Ancestor of Checkers Found in Old City of Jerusalem

Carved into the city square by bored Roman soldiers, the identity of the strange game had been a mystery until an expert got involved

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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A board game dating to the Roman period, in the Roman Plaza, near Jerusalem's Damascus Gate.
A board game dating to the Roman period, in the Roman Plaza, near Jerusalem's Damascus Gate.Credit: Itamar Grinberg
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Jerusalem, almost 2,000 years ago: a city of stone and blood, of religious fervor and spiritual elation, a city so intensely occupied that it had to invent the garbage dump—and a city of proto-checkers, it seems.

A board game dating to the Roman period, about 1,800 years ago, scratched onto the stone flooring of a city square probably by bored Roman soldiers has been confounding researchers ever since it was discovered near Jerusalem's Damascus Gate in the 1980s.

Now Nir Wild, not an archaeologist but an expert on games and recreation of historical events, says he knows what it is, and what its rules were. The game is not, in contrast to some speculation over the years, diabolic or horrible in nature.

Our story begins in 1937 when the area of ancient Jerusalem's Damascus Gate was partially excavated by Robert Hamilton. The present Damascus Gate dates to the Ottoman period and lies over Hadrian's Gate, a freestanding triumphal gate erected by the victorious Romans in the second century C.E. after vanquishing the rebelling Jews.

A board game dating to the Roman period, near Jerusalem's Damascus Gate.Credit: Itamar Grinberg

Hadrian's Gate had three parts: a main central entrance and two shorter, smaller ones on each side. Hamilton uncovered part of the smaller eastern part of that triumphal edifice in the course of unearthing part of Hellenistic Jerusalem—which, at the time, the Romans had renamed Aelia Capitolina.

Almost 30 years later, the archaeologists Crystal-M Bennett and John Hennessy uncovered more of Roman-period Jerusalem when the archaeologist Menachem Magen dug there starting in 1979, pursuant to the modern city's decision to renovate the Damascus Gate area. It was then that the eastern section of Hadrian's Gate into the city was unveiled, as was the tiled city square inside the gate. And thus the game scratched onto its limestone floor was discovered, right by the tower that had been manned by Roman guards, says Wild.

By the way, the square had apparently featured not only a game crudely etched onto the floor, but a magnificent victory column topped by a statue of Emperor Hadrian. No, the column was never found—let alone the face of the conquering emperor atop it. But the fact is that locally, Damascus Gate is called "Bab el Amud"—"the gate of the column," as historians and Gura Berger of the East Jerusalem Development Company points out.

To this day visitors can see some letters engraved on the gate arch: CO.AEL.CAP.D.D., short for "colonia aelia capitolina decreto decurionum," Berger adds.

Now as part of a Hanukkah celebration, the company is preparing activities for the general public under the direction of Wild in the Roman square and atop the Jerusalem ramparts walk, in addition to other sites in the Old City. The activities will be based on the various archaeological finds there, including said game—which wasn't some apocalyptic nonsense as some thought, or a horrifying game played to while away the time before being executed, Wild says. And yes, he does know what it is.

Morris who?

Before Wild's arrival on the scene, some theorized that the site had been a dice game played in honor of the god Saturn, in the course of which a prisoner condemned to death would be named king for the day—and would be killed at sundown. It isn't, says Wild.

Nir Wild.Credit: Nir Wild

Another theory had been that the game was a sort of nine men's norris, a strategy game popular in ancient Rome and maybe before. The board scratched onto the square looks somewhat similar to nine men's morris, which was also known as "mills" and exists in several versions with different numbers of morrises.

Not so, says Wild. The boards in nine men's morris and this one have similarities, but they're not the same. In fact—ancient Israel does have an example of a nine men's morris board, and it's at the Crusader site just north of Tel Aviv, Apollonia, he says. But the game in Jerusalem was not that.

Combing the antique world for clues, Wild found them. The game the Roman soldiers carved into the limestone of Jerusalem is known as Alquerque, and he is confident in his diagnosis. Moreover, he has elucidated what the rules were.

"Alquerque originated in Ancient Egypt," he posits, based on the fact that the board appears in drawings in tombs. "A board was never found, only pictures of it. It always looks the same, with the triangles," he says. Now we find it in Roman Jerusalem beneath the guard tower of the Roman soldiers, who may have played it during breaks or when bored, he says.

The game would survive. "When the Moors invaded Spain in the tenth century they brought it with them and called it Kirkat—based on Alquerque," Wild says, and we know that because a sage named Al-Faraj wrote a book of poetry, in which he drew the game.

And how exactly did Wild elucidate its rules? Because Alfonso the 13th century Spanish king commissioned Libro de los Juegos—the "Book of games," which listed the rules.

A reconstruction of the game by games expert Nir Wild.Credit: Nir Wild

And that is how we discovered that it's played like checkers. Generally it involves two players, each armed with 12 "soldiers."

Wild says that "the Spanish had a South American version with four players called Funy or Kuny," thus dubbed by the indigenous peoples to whom the Spanish brought this delight. "It had a somewhat bigger, more complicated board, but it's the same principle," he adds.

In both checkers and Alquerque, Wild explains, the objective of the game is to eat all your opponent's soldiers. "Whoever is last with a piece left standing wins; or has more soldiers when they draw," he says. "The main difference between checkers as we know it today and Alquerque is what happens if a soldier reaches the last row—the opponent's first row." Today a soldier that makes it to the end gets "kinged" but in Alquerque, it would stay there and could only go back if it could "eat" one of the opponent's pieces.

"Also, in the ancient game, one could only 'eat' one soldier at a time," Wild adds.

How confident is he of the identification of the mysterious game as Alquerque, and no other? Extremely. "I have four historic sources showing me the exact same game," he smiles.

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