Was Sinbad the Sailor Real?

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Sinbad the Sailor on his seventh voyage, 1925 illustration. Buyenlarge / Getty Images

Sinbad the Sailor is one of the most famous heroes of Middle Eastern literature. In the tales of his seven voyages, Sinbad battled incredible monsters, visited amazing lands and met with supernatural forces as he sailed the Indian Ocean's fabled trade routes

In western translations, Sinbad's stories are included among those that Scheherazade told during the "One Thousand and One Nights," which is set in Baghdad during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid from A.D.

786 to 809. In Arabic translations of the Arabian nights, however, Sinbad is absent.

The interesting question for historians, then, is this: Was Sinbad the Sailor based upon a single historical figure, or is he a composite character derived from various bold seafarers who plied the monsoon winds?  If he once existed, who was he?

What's in a Name?

The name Sinbad seems to come from the Persian "Sindbad," meaning "Lord of the Sindh River."  Sindhu is the Persian variant of the Indus River, indicating that he was a sailor from the coast of what is now Pakistan. This linguistic analysis also points to the stories being Persian in origin, even though existing versions are all in Arabic. 

On the other hand, there are many striking parallels between many of Sinbad's adventures and those of Odysseus in Homer's great classic, "The Odyssey," and other stories from classical Greek literature. For example, the cannibalistic monster in the "Third Voyage of Sinbad" is very similar to Polyphemus from "The Odyssey," and he meets the same fate — being blinded with the hot iron spits he was using to eat the ship's crew.

Also, during his "Fourth Voyage," Sinbad was buried alive but follows an animal to escape the underground cavern, much like the story of Aristomenes the Messenian. These and other similarities point to Sinbad being a figure of folklore, rather than an actual person.

It is possible, however, that Sinbad was a real historical figure with an insatiable urge to travel and a gift for telling tall tales, though it may be that after his death other traditional travel tales were grafted on to his adventures to produce the "Seven Voyages" we now know him by.

More Than One Sinbad

Sinbad may be based in part on a Persian adventurer and trader named Soleiman al-Tajir — Arabic for "Soloman the Merchant" — who traveled from Persia all the way to southern China around the year 775 B.C. Generally, throughout the centuries that the Indian Ocean trade network existed, merchants and sailors traveled just one of the three great monsoonal circuits, meeting up and trading with one another at the nodes where those circuits met. 

Siraf is credited with being the first person from western Asia to complete the entire voyage himself. Siraf likely gained great renown in his own time, particularly if he made it home with a hold full of silk, spices, jewels and porcelain. Perhaps he was the factual foundation upon which the Sinbad stories were built.

Likewise in Oman, many people believe that Sinbad is based on a sailor from the city of Sohar, who sailed out of the port of Basra in what is now Iraq. How he came to have a Persianized Indian name is not clear. 

Recent Developments

In 1980, a joint Irish-Omani team sailed a replica of a ninth-century dhow from Oman to southern China, using period navigational instruments only, in order to prove that such a voyage was possible.

They successfully reached southern China, proving that sailors even many centuries ago could have done so, but that brings us no closer to proving who Sinbad was or which western port he sailed from.

In all likelihood, bold and footloose adventurers much like Sinbad set out from any number of port cities around the rim of the Indian Ocean in search of novelty and treasure. We will probably never know if any particular one of them inspired the "Tales of Sinbad the Sailor." It is fun, however, to imagine Sinbad himself leaning back in his chair in Basra or Sohar or Karachi, spinning another fabulous story to his spellbound audience of land-lubbers.