December 12, 2011

Chess - the game of pharaohs?

I cannot stand winter. I hate to be cold, to wrap myself up in dozens of clothes, shivering and muttering the bad weather, cursing the multiple delays in public transportation and eventually getting exhausted of drinking gallons of tea to warm up. Only the holidays save the season:) I still have to be patient for that; meanwhile, I decided to 'trick' winter once again, by wandering off to…EGYPT!

For eight full days I've been stunned, amazed, shocked by the richness of this beautiful land, a place full of history and mystery, the cradle of ancient civilizations, a land which continues to attract and fascinate more than any other place on earth. And I was floored by how little I knew about it: the pyramids, the famous sphinx, some pharaohs, some Biblical information, the curse related to the tomb of Tutankhamun…frankly speaking, I was aware only about the top of the iceberg.  
Now I sort of expanded my horizons with a Nile cruise, the first time I travelled without chess! I would have to go back of course, to visit Cairo and the Egyptian Museum, but right now I am very happy to have seen the southern part of the Nile, from Luxor to Aswan and back. There are so many stories to tell, so many temples, tombs, hieroglyphs, experiences and discoveries that I could easily spend the whole day long, maybe even two or three (weeks?!), to share at least half of it.

I'll try to be a bit more practical though and reveal two thoughts that I had during my expeditions. Because I am a chess player, writing about chess usually, I should limit for now to…chess, what else?! I have to admit that I told myself to put this game aside and focus on the cruise experience – all in vain:) I succeeded up to some point, until my attention was dragged by a beautiful chess set, for sale in a souvenir shop. Within seconds, my brain started to make associations - probably the most hotly debated issue among chess historians is where and when chess originated - could that be Egypt and not India or China?  This was probably the moment when our guide started to dislike his job, bombarded with endless questions by none other than the undersigned.
Yehia, who is also an archeologist, was so kind to have the patience to answer all my relevant and irrelevant questions and to even seem quite happy about it:) When I asked his opinion on the origins of chess, he immediately mentioned the board game called Senet, discovered in many tombs of the pharaohs.

Tutankhamun's Ivory Senet Board

The best preserved and complete ones were found in the legendary Tutankhamun's tomb, where I have also been! Unfortunately, his treasure is on display in the Egyptian Museum from Cairo or spread all over the world. Only his mummy is back to its original resting place. (Such a strange feeling I had to enter the tombs…a combination of excitement, fear, curiosity, retention and a strong sensation of distrust of actually being there!)

Another claim for an Egyptian origin of chess is the ancient image found in the tomb of Queen Nefertari (1295-1255 BC) which shows her playing Senet.

I know it looks almost like chess, but if you check the image carefully enough, you'll discover the Senet features: a 3x10 board and the pieces arrangement - the game started with players placing their pieces on the first line depending on dice. Tall pieces belong to one player, small to the other one. So it looks like a start of a Senet game.

I haven't seen it with my own eyes, but I entered her temple instead, from Abu Simbel:

My husband is just about to enter the temple:)

Of course the initial question still stands, if senet is the ancestor of chess or not. I suppose it's very difficult to go all the way to the initial source...a lot of information has been lost in the sand of time. Board games evolved and merged, gave rise to new forms, some of them remained, some disappeared, and in the end you are left with an indescribable phylum. Try to solve it if you can:)

Egyptologists are not the only ones to be caught in the labyrinth of mysteries. Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, the Dutch Victorian era painter, who lived between 1836-1912, has also been inspired by the bygone Egyptian days, depicting in his work of art: Chess and not Senet!

Egyptian Chess Players (1865), oil on wood, 39.8 x 55.8 cm. Private collection.

Let's get back to the subject at hand:  to conclude that Senet is the ancestor of chess is still an open matter. If the historians have troubles with that, I will surely not find the answer. And yet, despite its shape and the presence of luck, which would make me think more about backgammon than chess, there are many Egyptologists inclined to state that chess has its roots here, in Egypt, in the mystical game of Senet. The squares, the pieces painted in two different colors, might suggest that the Egyptians were playing an early form of chess, idea immediately exploited by the small business owners. I am a bit surprised though that they would choose to sell chess sets instead of the original board game…maybe that's because the actual rules of Senet are still debatable, while chess is widely spread all over the world, having bigger chances to attract the customers? Personally, I would go for the game of pharaohs.
In addition, it is very possible that Senet began as a game, but later acquired a magical or holy quality and became something of a ritual. This could be another common factor with the game we play today: witness the mystic aura Chess has developed in movies such as "The Seventh Seal" and works of literature where the hero plays chess against Death, the Devil, a god etc– this is one of the powers Egypt has on human mind: you'll suddenly surprise yourself building your own theories on different aspects, in my case: chess. I know I am re-inventing the wheel, but it doesn't matter; the road of revelations and discoveries is more important than the final target, at least for me in this particular case.

The other thought I mentioned above is more of an organizational field: why not having more chess tournaments on ships?! I think it's a great idea, not only for chess players, but also for accompanying persons.

Tea time for us on the upper deck! Enjoying the view,
the sunset and the warmth of a good coffee:)

Sailing along the Nile, admiring the beautiful views that Egypt has been
gifted thanks to its generous river.

Always something new, always different. Maybe it won't be
such an easy task to focus on your game though...

Shopping time! This is what I meant: the accompanying persons
will love you for taking them on board:) There is always
something to do.

So, what could be better than playing a game of chess while cruising from port to port, with the room following you everywhere?! It's impossible to get bored with the variety and multiple choices that only a cruise can offer. There were a few events of this kind in the past, in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, but I am wondering why aren't there much more? I would surely be tempted to take part! So let me know if you hear anything.

This was my Egyptian 'chess' experience and I can tell you that, if you're still thinking wether to go or not, if you're still having doubts due to the hordes of tourists bursting everywhere and from nowhere, taking the mystery, the sacredness away – think again! No matter how common 'going to Egypt' might sound, it also happens to be worth it!


  1. Congratulation wonderful!:Antonio

    In my Opinion there are lot of things that we don't know about history in general and in particular about History of Egypt.Many things will be discovered in future...Even regard Atlantides

  2. Ancient Egypt was called Kemet by the inhabitants. There is a lot of knowledge out there but you have to know were to find this. The best scholar in my opinion is Cheikh Ante Diop. He did the best work. If there is anything more to know about the origins of chess? I do not know, but it's quite possible.

  3. ....I Belive one thing.....Many things will be revelated in future.In my opinion there is something of true in Atlantides,Mu,and extraterrestrial life.Mains religious traditions have a lot of story and legends in comon.




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