Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves


“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” is one of the stories from1001 Arabian Nights. This is one of the more complex stories among popular fairy tales. Ali Baba, a poor woodcutter, is in the forest one day when he hears a band of thieves coming. Frightened, he hides. He hears the captain of the thieves saying “Open, sesame!” and sees a door open in the side of a hill, revealing a cave filled with riches. After the thieves leave, Ali Baba enters the cave and takes some gold home with him. He and his wife decide to bury the gold. His wife wants to measure out the gold, so she borrows a measuring cup from the wife of Ali Baba’s brother, Qasim. The sister-in-law, being curious, puts some wax in the bottom of the cup. Thus, a little bit of gold is stuck in the measuring cup when Ali Baba’s wife returns it. Qasim aks Ali Baba where the gold came from, and Ali Baba tells him. Ali Baba shares the gold he has with his brother but Qasim is greedy. He goes to the cave, says, “Open Sesame!” and goes in to load up all the gold he can carry. Unfortunately, when he is ready to leave, he cannot remember the magic words. He is stuck in the cave when the robbers return. The thieves kill Qasim, but they also want to take revenge on Ali Baba. They make several attempts, but in each case their nefarious plans are foiled by Ali Baba’s clever servant girl, Morgiana. In the end, Ali Baba marries Morgiana off to his son (or, in some retellings, his nephew) and everyone who is still alive lives happily ever after. There are some online versions:

  • Storynory’s retelling is long, and begins with a long episode of pond life, so you might want to download it and get it to the beginning of the story if you want to listen to it in class.
  • Here is a slightly shorter version, with easier vocabulary.

A story like this one cries to be acted out:

Social Studies

  • The origins of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” are uncertain. The story may be from Iran, Syria, or India; some even say that the translator Galland made it up himself. We usually think of it as an Arabian story, though. If you used the 1944 movie Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, you could examine it for evidence of stereotyping.
  • A Paidea lesson plan uses this story to examine wealth and poverty.
  • Check out an interactive map of the Middle East.

Character Education

  • “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” has a lot to say about greed. Ali Baba steals from the thieves — or, if it is not possible to steal something that has already been stolen, he at least does not make any attempt to restore the property to its rightful owners. His wife wants to measure the gold so that she will know exactly how much there is, even though she has no practical reason to do so. Qasim’s wife is motivated by greed to find out what Ali Baba’s wife is measuring. Qasim is not satisfied with what his brother shares with him, but is led by his greed into danger. The thieves clearly have enough treasure for their own needs, and yet are angry enough about Ali Baba’s small reduction of their treasure that they are willing to go to a lot of trouble to exact revenge on him. Use the story as a writing prompt for student essays on greed.
  • This is quite a violent story, but that is not much of an issue in the traditional telling of it. No one seems to be bothered by the mass murders committed by Morgiana, for example. But the ethical questions are complex. Does Morgiana’s loyalty override her quickness to kill thieves? Write the names of all the characters on word cards and put them in a pocket chart. As a class or in small groups, work to arrive at a consensus ordering the names from the best to the worst character. Insist that students support their positions on the question.
  • The magic words, “Open, Sesame!” are a central point of the story. Use this as a starting point for a lesson on using the magic words “please” and “thank you.” Challenge your class to use these words to one another for a week, and then to write about how the experiment changed their classroom experience.

Critical Thinking

  • Play a traditional game designed to improve concentration. Sit in a circle. The leader says, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” while performing some simple action, such as clapping. The person to the leader’s left must copy the action and add another. Each student does this in turn, maintaining an even rhythm, until each member of the class is performing a different action at the same time.
  • Here is the classic Ali Baba brainteaser:

Ali Baba had four sons, to whom he bequeathed his 39 camels, dividing them according to this formula : The oldest son was to receive one half the property, the next a quarter, the third an eighth and the youngest one a tenth. The four brothers were at a loss as how to divide the inheritance among themselves without cutting up a camel, until a stranger appeared upon the scene. Dismounting from his camel, he asked if he might help, for he knew just what to do. The brothers gratefully accepted his offer. Adding his own camel to Ali Baba’s 39, he divided the 40. The oldest son received 20, the next 10, the third 5 and the youngest 4. One camel remained: this was his, which he mounted and rode away. Scratching their heads in amazement, they started calculating. The oldest thought : is not 20 greater than the half of 39? Someone must have received less than his proper share ! But each brother discovered that he had received more than his due. How is it possible?


  • The brainteaser above is an engaging math problem about fractions. Use Learning Resources Three Bear Family Rainbow Counters (they don’t make camels) to work it out.
  • Use the measurement episode in the story to kick off a study of measurement.
  • Use counters or cutouts to represent the 40 thieves in their water jars, and determine all the possible arrangements in even rows.


  • Use this story in a study of minerals, comparing the value of precious metals like gold and precious stones like diamonds.
  • “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” doesn’t have much magic in it; most of the twists and turns in the plot have to do with human ingenuity and human failings. But there is the question of the magic words which open the treasure cave. Challenge students to come up with a non-magical explanation for this — perhaps a voice-activated mechanism of some kind. Have students draw designs or build models showing their ideas.

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