Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Silk Road Chess

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By Prof. Richard T. Griffiths

It is estimated that over half a billion adults play chess regularly, that is equivalent to over ten per cent of World’s adult population. The game emerged from the Indian sub-continent in the sixth century CE. In the following centuries not only had the game spread throughout Eurasia but by 1500 CE it had morphed into the international form that we know today. Its spread was facilitated by the movement of armies but, more than that, through the cultural exchange that characterised the ancient silk roads.

The origins of chess lie in the game of Chaturanga, which means ‘four parts’. The four players would each command one army division, which would occupy its own corner of the board. Each division comprised five infantry, three cavalry, one chariot and one elephant. Unfortunately, no written records of the moves of the individual pieces or the rules of the game exist, but there were probably considerable local variations. Around 600 CE the game also became known in Persia. The story is that the Indian ambassador challenged the Persians to figure out the rules of ‘chess’. Buzurjmihr, a wise Persian minister, was the one to succeed within the time limit set.

Buzurjmihr masters the game of chess (c. 1300) Detail from Shahnama, Aga Khan Museum , Toronto, Canada

The Persians adapted the game in several ways. They set up the sixteen pieces at opposite ends of the 8×8 board. he King and his advisor to be placed side-by-side in the centre, flanked by elephants, knights and the rook (‘rukh’ in Persian meaning ‘chariot’). In front of them were the infantry. They also established the moves. The two pieces that deviate most from today were that the elephants could only move two squares diagonally, and the advisor only one move in any direction. The game spread throughout the Persian empire and, after the triumph of Islam, it followed in the shadow of the armies.

Chess arrived in China sometime in the eighth century CE, probably brought by Buddhist monks. The Chinese also adapted the game. They increased the board to 9×10 with a ‘celestial river’, running across the centre of the board. They added an advisor to the other side of the King. In the front line they had five infantry, and two cannons ahead of each of the cavalry. The further change was that the pieces were placed on the intersecting lines rather than in the squares themselves.

Chinese officials playing chess (1319) Detail from a mural in Low Guangsheng Temple, Hong Tong County, Shanxi, China.

Chess first spread into Europe as the Islamic armies conquered large swathes of the Iberian Peninsula and, later, conquered Sicily and established footholds in Italy. The game was probably carried North into Scandinavia by the Viking, sailing down the Volga and Dnieper rivers to trade with Baghdad, and from there into Britain and Northern Europe. Once in Europe, the rules shape of the game began to change. By the 11thcentury, the King’s advisor had become his queen, and the elephants had mutated into bishops (rumour has it that the shape of the tip of an elephant’s tusk resembled a bishop’s mitre). The board became chequered (though not always black and white) and the pieces themselves became more figurative.

An Arab and a Crusader playing chess (1282) Detail from Libro de los Juegos, Monastery Library of St. Lorenze del Escorial, Madrid, Spain

It was now that the game began to change towards the ‘international’ game we know today. Having been introduced, the queen and bishop increased in power. The restriction of only two moves diagonally was removed for the elephant/bishop and the queen could move unlimited in straight lines in any direction, making her the most powerful piece on the board. Later still, because these changes had made it too easy to capture the King, ‘castling’ was introduced. This allowed the rook/castle could switch position, giving the King more defensive options. 

The initial alignment of the chess board (1496) From  Luis de Lucena, ‘Repetición de amores; Arte de ajedrez’, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Madrid, Spain.

All that was needed was someone to codify the rules. The oldest surviving copy dates from the end of the 15thcentury entitled ‘Repetition of Loves and the Art of Chess’. The book outlines all the rules, contains descriptions of 150 games and describes some of the most famous opening strategies, such as ‘the King’s gambit’.

By then the game had spanned the entire Eurasian continent and had percolated down the social classes. Anyone with a stick to scratch some lines in the earth and a pocket full of coins or a few stones could play. It became a metaphor for vicissitudes of the game of everyday life, and a certainty that it would all, one day, come to an end. It was about this time that images of Death, the ultimate victor in the game of life, inviting himself to the chess table.

Death joins a game of chess (15th century) Copper-plate engraving. Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany.

The exhibition, ‘Chess along the Silk Road, 600-1500CE’, contains thirty sets of artifacts (pictures and chess pieces) from nineteen libraries and museums located in ten different countries. It is now open in a brand new, modern exhibition space.

You can find it at:https://silkroadvirtualmuseum.com/chess-600-1500CE

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