Games Around the World: Ancient Egypt
Saturday, 10th January 2015
As you have probably noticed, this site has gathered games from all over the world. Some pages on this site gather them together by geographically by continent. But few cultures spanned an entire continent. This fact, and the beginning of a new year, has inspired me to begin a new project: a virtual world cruise of board games.
This will be an occasional series, posted as and when I can get the information together. It will focus on those countries or regions that were most inventive in board games. Since this is an armchair journey, we can invoke a bit of magic here too, and travel to the particular times when those places were most inventive.
The first of these places is ancient Egypt. Mention ancient Egypt and one conjures up images of pharaohs, pyramids and tombs. Or farmers on the Nile, watering the adjacent lands with their shadoufs when the river wasn't in flood. A slightly later age would see Egypt's second wonder, the Pharos lighthouse at Alexandria, and nearby the no less famous library. Egypt was inventive in the arts, the sciences, and in board games.
The modern public at large don't usually think of board games when they think of ancient Egypt. But if they think of one game, then it will probably be senet. This mysterious game has been found in tombs, and mentioned in many inscriptions. Each player races five, seven or ten pieces on an S-shape track arranged in three rows of ten, with some special squares to negotiate at the end (and sometimes in the middle too). Pieces may knock each other off the board or may simple knock one another backwards. We're not quite sure, because the full rules were never recorded. Some educated guesses have been made, though, so modern players might imagine themselves in the sandals of ancient Egyptians like Sennudjem or Queen Nefertari, both depicted playing senet in their tombs.
Mehen, or the game of the snake, was another popular pastime, and has been found in a number of ornate sets. None of the games from ancient Egypt have bee fully preserved for us, and Mehen is probably the most mysterious. Known from 3000 BC, it died out over the following 700 years. The boards that remain are in the form of a coiled snake, each player having three pieces. It appears to have been a race to the centre, the snake's head, and tomb paintings show people at play.
Dogs & Jackals gives us some of the most ornate boards and pieces. Generally a course of fifty nine holes winds its way round a shield-shaped board, and the game is sometimes called the game of the shield. Its other name, the palm tree game, describes the decorative motif sometimes inscribed growing up the centre of the board. Each player had five pegged pieces that fit in the holes, one side depicted as dogs and the other as jackals. The half-way hole of the course was at the bottom edge of the shield and was decorated; some suggest that pieces were raced from either player's end to the middle. Some holes were connected to others further along the track, in the manner of snakes & ladders today. This game appeared in about 2000 BC and in later centuries spread to Palestine and Assyria, the most recent Assyrian examples dating from about 700 BC.
Another game call t'au, or robbers, is known only from its name, though it's sometimes thought to be the same game as that also known as Twenty Squares. This game is often paired with senet, a board having senet on one side and twenty squares on the other. The squares are arranged in three rows of four, the central row being extended by eight squares in one direction, the whole shape resembling a modern instrument like a guitar or violin. It appears that this game was descended from the Royal Game of Ur, a Mesopotamian game of the third millennium BC. Similar games have also appeared in India.
India, then, is to be my next destination on my journey. This being a journey through the past, it will take me while to get from one place to another. Hopefully I'll arrive in India's past in the next month or so; when I do, I'll get in touch...