KEY WORDS AND IDEAS
Nishapur, daily life, games, figural, stonepaste
LINK TO THE THEME OF THIS CHAPTER/FUNCTION
Chess was one of the most popular pastimes in the medieval Islamic world, enjoyed by people from many different echelons of society. Although the chess set was not uncovered during the Museum's excavations, a pawn similar in color and shape to those in this set was excavated at Nishapur.
This is one of the oldest extant chess sets and is one pawn short of being complete—it has sixteen turquoise pieces and fifteen dark purple pieces. Each figure is highly abstracted, and corresponds roughly to a piece in the modern chess set. The shah (king) and vizier (corresponding to the queen) take the form of thrones; the vizier is slightly smaller. To their sides are elephants (bishops in modern sets), comprised of circular bases and flat tops with tusklike protrusions. Nearby are horses (knights), reduced to triangular knobs, and rukhs (meaning "chariots;" "rooks" in modern sets), featuring inverted wedges atop rectangular bases. The pawns, the smallest pieces in the set, are each made up of a faceted dome crowned by a small knob.
Chess, which originated in India, reached Greater Iran by the seventh century. The Shahnama (Book of Kings), the Persian national epic, recounts that chess entered Persia through a royal challenge: an Indian ruler sent a chess set to the Persian court with the message that he would pay tribute to the Persian king only if the king figured out the goal of the game (fig. 41). The Shahnama also relates a story in which chess was invented as a way to explain to a grieving queen how her son was killed in battle. (See also The Making of a Persian Royal Manuscript.)
This chess set is made of stonepaste, an eleventh-century innovation adopted by Iranian potters in the following century. That, paired with the use of turquoise glaze, dates this set to the twelfth century.
OTHER CHESS PIECES FROM THE ISLAMIC WORLD IN THE MUSEUM'S COLLECTION
Both abstract and naturalistic pieces were popular in chess sets from the Islamic world. In the Museum's collection, you can find examples of both types. For more naturalistic versions of a rukh piece and an elephant piece, see 1974.207 and 17.190.228, respectively. Other examples of abstract pieces are 1972.9.3 and 67.151.2.
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History