World’s oldest chess piece is in Jordan?

Middle East Nilanjan Hajra
Reading Corner
chess piece
Photo : Dreamstime

Indians invented the game of chess. However, the discovery of the world’s oldest chess piece indicates that Islamic civilization adopted this game very early. Archeologists have found in Jordan a 1300 years-old carved-stone piece, and they believe it is a ‘rook’. This particular site is agog with remnants of ancient Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic civilizations. Scientists have dated this piece to be of 7th century CE. This was the period when urban Islamic culture began to develop in various sites of modern-day Jordan.

The discovery and the identification 

According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, the journal of the renowned Smithsonian museum, published in December 2019, archeologists excavated the piece in Humayma in 1991. Humayma was a former Islamic trading post.

Nearly 30 years later John Oleson reported to the American Schools of Oriental Researcher’s annual meeting in November 2019 that the piece in all probability was a rook. Initially, said, Oleson he and his colleagues mistook it for an alter created during the Nabatean civilization. Nabatean civilization is a culture that grew in southern Jordon, as a nomadic tribe began to migrate to the area from Arabia during the 6th century BCE. The legendary ancient city of Petra in Jordan is the finest example of this civilization. It lasted till 106 CE.

However, a closer investigation three decades later revealed the piece to be a rook, belonging to a much later period. “But after further examination, he is now convinced the carving is a “rook” or “castle” chess piece, as it closely resembles other ivory, stone, and wooden rooks found at later sites in the Islamic world,” reported the Smithsonian Magazine.

The chess piece

The piece is a sandstone figurine, which measures less than an inch. And it has two horns. “This shape is standard for early Islamic pieces right through the 13th [or 14th] century,” said Oleson. The Smithsonian Magazine quotes Bruce Bower of Science news regarding the possible age of the chess piece. According to him the figurine dates between 680 CE and 749 CE. This was the times, pointed out Bower, when “the powerful Abbasid family owned and operated the Humayma trading post.”

Incidentally, the term ‘rook’, meaning a certain chess piece that can move in all four directions, but not diagonally, comes from the Persian term ‘rukh’, which means a chariot. Indians invented the Chess game around the sixth century CE. Within a century it arrived in Persia through traders, in all probability, and then moved to Europe.

Historians have conjectured more about the sandstone figurine, besides its being the world’s oldest chess piece. For example, it’s being made of local sandstone indicates that the owner of the piece may not have been a social elite. This is because, according to contemporary literary evidence, the elites used chess pieces made of ivory, ebony, gold, or rock crystal. There is no mention of socially lower-class people playing chess in literature. In that sense, this chess piece adds a small but significant new chapter to the history of chess.