The game of chess is known for its oxymoronic simple complexity, its famous players (Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, Boris Spassky), its difficult but inevitable mastery by computers and its iconic language, board and pieces which have moved into general usage worldwide (checkmate). Chess boards and pieces are often works of art, and now one particular piece has made history. An unusual carved rock discovered in Jordan is believed to be the world’s oldest chess piece, and the location of its finding highlights how the game once unified players of very different backgrounds.
“Since the Humayma object was found in a seventh-century context, if the identification as a chess piece is correct, it would be the earliest known physical example for the simplified, abstract design, and possibly the earliest known example of a chess piece altogether.”
At the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research held in San Diego, California, in late November 2019, John Oleson, a researcher at Canada’s University of Victoria, unveiled new information on a carved piece of white sandstone excavated at Humayma, a former Islamic trading post in Jordan, in 1991. The 2.5 cm tall rock was found in a former Byzantine church which had been converted into a farmhouse in the mid seventh century, which helped date the rock. Since the building was once a church, Oleson originally believed the stone was carved into the shape of a Nabataean (a nomadic Bedouin tribe) altar or a betyl (a sacred stone some believed had unusual powers and may have come from meteorites). However, after further analysis, Oleson decided the stone was closer in design to an Islamic ‘rook’ chess piece.
“There are references to chess-playing in Islamic texts as early as A.H. 23/A.D. 643, and the game was popular throughout the Islamic world by the end of the Umayyad caliphate. Several later abstract “rooks” from Jordan and elsewhere in the Near East, carved in stone, wood, or ivory, are nearly identical to the Humayma object in design and scale.”
Oleson calls it a “rook” and the piece slightly resembles the shape of a castle like the modern rook, but he says the original chess piece was shaped like a chariot pulled by two horses – a “rukh” in Persian. As Oleson explains to Haaretz, the game originated in India in the early 6th century and was spread quickly by caravans of traders to Persia. When Persia was conquered by Arab armies in the seventh century, the game was saved but the figurative pieces were changed to adhere to the Muslim prohibition on making images. That’s when the chariot became the base of a castle and the horses’ ears the towers, but the piece kept its name which evolved to “rook.” (Pictures of the chess piece and where it was found can be seen here.)
Finding this early stone rook in a farmhouse confirms to Oleson that chess was a classless game that everyone played – from the elite and the rich to the farmers and the poor. One didn’t need gold or ivory chess sets to play – carved sandstone pieces would suffice. What’s most interesting is that the rich and poor, upper and lower classes played chess with each other. The game also crossed other barriers.
“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. The Abbasid court in Baghdad felt that chess had the same importance that one finds in Moscow in the late twentieth century. 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.”
While today we focus more on the fact that computers can now regularly defeat grandmasters, there was a time not so long ago when chess united the world’s superpowers – when Bobby Fischer of the U.S. played against Anatoly Karpov of the Soviet Union. The game is still popular in Iran and other Islamic countries as long as no money is wagered.
While not the first chess piece ever made, the little stone rook found in Jordan by John Oleson may be the oldest one in existence … and the place where it was found once again highlights the game’s universal appeal – right to left, top to bottom, rich to poor, regardless of religion or race.
Could chess bring us together again? Can we give it a try?