by Daaim ShabazzExhibit at U.S. Chess Hall of Fame on the ancient Egyptian game, Senet.
Copyright © 2001, Daaim Shabazz.
Dr. Joseph Bailey, II has recently penned an article titled, “Chess Originated in Africa.” We have all heard this before, but let us be specific! For example, Bailey states in his essay,
But Western literature admits that the origin of Chess is uncertain. Whenever such a statement is made, experience has taught me that the uncertainty most likely indicates it originated in Africa.
First, we know that Western literature is not always the most reliable source for many reasons. Asian literature records the existence of ancient forms of chess, but I will agree that the origins of chess (as a concept) are unclear. Most accept the notion that the ancestor to chess (that we play today) was created in India and was called “chataranga.” It then traveled westward to Persia where it became “chatrang.” It was then recorded that the Arabs learned if from the Persians after which the name took the Arabized form of “shatranj.” The name of the pieces were: shah, firzan, faras, fil, rukhkh and baidaq. (see this link!) Bill Wall, who is based in the U.S., cites Asian literature discussing the orgins of chess (see his catalog here).
Second, we cannot always assume that all art forms were created in Africa unless we are very specific about the claims we are making. Dr. Bailey makes reference to the ancient Egyptian game of “Senet.” Senet does bear a striking resemblance to “modern-day” chess, but appears to come from a different lineage. As I understand it, Senet was more of a “race” game with the moves determined by randomization. Below is a painting of Queen Nefertari (1295-1255BC) playing Senet. When traveling to Egypt, I did not see this painting of the famous African Queen, but it is quite revealing.
A painting of Queen Nefertari playing Senet in the Tomb of Nefertari.
Third, the game played today most likely traveled across the Sahara in caravans and finally taken into Spain by the African Moors during their 800-year rule. A better question would be whether the Moors took a different form of game into Spain than the version that came from the Indian subcontinent. All literature seems to state that it was indeed, “shatranj.” The shatranj board can see below. Some versions probably had less defined features (due to religious restrictions) as pictured here.
Moors playing Shatranj in Castile, 1283AD.
I actually own a set up books on chess set collections and author Dr. Ned Munger gives some history of ancient sets. There would be an interesting history to be learned by how chess sets evolved as the game traveled from region to region. I saw the board game “Senet” in Cairo’s Museum of Ancient Egyptian Antiquities years ago and took a picture of it. The game is also featured in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame (see top picture). However, there were many different forms of “chess” created in many different lands and many have similarities. Of course there are the Chinese form of chess called “Xiang Qi” and the Japanese form of “Shogi.”
There were other forms played with dice and thus condemned by Muslim clerics as a “game of chance.” Of course, clerics have revised their opinions of this over the years and chess is not considered “haram.” Around 700 AD, Sa’id bin Jubairwas a famed African player who gave up his judgeship to pursue blindfold exhibitions. Besides the versions coming from the Arabian penisula, there are also the African chess game of “warri” played with beads. “Chess” is actually a generic name for strategic board games, but it has become associated with the game we play. Note the picture below:
This photo was from an 19th century postcard with a French caption reading “Algers–Negres jouant aux Echecs” meaning “Algiers–Moors playing Chess.”
I wrote in a essay on this photo:
The undated postcard is loosely translated “Algers-Blacks playing chess.” Of course, in French “échecs” does not necessarily refer to “chess,” but could refer to other board games such a warri, ayò, or draughts. Pictured are four men playing what looks like a precursor to contemporary chess. However, the board men appear to be the same height, dark colored and positioned on alternating squares… likened to checkers or its precursor, “el-Quirkat.” Perhaps the game being played was a variant of “Shatranj.” More important is the point of these men showing utmost erudition at a board game requiring strategic execution.
As you can see, there are African origins in forms of chess. The Moors in the above photo are perhaps playing a variant, or it may be related to shatranj, the form taken into Spain by the Moors. Once the Moors (also “maure,” “moro,” “morisco” translated as “black,” or “very dark”) were driven from Spain, the game was remade.
More research has to be done, but of course much of the Moorish literature was burned after the Moors were driven from Spain. In this literature could have been found the origins of modern-day chess. In all, I believe we have to be clear and specific about making claims of African origins of “chess” unless we are talking about a specific version. Hopefully this will clarify some of the issues and begin a discussion.