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Thursday October 18th 2018

Arabian Nights (Il Fiore Delle Mille E Una Notte) | 1974

Arabian Nights filming location: Rock Palace, Wadi Dhahr, Yemen
Arabian Nights location: Princess Dunya's Palace: Dar al-Hajar Palace, Wadi Dhahr, Yemen | Photograph: Wikimedia / yeowatzup

Although the final part of Pasolini’s ‘Trilogy of Life’, earthy and bawdy adaptations of medieval literature following The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, was filmed in Iran, Nepal and Ethiopia, most of the film was shot in Yemen, which occupies the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

Despite bordering Saudi Arabia, Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. Having suffered under corrupt leadership for years, the country's state of crisis erupted into civil war in 2017, leading to widespread famine and disease. It's hardly surprising that currently all travel to Yemen is strongly discouraged.

Compared to the human tragedy, the fate of the country's historic sites doesn't seem so significant, but it's still heartbreaking that so many extraordinary places are under threat. Pasolini himself fell in love with the country and was in part responsible for the recognition of its sites by UNESCO.

There’s no wicked caliph beguiled by the stories of Scheherazade, but a series of loosely related and unrelated tales.

The framing story has Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini), the ‘Lady of Moons’, sold as a slave but, oddly, her owner allowing her to choose her new owner. She’s not short of a bit of money herself and sees to it that she’s sold to good-looking young Nuredin (Franco Merli). When a frustrated buyer abducts her, Zumurrud’s escape and adventures, and Nuredin’s quest to find her, form the tales are hung.

There are interjected a couple of brief and gleefully erotic stories of lust filmed in the deserts of Ethiopia, but the Zumurrud-Nuredin episode takes place in Zabid, an ancient town on Yemen's western coastal plain. It's one of the places designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site but in 2000, was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

I've comes across several images on line of a Zabid house claimed to have been used in the film but, although it does resemble the house of the rich man who abducts Zumurrud, it's not the same one. The house's beautifully elaborate façade is characteristic of many such dwellings in Zabid.

Zumurrud escapes from her captors and, after wandering through the desert disguised as a man, comes upon a walled city. The king has died and an ancient tradition demands that the first man to arrive from the desert will be crowned in his place. So Zumurrud, dressed with a ceremonial beard, finds herself crowned king.

The desert gate at which she arrives is Sana'a, the largest city in Yemen and in all practical terms, the capital.

Arabian Nights filming location: Imam Mosque, Isfahan, Iran
Arabian Nights location: the wedding feast: Imam Mosque, Isfahan, Iran | Photograph: Shutterstock / Pe3k

Once inside the city walls, though, the location changes to Isfahan, 250 miles south of Tehran in Iran. The king is obliged to take a wife or be thrown from the top of a tower, which is not much of an option. Zumurrud acquiesces and, fortunately, her prospective bride sees the funny side and agrees to keep the secret.

The king’s palace, site of the lavish wedding feast where 'King' Zumurrud is able to exact revenge on her abductors, is the courtyard of the spectacular 17th Century pale blue-tiled Mesjed-e Imam (Imam Mosque, formerly the Shah Mosque), on the south side of Naghsh-e Jahan Square.

Iran has a thriving tourist industry, though there are some restrictions for US, Canadian and UK citizens.

Arabian Nights filming location: Shibam, Yemen
Arabian Nights location: Nuredin is taken through the square by one of the three lusty sisters: Shibam, Yemen | Photograph: Shutterstock / Vladimir Melnik

Meanwhile, Nuredin’s escapades find him taken in by three lusty sisters who seem happy to share his, um, company. Their home is in the old walled city of Shibam, back in Yemen. Another little-known wonder, Shibam has been dubbed 'The Manhattan of the Desert' due to its astonishing mudbrick high-rise buildings mainly dating from the 16th Century.

There are stories within stories. Aziz (Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli) tells his own tale of woe to the handsome Prince Tagi who, on the flimsiest of evidence, decides he’s in love with Princess Dunya, who hates men and has vowed not to marry. His ploy is simply to build a home in the princess’s garden decorated with a mosaic designed to win her over.

Arabian Nights filming location: Sana'a, Yemen
Arabian Nights location: Aziz pursues a mysterious woman: Sana'a, Yemen | Photograph: Shutterstock / javarman

Aziz's tale takes place in the Old City of Sana'a, Yemen, again, its architectural features delicately picked out in white.

A few miles northwest of Sana'a is the Princess’s palace, which is the extraordinary Dar al-Hajar Palace (Rock Palace), Wadi Dhahr. Originally built in the 18th Century, the palace was extended in the 1920s as a summer residence for the country’s then ruler, Imam Yahya.

In turn, Shahzmah, one of the workmen helping build Tagi's house, tells his story of a demon (Pasolini’s other regular actor, Franco Citti) who once transformed him into a monkey.

After this 'monkey’s' beautifully written script is shown to a king, the monarch demands the obviously distinguished author be honoured and brought to him.

Arabian Nights filming location: Golden Gate, Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal
Arabian Nights location: the honoured monkey is presented to the king: Golden Gate, Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal | Photograph: Shutterstock / Valery Shanin

The king's palace is Hanuman Dhoka, the palace complex with its elaborate Golden Gate (where the feted monkey is presented) in Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal.

The king’s daughter, realising that this amazing monkey must be a man transformed by some kind of spell, sacrifices herself to restore Shahzmah to human form.

Arabian Nights filming location: Sundari Chowk, Hanuman Dhoka, Kathmandu, Nepal
Arabian Nights location: Prince Yunan tells he father he must go to sea: Sundari Chowk, Hanuman Dhoka, Kathmandu, Nepal | Photograph: Wikimedia / Suraj Belbase

When the other workman, once Prince Yunan, tells his story, the location remains the same. Sundari Chowk, a courtyard also in Hanuman Dhoka, houses the elaborate sunken bath in which Prince Yunan tells his father the king that he's been instructed to go to sea on a mysterious mission.

Finally, it's back to the mosque in Isfahan for the ending, which sees Nuredin led by a lion to the strange city whose all-powerful King turns out to be – his lost love, Zumurrud.