Hello - and thank-you for giving me an interesting research task.
At first it seemed it might be one of those elusive pieces of folklore
with no definite source, but I have managed to gather some solid
references to a version of the story that is over 1000 years old. It
is clearly a tale with many variations. For instance, the place name
can be Samarra or Samarkand. The title also varies. "When Death Came
to Baghdad" is the title that got results!
"When Death Came to Baghdad" is in the 'Hikayat-I-Naqshia' of Fudail
ibn Ayad, a ninth century reformed bandit, turned Sufi sage. Although
some details differ from the version most widely told today, it is
considered to be the 'same' story as "The Appointment in Samara".
In the 1960s it was included in an important collection of Sufi
teaching stories gathered by a respected scholar, Idries Shah, who
traveled extensively in the Middle East gathering material from
written and oral sources. The story, from 'Tales of the Dervishes' is
quoted on the web:
"The disciple of a Sufi of Baghdad was sitting in the corner of an inn
one day when he heard two figures talking. From what they said he
realized that one of them was the Angel of Death.
"I have several calls to make in this city during the next three
weeks," the Angel was saying to his companion.
Terrified, the disciple concealed himself until the two had left. Then
applying his intelligence to the problem of how to cheat a possible
call from death, he decided that if he kept away from Baghdad he
should not be touched. From this reasoning it was but a short step to
hiring the fastest horse available and spurring it night and day
towards the distant town of Samarkand.
Meanwhile Death met the Sufi teacher and they talked about various
people. "And where is your disciple so-and-so?" asked Death.
"He should be somewhere in this city, spending his time in
contemplation, perhaps in a caravanserai," said the teacher.
"surprising," said the Angel; "because he is on my list. Yes, here it
is: I have to collect him in four weeks' time at Samarkand, of all
from: 'Tales of the Dervishes' by Idries Shah
Funnily enough, the huge interest in Terry Pratchett has sparked off a
renewed interest in the story, since he uses his own version in 'The
Colour of Magic'. I think a newsgroup discussion which I'll refer to
later must have preceded these remarks by Pratchett himself:
"My mother told me the 'Appointment in Samarra' story when I was very
young, and it remained. She says she read it somewhere, or maybe heard
I'd always thought it was from the 1001 Nights, although I never went
looking for it. It's one of those stories that a lot of people vaguely
know, without quite knowing why..."
For those who aren't familiar with the story, it concerns a servant to
a rich Baghdad merchant who goes to the market and encounters Death
there, who gestures at him. Convinced that this is a very bad omen
indeed, the servant rushes back to his master in a great panic and
begs him for a horse, so that he can ride to Samarra and escape
whatever calamity will befall him should he stay in Baghdad. The kind
master gives the servant a horse, and goes out to investigate for
himself. When the merchant finds Death and asks him why he frightened
the servant so, Death replies: "I wasn't trying to scare him, it is
just that I was so very surprised to meet him here, because I have an
appointment with him tonight in Samarra!"
Over the centuries, countless versions and re-tellings of this story
have appeared in books, plays and poems in all languages and cultures.
One of my correspondents was so intrigued by the tale that with the
help of alt.fan.pratchett he set out to find the original, or at least
the earliest known version. After much research, he now believes this
to be When Death Came to Baghdad, an old ninth century Middle Eastern
Sufi teaching story, told by Fudail ibn Ayad in his Hikayat-i-Naqshia
('Tales formed according to a design').
If anyone has a reference to an even earlier version, we would love to
hear about it.
There is a suggestion that the origins of the story go back as far as
the Babylonian Talmud :
"The following story, which we may call "Appointment in Luz,"
demonstrates that an individual cannot escape his or her destiny and
must inevitably die. The Angel of Death is depicted as simply
performing a necessary task, and doing it any way he can.
There were two Cushites that attended on King Solomon, Elichoreph and
Achiyah, sons of Shisha, who were scribes of Solomon.
One day, Solomon noticed that the Angel of Death looked sad. Solomon
asked him: Why are you sad? He replied: Because they have demanded
from me the two Cushites that dwell here. Solomon had demons take them
to the city of Luz [a legendary city where no one dies]. However, as
soon as they reached the gates of Luz, they died. The next day,
Solomon noticed that the Angel of Death was happy. He asked him: Why
are you so happy? He replied: Because you sent them to the very place
where they were supposed to die (Sukkah 53a).
Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived (according to I Kings 3:12),
discovered himself outsmarted by Satan. There are obvious similarities
here to the well known "Appointment in Samarra" story, a retelling of
which was made famous by W. Somerset Maugham in his play Sheppey. Some
scholars believe that the origin of the Maugham tale is "When Death
Came to Baghdad," a ninth century Arabian Sufi story in Fudail ibn
Ayads Hikayat-I-Naqshia. This similar story in the Talmud is several
hundred years older."
Satan the Accuser: Trickster in Talmudic and Midrashic Literature, by
Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D.
FUDAIL IBN AYAD
I found Fudail Ibn Ayad's story in Italian too: 'Quando la morte venne
a Bagdad'. This confirms the source of the story, calling it one of
the most popular and favorite stories in the Middle East.
"Questa versione della "Storia della Morte" proviene dal
Hikayat-i-Naqshia ("Storie concepite secondo un Disegno).
L'autore di questa storia, che č uno dei racconti popolari pių
preferiti nel Medio Oriente, č il grande Sufi Fudail Ibn Ayad, un
ex-bandito che morė all'inizio del ix secolo."
Quando la morte venne a Bagdad
I also found a reference to the Fudail ibn Ayad version in a sermon
You can find more about Idries Shah and his book, 'Tales of the
Dervishes' on the Amazon.com website.
"In 1969, Idries Shah was awarded the Dictionary of International
Biography's Certificate of Merit for Distinguished Service to Human
Thought. Other honors included a Two Thousand Men of Achievement award
(1971), Six First Prizes awarded by the UNESCO International Book Year
(1972), and the International Who's Who in Poetry's Gold Medal for
According to his obituary in the London Daily Telegraph "it is
impossible to assess his influence, and his legacy is incalculable".
Tales of the Dervishes
The Library of Congress has this:
"Shah, Idries, 1924-
Tales of the dervishes: teaching-stories of the Sufi masters over the
past thousand years, selected from the Sufi classics, from oral
tradition, from unpublished manuscripts and schools of Sufi teaching
in many countries."
Library of Congress
One member of the alt.books.pratchett group has researched the origins
of this story and you might try to contact him by email if you want
more citations for early versions of the story. This is part of what
"1) The story is *very* old - at least a millenium and a half
(the very earliest version I've found is in the Babylonian Talmud,
tractate Sukkah, pg 53a).
2) It is very prevalent in Islamic (Sufi and Persian) religious
writings. I could cite them if you're really interested.
3) The cities involved aren't usually the same between versions. "
discussion of "Appointment at Sumarra"
Another newsgroup posting is from someone who thought, as I did, that
the story might be in the 'Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night'
"I looked in one of the smaller versions first, then at the full
Richard Burton translation. I didn't find the Samara story there,
although there were some "Angel of Death" stories".
'Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night' translated by Sir Richard
Most of Burton's translation has recently been put online by Project
Gutenberg. But, unless the story has a very different title, it is not
Project Gutenberg home page
The Library of Congress has these details for the relevant part of the
Talmud. Sukkah. English.
Tractate Sukkah / translated by Jacob Neusner.
Chico, Calif. : Scholars Press, c1984.
The Talmud of Babylonia ; 6
Brown Judaic studies ; 74
LC Call No.: BM499.5.E4 1984 vol. 6; Alternative class.: BM506.S9E5
Dewey No.: 296.1/2505 s 296.1/2505 19
ISBN: 0891307885 (pbk. : alk. paper)
0891307869 (hard : alk. paper)
Notes: Includes index.
Other authors: Neusner, Jacob, 1932-
Series Entry: Talmud. English. 1984 ; 6.
Brown Judaic studies ; no. 74.
Control No.: 3314200
Library of Congress
I hope this is helpful for you. Please feel free to ask if anything is
unclear. (Just use the 'request clarification' option.)
Regards - Leli
search terms used:
"appointment at samara OR samarra OR samarkand" merchant death servant
"death came to baghdad"
fudail ibn ayad, idries shah, tractate sukkah, babylonian talmud