30 March 2008

A Sassanian Origin for the Game of Chess?

Guest Blogging

It's Zenobia’s great pleasure to welcome Jan Newton (left). She's guest blogging today to tell us about the much-disputed origins of the game of chess. As a consequence of my writing about 'Sassanian Stuff', I learnt that some scholars believe that the ancient Persians (and not the north Indians) had invented the game. Jan and I corresponded for a time and she was kind enough to agree to write a guest blog on this subject.

Jan has always been interested in archaeology and history, earning a degree in history as part of her undergraduate double-major. A 1988 best-selling novel written by Katherine Neville, "The Eight", a story involving an ancient chess set allegedly possessed of mystical powers and said to have been owned by Charlemagne, had a profound impact on her life. In 1998, Jan discovered a small Internet discussion group exploring the question - "Is chess is the game of the goddess?" and joined the discussion by posting about Neville's novel. Ever since she has been researching and learning more about the origins of chess and other board games.

Jan is one of the principals of the blog Chess, Goddess and Everything, reporting on the latest news about women's chess, publishing articles and original research on the origins of chess and chess history, as well as stories, art and poetry about chess and other ancient board games. She is also a founder member of GoddessChess, ‘an inquiry into the treasury of chess, the goddess and everything!’ For the past two years GoddessChess has funded a special prize for the best game at the U.S. Women's Chess Championship. Check out her blogs!


The Origins of Chess – A Few Things I’ve Thought About
by Jan Newton

When was chess invented? A few legends point to one person inventing the game in a short period of time -- sometimes just a night -- either as a way to explain to a grieving mother how one of her beloved sons was killed by his brother in a civil war (circa 3rd century CE) or as a method of teaching discipline to a wayward prince (circa 600 BCE). The most popular line of thought is that chess was invented in “Hind” in the 6th century CE (today, “Hind” is called “Baluchistan” and encompasses the tribal borderlands between western Pakistan and eastern Iran). This was the conclusion reached by H.J.R. Murray in A History of Chess published in 1919. Murray’s book is a sort of “holy grail” of chess lore, and is still relied upon by researchers as the primary source. According to Murray chess was derived from an Indian game called chaturanga, played upon an 8x8 square board called an ashtapada.

Chaturanga was also the term for the ancient Indian army which consisted of “four parts”: the infantry (foot soldiers), chariots, cavalry, and elephants – thus ascribing to chess a military origin.

It is popularly believed that after its invention in northern India, chess was introduced into Persia in the mid-6th century CE, from there spreading eastward to China (along the Silk Road) and, after the Islamic Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century CE, spread by the Arabs and trade routes slowly over the ensuing centuries to the rest of Europe, eastern Africa, Scandinavia and Russia.

Chess historians rely upon two written sources – both Persian – to ascribe the importation of chess from India to Persia (Persian chatrang) during the reign of Khosrow I (r. 531-578 CE): the Chatrang-namak (ca. 650 CE) and the Shahnameh or “Book of Kings,” a history written by Ferdousi in the 10th century CE.

A True Story?

The story conveyed in the Chatrang-namak is that one “Dewasarm, great ruler of India” sent a jeweled chess set along with many other luxurious and coveted items in a large caravan to the court of Khosrow I -- and presented a wager to the Shah: if the Shah’s wise men could determine the rules of the chess game within a certain period of time, then all the wealth of the caravan would become the property of the Shah; but if they could not determine the rules of the game, then everything would be returned to Dewasarm along with double the tribute from the Shah!

One of the Shah’s wise men worked out the rules of the game over one night after the rest of the Shah’s sages had failed, thus savings face for the Shah (not to mention an awful lot of money).

[The Shah's wise man (turbaned figure to right of chessboard) explains how chess is played before the Shah and the Ambassador from Hind]
To do one better, the wise man also invented a game called nard, an ancestor of backgammon, which was then shipped back to the King of India with a similar wager -- which he lost, his wise men being unable to come up with the correct rules of the game.

That's the story, but ...

But is it really true that chess was invented in “Hind” in the 6th century CE? It is, for instance, absolute nonsense that nard was invented in Persia the 6th century CE. That game was already well documented by the early 3rd century CE when it was being played in China, probably carried there by traders along the Silk Road -- and its history as a popular board game dates back to before the Roman Empire; some historians trace it all the way back to ancient Egypt. How much more of the account of the transmission of chess from India to Persia is equal nonsense? It could be just as likely that chess travelled from Persia to India, not the other way around!

Some years ago chess historian Ricardo Calvo wrote a short piece discussing some reasons why he believed it was possible that the game chatrang had been invented first by the Persians and not by the Indians.
[Earliest known “figural” chess pieces from Afrasiab, near Samarkand (today in Uzbekistan)]
In Pahlavi (middle Persian), chatrang not only means the game of chess, it is also the word for the mandrake plant (Latin mandragoras), so named because of the "man-like" shape of its root. Calvo postulated that the name of the game was taken from the "figure" of the mandrake root that looked like a man -- and thus meant something like “figure game,” figures made in the image of man. He also pointed out that the earliest artifacts incontestably accepted as chess pieces by chess historians – figures of men (and animals) – were excavated in Afrasiab, which was then a Persian-speaking province. The Afrasiab ivory pieces date to around 760CE (although Louis Cazaux dates them earlier, to 712 CE or prior, based upon a coin of that date being found in the same excavation level).

Face to Face

My etymological research indicates that in addition to being the mandrake plant, the Pahlavi word chatrang can be translated as face to face (and there is no similar etymology of chaturanga in Sanskrit). “Face to face” aptly describes two aspects of playing chatrang -- the players sitting across the board from each other, and the pieces moving toward each other face to face. “Face to face” also reflects a close confrontation, one aspect of which is reflected in the Persian tradition of the king's champion (shah ruhkh).

During the Sassanid period in Persia, the shah ruhkh would go out to meet an opposing army's champion in single hand-to-hand combat. The winner of the one-on-one battle determined the winning army.*

Under the rules of chatrang, the ruhkh – the chariot piece - was the strongest piece on the board and remained so until the rules of the game were modernized in the late 1400’s or early 1500’s CE (when the Queen piece in Europe – the old farzin (Vizier) piece in chatrang that stood next to the Shah/King -- gained its sweeping moves, with which we are familiar today. Prior to that time, the farzin could only move one piece in a diagonal direction). The ruhkh piece had the move of the modern “rook” piece – it could move an unlimited number of squares along any vertical or horizontal path, stopping only when it encountered another piece.

Another etymological clue linking chess first to Persia is in the word for chariot. The Middle Persian word rah or ruh meant chariot, and in Avestan (a closely-affiliated language), the word for chariot was ra fa. As we’ve seen, the Pahlavi word ruhkh meant warrior or champion in the sense of the king's champion (shah ruhkh), so the shah ruhkh was a charioteer. Ruhkh, "warrior, champion" could have been transmitted to the Indians either via the Avestan word ra fa, becoming translated as ratha (chariot) in India or through the Pahlavi rah/ruh. According to the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon, one of the meanings of ratha is "a warrior, hero, champion". It seems reasonable to deduce that the Persian rah/ruh, Ruhkh and the Avestan ra fa became ratha in Sanskrit: a two-wheeled war chariot and/or a warrior, hero, champion – who drove the chariot.

Another important piece in the game of chatrang was the elephant (today’s bishop). The Pahlavi word for elephant is pil, the same as in modern-day Persian, and that is what the Sassinid Persians called the elephant piece in chatrang. In his A History of Chess Murray says "Pil, later Arabicized as fil, means elephant. It is not, however, a native Persian word, nor is it Sanskrit. The Persians may have borrowed the word from a language that was spoken by some tribe situated between Persia and India. The elephant, it was said, was not a native Persian animal.

It’s not exactly true that the elephant was not a native Persian animal. There were small pockets of western Asian elephants in Iraq and Syria that survived into historical times, the remnants of much larger herds that had once roamed the Persian plateau and environs for several thousands of years during a much warmer, wetter period. The ancient Babylonians called elephants something like p^ru or pe@ru. The remnants of these western herds were hunted to extinction sometime in the 11th century BCE. Accounts survive of some Egyptian pharaohs and other rulers of the middle east hunting elephants in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and in ancient Syria.

According to the Encyclopedia Iranica, Old Persian p^ru- (attested only in the meaning "ivory"), became Middle and New Persian p^l, Sogdian py’, K¨Ășa@rizmian pyz. Thus, the word is probably a loan word from the Babylonians.

Setting aside the intriguing idea that the use of an elephant piece in chatrang could very well date back to this period of history (11th century BCE and earlier), the use of elephants in Indian armies had in any case been obsolete after the 1st century CE. Why would anyone in the 6th century CE -- the date generally given for the invention of chess in India -- invent a “modern war game” that used equipment that was already long obsolete at the time?

Further, if the game of chatrang was adopted from the Hindustan game chaturanga, as Murray asserts, why wasn’t the elephant piece in the Persian game (pil) called after an Indian elephant piece in Sanskrit (hasti [hasty] or gaja)? By way of comparison, when the Arabs adopted the game of chatrang from Persia in the 7th century CE, they called it hatranj after Persian chatrang) -- and they called their elephant pieces fil (after Persian pil); the Persian chariot ruhkh became the Arabic rukh and the Persian Farzin became Ferz


The Question Remains Open.

[left: Atousa Pourkashian, who is now 18; she took the gold medal under-12 at the 2000 World Chess Competitions held in Spain]. The Persian tradition remains in good hands.

* Remember in Sassanian Stuff II, at Battle of Hormizdgan, where Ardashir won a decisive victory over the last Parthian king, who was killed: his death was reported to be a result of hand-to-hand single combat between the two kings -- while their troops looked on.

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