A 1,300-year-old figurine that has baffled experts since it was unearthed in the desert of southern Jordan nearly three decades ago may actually turn out to be one of the oldest chess pieces ever found, an archaeologist has concluded.
The carved piece of white sandstone was discovered in 1991 among the ruins of the early Islamic trading post of Humayma, halfway between the ancient Nabatean capital of Petra and the Red Sea port of Aqaba. Dated to the late seventh or early eighth century C.E., the rectangular base with two symmetrical protuberances jutting out was initially thought to be a miniature reproduction of a Nabatean horned altar, says John P. Oleson, a professor of archaeology at the University of Victoria in Canada who headed the dig back in the 1990s.
But as he studied the find, he realized that the shape was more similar to later figurines that represented a rook in chess sets used across the Islamic caliphate, Oleson says.
“This shape is standard for early Islamic pieces right through the 13th-fourteenth century,” says the archaeologist, who presented his findings in November at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research in San Diego, California.
The discovery doesn’t change what we know about the origins of chess. It is still quite certain that the game was invented in India at the turn of the sixth century before spreading through Persia, the Muslim world and finally Europe.
But the find in Jordan does attest to the speed at which chess gained fans throughout the newly formed Islamic caliphate and the degree to which it penetrated all levels of society, Oleson says.
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The putative rook, just 2.5 centimetres in height, was found in a former Byzantine church, which had been converted into a farmhouse when Islamic forces conquered Humayma in the mid seventh century. The farming context, together with the fact that the figurine was made of local sandstone, indicates that this particular set did not belong to an elite person and suggests that just over a century after its invention chess had already become a favorite pastime of all social classes half a continent from its birthplace.
“In the literature, naturally they talk about the elites playing with chess pieces made of ivory, ebony, gold or rock crystal,” Oleson tells Haaretz. “The world of low class players doesn’t appear in that kind of literature so it’s good to have an archaeological record.”
Say ‘chariot’ in Persian
To be clear, this was certainly not the first chess piece ever made. In fact, since the game is more than a century older than the Humayma figurine, Oleson says there are likely older pieces out there, but we just haven’t found them yet.
In 2002, archaeologists in Albania found an ivory figurine with a cross at the top and dated it to the middle of the fifth century. Since it was eerily similar to the representation in modern chess of a king, they proclaimed this the earliest chess piece ever found.
However, many experts have questioned the interpretation, mainly because we have no evidence that anyone in the world was playing the game at this time – let alone in Europe. Also, in any case early chess pieces didn’t have crosses and didn’t look anything like their modern counterparts.
So far, the earliest ascertained chess pieces found were part of a partial set unearthed in Afrasyab, Uzbekistan. These pieces were also dated to the seventh-eighth century so it is hard to tell with certainty whether the Humayma rook predates them.
What is certain is that the Uzbek set follows earlier Persian traditions of using figurative representations for the game pieces: for example, the rook was depicted as a chariot pulled by two horses.
As Persia and the Middle East fell to Arab armies in the seventh century, the conquerors went mad for the game but were less enthused by the figurative pieces, which clashed with the Muslim prohibition on making images. So, as the game spread throughout the caliphate, the pieces took on a more abstract form.
In the case of the rook, the two horses morphed into the ‘horns’ that are seen in the Humayma figurine.
A few centuries later, when the game reached Europe, those bumps would be interpreted as crenellations on a fort, and the rook took the form of a castle tower, by which it continues to be depicted today, Oleson explains. However, the piece still carries its original name, since “rukh” means chariot in Persian.
For a moment of bonus chess trivia: the bishop chesspiece is known as alfil in Spanish and alfiere in Italian — both of which originate in the Arabic and Persian name for the piece, “al-fil”, which means “the elephant.” That is because originally the piece wasn’t a representation of an ecclesiast but of a pachyderm.
Checkmating the Umayyads
Whether or not the Humayma rook is the oldest or just one of the oldest chess pieces in the world, it is also evidence of the importance of chess at a crucial time and place in Muslim and global history.
Humayma was not just some backwater settlement in the middle of the desert: It was a key stop on the highway that caravans took between the port of Aqaba and Damascus to the north. More importantly, it was the hometown of the Abbasid family, which claimed descent from the uncle of the Prophet Muhammed and would go on to found one of the most prosperous and culturally diverse Islamic empires, the Abbasid caliphate.
It was in Humayma, during the first half of the eighth century, that the Abbasids plotted the overthrow of the ruling Umayyad dynasty, which had its capital in Damascus.
The Umayyads had concentrated most wealth and power in Arab hands, treating conquered peoples as second-class citizens even if they converted to Islam. The Abbasids capitalized on the widespread discontent in the empire, plotting in secret for years and then executing the so-called Abbasid revolution with a series of revolts over a widespread area, from Iran to Mesopotamia. They successfully seized the throne in the year 749 and ruthlessly executed their rivals.
Perhaps, Oleson muses, Abul Abbas as-Saffah and his brother al-Mansur, who became the first two caliphs of the new dynasty, honed their strategic skills by playing chess in their hometown of Humayma.
While the lonesome rook was found in a peripheral farm and not in the ruins of the Abbasid manor house – which was also excavated – it is very likely that the ruling family of Humayma also enjoyed the game, Oleson says.
“Early historians of the Abbasid family say the revolution was plotted in the little mosque next to the manor house: They talk about merchants coming around and giving information about events in Damascus and what the Umayyads were up to,” Oleson relates. “So the Abbasids were in a place where they would have learned about chess fairly early on, fairly easily.”
While Humayma was abandoned after the Abbasids moved out to establish their capital first in Kufa and then in Baghdad, the new rulers definitely took with them a passion for the royal game.
The Islamic golden age and chess
“There are many Arabic written sources from the ninth, tenth, eleventh century that talk about what’s going on in Baghdad and it seems to have been a hotbed of chess,” Oleson says. “The Abbasid court in Baghdad felt that chess had the same importance that one finds in Moscow in the late twentieth century.”
With the Abbasid dynasty the caliphate entered its “golden age,” becoming a cosmopolitan empire that promoted trade, sciences, the arts and humanities. Chess played a key role in this grand strategy, functioning as an intellectual pastime that helped bridge gaps across different religions and social classes.
“In the literature we have stories of upper class people playing with lower class people, we have illustrations in some chess handbooks of Jews playing with Christians and Muslims playing with Jews and so forth,” Oleson says. The game served as a “replacement for more belligerent forms of interaction” much like it did during the Cold War with the epic matchups between Soviet and U.S. champions, he says.
But to really understand the importance of chess for the Abbasids, it’s best to hear it from their own voice. So here is what Abdallah ibn al-Mu’tazz, a ninth century poet and the son of a chess-loving caliph, wrote about the royal game:
Oh you whose cynic sneers express
The censure of our favorite chess
Know that its skill is science’s self,
Its play distraction from distress.
It soothes the anxious lover’s care,
It weans the drunkard from excess;
It counsels warriors in their art,
When dangers threat, and perils press;
And yields us, when we need them most,
Companions in our loneliness.