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Date: Wed, 30 Sep 1998 15:36:44 -0400
Sender: H-NET List on Islamic Lands of the Medieval Period <H-MIDEAST-MEDIEVAL@H-NET.MSU.EDU<
From: Editor, h-mideast-medieval <cobbpaul@mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Subject: Chess


A dialog from the H-Mideast-Medieval list,
September-October 1998

There was a question posed on the RENAIS-L list concerning the history of chess in the Islamic world, the origins of the Queen piece in particular. My knowledge is the convential knowledge that chess is an Iranian game, presumably developed during the early Middle Ages. It was also pointed out that the Queen is a Vizier in the Iranian game. My question is two fold: 1) what is the standard literature on the history of chess in the Islamic world? 2) Is the Queen strictly European or does it have Spanish-Islamic or even common Islamic roots. (May I cross-post any answers?). Paul D. Buell

Paul D. Buell

Date: Wed, 30 Sep 1998 20:01:10 -0400

Dear Paul:

For the history of Chess, check the excellent article in Encyclopaedia Iranica by Bo Utas. The game actually is of Indian origin (Skt: caturanga= an army of four divisions --> Pers/Ar. Shatranj) and dates at least to the 6th century, if not earlier. The appearance of Chess in the Sasanian empire also apparently dates to this time, but Persian lore associates the game with India (as do the presence of elephants among the pieces). There is a Middle Persian treatise on chess, Vicharishn-i chatrang, which gives the origin of the game. As you note the queen in Persian is a vizier to the king. Originally he could move only one square diagonally, but in Spain in the 15th century, when one played chess in the style de la dama as opposed to the old style, del viejo, the queen could move as far as she liked. So this is quite possibly when the piece became a queen.

The English word chess likely derives from the European pronunciation of shah, as does our word checkered, which describes the pattern of the chessboard. The term check mate comes from Persian shaah maat, the king is dumbfounded/stymied (and not from Arabic Shah maat, the king died, which is the etymology most dictionaries give).

Franklin D. Lewis
Middle Eastern Studies
S-312 Callaway Center
Emory University
Atlanta, GA 30322
tel: 404-727-0801
fax: 404-727-2133
email: flewis@emory.edu

Date: Thu, 1 Oct 1998 10:27:07 -0400

Dear List Members:

While many learned replies about the history of chess have been posted to this list, I do not believe that anybody has answered the original query of how the vizier/wazir transformed into the medieval European queen. I found a possible answer in the manual to my 1988 version of the Fidelity Chessmaster 2100 software program, page 11, although the author of the section, History of Chess (pages 9-12) is not listed.

According to the anonymous author, The present-day Queen, so called throughout the West, started as the _counselor_, or _farz_ or _firz_. The Spanish rendered this as _firz_ or _alfferza_, and the Italians as _farzia_ or _fercia_. The French made that into _fierce_, _fierge_ and _vierge_ (virgin), which may be how the gender change got started.

My own membership in the U.S. Chess Federation expired in 1995, but its catalogues were full of books on the history of chess. Perhaps the U.S.C.F. has a home page by now. At that time the U.S.C.F. was located at 186 Route 9W, New Windsor, New York 12553; its phone number was 1-800-388-KING[5464], and its fax number was 1-914-561-CHES[2437].

Dr. Timothy L. Bratton
Department of History/Pol. Science
work: 1-701-252-3467, ext. 2022
6006 Jamestown College
home: 1-701-252-8895
Jamestown, ND 58405
home phone/fax: 1-701-252-7507

Date: Thu, 1 Oct 1998 14:30:47 -0400

Someone has raised the interesting question of how the queen piece in chess develops from this game of Persian derivation in medeival Islamic civilization.

On the question of how the farzan/firz/wazir of chess transformed into the powerful queen in more recent times, I have been puzzled about this myself. The original idea is that it is the shah's counsellor. One can see how in medieval Europe, where queens often played an important role as co-ruler and counsellor, the counsellor is transformed into a most-unislamic powerful consort.

But why is the queen so much more powerful than the shah? Originally, the farzan/wazir was only permitted to move one square at a time, apparently in any direction. One can easily understand how a wazir may be more active than a king who perhaps only reigns and does not rule. The usual explanation is that the powerful queen-piece is a European improvement, but it seems most unlikely. It must have occurred also in medieval Islam that the farzan had the sweeping power of movement the queen now has. And it was much more probable for a bayadaq, or foot-soldier who survives all danger to arrive at the eighth square to then be transformed into a king's counsellor, than to undergo a gender-change and become a queen...

In passing, the rook or castle is originally the Persian rukhkh, or champion, who rides into the face (rukhkh) of the battle, not a movable castle or tower. Hence a name like Shahrukh: King-champion.

There is a good discussion of chess in Islamic Civilization by R. Wieber: Das Schachspiel in der arabischen Literatur von den Anfaengen bis zur zweiten Haelfte es 16ten Jahrhunderts, in Beitraege zur Sprach-und Kulturgeschichte des Orients, 22, but it is not in my library. Perhaps we should all get hold of a copy and study it...

John A. Williams
The College of William & Mary in Virginia

Date: Fri, 2 Oct 1998 08:27:04 -0400

There are of course a number of Arabic treatises on chess (even a few poems); it would be interesting to get some input from anyone familiar with these. For readers of Persian, Ravandi's Rahat al-sudur contains a chapter on various types of chess game. (Not being a chess player myself, it's Greek to me; but I have had on occasion to sort out the terminology, and it would have been useful to have a reference work discussing the transformation into European terms. Couldn't find one.)

Julie Meisami

Date: Fri, 2 Oct 1998 14:18:09 -0400

I believe that Richard Eales book is the fullest recent history of chess, I dont have the title and date to hand, but believe he published it in the late 1980's. And he also has written on the evidence for chess in al-Andalus, Pyrenean region around 1000, again I have the title of his article elsewhere.

George Beech, Western Mich.

Date: Sat, 3 Oct 1998 17:43:41 -0400

Thanks to all on the Medieval Islamic list who have replied on my chess question (I have cross-posted the answers to Renais-L). A further question has arisen. The assumption is that chess sets in the Islamic world were always geometric, at least the surviving Arabic ones are. Is there any evidence that they were ever carved? Were carved chess sets a purely European innovation or did they first develop in the Islamic world (Spain? chess de la dama?). And also, what about India: I seem to remember at least one Moghul minature showing a carved chess set. Was this European influence?

Paul D. Buell

Date: Sat, 3 Oct 1998 17:46:41 -0400

Timothy Bratten wrote, re. how the vizier became the queen:


> According to the anonymous author, The present-day Queen, so
> called throughout the West, started as the _counselor_, or _farz_ or
> _firz_. The Spanish rendered this as _firz_ or _alfferza_, and the
> Italians as _farzia_ or _fercia_. The French made that into _fierce_,
> _fierge_ and _vierge_ (virgin), which may be how the gender change got
> started.

Somehow, I don't buy this. I doubt whether the explanation is linguistic at all (after all, shah is still king); I think it has to do with roles, functions, etc. (and it would be interesting to know why the queen has more mobility than the vizier; but one can speculate about that...). Anyway, how many Virgin Queens were there?

[snip] The other question that interests me is: how did the elephant turn into the bishop???? (I will strenuously resist any temptation towards levity here...)

Julie Meisami

Date: Mon, 5 Oct 1998 20:45:44 -0400

You might be interested in an excellent article by Anna Contadini, Islamic Ivory Chess Pieces, Draughtsmen and Dice, in Islamic Art in the Ashmolean Museum, part 1, edited by James Allan, Oxford University Press, 1995. As far as I know, very little has been done on the subject. This study seems to suggest that the earlier pieces were quite figuratively carved; the later ones (popst 11th c.) were more abstract.

Yasser Tabbaa

Date: Tue, 6 Oct 1998 15:58:15 -0400

On the question of carved chess pieces, yes they were when made of rock crystal. See C. J. Lamm, Mittelalterliche Glaser und Steinschnittarbeiten aus dem Nahen Osten, 1913, for those known at that time. And Richard Eales, The Game of Chess: an Aspect of Medieval Knightly Culture, Ideals and Practices of Medieval Knighthood. Papers from the 1st Strawberry Hill Conference, Boydell and Brewer, 1986, 12-34.

George Beech

Date: Fri, 16 Oct 1998 19:27:26 -0400

Mr. Buell,

The main discussions that I know of that deal with the questions you raise are the following (together with their various bibliographies):

Wieber, Reinhard. Das Schachspiel in der arabischen Literatur von den Anfängen bis zur zweiten Hëlfte des 16. Jahrhunderts.

Walldorf-Hessen, Verlag für Orientkunde, 1972.

Murray, H. J. R. A history of chess. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962 (& al.). [still one of the best scholarly sources available!]

Wichmann, Hans. Chess, the story of chesspieces from antiquity to modern times [by] Hans and Siegfried Wichmann. [Translated by Cornelia Brookfield and Claudia Rosoux]. New York, Crown [1964].

There may be other sources as well. But these leap to mind. I've been out of touch with e-mail for some weeks; so if I'm duplicating my colleagues efforts, I apologize.

Happy day!

M. Zwettler