The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
CHESS; Iranian or Indian Invention? *
Edited by Shapour Suren-Pahlav
Origin of Chess
is one of humanities popular pastimes and has been described not only as a game,
but also as an art, a science and a sport. Chess is sometimes seen as an
abstract war-game and a ‘mental martial art. And teaching and playing
chess have been advocated as a way of enhancing mental prowess.
is very unlikely that Chess, almost as it is played today suddenly came into
existence or invented by one person. The idea of it being a combination of
elements from other board-games has merit. Since almost all known board games
have religious backgrounds the astrological component is entirely possible, even
though one prefers the version that all elements come from other games, as the
basis for the counters. Iran as the area of origin is highly possible,
especially because of the two excavated debated pieces from the second century
CE, which were found in the area of the Iranian cultural domination.
"chess is an ancient game which is first mentioned in documents
dating back to the early years of the 7th century CE. and associated with
North West India and Iran. Before the 7th century the
existence of chess in any land is not demonstrable by a single shred of
contemporary evidence" (Fiske, the Nation).
scholars have proposed various origins for chess: Bidev states that “chess
comes from China”, while Samsin suggests that there was hybridisation of
Eastern and Western games in the post Alexander kingdom of Bactria in
c180-50BCE. Josten is geographically between the two of them, favouring the
Kushan empire in ca. 50BCE – 200CE.
possibly the strongest – or perhaps most vociferous – arguments have come
from those who consider that chess originated in the Indian subcontinent in
around 600CE. This view was propagated by Murray and van der Linde in the late
19th – early 20th centuries, and has subsequently been supported by Averbak.
This brief paper examines some etymological, literary and archaeological evidence for the Iranian origin of chess – and so suggests that the question of the origin of the famous game is still unanswered.
names have been, and are now, used for chess-like games. Indian Chaturanga, for
example, is a chess-like game, but it is played on an eight by eight board
(rather than the modern chess twelve by twelve board) and it uses slightly
different pieces and rules to those in the modern game. It has been suggested to
be a proto-game for chess, of Indian origin.
word chaturanga means ‘quadripartite’ or ‘army’ which reflects the four
components in Vedic army platoons, which are themselves reflected in the types
of pieces used in the game. Ricardo Calvo notes that the first unmistakable reference to the game of chaturanga is in the Harschascharita by the court poet
Bina, writing between 625 and 640CE. The word’s early literary use and its
origin in the ancient language of Sanskrit have been suggested to provide
supporting evidence for the Indian origin of chess. Murray specifically
suggested that the Sasanian-Pahlavi word chatrang – used for a game equivalent to the
current chess – was derived from chaturanga. However,
one of the most etymological evidences can be identified in the
terminology of chess pieces which are Persian such as Rook.
which is a Western derivative of Rukh is another term for Iranian mythical bird
Sên-Murv, and Simurgh in New Persian. In ancient Iranian literature (Avestan) Sên-Murv
identified as Homâ and in Arabic introduced as Rukh. The Simurgh or Rukh, was
depicted as a winged gigantic creature in the shape of a bird, that could
carry an elephant or a camel. The functionality of the Rook piece in game of
chess and its iconography in Iranian world is quite significant. The bird which
Iranian believed imparted fertility to the land and the union between the earth
and the sky. In India, the piece is more popularly called haathi, meaning
hint is the nomenclature of the pieces, persistently related to different sorts
of animals rather than to components of an army: In the "Grande Acedrex"
of King Alfonso of Castile (1283) lions, crocodiles, giraffes etc. play over a
board of 12x12 cases with peculiar jumping moves, and the invention of it is
connected to the same remote period in India as normal chess. They are very
atypical in any context referring to India (De Gruyter, p.).
chess terminologies are also deeply rooted in Persian language, such as
“checkmate” (the English rendition of shāh māt, which is
Persian for "the king is frozen") as well as “bishop” and
chess piece which is a western innovation, derived from the elephant,
most likely in the 15th century - it is
from the Persian pīl meaning "the elephant". In Europe and
the western part of the Islamic world people knew little or nothing about
elephants, and the name of the chessman entered Western Europe as Latin alfinus
and similar, a word with no other meaning.
word "alfil" is in fact is an Arabic loanword from Persian pīl
< fil , and in turn the Spanish word alfil would most certainly
have been taken from Arabic. Chess was introduced into Spain by Ali ibn-Nafi the
famous Persian poet, musician and singer (also known as Zaryāb or Ziryab,
“gold finder”) in the 9th century – it is described in a famous Libro de
los juegos the 13th century manuscript covering chess, backgammon, and dice
argue that since one of the pieces are being referred to as
"elephant", must of an Indian origin - on the other hand, elephants
are not at all exclusive to India (Gowers, p.173 ff; Walbank, p. 205-6.).
However, Iranians were the first nation that introduced cavalry and they had
also foot-soldiers, chariots and elephants as well as river and battle-ships. In
Egypt, the Ptolemaic Kings obtained elephants regularly from Somalia. Strabo
(16,4,5) mentions the foundation of several cities in Africa with the main
purpose of hunting elephants (Gowers, p.173 ff; Walbank, p. 205-6.). The English
name "bishop" is a rename inspired by the conventional shape of the
chess piece known as "queen" is (Persian) farzīn also vizier.
It became (Arabic) firzān, which entered western European languages
as forms such as alfferza, fers, etc – then later it was
replaced by "queen" - possibly brought to West by British during the
British rule of India; aince the Indian equivalent of "queen" is rani.
and Literary Evidence
Ardeshīr-ī Pāpakān" (the Book of Deeds of
Ardeshir-e Pāpakān), an epical treatise about the founder of Sasanian
dynasty, mentions the game of "chatrang" as one of the cultural
accomplishments of the Ardeshir as a young prince. It has a proving force that a
game under this name was popular in the period of redaction of the text,
supposedly during the reign of Khosrow II, Parviz (r. 590-628 CE) - the work
could have been composed as early as 260 CE.
third and final Pahlavi text is known as Khūsraw ud Rēdag
(Khosrow and the Page). It mentiones together with other games in chapter 15 of
the (ud pad Čatrang ud new-ardaxšî r ud haštpay kardan az hamahlan
fraztar hom "and in playing Chess, backgammon and the hashtpay, I am
superior to my comrades" (Unvala, p. 16; Monchi-Zadeh, 1982, p. 65; Panaino,
1999, p. 51). It seems the story was taken place at the court of Khosrow I, Anūshakrūwān
(Immortal Soul - r. 488–531 CE) and states that chess is one of the cultural
disciplines that a noble should learn.
the greatest of Iranian epic-poets wrote also about it in the 10th century, but
his sources are solid and form a continuous chain of witnesses going back to the
middle of the 6th Century in Iran. He describes chess as arriving from Hind.
According to Iranian historical sources this name "Hind" was not used
for India until after the 11th century. Here "Hind" means
Eastern-Province of Iranian Empire including modern Sistan va Baluchestan
and while during the Achaemenid dynastic era it was extended to Khuzestan province.
Bidev, the Russian chess historian pointed out, nobody could possibly generate
the rules of chess only by studying the array position at the beginning of a
game. On the other hand, such an achievement might be made by looking at Takht-ī
Nard (backgammon), which is another Iranian game-invention - the use of dice
also favours its Iranian origin. The world oldest pair of dice was discovered in
Dahān-e Gholāmān located in in southeastern Iranian province of
Sistan, which date back to Achaemenid dynastic period (fig. 12.).
oldest clearly recognisable chessmen have been excavated in ancient Afrasiyab
(ancient Samarqand), in Iranian cultural domains contrasts with the absence of
such items in India. Afrasiab was under thy Islamic rule since 712, but were
essential a Persianate land and society by origin. Some other old pieces,
possibly Chess pieces, are the occasionally named chess pieces of an elephant
and a zebu bull kept in Tashkent. They were excavated in 1972 at Dalverzin-Tepe
(fig. 3), an ancient citadel nowadays in Southern Uzbekistan, and stem from the 2nd
century. The Russian Chess history expert Linder feels that they are not Chess
pieces, but belonged to a forerunner of Chess. They could mean an earlier than
previously assumed existence of Chess.
there are no chessmen there from early times in India, and only in the 10th
century appears an indirect mention from Mas’udi: "The use of ivory [in
India] is mainly directed to the carving of chess - and nard pieces".
Some experts believe that old Indian chess pieces may be discovered one day. So
far, this is mere speculation.
group of chess pieces (three chessmen) comes from Nishapur (fig. 6), and another
ivory set was discovered though belonging to later times, 9th or 10th century.
These are not idols anymore and are carved following the abstract pattern which
has been characterised as "Arabic".
of Chess into India by Muslims
Muslim writers stated quite frequently that they took the game of "shatranj/sh" from the Iranians, who called it "chatrang". This happens in the middle of a political-cultural revolution, which has been analysed in historical texts.
ruling Umayyads were overthrown by a certain Abul-Abbas, who initiated a
new era around the year 750 - transferring the Islamic political centre from
Damascus to former Iranian territory and Baghdad, which still was under Iranian
cultural influence. The Abbasid caliphs culturally and quasi ethnically
origin - so Iranian dominance became clearly the focal point in the cultural
renaissance which took place inside the Arabic trunk. Large
number of the previous knowledge from ancient Iran, Greece, Byzantium, Egyptian and Middle East civilizations was compiled and translated into
Arabic. The new information absorbed in a scientific body which followed its
further path towards the West. Chess was only a part of this knowledge, packaged
together with earlier mathematical, astronomical, philosophical or medical
* Large portion of this essay has been excerpted from "The Origin of Chess; Some Facts to Think About" by Ricardo Calvo, 1996.
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