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April 2021

Vol. 163 / No. 1417

Chess and Other Games Pieces from Islamic Lands (The al-Sabah Collection / Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah)

Reviewed by Mariam Rosser-Owen

By Deborah Freeman Fahid. 344 pp. incl. over 300 col. + b. & w. ills. (Thames and Hudson, London and New York, 2018), £45. ISBN 978–0–500–97091–1.

As Deborah Freeman Fahid states in the introduction to this catalogue, ‘Abbasid Baghdad in the 9th and 10th centuries has been compared to the Moscow of the 1980s as the intellectual centre of chess, where grandmasters and theoreticians flourished’ (p.15). Chess was introduced early to the Islamic world, from India, whereas backgammon probably has a much older origin, the history of the games is not the focus here, however. Rather, Freeman Fahid addresses the form of the pieces and their development over time, allowing her to produce the first survey of Islamic games pieces, encapsulating what is known about their place and date of production.

Although pre-Islamic chessmen were figurative, the pieces of the Islamic game became abstract at an early date, possibly as a result of religious scruples: much of the chess literature from the early centuries of Islam was dedicated to the lawfulness of the game, the shapes being one area of concern. The abstract style was developed during the eighth century, its forms based on pre-Islamic shapes but pared back to their most conceptual elements. The form of the king/queen probably represents a howdah on an elephant’s back; the bishop, called ‘fil’ (elephant) in the Islamic game, is represented with two conical projections suggesting tusks; and the knight, derived from a horse, often retains the suggestion of a horse’s head. 

These highly abstracted, tiny forms comprise some of the most pleasing examples of Islamic sculpture, although chess pieces are not usually considered in this way by historians of Islamic art. Some of the objects in this catalogue look like beautiful examples of Modernist sculpture (for example, the alabaster knight, cat. no.66.1; Fig.1). Delight in the haptic nature of the pieces is conveyed by the high-quality photographs in this generously illustrated catalogue: most of the objects are shown both from the side and above as well as straight on, although the present reviewer would have liked to see more images of undersides.

The al-Sabah Collection, housed in the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait, holds perhaps the most significant number of Islamic games pieces in any one collection: some five hundred, of which 130 are chessmen. The catalogue comprises 123 entries, several of which include multiple objects. The volume is organised in three parts: part 1 includes an essay on the early development of chess and backgammon pieces, and the catalogue (Section A) of figurative chessmen, all pre-Islamic except (oddly) for one nineteenth-century Chinese rook, made from hippopotamus ivory (no.8). Part 2 forms the bulk of the catalogue, dedicated to abstract pieces it is organised by material: ivory and bone (B); wood and jet (C); ceramic (D); rock crystal and other hardstones (E); and glass (F). In a number of cases it is noted that the al- Sabah Collection holds the largest number of objects in this medium. Arranging the pieces in this way emphasises the large number of early games pieces that are made from luxury materials, especially ivory and rock crystal, suggesting that chess and backgammon were elite pastimes. Within these sections, the objects are not always grouped in a logical way (seemingly not by date, place, type of piece or object number), which, as a pedantic curator, the present reviewer found a little jarring. Section H includes other objects used in gaming such as dice, astragals (animal knucklebones, sometimes replicated in luxury materials such as jade), pachisi dice and counters, as well as a previously unpublished copy of a fourteenth-century Arabic treatise on chess (no.122). A late Ottoman games board is included (no.123), which raises the question of the kinds of boards used in the pre-modern period, an issue not discussed up to this point: the answer is that they were probably cloth and have not survived. Part 3 provides a compendium of comparanda in international public and private collections – effectively the author’s research materials, generously offered up to others as the basis for future study. This section is well footnoted but not amply illustrated, and the lack of images makes it difficult to use.

The vast majority of the objects in the second part of this catalogue are attributed to the ‘East Iranian region’, a euphemistic term for the medieval province of Khurasan – ‘euphemistic’ because Khurasan is largely equivalent to present-day Afghanistan. The author is transparent about the fact that these objects appeared on the ‘art market’ in recent decades, and were ‘reportedly found in Afghanistan’ (p.63). The provenance of each piece, as far as it is known, is included in the catalogue. Yet although the author presents this information openly, she does not address its troublesome implications. One cannot exactly speak of an ‘art market’ in Afghanistan, a country that underwent successive wars in the 1980s and 1990s, during which period most of these objects were acquired. The astonishing presence of a number of complete or near-complete sets in the collection is also evidence of this: the twenty-one pieces of an alabaster chess set (no.65), or the sixty Parthian (somewhat stretching the ‘Islamic’ label) gaming pieces of millefiori glass (nos.97–101), for example, cannot have survived above ground. Of course, the author of a catalogue has to work with the material available to them, but reading between the lines of what she does not say, the sad fact is that the majority of the objects in this collection probably left their original contexts for the market in less than licit circumstances.

Although the archaeological context for these objects is now lost, the author makes excellent use of available archaeological information and extensively cross-references to those few pieces that have been recovered through scientific excavation. These include a group of seven figurative chessmen in ivory, datable to the seventh century, found at Afrasiyab in modern-day Uzbekistan, and the earliest abstract chessmen, a group of twelve pieces in ivory, excavated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, at Nishapur in eastern Iran in the 1930s and 1940s; they were found in a house datable to the early ninth century and were probably therefore made at the end of the eighth century.

The Central Asian provenance and early date of these finds have important implications for the attribution of games pieces in other collections: it suggests that some pieces are considerably older and made in more easterly regions than previously thought. This is especially significant for the large number of rock-crystal chessmen that have survived in ecclesiastical collections in Spain and Germany. These are discussed in an extended section at the heart of this catalogue (F) in relation to the fifteen pieces in the collection that come from three rock-crystal sets bequeathed to the collegiate church of Sant Pere d’Àger by its founder, Arnau Mir de Tost (d.1072), lord of Àger in the province of Urgell, Catalonia (Fig.2). Another nineteen chessmen with the same origins are in the Museu de Lleida, Catalonia, and there are related pieces across ecclesiastical collections in the far north of Spain. The story of the Àger pieces, revealed through research by the Catalan scholar Francesc Fité i Llevot, is helpfully summarised here.(1)

As Freeman Fahid discusses, there has been a tendency to attribute most rock-crystal pieces in European treasury collections to Fatimid Egypt (969–1171) on very little basis. In fact, it is most likely that these exquisite objects were made in Abbasid Baghdad, or further east, in Khurasan, a hypothesis she advances here, building on Manuel Keene’s research into early jade cutting in this region.(2) These chess sets were gifted or carried by travellers to the Umayyad court at Cordoba, from where they came into the hands of Iberian Christian noblemen. The discussion of how this transfer took place is rather too rooted in notions of crusader booty for the present reviewer’s liking. Nevertheless, the reattribution of these pieces accords with recent attempts (in particular by Marcus Pilz) to revisit the Abbasid origins of many surviving rock-crystal objects.(3) Early examples in German collections frequently have an apparently legendary association with Charlemagne but, as Freeman Fahid points out, this reattribution makes that association less fanciful. We know that the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid sent diplomatic gifts to Aachen c.800. If this gift had included chess sets, especially if made from luxury materials, it is likely that these were passed to church treasuries, as there is no evidence that chess was then played at the Carolingian court. On the other hand, the historical evidence for chess sets in Iberian Christian contexts in the eleventh century indicates that the game was already well-established among the nobility, thanks to intensive contact with their Muslim neighbours. From the Islamic world, chess became widespread in Europe and in turn developed new sculptural forms, one example being a splendid figurative set in the Cabinet des Medailles, Paris, probably made in eleventh-century Salerno, whose overall shapes reflect the Islamic forms from which they were derived. This volume is an extremely welcome and useful addition to the literature on chess and games pieces, and will become a key reference text.

1. F. Fité i Llevot: ‘El lot de peces d’escacs de cristall |de roca del Museu Diocesà de Lleida, procedents del tresor de la collegiata d’Àger (segle XI)’, Acta Historica et Archaeologica Mediaevalia 5–6 (1984–85), pp.281–312.

2. M. Keene: ‘Old World jades outside China, from ancient times to the fifteenth century: section one’, Muqarnas 21 (2004), pp.193–214.

3. See M. Pilz: Transparente Schätze: Der abbasidische und fatimidische Bergkristallschnitt und seine Werke, Darmstadt 2021; and idem: ‘Beyond Fatimid: the iconography of medieval Islamic rock crystal vessels and the question of dating’, in C. Hahn and A. Shalem, eds: Seeking Transparency: Rock Crystals across the Medieval Mediterranean, Berlin 2020, pp.169–81, to be reviewed in a future issue of this Magazine.