Understanding & Reviving Games From Other Places, And Times Before

Leaving aside the question of why so many of the world’s most important historical artifacts are in London, rather than where they originated, the curator in the video above is charming. And the man in the photo just below to the right is his counterpart in the place where this particular artifact originated.  My interest in board games is much less well informed, but like Mr. Mofaq I have an interest in their revival, so Deb Amlen’s article in the New York Times is appreciated:

Hoshmand Mofaq, an Iraqi artist, pondered his next move on one of the Royal Game of Ur boards he designed. Mr. Mofaq is part of a group who hope to popularize and return the game to the Iraqi people as part of their cultural heritage. Shwan Mohammed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For 4,600 years, a mysterious game slept in the dust of southern Iraq, largely forgotten. The passion of a museum curator and the hunger of young Iraqis for their cultural history may bring it back.

It is the end of a long, hot day of selling your wares in a market in ancient Mesopotamia, around 2,400 B.C., and you are looking for a way to unwind.

Netflix will not be invented for another four and a half millenniums, but as luck would have it, a pub lies ahead in the distance. A beer and a round of the Middle East’s favorite game is just the thing to pick you up. The thrill of the game is irresistible: It is impossible to predict who will win in this race to get your pieces to the end of the board, even in the last few moves.

One of the boards of the Royal Game of Ur excavated in the 1920s, on display at the British Museum. The British Museum, via Commons.wikimedia.org

You sit down across from your opponent, who offers you the first turn. You pick up the four-sided dice and shake them in your fist. Maybe this time the rumored fortunetelling aspect of the game will bless you with a spate of good luck and prosperity.

The original name of this ancient game has been lost to time, but it was dubbed the Royal Game of Ur after a British archaeologist named Sir Leonard Woolley uncovered five worn playing boards in 1928 at the Royal Cemetery of the Sumerian city of Ur. Analysts estimated that the highly decorated boards, made of wood, inlaid shell and lapis lazuli, were made between 2,600-2,400 B.C., making the Royal Game of Ur the oldest complete tabletop game ever discovered.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the game (which is also called the Game of 20 Squares) was immensely popular with people of all classes. The boards were carried all over the Middle East — and sometimes scratched into clay or rock, if no board was available — by soldiers, missionaries, explorers and traders, who introduced it to Iran, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Cyprus and Crete. Variations of the game have been found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb, and etched into pillars in the palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II.

For at least 1,000 years, the Royal Game of Ur was the national game of ancient Mesopotamia, but it waned in popularity as other games were developed, including those that most likely evolved from it, such as backgammon. Mentions of the game disappeared in the Middle Ages, but a variation, called Aasha, was played by the Jewish people of Kochi, in India. The Jews of Kochi had migrated from ancient Babylonia and brought a version of the game with them.

The 1928 discovery of the Royal Game of Ur gave scholars an important cultural glimpse into how the ancient Mesopotamians entertained themselves, but there was one problem: The boards did not come with an instruction manual, and that meant that modern-day scholars had no idea how the game worked.

Enter Irving Finkel, a curator and Assyriologist at the British Museum. In the 1980s, Dr. Finkel translated a cuneiform script on a crumbling clay tablet that had been brought to the museum by an antiquities dealer. The document sounded remarkably like the rules of an ancient game…

Read the whole story here.

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