The Story of Ali Cogia, Merchant of Baghdad


In the reign of Haroun-al-Raschid, there lived in Bagdad a merchant named Ali Cogia, who, having neither wife nor child, kept himself busy with his business. 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 scolded him for not having gone on a pilgrimage to holy places.

Ali Cogia was much troubled by this dream, as he was unwilling to give up his shop, and lose all his customers. He tried to avoid going on this pilgrimage, by doing an extra number of good works, but the dream seemed to him a direct warning, and he decided to postpone the journey no longer.

The first thing he did was to sell his furniture and the goods he had in his shop, only keeping for 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 thousand pieces of gold which he wished to leave behind him.

After some thought, Ali Cogia had an idea which seemed a safe one. He took a large jar, and placing the money in the bottom of it, filled up the rest with olives. After closing the lid tightly down, he carried it to one of his friends, a merchant like himself, and said to him,” My brother, you have probably heard that I am leaving with a caravan in a few days on a pilgrimage. I have come to ask whether you would do me the favour of keeping this jar of olives for me till I come back.”

The merchant replied, “Look, this is the key of my shop, take it, and put the jar 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, joined the caravan, and arrived in due time at the holy places. And after all his religious duties were performed, he spread out his goods, hoping to find some customers among the passers-by.

Very soon two merchants stopped before them, and when they had examined them, 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 goods, and instead of returning to Baghdad, joined a caravan that was going to Cairo. The results of the journey were very satisfying. He sold off everything almost immediately, and bought a stock of Egyptian goods, 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 Ali, that he could hardly tear himself away, but at length he remembered that he had a home in Baghdad, meaning to return by way of Aleppo, and after he had crossed the Euphrates river, to follow the course of the Tigris river.

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 seven years had slipped by since he had left Baghdad, 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 return that he remembered at all, because of 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 jar 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, of doing anything so terrible! Supposing seven years have passed without news of Ali Cogia. He might not be dead, and may come back any day. How shameful it would be to have to tell him that you had betrayed your trust and broken the seal of the jar! Pay no attention to my words; I really have no desire for olives now. And probably after all this while they are no longer good. I have a feeling that Ali Cogia will return, and what will he think of you? Please, just forget it.”

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 badly.”

When the merchant opened the jar he found the top 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 made the merchant’s greedy. He looked into the jar, 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 resealed the jar 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.”

He spent the whole night wondering how he could manage to keep the gold if Ali Cogia should come back and claim his jar. Very early the 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 jar with the olives he had bought. This done he resealed the jar and put it in the same place where it had been left by Ali Cogia.

A month later Ali Cogia returned to Baghdad, and as his house was still rented out he went to an inn. The following day set out to see his friend the merchant, who met him with open arms and much surprise. After a few moments explaining where he had been Ali Cogia begged the merchant to hand him over the jar that he had taken care of for so long.

“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 jar in the place where you put it.”

Ali Cogia fetched his jar and carried it to his room at the inn, where he opened it. He put his hand down but could feel no money, but still believed it must be there. So he got some plates and emptied out the olives. 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?”

Hurriedly he went back to the house of the merchant. “My friend,” he cried, “you will be astonished to see me again, but I can’t find anywhere in this jar 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. If that is so you are most welcome. I will only ask you to pay the money whenever you can.”

The merchant, who had expected something of the sort, had his reply all ready. “Ali Cogia,” he said, “When you brought me the jar of olives did I ever touch it?”

“I gave you the key of my shop and you put it where you liked, and did you not find it in exactly the same spot and in the same condition? 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 touched the jar.”

Ali Cogia still tried every means to persuade the merchant to admit the truth. Once more, think of your reputation. I shall be sorry if you make me take you to court.”

“Ali Cogia,” answered the merchant, “you say that it was a jar of olives you placed in my care. You fetched it and removed it yourself, and now you tell me it contained a thousand pieces of gold, and that I must return them to you! Did you ever say anything about them before? Why, I did not even know that the jar had olives in it! You never showed them to me. I wonder you have not demanded pearls or diamonds.”

By this time passers-by, and also the neighbouring merchants, were standing round, listening to the argument, and trying to settle matters between them. But at the merchant’s last words Ali Cogia decided to tell the reason for the quarrel, and told them the whole story. They heard him to the end, and asked the merchant what he had to say.

The merchant admitted that he had kept Ali Cogia’s jar in his shop, but he denied having touched it, and said that as to what it contained, he only knew what Ali Cogia had told him.

“You have brought it on yourself,” said Ali Cogia, taking him by the arm, “and as you want the law, the law you shall have! Let us see if you will dare to repeat your story before the magistrate.”

Now the merchant was forbidden to refuse this choice of a judge, so he accepted 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 magistrate, and Ali Cogia again repeated his tale. The magistrate asked what witnesses he had. Ali Cogia replied that he did not bother with any, as he had considered the man his friend, and up to that time had always found him honest.

The merchant, on his side, stuck to his story, and stated that not only had he never stolen the thousand gold pieces, but that he did not even know they were there. The magistrate 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 magistrate paid no attention to him, and was quite satisfied that he had done what was right.

Judgment being given the merchant returned home happy, and Ali Cogia went back to his inn to write a petition to the Caliph. The next morning he placed himself on the road along which the Caliph must pass, and gave 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 would give him an audience the next morning. He then asked the merchant’s address, so that he might be called to attend also.

That very evening, the Caliph, with his grand-vizier Giafar, and Mesrour, chief of the servants, all three disguised, as usual, 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 saw ten or twelve children playing in the moonlight. He hid himself in a dark corner, and watched them.

“Let us play at being the magistrate,” said the brightest and cleverest of them all, “I will be the magistrate. Bring before me Ali Cogia, and the merchant who robbed him of the thousand pieces of gold.”

The boy’s words reminded the Caliph of the petition he had read that morning, and he waited with interest to see what the children would do.

The other children, who had heard a great deal of talk about the matter, quickly settled the part each one was to play. The magistrate took his seat, and an officer introduced first Ali Cogia, and then the merchant.

Ali Cogia made a low bow, and argued his cause, concluding by begging the magistrate not to cause him such a heavy loss.

The magistrate having heard his case, turned to the merchant, and asked why he had not repaid Ali Cogia the gold.

The merchant repeated the reasons that the real merchant had given to the magistrate of Baghdad.

“Stop a moment!” said the little magistrate, “I should like to examine the jar with the olives. Ali Cogia,” he added, “have you got the jar with you?” and finding he had not, the magistrate continued, “Go and get it, and bring it to me.”

So Ali Cogia disappeared for an instant, and then pretended to lay a jar at the feet of the magistrate, stating it was his jar, which he had given to the merchant for safe keeping; and in order to be quite correct, the magistrate asked the merchant if he recognized it as the same jar. The merchant said it was, and the magistrate then ordered the jar opened. Ali Cogia made a movement as if he was taking off the lid, and the little magistrate pretended to look into a jar.

“What beautiful olives!” he said, “I should like to taste one,” and pretending to put one in his mouth, he added, “They are really excellent!

“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 magistrate spoke to them. “Tell me,” he said, “how long can olives be kept?”

“My lord,” replied the merchants, “They never last more than three years. They lose both taste and colour, and are only fit to be thrown away.”

“If that is so,” answered the little magistrate, “examine this jar, 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 magistrate that they were fresh and good.

“You are mistaken,” said he, “Ali Cogia says he put them in that jar seven years ago.”

“My lord,” replied the olive merchants, “we promise you that the olives are those of this year. And if you ask all the merchants in Baghdad you will not find one to disagree.”

The merchant opened his mouth to speak, but the magistrate 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, 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 the next day. “Is there any other verdict possible?” he asked the grand-vizier, who was as much impressed as himself. “I can imagine no better judgment.”

“It seems to me your Highness could only follow the example of this boy in your decision.” “replied the grand-vizier,

“Then take careful note of this house,” said the Caliph, “and bring me the boy tomorrow. Summon also the magistrate, to learn his duty from a child. Tell Ali Cogia to bring his jar of olives, and see that two dealers in olives are present.” The Caliph then returned to the palace.

Early the next morning, the grand-vizier went back to the house where they had seen the children playing, and asked for the mother and her children. Three boys appeared, and the grand-vizier inquired which had represented the magistrate in their game of the previous evening. The eldest and tallest, said that it was he, and the grand-vizier said that he had orders to bring to the Caliph.

“Does he want to take my son from me?” cried the poor woman. But the grand-vizier calmed her, by promising her that she should have the boy again in an hour, and she would be quite satisfied when she knew the reason. So she dressed the boy in his best clothes, and the two left the house.

When the grand-vizier presented the child to the Caliph, he was a little confused, and the Caliph explained why he had sent for him. “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. Today 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, two men were brought in. One by one they bowed low. When they stood up, the Caliph said, “Now speak. This child will give you justice, and if more should be necessary I will see to it myself.”

Ali Cogia and the merchant spoke one after the other, but when the merchant wanted to say more, he was stopped by the child, who said that before this was done he must first see the jar of olives.

At these words, Ali Cogia presented the jar 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 said the olives were good and fresh that year. The boy told them that Ali Cogia said it was seven years since he had placed them in the jar and they replied the same way the children had done. They said the olives were fresh, and not seven years old

The merchant saw by this time that his punishment was certain,. The boy had too much sense to order him to be hanged, and looked at the Caliph, saying, “Your Majesty, this is not a game now. It is for your Highness to punish him and not for me.”

Then the Caliph, convinced that the man was a thief, told them take him away and put him in jail, which was done, but not before the merchant had told them the place in which he had hidden Ali Cogia’s money. The Caliph ordered the magistrate to learn how to deal out justice from a child, and sent the boy home, with a purse containing a hundred pieces of gold.