"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Tuesday, December 13, 2005,2:32 PM
Gnostic Chess
The Origins of Chess

Continued Extracts on Gnostic Elements in Chess
by Dr. Ricardo Calvo


Ziriab was the Persian musician who introduced chess from Baghdad to Cordoba in 822. The arabist Levi-Provençal indicates that Ziriab, arrived at the sea port of Algeciras/Gibraltar in 821, and was received there by a Jew named Mansur al Jehudi. Ziriab became the most popular personality in Cordoba during the caliphate of Abderrahman II, and promoted many cultural initiatives in the Cordoba court. He is best known for adding a fifth string to the "laud", the Arab sitar.

He brought Zoroastrian knowledge as well, reflected in new astronomical celebrations and a lot of habits which soon became popular in Muslim Spain. Among them, the reference to number 13 as being connected with bad luck when misused, a superstition still widespread today all over the world.

Since the time of Alderman I, Al Annuals, as Muslim Spain was named, was a refuge for the Ummayyads. This turn of events took place the very moment the Abbassides seized power in Baghdad. This context must be borne in mind when looking at the relationship between Cordoba and Baghdad. "The proper fashion in Cordoba and in other small provincial courts was to imitate everything coming from Baghdad" says the arabist Henri Peres about the 9th and 10th century of Muslim Spain. Chess was certainly in fashion. The Ummayad emir of Cordoba Mohammed I (852-886) played passionately against a servant named Aidun, who according to Ibn Hayyan was a strong chess player.

Traces of Gnostic knowledge appear very soon in Cordoba with the disciples of the "Brothers of Purity". As early as the middle of the 9th century, the whole Gnostic Encyclopedia had been translated and divulged by the mathematician Maslama al-Magriti ("from Madrid"!) and his disciple Al- Qirmani. A few centuries later, the kabbalist Abraham ben Ezra, also from the "school of Cordoba", published a Hebrew poem on chess ascribing its invention to "men of insight". Moreover, in other treatises he mentions the first "magic square" of Saturn (3x3), which in my opinion was the first step in the whole context of numerological correspondences in future chess.

As seen in Chapter 2, other hints about the origins of chess appear in the two legends of Firdawsi. Abu al Quasim Mansur (not his real name, but an honorific tittle), nicknamed Firdawsi (932/42-1020/25) is the most reliable source for pre-Islamic chess in Persia. In his "Book of Kings" he describes chess as an Indian invention brought to Persia during the brilliant period of Cosroes I the Great (531-579) also named Nushirwan or Anushirawan. (Antonius van der Linde. "Geschichte und Literatur des Schachspiels". Berlin 1874. Ed Olms, Zürich 1981. II, pp 245 ss.)

The wisest man in the Persian court, Buzurdjmir, rediscovered the chess rules, the movement of every piece and its initial placement, with no other help than a deep study of the board itself . Buzurdjmir, the legendary wise man in Firdawsi's story, discovered the secret and told the Persian king:

"O King of victorious fortune! I have studied these black figures and this chess board, and, thanks to mighty Ruler of the World I have realized completely the laws of the game".
As I have shown in Chapter 2, this method can be followed step by step until one arrives at the invention of a Safadi magic square which explains everything The story tells also that Buzurdjmir made his discovery "thanks to the Ruler of the Universe". If we accept that the wording of Firdawsi's Epos and/or his sources (which are very reliable and can be traced back till the middle of the 6th century) is a very careful one, it is interesting to remember that Buzurdjmir "thanks to the Ruler of the Universe" could be translated as "the factor 13" of Oskar Fischer, which enables a systematic rediscovery of chess movements.

Firdawsi means "the paradisian" and it gives another hint about the relationship between Gnostic authors and chess origins. As the historian M. Joel showed (Manuel Joel. "Blicke in die Religionsgeschichte" (1880), I, p.163. Quoted by Sholem JM, note in p. 395), "paradise" is an old talmudic allegory for Gnosis because of the tree of wisdom which grew there. Sholem points out that Origen ("Contra Celsum" VI, 33) indicated that the Gnostic sect of the Ophites used the same metaphor. Also St. Paul ( II Corinthians, 12,2-4) describes a man who "was caught up into paradise and heard secret words that man may not repeat" From this, Sholem concluded that Paul was privy to a strict Jewish tradition with roots in the "Testament of the 12 Patriarchs" and other esoteric-rabbinic sources from his time.

There is a second chess author also nicknamed Firdawsi who lived in Turkey some 400 years after his Persian namesake. This Firdawsi al-Tahihal was a poet and historian at the court of Sultan Bayazid II (1481-1512), but the interesting point is that his chess treatise, completed in 1508, mentions much older sources and is preserved in two manuscripts under the title "Shatranjj nama-i kabir".

The content, as judged by the index of chapters, defines a Gnostic approach. The number of pages is 64, and there are 8 chapters. The first one relates the invention of chess with the prophets Idris, Jimjid and Solomon. Idris appears again explaining chess rules in chapter 4, and chapter 5 explains the story of grains of corn linking it with Alexander the Great ("Iskander") . Other chapters are more technical, but in the end, Firdawsi quotes several of the antecedent sources he had used, including Safadi, and significantly, the Gnostic "Brothers of Purity". Thus, the connection between chess authors and ancient Gnosis, Semitic as well as Hellenistic, is reinforced convincingly.

A most revolutionary feature in the invention of the chess is the deliberate exclusion of the dice which were widely used in many other games on these types of boards. After excluding the element of " luck ", redemption or victory depends basically upon individual effort and degrees of personal enlightenment. This is a message implicit in chess. Destiny and Hazard have no place in such an ethical system.

Averbach used it as the axis of his theory that chess arose as a consequence of Hellenistic influences which persisted from the time of Alexander the Great in the NW of India, and which underwent a revitalization during the 2nd. though the 4th. Centuries of our era. The aspect which stresses freewill as a pivotal factor is, therefore, the message engraved in the invention of chess even from its very beginning. In other words, chess could be defined as Greek thought pronounced in Gnostic language.

This is also the picture given by the Xiang-qi or Chinese chess. The game of chess (as we know it) has been associated throughout its development with astronomical symbolism, a feature that was more overt in related games now long obsolete. The battle element of chess seems to have developed from a technique of divination in which it was desired to ascertain the balance of ever-contending Yin and Yang forces in the universe. According to the Chinese literature this "image-chess" (hsiang chi) was developed during the reign of the Emperor Wu of the Northern Chou dynasty (+561 to +578), and the date of the first treatise on the subject is definitely named as +569. The preface of this by Wang Pao still exists. It appears that the pieces on the board in this divination technique represented the sun, moon, planets, stars, constellations. This "image-chess" derived in its turn from a number of divination techniques which involved the throwing of small models, symbolic of the celestial bodies, on to prepared boards. Thus there was a dice element as well as a move element, and there were many intermediate forms between pure throwing and placement followed by combat moves. All these go back to China of the Han and pre-Han times, i.e. to the 4th. or 3rd. Century, and similar techniques have persisted down to late times in other cultures. On a parallel line of development numbered dice, anciently widespread, followed a related line of development which gave rise in +9th Century China to dominoes and playing-cards. (Joseph Needham. "Thoughts on the origin of chess" Cambridge 1962).

Many of the Arabic chess manuscripts begin with a philosophical discussion about fatalism, symbolized by dice (hazard=azahar=flower, the flower indicating the Ace in Islamic dice) and the voluntarism implicit in chess. Later Islamic authors stated it more explicitly. I am particularly partial to the wording of the anonymous Arab author in the chess MS translated into beautiful Spanish by Pareja:

"As for their intimate sense, with the two games, chess and nard, the inventor intended to reproduce a lively outlook upon one of the most stubborn controversies known to mankind. Indeed, humanity and human consciousness is divided between the opposed doctrines of "free will" and "predestination". Essentially the conflict between the ability to choose freely or to act without election is mirrored in the respective achievements of chess and nard.

One of those schools proclaims that the movements of the men, their acts and the happy or unfortunate consequences which come of them flow, by necessity, from a "primum mobile", a first cause which is external to them and their abilities, insofar as it is none other than an overarching "God" who who grants and prohibits.

Subsequently, this school was divided. Those entertaining orthodox religious tendencies believed that this cause reflected divine ordinance with regard to all creatures and creation, which it was not the role of man to thwart, much less question. In opposition, those of more naturalistic tendencies were of the persuasion that whatever causes came to bear upon the universe could be divined though inquiry into the favorable or adverse movements of the celestial spheres.

The second school proposed that man's most prosperous outcomes came about through the appropriate exercise of knowledge, individual perception and volition. Conversely, ill-starred, or adverse outcomes were also dependent upon the poor exercise of free will, with misfortunes arising through the abandonment of free election or perversions of otherwise well informed, "good" judgement.

The inventors of nard patterned the rules of this game to suit the opinion of the first school, so that the two dice carry out the function of an "external" cause, thereby demonstrating the futility of human effort or the vanity of those who preferred to view personal decision making abilities and human effort as central to the development of actual circumstances. In nard, one sees with great clarity how victory in this game is nothing short of capricious. The spoils of competition play no obvious favourite as the "Unseen Hand" is viewed as capable of assisting the inept, ignorant player in overcoming the wiles of more intelligent and capable opponents. In nard, to be embraced by the kindly disposition of the dice - the external cause - or abandoned by it, spells all there is to know about how victory is achieved or denied.

On the other hand, the inventors of chess accommodated the laws of the second school. Implied in the dice-free aspect of chess is an external cause that works through the agency of each individual, and cannot be strictly typed. Rather, it grants two players equality of pieces and opportunity and an impartial theater of operations that will unavoidably correspond to the respective abilities of individuals to interpret a winning outcome according to intellectual skills received from God. Thus the game is based on free will, making it patently clear how those who best understand how to improvise freely with skill and willful determination are more likely to overcome those who make poor use of their abilities.

The inventor linked this game with the art of the war, partly because war is among the most important of worldly affairs and partly because intellectual dexterity and free election are factors that lead to victory or defeat. As is evident, the desired result is only due to well calculated combinations, whereas defeat may easily be attributed to defects of planning and strategy. Through such features, chess mimics all other ordinary matters one might encounter in the business of life."

Based mostly on Arabic materials, The Codex of Alfonso X of Castile (1283 C.E.) deals extensively with this question, describing chess as a "brain game" ("seso"), dice as a game of luck ("ventura") and the "nard" / backgammon group of games as intermediate between the other two. In allegorical style, Alfonso summarizes the discussion, deciding in favour of chess as being the more superior of the group - "the most honest of all games", as he put it..

The problem of freewill and human fate appears in the Islamic world during the 7th century as a result of theological contests against Jews and Christian sects in Syria and Iraq. Pareja (LRM, p.112) mentions the role of St. John Damascene, and before him, the Muslim Mabad al-Guhani, executed in Basra in 80/699 because of his ideas about freewill in human destiny.

With its source in the Quran, the conflict began once Mohammed employed both opposing attitudes, in favour or against freewill, according to the compelling needs of the particular moment of Islamic development. It has been noticed that during a time when the Prophet had to struggle against powerful opponents, a Sura written in Mecca is in favour of freewill, which is understandable. In contrary fashion however, once Islamic preeminence had consolidated, the texts dictated afterwards during the Medina period, insist in absolute divine omnipotence and predestination in human fate. Pareja concluded that "being this the trend during the last part of Mohammed teaching, the community of his followers adopted it and the orthodox doctrine derived predominantly from determinism" in the sense expressed by many Surae (Quran 16/95;16/39;6/39 among others).where the message is: "Allah guides those He wants to preserve, and He leads to confusion those who He wants to destroy". An example among many others is Sura VI (Cattle, Livestock):

"39. Those who reject our signs are deaf and dumb,- in the midst of darkness profound: whom Allah willeth, He leaveth to wander: whom He willeth, He placeth on the way that is straight."
Therefore, fundamentalism could not look with sympathy at the voluntarist message implicit in chess philosophy. The whole question had important political implications too. A serious rupture inside Islam happened because of the first struggle for leadership after the death of Ali in 40/660, who was married to Fatima, a daughter of Mohammed. These are the roots of the Shíia, the party supporting the rights of Ali and his descendants which avails an issue that splits the Muslim world even unto modern times. Shiite veneration of Ali borders upon the mythical (Pareja LRM pp.220-221) with regard not only to the war accomplishments of their model but also because of his wisdom and secret knowledge. Two books of esoteric content about the future history of the world are attributed to Ali (Pareja LRM, p.210). The ill-fated son of Ali, Hussain, killed in the battle of Karbala (61/680), is a persistent focus of mourning among Shiites. On the other hand, Sunnites (from sunna: "the way to be transited") accepted the new chain of Ummayad Caliphs through whom the separate order became established. Hussain is referred to in the "hadith" or tradition as a chess player, who used to hail other players during their games (Murray p.191). In contrast, his murderer , the founder of the Ummayad dynasty, Yazid ben Muawiya (D. 64/683), is mentioned by Ben Khallikan as a player of nard (Murray p.193). Muawiya also appears in a story which depicts him as a poor chess player and a bad loser:

"He was a bad chess player and a slave girl played very well. When she met a better chess rival, Muawiyya ordered that the couple was buried alive inside a box". (Wieber. op. cit. pp. 218-219).Perhaps this story was inserted "a posteriori" by the Abbasid late propaganda to deteriorate his image (Wieber op. Xit pp. 60-61).

The whole chess issue was not merely rhetorical, because its political implications were explosive. The Ummayad Caliphs could be regarded as having usurped the rights of Ali, Fatima, Hussain and Muhammads family. Therefore, the doctrine of determinism and divine decree gave them a justification to reinforce their authority, basing its origin in GodÕs wishes. Byzantine emperors had been doing the same. According to Pareja. the court poets of this period hailed the Ummayad rule in Damascus as "foreseen in the eternal projects of Allah". History shows many other later examples of dictators all over the world justifying their crimes upon the basis of GodÕs decree.

The voluntarism implicit in chess explains the scarcity of references to our game during Ummayad rule and its possible scrutiny from the legal point of view. Wieber (p.64) in his exhaustive reappraisal, concludes that the first reference in Arabic literature, although not completely solid, dates from around 720 A.D. The next, which is more secure, was in the year 750, and the third one, this time incontestable, arrives in 791 under Abbasid Caliphs. "Byzantine influences had been hegemonic in the cultural world of the Ummayads, but were progressively substituted under the Abbasids by others of Iranian kind, because the strength of the new dynasty had its roots in Persia" (Vernet, p. 16). As such, Chess appears to have been regarded as a weapon during the terrible civil war. Written references to Islamic chess flourish in the first Abbasid period, and to some extent, these can be read as political propaganda inserted "a posteriori".

From the moment of this first rupture within Islam, chess suffers though the influence of two opposite forces deciding upon its survival and configuration: One, having clear Persian roots, shows an infusion of oriental knowledge and a rationalistic approach. It has frequent historical or political links with Shiite movements and is, in general, favourable to chess. The other orientation is reluctant or even hostile to the acceptance of the game. This has pure Arabic roots, and is inclined to traditional, orthodox thinking in every conflicting matter of judgement. Both tendencies alternate among the ideological leaderships during the first centuries and their discrepancies were reflected inside the Sunnite schools of jurisprudence. With reference to games, evidence of debate appears frequently in most of chess manuscripts and other texts such as the following comment by Masudi (Wieber, op. cit. P. 151):

"A Muslim theologian says: Chess is 'mutazilla', and nard is 'gabr'. Because the chess player relies only upon his free-will and his wishes, whereas a nard player must obey the decree of dice". 3.

"Gabarites" (from gabara, "to press with violence") denied the freedom of human decisions, and man as well as all other beings was subject to the divine decree, gabr, of Allah. "Mutazilites" were named so because of the term mutazila, which gives the idea of separation, dissidence, retirement and abstention. They were supporters of freewill and of rationalistic methods in dogmatic maters, as well as the analysis of written questions. The founder of the mutazzila-movement was Wasil ben Atá (D. 748, during the civil war).

The question of freewill was packed together with other conflictive issues such as the intermediate situation of the sinner between the believers and the unbelievers, or whether the Quran had been created or not. The passionate, and frequently bloody confrontations related to delicate implications such as the famous passages in which Mohammed appears talking to Moses. The most radical theological school, the "Hanbalites" vehemently supported the idea that, to the letter, all the words in the Quran were dictated by Allah himself, preserved through eternity and therefore of an uncreated nature. (Pareja LRM, p.127) Geographically, the center of the Mutazillite movement was the city of Basra. Older than Baghdad, there concentrated the followers of freewill and neo-Pythagorean groups such as the "Brothers of Purity"

During the 9th century, in Basra and afterwards in Baghdad, a secret society of Gnostic philosophers exercised great intellectual influence. They called themselves "Brothers of Purity" and published a sort of Encyclopedia consisting in 50 "letters" or chapters on the most varied philosophical subjects. In one of the chapters "Magic Squares", numbers are shown on boards ranging from 3x3 till 9x9. The Arab title of this famous work is "Rasa-il ijwan al-safa". It influenced many other works in later years, especially in Muslim Spain. (See for instance E. Garcia Gomez. "Alusiones a los Ijwan al Safa en la poesia ar bigo andaluza". Al Andalus (1939), pp 462-465) .

They didn't give explanations about the secrets implicit in the numerological arrangement of the Mercury chess board, because they acted as a "neo-Pythagorean" secret society. Knowledge belonged only to the initiated, and initiation was done step by step. The master of each group was highly respected. Disciples were chosen following rigid criteria, including heiromancy and physiognomic observation. Several names are known, as for instance, the Jew Sharon Ben Samuel, nicknamed the "Father of all secrets". The group was multiracial and showed a peculiar inter-religious approach. The Andalusian Al-Dabbi, who studied in Baghdad at the end of the 9th century, wrote that they were "Muslims of all sects, both orthodox and unorthodox, Unbelievers, Zoroastrians, Materialists, Atheists, Jews and Christians". He also states that in the meetings and discussions, all they put aside the dogmatic books of their respective religions, and referred only to the "free reason".

A significant characteristic of the "Brothers of Purity" was their interest in esoteric and philosophical areas, among them the importance of Fate and Freewill in human destinies. We know that this school was a voluntarist one, thanks to two famous Andalusian disciples. The first is Mohammed Ben Massara (883-931). He was a follower of the Egyptian mystic Du-l-Nun, created a school in Cordoba and his disciples were prosecuted by the Caliph from 951 on because of "their doctrine of Free-will, their negation of the physical reality of infernal punishment and their pantheistic ideas based in neo-Pythagorean gnostics such as Philo, Porfirius and Proclus "(9).

The second is the poet Ibn Hani of Sevilla (D. 973), referred to by his enemies as "man of corrupt habits", a formula customary during the waves of fundamentalism. He went to Egypt to serve the Fatimites and two verses of one of his poems in honour of the ruler Yafar ben Ali express indirect chess connections:

"It shall be what you want, not what the Fate wills Take a decision! You alone are the Almighty!"

Therefore, Islamic fundamentalism could not look with sympathy at the voluntarist message implicit in chess philosophy. The whole question had important political implications too. 3.

A feature of many circles of Gnostic thinking of all times is "dualism", the acceptance of two polar principles and their "emanations": Light and Darkness, Good and Evil . Dualism was peculiar to Iranian religion in ancient and medieval times. A lucid evaluation of dualism as a fundamental element of the Gathas is that of W. B. Henning: "Any claim that the world was created by a good and benevolent god must provoke the question why the world, in the outcome, is so very far from good. Zoroaster's answer, that the world had been created by a good and an evil spirit of equal power, who set up to spoil the good work, is a complete answer: it is a logical answer, more satisfying to the thinking mind than the one given by the author of the Book of Job, who withdrew to the claim that it did not behoove man to inquire into the ways of Omnipotence".

As Sarton states "Dualism, such as was elaborated in the Zoroastrian religion, is rooted in the deepest recesses of the human conscience". The inventor or inventors of the chess game expressed implicitly such message in a codified manner from the moment they designed chess as a battle between two armies. or, more important, such polarization fitted in well with the "Zeitgeist" during the chess expansion.

The following passage from the Gathas (Y. 30.3-4) is fundamental to understanding Iranian dualism: "The two primeval Spirits who are twins were revealed [to me] in sleep. Their ways of thinking, speaking, and behaving are two: the good and the evil. And between these two [ways] the wise men have rightly chosen, and not the foolish ones. And when these two Spirits met, they established at the origin life and non-life and that at the end the worst existence will be for the followers of Falsehood and for the follower of Truth the Best Thinking."

Islamic hostility to dualism also influenced the Zoroastrian communities in Persia. In fact, condemnation of dualists was almost a topos in Muslim refutations of Manichean, Mazdakite, and even Mazdean doctrines; the last was, however, given special attention. The intellectual atmosphere during the middle of the 8th. Century, is summarized by R. Frye as follows: "It is clear that the religious situation under the early Abbasids was quite fluid, with gnostic ideas entering Shiite beliefs, with dualism, early mysticism and a host of other tendencies in the air".

After the Muslim conquest of Persia and the exodus of many Zoroastrians to India and after having been exposed to both Muslim and Christian propaganda, the Zoroastrians, especially the Parsis in India, went so far as to deny dualism and to view themselves as outright monotheists. After several transformations and developments one of the defining features of the Zoroastrian religion thus gradually faded and has almost disappeared from modern Zoroastrianism.

An extreme form of Zoroastrian dualism is represented by the sect of Mani, or "Manichaenism. As with the problem of decree and destiny, the polarization implicit in chess had an expression in the confrontation between Manichaeans and orthodox Muslims. The former created a syncretic movement named the Khurramdin (in Persian, literally "the happy religion") which was half Muslim half Manichaean. Its leader was a certain Yusuf ben Ibrahim. This group, based mainly around Bukhara and Samarkand, was prosecuted actively . Yusuf and many of his followers were executed by the caliph Mahdi in 161/778. After this came a more serious revolt led by a certain al-Muqanna "the veiled prophet of Khurassan" who claimed to be a reincarnation of other prophets. From 775 to 785 the movement spread in Transoxiana. A similar group of rebels directed by Babak in Azarbaidjan was also prosecuted and destroyed.

Frye has also described a persistent Zoroastrian influence among Christian and Jews living in Iran during early Islamic times. Christians were almost exclusively Nestorians and the top post of their church from 780 to 823, in the hands of Timoteos I, was able to secure under the Abbasids not only its maintenance but also its expansion. "In the middle of the ninth century a regular missionary activity to the Turks and to China began... In the end the Nestorian were victorious and some entire tribes in Mongolia were converted. Ruins of Christian cloisters in Turfan and elsewhere in Chinese Turkistan have been found and Syriac inscriptions testify to the success of the Nestorian mission as late as Mongol times.

Sects of mystical kind flourished also among the Jews from Iran, and famous names are Anan ben David in the time of caliph Mansur (754-775), and later Benjamin of Nivahand, Daniel ben Moses from Qumis, as well as Musa al Nikrisi from Gurgant, a friend of al-Beruni. "The history of eastern ???? is very little known and much work is needed before one can even begin to reconstruct the history of Jews in Iran. We know the names of Jewish scholars of heretical bent from the east, such as Abu Isa from Isfahan, Yugdan of Hamadan, Mushki from Qum and, the most famous of all, Hivi from Balkh", summarizes Frye (op.it. p.138).

Iranian dualism spread widely east and west of the Iranian world, especially through Manicheism. Traces can still be found in Central Asian and particularly Tibetan cosmogonies. In the West, although the connections are uncertain and the historical development difficult to reconstruct, religious dualism can be identified in the beliefs of Priscillianus and his followers in the late Roman empire, the Paulicians in the Byzantine empire, and later, the Bogomils.

Has this religious atmosphere influenced the design and the evolution of the chess game? Speculation is unavoidable, because of lack of documents. But chess evolution, its ideological acceptance and its spread in Central Asia and China can be considered as possibly linked with the religious situation. There is however a good case in favour of such philosophical and religious elements joining the game of chess in this path. A geographical coincidence between the areas where pre-Islamic chess can be detected, and the central Asiatic roads and cities tightens such ties. 3.

The oldest board games identified as such in Egypt are related to astrology and divination. Then follow mathematical exercises implicit in the boards, games of alignment and race games with dice like "Senet". Hunt games seem to be a later achievement, but whatever the respective antiquity of the different kinds of play could be, war games like chess or draughts should be in any case posterior to magical-astrological-mathematical exercises upon boards.

Above all other chess designs (astrological, mathematical etc.), symbolic war was the most successful choice. Again, this fact could have originated as the result of intellectual harmony between the chess message and the ideas stirring within gnostic groups.

These ideas can be perceived in a poem by the Andalusian gnostic Ibn Hani, a former member of the "Brothers of Purity". Significantly, the poem was written during his exile in Fatimite Egypt due to the intrigues of Islamic fundamentalism in Cordoba. The poem describes a battle between two parties, the Darkness of the night and the Light of the rising sun, giving a long enumeration of the stars involved in the fight, and thereby attesting to his astronomical knowledge. The poem was published and translated by the great Spanish arabist E. Garcia Gomez. ("El libro de las banderas de los campeones de Ibn Said al Magribi". Madrid 1942. pp 55 and 204). The mystical image of stars as armies seems to be an old Semitic one. The reference comes from Isaiah, 40,26

"Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these: he leads out their army and numbers them, calling them all by name". Hence the term "Yahveh Sebbaot" in the famous Keduschai in Isaiah 6:3. "'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts', they cried one to the other. 'All the earth is filled with his glory!'". The expression "Sebbaoth" also reappears in the "Sanctus" of Christian liturgy in its original Hebrew form. "Sebbaoth" can be translated as "armies" or as "stars". (Also in Arabic the root "sb" means "the rise of a star"). There are many other examples in the Bible of this image. For instance in Psalm 147, 4, Deuteronomy 17,3, II Kings 17,16, Jeremiah 8,2, Baruch 3, 34 (Vernet, p. 54. Notes 120-121)

Allegorical armies were seen as indications of the geographical location of chess origins. The kabbalist, mathematician and analysts of the Bible Abraham ben Ezra (1089-1164), in his famous chess poem, refers to the inventors of chess as "men of insight", without mentioning any specific country or period of time. He doesnÕt mention anything about India, and a man of his erudition and so critical minded would certainly have surveyed all the relevant aspects of chess origins for any written evidence.

His references to chess are biblical. Red pieces are considered as "Edomim" and the black men are the "Kuschnim". Among the greatest authorities in biblical analysis, Ben EzraÕs choice of words must be borne in mind in the question of chess origins, insofar as the question seems to have prevailed in Muslim Spain or amid his travels to northern Africa, Palestine, and later through Italy, and France.

The terms are somehow misleading. Edom, the eldest son of Isaac was betrayed by his brother Jacob, who stole his hereditary right in exchange of a dish of red beans. Edom, the red, gives the name of the land to his tribe, the Edomites, who occupied Palestine centuries before the arrival of the Israelites. Located south of Moab in the area to the south and west of the Dead Sea, in Greek and Roman times this territory was also known as Idumea. Several names of its kings are quoted in Gen. 36, 31-33: Bela, son of Beor, and his successor Jobab. (Because of this name, there is a rabbinic tradition considering Job a rich Edomite, thus dating the book to the time of Israel's captivity in Egypt and even attributing its redaction to Moses, a theory rejected by modern scholars.)

Moses asked for permission to traverse their territory, but the Edomites refused, which initiated a hostile relationship lasting for centuries. During DavidÕs reign, Joab slaughtered the Edomites and one of the survivors, Adad, is mentioned in I Kings, 11:14 as a foe of Solomon, perhaps leading a guerrilla war against him. The seventh Davidic King, Joram, fought also against Edom, which was occupied around 800 B.C.E. by the tenth Davidic King Amasias (II Kings, 14:7).

Kush offers some difficulties. The second river of the Paradise "is Gihon, which encircles the land of Chus" (Gen 2:13) and some interpretations refer to the Kassites as a tribe living eastwards from the Tigris with a period of splendour occurring between 1600-1200 B.C.E. In Gen. 10:6 Kush is mentioned as a son of Cam and therefore, the black Kushnim have been traditionally identified es Ethiopians (river Gihon would then be the Nile. However, the next verse states that sons of Kush were Seba and Evila, clearly eponyms of Arabic tribes. The land of Kush is not the actual Ethiopia, and would rather be situated in northern Sudan. It was an Egyptian province during many centuries, with its capital in Nepata, near the site of Meroe in the Upper Nile. Around 736 B.C.E., the relationship of power reversed and at the same time when Assyria destroyed Israel, the Ethiopians were dominating some parts of the Nile delta. Their first contact with Israel occurs in II Kings, 17:4, at which time Ethiopia had conquered southern Egypt and created the XXV Dynasty to whom king Oseas asked for help against the Assyrians.

Thus, an old Kabbalistic tradition seems to have connected the chess invention with Gnostic groups in Egypt and Mesopotamia. 2.

Keats has recently shown "an enigmatic board game" in a Hebrew manuscript from the Vatican Library. Its signature is 171 (Asseman, Bibliothecae apostol Vatic, Codd manuscr. Catalogus. Romae 1756, vol I, pp 134 ff) and the date is allegedly the 13th century. Its content refers partly to chess, but there is also a square board of 9 x 9 cases, almost half of them bearing the numbers from 1 to 9, and the indication that the playing stones are 4 "challengers" and 3 "defenders" arranged upon the long diagonal. To explain the game, the Hebrew text provides seven chapters and a long list of possible situations such as: "In case of 1 and 9, 1 defeats 9. In case of 8 and 1, 8 defeats 1. In case of 1 and 1 the challenger defeats the defender"... and so on.

The same text, but without diagram, appears in the pseudo-Aristotelian "Secretum secretorum", an interesting didactic work aimed at the education of medieval princes and kings. Its Arabic name is "Sirr al-asrar" and the first known compilation was done in Bhagdad in the 8th century by Yahya ibn al-Batrik, a Christian-Nestorian who worked as translator in the court of al-Mamun. According to him, he found the original book in the temple of Hermes Trismagestis (referred to as Homer the Greatest) in a volume written in letters of gold. Yahya translated the text first to the "rumi", and then into Arabic. The term "rumi" refers more frequently to Byzantine Greek or other Christian languages, but other times indicates Syriac, usually employed as a link of transmission between Greek and Arabic. So, the origin is most probably Hellenistic.

The "Sirr al asrar" had three translations in Europe. The first one,in Latin, was done in Spain by Johannes Hispalensis, a Jew also named Avendehut (a corruption of Ibn Dawud) who was working in Toledo between 1135 and 1153. The second one, also in Spain, was a Hebrew version from the 13th century done by Judah al Harizi around 1190-1218, Edited and translated by Moses Gaster. "Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society" 1907. pp. 879-913; 1808, Part I. pp. 111-162 ) and differs from the others because of a chapter on alchemy. Derived from this version is the Latin translation by Philip of Tripoli. In the 13th century, the circle of translators of King Alfonso the Wise produced a translation into Castilian under the tittle "Poridat de las poridades" or "Secret of the Secrets". I have been using the edition by Lloyd A. Kasten (Madrid 1957).

The content starts with the attribution of the work to Aristotle, teacher of Alexander the Great. The King had already conquered Persia and had difficulties in matters of government, so he asked for help in a letter to Aristotle, who refuses to travel to Persia because of his age, but sent instead the treatise of secrets. There are 8 chapters, dealing with matters such as royal behaviour, justice, military tactics, physiognomy, medical preventions and even astrological mineralogy.

In the chapter dealing with war secrets appears the text which the Hebrew manuscript connects with a diagram of 9 x 9. The King should never begin a battle without using first several esoteric calculations which must be known only by the initiated, because it serves as a prediction of the final result of the contest. The secret method applies not only to war, but to any dispute between two parties, collective or individual.

The method consists in the Gematric inquiry of the names of the contenders. After obtaining its numerical value, 9 units must be subtracted once and again until the final result ranges from 1 to 9. Then the list of all possible situations ("in case of 2 and 9, 9 wins against 2", etc.) foretells which party shall obtain the victory. When the names of both contenders have the same final value, the list explains, depending if the number is impair (unpaired? - impaired?) or not when a challenger defeats the defender.

One of the examples is as follows: The Gematric value of Moses is 345. Subtracting 9 units successively the final result is 3. The Hebrew letters of Amalech sum 340, and the division by 9 end finally in 6. Then, according to the list, 6 wins against 3 and Amalech would defeat Moses. Because of this, Moses decided that his troops should be led by Josuah, whose Gematric value is 397, with a final figure of 1 after subtracting 9 many times. The 1 triumphs against the 6 of the defeated Amalech. The same reason, the text says, explains the victory of Abner against king Agad, (The story is interesting, but I checked it with a calculator and saw that the given calculation is wrong, because the real rest of Amalech after subtracting 37 times 9 is 7 and not 6, According to the list, both Moses (345 and 3 als end rest) and Josuah (397 and 1 als final rest) would win against the 7 of Amalech, but 6 would have defeated the 1 as well as the 3.)

The text says that this is the "great prove of the prophet Daniel" (an anachronism if Moses had actually used it) and that "men of science" call it "the calculation of Alexander". So, the diagram in the Vatican manuscript is titled the "iskundree game". The rationale of the game remains enigmatic.

The "iskundree game" occurs in the Talmud (Shebuoth 29 a) and Keats gives a list of interpretations: A game played with pieces on a board (Rashi), a game played with small pieces of wood (Rabbenu Nissim or Nissim Gerondi, 14th century), a childrenÕs game with counters (Nathan ben Jechiel), a game with little dogs (Rabbi Hannanael ben Hushiel). An interesting point is another Talmudic reference (Kiddushin 21 b) where two judges are conducting an argument, and one says to the other: "When you were at Mar Samuel's academy you wasted your time playing iskundree". Keats points out that this reference gives unambiguous evidence for iskundree as early as the third century AD.

Iskundree refers to Alexander and is also a toponom for many cities in Persia and central Asia which preserved a Hellenistic heritage. The number of Iskundree cities varies in the references.. Plutarch (De Alexandri Fortuna 1, 5. Moralia p. 328e) says there were 70. In the Arabic literature appears a long list of at least 30 cities in India, Iran and the middle east, including todayÕs Alexandria ("al-iskandariyya"). Mohammed Murtada. Tadi al-arus, III, 276).

It is an interesting fact that several of them were built following the chess pattern of 8 x 8 streets. The first book of Ramayana, (5:12) the city of Ayodhya is described as "charming, because of its ashtapada design, as if the squares had been painted". But van der Linde pointed out that ashtapada boards of 8 x 8 had no colours at all, and were drawn only with lines. The passage is therefore dubious.

Apart from Alexandria in Egypt, other cities designed in this form are ( See: Encyclopedia of Islam. "al-Iskindiriyya") Jundishapur, founded by the Sassanid emperor Shapur ((240-270) and Nishapur, in the time of Cosroes. The references of old Arab geographers Hamza al Isfahani ( 912) and Mustawfi (1340) who are the sources quoted by Le Strange. "Lands of the Eastern Caliphate". Cambridge, 1895, p.386 (Cfr Murray, p. 33)

From "The Encyclopedia of Islam", (H.A.R. Gibb, J.H. Kramers, E. Levy-Provençal, J. Schacht. Leyden 1960-London/ N.Y 1973) the following cities can be considered in the question of the place where chess was possibly born.( The notes are from Richard N. Frye, "The Golden Age of Persia" Chap. 3: Central Asia before the Arab conquest. Weidenfeld. London 1975.)

In Sogdiana: Alexandria Eschate, 50 km to the NE of Tashkent, several toponoms point towards probable foundation by Alexander. Its inhabitants expanded creating colonies in Mongolia and China. Cfr. S.G. Klyashtornyi, "Sur les colonies sogdiennes de la Haute Asie". Ural-altaische Jahrbücher (Wiesbaden 1961), XXXIII,pp. 95-7.

Their religion was Mazdeism, but there are also traces of Manichaeism, Nestorianism and Buddhism. Kudama (BGA, VI, 265) mentions Samarkand al-Dabusiyya, the actual Ziandin in the zone of Bukhara, Al-iskandariyya al-Kuswa (identified as Khudjand), in the Ferghana valley as also having been founded by Alexander.

In Southern Bactria (Afghanistan) the capital was Balkh, called "the mother of cities" by the arabs. The tradition says that Zarathustra taught there. Alexandria Paropanisades has a dubious identification (Gazna or Begram, north from Kabul).

In NW India (Gandhara or Punjab) there are many "Sikandara" ( Times Atlas of the World. Map 30): Alexandria Bukephalos, in the right side of river Hydaspes, near the actual Djalalpur, and another. Alexandria in the river Acesines (Cenab), near its confluence with the Indus . Alexandria "para Sorianois", is also in India. Alexandri Portus is the actual Karachi. In northern Bactria, (Khuttal or Tadzikistan) there were several Iskondrt besides Balkh. Alexandria Oxiane (in the Oxus: Djaybun) Alexandria Eschate, different from the other, in the upper Oxus superior, and other Alexandria in Bactria and Sogdiana are also evident.

Rusta pretended that his home city Isfahan was founded by Alexander. Another trace is Eskandari, 110 Km to the west of de Isfahan. Khwaritzm, at the Aral Sea, was also Iskundri. Merv was the strategical connection between central Asia and the Sassanid empire, fortified by Antiochus I (Strabo XI.516). Herat, the crossing of roads towards India. The cultural center of Jundisapur impressed the arabs especially because of its medical school. Greek neo-Platonists took refuge there when Justinian closed the Academy. It was a center of translations from Greek, Sanskrit and Syriac. 2.

The idea of "Shah mat" is a characteristic feature of the Persian chess game which doesnÕt appear in fourhanded chess, in astrological chess or when chess is played with dice. Also in other war games, as in checkers, victory is obtained by mere captures, and most probably the same happened in basic forms of protochess. The three jumping pieces, Rook, Knight and Elephant were comparatively less powerful in movement than an enemy king, which could easily occupy cases out of its line of action, as Kohtz has shown.

The German historian Johannes Kohtz (1843-1918) supposed that in the protochess the Rook was also a jumping figure, with a mobility limited to a third case. So, the squares accessible to a Rook in h1 would be f1 and h3 and later in the game f3, d3, d1, b1, b3, b5, d5, f5, h5, h7, f7, d7 and b7. His theory makes a lot of sense, (in spite of Murray's rejection after long arguments by post), because the three jumping pieces (Alfil, Knight and Rook) represent a diagonal, hook-curved and rectilinear movement of the same range. It also expresses a perfect ranking order: The King and the Knight are the only pieces which can move to any of the 64 cases. The Firzan has half of the board = 32. The Rook half of it = 16 cases. And the Alfil, half of it = 8.

The striking fact, unnoticed by Kohtz in his last work of 1917, is that a jumping Rook produces also the same magic sum of 260 in the Safadi or in the Mercury board. For instance: 57 - 6 - 43 - 24 - 40 - 27 - 54 - 9 = 260. The same happens in the previous and more common magic square of Mercury. The four corners of each quadrant of 4 x 4 in the magic board sum half of the constant, 130. This reinforcement of Kohtz's theory seems to me decisive.

The marvelous Safadi board has, in all probability, predetermined the different movements and classes of pieces in protochess. However, once the Arabs acquired the game from the Persians, the Rook evolved into a long ranged piece, becoming the most powerful element of the chess army. This evolution can be explained logically as a necessity once the idea of check mate has appeared, again according to Kothz In the first legend of Firdawsi, the game rediscovered by Buzurdjmir was as follows:

"The sage has invented a battlefield, in the midst (of which) the King takes up his station. To left and right of him the army is disposed, the foot-soldiers occupying the rank in front. At the kingÕs side stands his sagacious counsellor advising him on the strategy to be carried out during the battle. In two directions the elephants are posted with their faces turned towards where the conflict is. Beyond them are stationed the war horses, on which are mounted two resourceful riders, and fighting alongside them on either hand to left and right are the turrets ready for the fray."
By the number of pieces it is easy to know that in this game the board was of 8 x 8 squares, though nothing is said about the rules of movement or the aim of the game. This gap is filled in the second Firdawsian chess legend about two half brothers Gau and Talhend (two typical Persian names), the latter being killed by the former during a civil war. To explain to the queen of "Hend" who was the mother of both how her son came to die, the game of chess, which represented a battle, was invented. But it is a different game. The board is 10 x 10 and had perhaps a dividing line in the middle, as in todayÕs Chinese chess because the text says:
"This (the game) represents a trench and a battle field on to which armies had been marched. A hundred squares were marked out on the board for the maneuvering of the troops and the kings." -- which is also a board of 10 x 10 cases where is impossible to build a "perfect Caissan magic square" like SafadiÕs. This time the movement of the pieces is described; There are three pieces jumping to a third square in diagonal, rectilinear or hook-curved direction. But there is a fourth piece which was the most powerful of all: "None could oppose it, but it attacked everywhere in the field".
This piece must be the long-ranging Rook, the most powerful figure of the set. Again, according to the Kohtz's theory, instead of the previous jumping Rook, the long ranking Rook was adopted as well in the 8 x 8 board as a necessity once a checkmate becomes the main goal of the game. Check and checkmate have already appeared, as the beautiful text explains:
"If a player saw the king during the struggle he called out aloud, 'King, beware!' and the king then left his square, continuing to move until he was hemmed in. This occurred when every path was closed to the king by castle, horse, counsellor or the rest of the army. The king, gazing about in all directions, saw the army encircling him, water and trenches blocking his path and troops to left and right, before and behind. Exhausted by toil and thirst, the king is rendered helpless; that is the decree which he receives from the revolving sky".
Where did the new idea came from? Since the moment when the fate of the king decides the victory in the game, the value of this piece increases enormously because of its "divinity" and inviolability. In a way, chess has become a monotheistic game. The cultural atmosphere in ancient Persia fits well with the implicit idea. In contrast to Greece, were a king was only "primus inter pares", basically equal in his human nature to his subordinates, a Persian "Shah in Shah" was worshiped almost as a God.

"The ruler possessed a special quality in the eyes of his subjects, which was called 'farn' or 'farr' in New Persian, 'farrah' in Middle Persian, 'xvarana' in Avestan. Originally meaning 'ife force', 'activity' or 'splendour', it came to mean 'victory', 'fortune' and specially the royal fortune". (R. Frye.op.cit. p.8)

There is a well known story in the biographies of Alexander the Great. At his beginning, he was a "normal" Greek leader, but after conquering the Persian throne he warmed to way Persian courtiers treated him as a God. He intended to receive the same "proskinesis" from his countrymen, but Callistenes refused to genuflect and was murdered in revenge by AlexanderÕs hand. The "agon" in chess and its voluntarist message points basically to a Hellenistic background. But "Shah-mat" in chess, an expression which has kept its Persian root in all languages during the chess evolution, may have its origin in the influences irradiating from Persian cultural ground.

The Jewish Gnosis of the earliest times and several circles based in Hellenistic and Persian areas may also have left its trace. According to Gershom Sholem in his "Die jüdische Mystik" (op. cit. p. 47), the main point of spiritual considerations was, "without doubt" the mystic of the Throne, the so-called Merkaba Gnosis, inspired in the famous vision described in Ezekiel 1.

""Die Thronwelt bedeutet für den jüdischen Mystikern, was für die hellenistischen and frühchristlichen Mystiker dieser Epoche, die die Religionsgeschichte als Gnostiker und Hermetiker kennt, das "Pleroma" ("Die Fülle"), die Lichtwelt der Gottheit mit ihren Potenzen, Äonen und Herrschaften ist. Der jüdische Mystiker schöpft, wenn auch von verwandten Antrieben geleitet, seine Sprache aus dem ihm gemässen religiösen Begriffswelt"

Merkaba Gnosis is relatively well documented. Its oldest form originated in chapter 14 of the Ethiopian "Book of Henoch" and its literature flourishes particularly between the 5th and 6th century C.E. The ideological - geographical connections are mainly Sassanid Iran and the Byzantine empire, whereas it coincides also in places and timing with the appearance of a game characterized by "basileomorphism", as scholars call the spiritual flow inside the Merkaba movement. So, the "Shah" in chess, and its inviolability fits in well with the intellectual atmosphere of reverence towards the image of God as a King so characteristic of the Jewish Gnosis of this period and in this area.

The precedent considerations clearly show a chain of esoteric traces in the origins of chess. Protochess board-games which seem to have been born in Egypt and Mesopotamia, were transmitted by the Hellenistic culture and are closely connected with a significant role played by ancient Gnosis in Iran.
posted by R J Noriega
Permalink ¤
Oriental Trading Company