A song of dice and sapphire

The 3rd millennium BCE (Before Common Era). Over 5000 years ago.

Scene I:

This is the dawn of advanced civilisation – civilisations we can relate to today. People had changed landscapes in the previous millennium. They were familiar with agriculture and trading goods and cultures. The idea of a collective society had grown from families to mini cities.

From 3000 BCE to 2000 BCE, the earliest Greeks, Egyptians and Mesopotamian people laid the foundation to the biblical people of Israel, Romans (and the culture of what we call ‘the west’),  and most importantly, laid the foundation to the culture of kingdoms and the concentration of power within the hands of few. This was the epoch of the world’s first kings and queens, princes and princesses, gods and demigods. The rosy picture painted here shouldn’t be mistaken to be how it actually was then. Oh no no. A lot of people had to die because power and authority had deluded the kings and queens into believing that they were chosen to make things right. Because of the close proximity of these civilisations, this millennium also sets the scene for the next millennium where a lot of these civilisation meet each other in large numbers. The results of these encounters are shaking the world today as we speak. But I’ll let the suspense hang and save all that for future posts.

At about the same time, further east, two very important, and yet extremely different developments are seen. The Indus Valley Civilisation in the North-West of the Indian subcontinent and the Sage Kings of China. The Indus Valley Civilisation is so unique because of how seemingly progressive, united and large the society was, without evidence of large scale violence. Whereas the Sage Kings of China are interesting because there’s absolutely no evidence of their existence, to the extent that it’s contested if they were even real people or just the product of spectacular imagination, or a little bit of both.

All these civilisations had their differences. But, there were a few particular traits all these different societies had in common – bronze and  fertile river coasts – on which, to a large extent, survival depended on.

3rd millennium
Extremely rough outline of the comparatively more progressive civilisations in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
indus-china
Indus Valley civilisation in modern day India and Pakistan. Nobody has a clue on what was actually happening in China then – apart from mythical stories.

And while the humans were busy with their thing, a tree was born [1] somewhere far in the west.

Act 1:

While a (relatively) sedentary lifestyle was becoming the norm and people were figuring out the need for documentation in the form of writing, it seems that some found time to entertain themselves. Somewhere in the late 3000s (BCE, that is), technology, man and healthy competition came together to create something that even today, represents the pinnacle of human achievement – the world’s first board game! This is the modern equivalent of the first arcade game. Game boards were very much a novel platform then, compared to something like say, playing with sticks and stones, or bricks and bones.

Now it’s highly unlikely that a Mesopotamian entrepreneur revealed the novel idea of a board game at a Mesopotamian equivalent of a TED Talk. We have conclusive evidence that what resembles today’s board games have evolved over time from say, games played on walls to board games played on…well, boards.

So much gas on board games. What IS the first board game? I’m afraid there can’t be a straightforward answer to that. But, as an easier alternative, we shall settle for two answers: Senet and The Royal Game of Ur.

Act 2:

Yes, we’ve finally come down to the topic itself. Let’s look at The Royal Game of Ur:

GoU.jpg
The Royal Game of Ur, housed in the British Museum. Top to bottom: Clay tablet containing rules of the game, Game board, playing pieces, dice.

Would you believe that this game set is from about 4600 years ago? I couldn’t. This is so beautiful! I can only imagine an expensive, luxurious chess set from today to maybe try and give this game board some competition. In my opinion though, this is quite easily the most beautiful game board I’ve ever seen. What you see here is an almost completely restored version of an old game board in-laid with lapis, [2] a semi precious stone. This game board was excavated from the Royal Tombs of Ur [3] – tombs, that are presumably of noble men and women.

To put this into perspective, allow me to stress on the fact that this seemingly complex and luxurious game was being played at around the same time people from the same civilisation were first figuring out how to write. It was around this time that the horse was being tamed by Indo-Europeans at Central Asia. At around this time, Europeans of the far west were only coming out of the Stone Age. This is roughly around the time legends from myths and epics are said to have actually lived – case in point, Gilgamesh from the Epic of Gilgamesh, for which I hope I’ll get to dedicate a blog post in the future.

There’s more.

Act 3:

Though this game board and its pieces were discovered in the 1920s, there was a lot of speculation surrounding the game board on whether it was a game as much as it was a fortune telling device. Those doubts were put to rest by a curator [4] of the British Museum (who would probably fit in better with ZZ Top) who was in charge of the various cuneiform [5] tablets they had in their collection.

The curator, Irving Finkel managed to translate one particular tablet that was dated to 177 BCE (from 2400 years after the game boards were made), which were most definitely the rules to the “Pack of Dogs”, almost the exact same game as the Royal Game of Ur – which is what we call it, the original name is unknown. And with the translation done and the close of another chapter, we have one of the oldest game boards in the world, and THE oldest rule-book. Yes, this tablet is the oldest known rule-book. Good job humanity!

Now comes the strange bit. From around different parts of Babylonia and Egypt, so many games were found that are variations of the Royal Game of Ur all from the second century BCE. And then suddenly….the game died off. Barely any trace of a game like it was found afterwards. People lost interest maybe?
Though we can assume that a lot of very different games that we play today can be traced back to Royal Game of Ur, the actual game very possibly died….

….Or so we think. Hold your horses, or rather, prepare your horses. We need to visit a new place.

Scene II:

Cochin (or Kochi), a port city in Kerala, South of India – a centre of multicultural interaction. This is the city of Chinese fishing nets, Dutch palaces, Portuguese churches, and a history of Muslim conquests and possibly a very important centre of ancient spice trade. This is also the home of the world’s oldest Jewish community outside Israel. How old? Over 3,000 years old, some of them claim.

Act 1:

As with much of Indian history, real physical evidence only starts to appear from much later in the timeline of events. Backed by indifference to history and the fascination for legends, a lot of the history of India exists only as legends. This is not to undermine the richness and the beauty of creative storytelling, but without historical evidence, more often than not, legend is taken as fact. While I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, I do have the leaning towards the opinion that it can’t be too good.

One such case is that of the supposed 3000 year old Jewish community in India – Kochi, more specifically. The Jews in Kochi were always a closed, minority community, but by no means excluded from daily affairs of the state. They were in fact given a lot of privileges which included tax-free benefits and near-royal status. The Jews in India were an exclusive, minority community growing alongside a branch of the prosperous and exponentially multiplying Syrian Christians of the state (more on these people later). Because of their exclusive character, they had developed their own language, traditions and even cuisine [6].

The Cochin Jews consist of many kinds of Jews who migrated to Kochi in three large movements, among other smaller migrations in between. The first wave of immigrants are said to have come during the time of King Solomon of the Bible [7]. Where is that in our timeline of board games? Probably around 1000 BCE, a 1500 years after the creation of the game board in question.

Enter curator Irving Finkel: who by a stroke of luck chanced upon another treasure. You would almost think that his luck is almost the deliberate working of divine providence. Because his next finding was just on the verge of vanishing from its lonely existence.
He stumbled upon evidence of what looked very much like an almost identical version of the game he knew so dearly. An expert on board games, the man, with all his gathered passion searched for this one game that he didn’t even know existed in India, and how it got there in the first place. As our good fortune has it, the memory of the game hadn’t died yet even though the game did.
The answer wasn’t found in India though.

Act 2:

The answer to Finkel’s questions were guarded safely by a 70 year young story teller in Israel, by the name of Ruby Daniel. Ruby Daniel was a 70 year young woman who possessed a time defying youthful glow, living in Israel. She wasn’t always in Israel though. She was one out of the many Cochin Jews who had made a bittersweet decision to move out of Kochi – a mass exodus out of a 1000-3000 year old home for them, to return to the promised land of Israel [8]. Living alone among a rural community in Israel, she still was as much of a Keralite at heart, as much as she was Jewish.

Warm memories of a blissful childhood never left her. ‘Aasha’ as this game was called, was a women’s only game – played on the days approaching the fast of Tisha B’Av [9] .
This probably means that the game was already dying out during her lifetime, with it being played only once a year. But even then, it died with grace, leaving just one more story for us to tell.


Where does that leave us? We’re left only with more questions: Did the Israelis who were sandwiched between Egypt and Mesopotamia, borrow the game from Mesopotamia as it travelled down to Egypt? If so, what made the Israelis hold on to a game that was not even theirs originally to begin with? How did the game survive for so long in India? Why didn’t Jews who left Israel for other cities of the world carry the game with them?

What we learnt today

The Royal Game of Ur tells first of all, the story of when and under what circumstances people played the first board games. It speaks of how our ancestors valued the idea of playing games from the fact that it was found buried next to their dead remains along with other very personal belongings. It stood the test of time and travelled out of its homeland, with people who settled in an entirely foreign country for so long that it almost became their home. Almost because they ultimately returned to where they came from. But on their second exodus, they left behind extra luggage.

After 5000 years, the game had finally stopped travelling and it was time for a quiet passing.

babylon to kochi
The journey of a board game

Who would’ve thought that a board game could tell the story of hundreds of different kinds of people?
The object or idea under consideration today, was a silent spectator to 5000 years of human triumph, loss, richness and death. This serves as a gentle reminder that every little object has a story to tell.

Glossary/notes:

  1. A tree was born – Methuselah, the second oldest tree in the world germinated then. The tree is still alive and is now 4,847 years old.
  2. Lapis lazuli, is shortned as lapis. It was mistaken for sapphire in the middle ages. It’s argued that references to sapphire in the Old Testament, among many other ancient documents actually refers to lapis and not sapphire, as sapphire was not known that long ago. The title of this blog post alludes to the lapis found in the Royal Game of Ur game board.
  3. Ur – A city in ancient Mesopotamia. This city was located on the banks of Euphrates, in the south of modern day Iraq. The river has changed its route over many years because of which, the current site is almost a desert.
  4. The curator – Irving Finkel.
  5. Cuneiform – A writing script developed in ancient Mesopotamia.
  6. The language and culture of the Cochin Jews are a beautifully crafted mixture of Jewish and Keralite traditions (Kerala being a southern state of India, of which Kochi is a part). Some of these traditions are now so popular in Kerala that they are a part of the Keralite identity more than the Jewish tradition. One such very interesting tradition is said to be the ever so famous “appam”. Appam was always known to be a part of very early south Indian cuisine, but the version that is popular now in Kerala is a leavened rice-based bread which could have been influenced by the Jews (?).
  7. Solomon, the son of David, heralded as one of the greatest, wisest and riches kings of the Old Testament.
  8. Aliyah – Mass immigration of Jews of Israeli origin into Israel after it was formed as a state.
  9. Tisha B’Av – A Jewish fast commemorating disasters in Jewish history – most importantly, the destruction of the temples of Jerusalem.

Reference list and further reading:

  1. Time magazine article on the story of the man who deciphered the rules of the game and who first observed the similarities between Aasha and Royal Game of Ur.
  2. Similar article from the Indian newspaper, The Hindu.
  3. Wikipedia – Royal Game of Ur
  4. Extra reading – Royal Game of Ur and Game of 20 squares
  5. Interesting notes from a history classroom presentation.
  6. The world in the 3rd millennium BCE
  7. You can download the game here! (Windows only I think)
  8. Cochin Jews – Wikipedia
  9. More info on Aliyah – Wikipedia.
  10. A short biography on Ruby Daniel – I highly recommend this short article on the life of Ruby Daniel. She was a woman of substance
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