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Biblical Archaeology Review 46:5, Winter 2020

Strata: Then and Now: Rooks and Pawns

Though familiar in the West for centuries, chess is thought to have originated in India during the Gupta Empire (c. 280–550 C.E.). Originally called chaturaṅge, the game migrated along trade routes, changing names, designs, and rules as different cultures adopted and expanded upon it. The name chess is thought to be derived from the English corruption of the Persian word shāh, meaning “king.”

Made from sandstone and dating to approximately 700 C.E, the piece shown here could very well be the oldest known chess piece. Its square, two-pronged shape also resembles other known rooks (castles) from the early Islamic period. It was discovered in 1991 at Humayma, Jordan—a site along the busy Nova Traiana trade route (aka the King“s Highway), running from the Red Sea to Syria.

Since making its way to Europe via the Islamic world, chess has been a game enjoyed by many. The first modern chess tournament was held in London in 1851. In 1886 the first generally recognized World Chess Champion was crowned: Wilhem Steinitz of Austria. A little more than a century later, on May 11, 1997, the unthinkable occurred, and an IBM computer known as Deep Blue became the first computer to defeat a world chess champion. The previous year Garry Kasparov of Russia had played Deep Thought—Deep Blue’s prototype—and won, but that great feat was not to be duplicated.

In all its forms, from East to West, chess is a game that will continue to be enjoyed, by humans and computers alike, for many years to come.—J.D.

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