through the town as it was his custom occasionally to do. On passing through a street, the caliph heard a noise. He came to a gateway through which he saw ten or twelve children playing by moonlight. The caliph heard one of the children say, "Let's play courtroom."
As the affair of Ali Cogia and the merchant was widely discussed in Baghdad, the children quickly agreed on the part each one was to act.
The children will solve this case.
How will they do it? How would you do it?
"Not so fast," said the pretend judge, "before you give your oath, I should like to see the jar of olives." The child playing the part of Ali Cogia bowed low, walked away and in a few moments returned. He pretended to set a jar before the judge, telling him that it was the same jar he had left with the merchant. The supposed judge turned to the make-pretend merchant and asked him to confirm that it was in fact the same jar, which he did confirm. Then the judge ordered Ali Cogia to take off the cover, and the pretend judge made as if he looked into it. "They are fine olives," said he, "let me taste them." Pretending to eat some, he added, "They are excellent, but I cannot think that olives will keep seven years and be so good. Therefore we must call before this court some olive merchants, and let me hear what is their opinion."
Two boys, posing as olive merchants, presented themselves. "Tell me," said the sham judge, "how long will olives keep fit to eat?"
"Sir," replied the two merchants, "no matter how great the care taken of them, olives will hardly be worth anything the third year, for then they have neither taste nor color."
"If that is so," answered the judge, "look into that jar and tell me how long it has been since those olives were put into it."
The two merchants pretended to examine and to taste the olives, and told the judge that they were new and good. "But," said the judge, "Ali Cogia himself said he put them into the jar seven years ago."
"Sir," replied the merchants, "we can assure you they are of this year's growth, and we will maintain that any olive merchant of repute in Baghdad will say the same."
The pretend judge pointed an accusing finger at the merchant. "You are a rogue," he cried, "and deserve to be punished!" The children then concluded their play, clapping their hands with great joy, and seizing the feigned criminal, they pretended to carry him off to prison.
Words cannot express how much the caliph admired the boy who had passed so just a sentence, in an affair which was to be pleaded before himself the very next day.
"Take notice of this house," said the caliph to the vizier, "and bring the boy to me tomorrow, that he may appear in court with me to try this case himself. Take care also to remind the real Ali Cogia to bring his jar of olives with him. And bring two olive experts as well."
The next day Ali Cogia and the merchant pleaded one after the other at the palace before the boy, whom the caliph had seated on the throne beside him. When the merchant proposed his oath to the court as before, the child said, "It is too soon. It is proper that we should see the jar of olives."
At these words Ali Cogia presented the jar and placed it at the caliph's feet. The boy asked the merchant whether this was in fact the jar that had been left in his warehouse for seven years, and the merchant agreed that it was so. Then the boy opened the jar. The caliph looked at the olives, took one and tasted it, giving another to the boy. Afterwards the merchants were called, who examined the olives and reported that they were good, and of that year. The boy told them that Ali Coglia had said that it was seven years since he had put the olives in the jar. Therefore, the boy concluded, the jar must have been tampered with since that time.
The wretch who was accused saw plainly that the opinions of the olive merchants would convict him. He confessed to his crime, and revealed where the thousand pieces of gold were hidden. The fortune was quickly located and restored to Ali Cogi. The caliph sternly told the merchant that it was good for him that he decided to confess and to return the gold; that otherwise he would have received one hundred floggings in addition to his sentence of ten years in prison. The caliph turned to the judge who had tried the case before and advised him to take a lesson from the child so that he would perform his duty more exactly in the future. Embracing the boy, the monarch sent him home with a purse of a hundred pieces of gold as a token of his admiration.
Under the reign of Caliph Haroun al-Raschid (c.764-809) the city of Baghdad, already a major capital of the Muslim world, reached its intellectual and economic peak. Scholars and artists from various parts of the empire and beyond flocked to Haroun al-Raschid's court to enjoy his patronage. The caliph was the hero of the Thousand and One Nights, a series of tales which portray the fabulous life in Baghdad in the ninth century. An able general, Haroun al-Raschid greatly extended his empire. He carried on diplomatic relations with China and with Charlemagne, emperor of the Franks. Baghdad fell to the Mongols in 1258, and so thorough was the destruction wrought by them that hardly any traces remain of the city's former splendor.
See also A Turkish Judge for another story about the Caliph Haroun al-Raschid.
"Ali Cogia and the Merchant of Baghdad" is based on "The Story of Ali Cogia, a Merchant of Bagdad," a story from The Arabia Nights' Entertainments by The Reverend George Flyer Townsend (Federick A. Stokes Company: New York, 1891), pp. 158-170. Adapted by Elaine Lindy ©1998. All rights reserved.
A very similar story called "Ali Sundos" is sourced to Cairo (The Black Prince and Other Egyptian Folk Tales Doubleday & Company, Inc.: 1971). At the time of the reign of Caliph Harun (or Haroun) al-Raschid, the territory of his caliphate stretched from Egypt, through the Arabian peninsula, north to Turkey and west to Iraq.
©Copyright 1998-2013 Elaine Lindy -- All rights reserved.
Mailing Address: P.O. Box 600344 / Newtonville, MA 02460-0004