Kings & Pawns: Board Games From India to Spain

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The life size chess figures really are life size. And they’re alive too!

The black and white human pieces stand at stoic attention and stare vacantly until the chess master calls a move, in which case, the appropriate chess piece walks to the respective square to make a strategic move in the popular board game.

Kings & Pawns: Board Games from India to Spain, a new exhibit now on display in Doha, Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art spotlights an interesting history lesson. Briefly, the exhibition explores the importance of chess, backgammon and other board games from an artistic and cultural perspective between the seventh and 20th centuries.

The display pieces – chess, dice, game boards – provide glimpses into the societies of those playing the games and creating the intricate game pieces as works of art.

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Carved chess pieces of ivory, coral and alabaster dating between 8th and 15th centuries adjoins silk and cotton fabric game boards of the 15th century to inlaid chess and backgammon boards of wood, ivory, bone and metal. Complementing these are Iranian illustrated books showing chess being played in the Persian court. Royalty played with carved and inlaid chess pieces while the common man used more modest objects made of glass or ceramic.

According to experts, there are many legends as to the beginnings of chess and backgammon, although the exact origins are unknown. It is believed that chess first began in India while backgammon was first played in Persia. Although the first written accounts of chess date from the 7th century, it almost certainly was invented earlier. Chess became a part of the courtly education of Persian nobility after being introduced from India. After the Islamic conquest of Persia, the Muslim world took up the game. From the Middle East, chess spread directly to Russia. By the early 9th century, the game reached Western Europe where it developed extensively. By the late 15th century, chess had survived a series of prohibitions and Christian church sanctions to almost take the shape of the modern game, including competitive chess tournaments, which have added to the game’s popularity.

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Chess has long been known as the Game of Kings and was popular in royal and aristocratic circles. It was not just a game for the elite however; the popularity of chess spread quickly through all levels of society.

Board Games
There are three broad categories of board games: race, war and siege games. Chess is a war game with pieces originally designed to represent the Indian army. The King rode into battle with his trusted political advisor by his side (today known as the Queen). They were protected by elite soldiers made up of the elephant corps (Bishops), the cavalry (Knights) and the charioteers (Rooks). In front of them walked the foot soldiers (Pawns).

Backgammon, believed to be even more popular than chess, is a race game in which players try to move all of their pieces to the end of the board, combining both luck and skill equally.

Two teams play the renowned race game, known as ‘pachisi’, each moving their pieces to the finish line as quickly as possible. The game originated in India and was a popular royal game in the 16th century.

The “game of wisdom” is a game still widely played by children across the world and is more commonly known today as Snakes and Ladders. The game originated in India and was first developed as a method of religious instruction.

Also on display as part of the MIA exhibition were various game boards, some made of silk and cotton dating to the 15th century, known as a chessboard carpet, while others consisted of wood box forms inlaid with ivory and bone. Backgammon boards, for example, feature a combination of interlocking triangles and hexagons, all geometric patterns that are a common feature of Islamic art.

It was an enlightening historical exploration where I learned about the interconnection of art, religion and social class of chess and other board games. And the human chess game in progress? The perfect “contemporary” link that cohesively wove it all together.

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