At the Second Annual Conference for Nabataean Studies, Dr.
Bilal Khrisat of the Hashemite University presented a paper that
introduced the conference to the various board games that are
found in ancient Petra. That paper also introduced us, (nabataea.net)
to this fascinating aspect about Petra. In response to Dr. Khrisat's
studies, we here at Nabataea.net have started to search through
Petra and other Nabataean sites to learn about these games and
try and find how they were played. In order to do this, we first
did some basic research into ancient games, so we would be better
informed about what we might be looking at as we searched Nabataean
sites. Second, we rounded up several Nabataea.net activists and
made several sweeping tours of Petra. Instead of looking up at
the marvelous monuments, we kept our heads down, and scoured
the ground. It was an exciting activity because game boards started
popping up all over the place. Third, we then visited other Nabataean
sites to look for board games and fourth, we solicited the help
of folk at CanBook's Game Division. Kenneth Betts, the game logistics
expert and others then worked hard at trying to reconcile the
game boards we found with what is known about ancient games,
to see if we could figure out how they might have been played.
The initial results have now been written up in this paper. Many
of the pictures we took are found on the web page Petra, City of Board Games.
The Nabataean Game
Throughout Petra and in other Nabataean sites, we
discovered that the most common ancient board game was from a
game played on a 4 x 12 or in some cases a 4 x 14 playing board.
Each of the playing spots was actually a small cup carved into
the rock. (See below)
Left: you can see a typical 4 x 12 playing board. This one
was found near the Dier monument in Petra, and is typical of
the most common type of game in ancient Petra. Other game boards
included: 7 x 7 and 7 x 8 layouts as well as 8 x 14. (For more
pictures, see Petra: City
of Board Games)
As we researched these game boards, several
suggestions were made as to what they could have been.
Mancala has its origins in either Africa or the Arab
world, depending on which scholar's theory you choose to believe.
Some of the oldest evidence is found in the National Geographic
sponsored archaeological diggings that searched back to 7,000
to 5,000 BC in present-day Jordan. Excavations of an ancient
house uncovered a limestone slab with two parallel rows of circular
depressions. The layout was easily recognizable to an archaeologist
on the dig as a Mancala playing board. Murray, a noted scholar,
traced the origins to ancient Egypt's Empire Age (about the 15th
to 11th centuries BC). Many experts surmise that Mancala may
in fact be the oldest board game ever.
The earliest recorded writings describing the game were found
in references to mancala in Arab religious texts dating to the
Middle Ages. Some scholars believe that the game originated in
the Middle East and spread from there to Africa. Then, the game
spread to Asia with Arab traders and much later came to the Caribbean
around 1640 via the African slave trade. Other experts try and
place the origins in Central Africa.
Today, Mancala is known by numerous names around the
world. These names are taken from the local culture, using words
that reflect where the game is played, the manner of winning,
the mode of play and the board or counters used. In English it
is often referred to as Count and Capture.
Above: A traditional Mancala board found in Asia. They can
be anywhere from 2 x 8 to 2 x 12, and usually have a bin on either
end. Picture above used from the Expat
Web Site Association
Right: Two game boards found in Petra. On the right is a more
traditional Mancala type board, but appears to have three rows
of cups. On the left is a second game: a Nabataean 4 x 12 game
In some West African countries the depressions in the board
are referred to as Warri or Awari, which means
houses, thus giving the game the name Wari. In Nigeria
the game is known as Adi, which is the name of the seeds used
to play the game.
In our survey for ancient game boards in Petra we found many
game boards with small hollow cups that most likely served for
playing games of the Mancala family. These games used no dice
but relied entirely on counting and computing. (For Instruction
and Links to other sites about Mancala, click here)
Mancala boards come in many different sizes. One Mancala board
in the British Museum has four rows of 26 hollows each, plus
two larger bins at each narrow end. Most of the others with four
rows are eight cups long, but other variants exist. The configuration
with only two rows is a very popular Mancala version among present
day Bedouin Arabs.
For more on Mancala boards, see "Mancala Board Games"
by Alexander J. De Voogt, British Museum Press, 1997, (see page
23 for the above 4 x 26 board). Also consult recoveredscience.com (e-books on riddles
in science, easy to read and hard to forget) by H. Peter Aleff.
There are several problems with trying to classify the
Nabataean boards as a variant of the Mancala game. First, Petra's
game boards are a puzzling 4 x 12 or 4 x 14 holes. They have
no bins at the end, making them different from other games in
the Mancala family. Second, they have very small holes. As the
pictures above illustrate, Mancala requires large holes, in case
they have to hold a large number of counters. If the board is
2 x 8, then the number of counters is quite limited. However,
if the board becomes longer, the number of counters rises dramatically.
Game designer and logistics expert, Ken Betts, tried several
variations of Mancala, including placing movers in every second
hole, but no matter what configuration was used, the spaced needed
to contain many movers. In the end he concluded that it seems
very unlikely that the Nabataean boards were any known variation
of the Mancala game. So our search continued.
Other Games of the Mancala Family
Over the centuries other games have been developed from Mancala.
The game Olinda Kaliya (right) is from Shri Lanka. It
has seven cups plus two bins at each end. The cups are large
and the movers are very small.
||Ancient Egyptian Version.
A game board similar to Mancala was found on the roof of the
temple of Seti I in Egypt. The Temple of Seti I was completed
by Ramses II for his father, Seti I, likely within the first
5 years of his reign. It was used as part of the Abydene pilgrimages
for over 1000 years, and was eventually closed down during the
Roman period. Since roofs of temples were often used by priests
to observe the stars, they would spend hours in these locations.
When waiting for the stars to come out, or for the sky to clear,
they apparently played games. There are numerous game boards
are hollowed out in the sandstone blocks of the temple.
|Omweso is a Mancala type
game from Uganda, with 4 rows. Note that the seeds are small,
and the holes are large, in order to accommodate a large number
of seeds, which could accumulate to more than twenty in a spot.
The picture of Omweso on the right was been taken from
Guide to Traditional Games. Used with permission.
Bao, left, is a similar game played in East Africa.
It also uses large cups and bins on each end.The picture of Bao
on the left was been taken from The
Online Guide to Traditional Games. Used with permission.
Check out the Bao game site at: www.kibao.org
You can also buy the book: "Il
libro (quasi) completo del gioco del Bao", 2010 at www.tavolando.net.
The ancient game of Seega has been played for centuries
throughout Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. It is a
simple game in terms of materials and rules, but it involves
plenty of strategy and thinking once you are playing. In Egypt,
5x5 game boards were common, while 7 x 7 or 9 x 9 board do exist.
The larger boards are more complex, and created a greater challenge
for the players. Does the presence of 7 x 7 boards indicate a
Nabataean preference for challenges? The game of Seega requires
only one mover per location, so the holes do not have to be large.
It is very possible that Petra's square game boards that are
5, 7, or 9 places square are Seega boards. For an overview of
the rules, and links to sites on the Internet about Seega, click here.
A board of 5 x 5 squares is marked out and each player has
twelve distinctive 'stones'. Rocks and potsherds work nicely.
If the board is increased to 7 x 7 or 9 x 9, each the players
would have twenty-four or forty pieces. So, it is very possible
that the square boards are Seega Board.
While this explains the 5, 7, and 9 place square game boards,
it still does not explain the others, especially the 4 x 12 or
The Royal Game of Ur
'The Royal Game of Ur' is the most ancient board game
known, predating even Egyptian Senet by about 300 years. It appears
to have been very popular among the Sumerian rulers and to have
spread from Sumer to sites all over the ancient world from India
to the Mediterranean. The ancient Egyptian game '20-Squares'
(dating from about 1800 BC), for instance, is very likely a version
of this game. 'The Royal Game of Ur' was played in ancient Sumer
and Mesopotamia since before at least 2500 BC. 'The Royal Game
of Ur' is of course not the game's real name, as its actual name
is lost in antiquity, but because of the examples of it found
in the royal cemetery of Ur, the game soon came to be called
'The Royal Game of Ur' among archaeologists. The game is played
with fourteen markers (seven to a side) with two sets, one for
each player, of three curious pyramidal dice. The boards the
markers move on are variously made but all share distinct rosette
markings on strategic squares. While this is an interesting game,
it doesn't seem to be similar to anything we found in Petra.
Istructions for this game can be found at: http://www.iranica.com/articles/board-games-in-pre-islamic-persia
|The most famous of the 'Royal Game of Ur' boards
was found by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1927 in the tomb of a nameless
king of Ur, where it had been either abandoned or overlooked
by robbers looking for more lucrative spoil. It was hollow to
allow a place for storing the pieces. It is made of fine inlays
of shell, bone, lapis lazuli, and red limestone. The board dates
from about 2500 BC, and was one of five such boards (albeit the
most richly decorated one) found by the famous archaeologist
in various tombs of the royal cemetery of Ur.
Senet was an immensely popular game in ancient Egypt, and
was played by both commoners and nobility. In later times it
even seems to have taken on religious significance.
The game was played on a board of 30 squares; the object being
to get one's pieces on the board, then around the board in an
S-shaped pattern, and finally off again at the far end. The game
required strategy as well as chance. The most common playing
pieces were 5 cones shaped pieces pitted against 5 reel shaped
pieces (These pieces were called 'ibau' which means 'dancers'
in Egyptian). Senet was originally a two player game but during
the New Kingdom period a game in progress would often appear
painted on tomb walls as a 'one' player game, the opponent being
a spirit from the afterlife.
The picture on the right is a modern version of Senet, from
The Online Guide to Traditional
Games. Used with permission.
The Senet board on the right came from the tomb of Ak-Hor
at Dra abu el-Naga on the West Bank of Thebes. The game box is
made of ebony and ivory, and the playing pieces are made of faience,
a composite material of ground quartz with a colored, alkaline
For the rules for Senet and links to Internet sites about
the game click here.
|| The 4 x 12 game boards in
Petra could easily be some sort of Senet boards. The players
basically rolled a dice, or cast sticks (see rules), and moved
their pieces onto the board, and tried to race them to the end.
If they landed on another player's piece, they could 'bump' him
off of the board. The players generally moved in an S shaped
direction (see left)
||Examples of 3 x 12 Senet boards
were also common in Egypt. However, in our search for game boards
in Petra, we did not turn up any traditional Senet game boards.
If the 4 x 12 or 4 x 10 game boards that we did locate were Senet
games, then they would have had to be played as illustrated on
the left. While this is an acceptable solution, it does seems
to be just prolonging an already simple game.
||It would be even longer if played
on a 4 x 23 or 4 x 24 board. (Yes, at least one of these boards
was found in Petra by Dr. Bilal Khrisat). Left: A 4 x 23 game
board. (Illustrating one found in Petra)
20-Squares is often found on the reverse side of the
ancient Senet boards and both games used the same pieces, although
they are really quite different games. There is strong evidence
that 20-Squares is not originally of Egyptian origin but instead
'invaded' Egypt from Assyria. It is most likely related to the
'Royal game of Ur' and may in fact be the same game (there are
similarities in the board and board markings). In any case, 20-Squares
became a distinctively Egyptian game and extremely popular in
ancient Egypt from the period of around 3000 B.C. to 400 A.D.
If 20-Squares is a form of the 'Royal game of Ur', it may pre-date
even Senet by 300 or more years.
|| The picture on the left is of an ancient
20 squares board, and assorted casting sticks, dating from the
18th dynasty of Egypt. The playing pieces are blue faience. This
game was played very much like Senet (sometimes called 30-squares)
and since we do not know the name of this ancient game we can
only refer to as 'The twenty squares game'. Some years ago, earlier
in the last century, due to a misunderstanding, Egyptologists
thought it to be called 'Tjau' (which means 'robbers').
The game was played on a board of, naturally, 20 squares;
the object being to get one's pieces on the board, then move
in a diagonal pattern around and down the central row of squares,
and finally off the far end. The game requires some strategy,
and a lot of chance. The 'chance' comes from 'casting sticks',
used as 'dice' in older times. The most common playing pieces
were 5 cones shaped pieces pitted against 5 reel shaped pieces
(These pieces were called 'ibau' which means 'dancers' in Egyptian).
20-Squares was definitely played in Egypt for more than 3000
years. When Howard Carter open Tutankhamun's tomb he found four
Senet boards, two of which were jumbled up and scattered, along
with many other articles, by thieves in the distant past. One
of these Senet boards is shown (circled), just as it was found.
||On the other side of this board (hidden from
our view in this picture) is, you guessed it, a 20-Squares board.
Note: Some of the 'Reel' and 'Cone' playing pieces were never
found and it is assumed that they were made of silver and gold
and were thus were prime targets for thieves.Unfortunately, there
are no game boards in Petra that resemble the 20 squares board.
While this is interesting to know about, we have not be able
to link the 20 squares game to anything found within Nabataea.
On the other hand, it does illustrate that Senet type games could
be shortened for faster play, but it doesn't lead us to believe
that a larger board was in anyway appreciated.
Quirkat is a game of strategy that pits 2 armies of 12 men
each, on a 5 X 5grid. It may be of ancient Egyptian origin, but
first became known in the west when it came across the straits
with Tariq's conquering Arab and Berber army in 711 A.D. and
spread from Spain to Europe.
Sometime later, around 1100, possibly in the South of
France, somebody decided to play Quirkat on a chess board instead
of the standard board. The game was played with 12 pieces on
each side and was called Fierges or Ferses at first although
this changed to Dames later. The game did not force a player
to take enemy pieces when the opportunity presented itself.
|It is first mentioned in written history somewhere
in the 20 volumes of the Kitab al-Aghani (book of songs) which
is poetic anthology on medieval Islamic society written by Abu
al-Faraj Ali of Esfahan around 950 AD. Alphonso X recorded an
(incomplete) set of rules and provided and illumination in his
'Libro de Acedrex, Dados e Tablas', a magnificently illuminated
manuscript compiled between 1251 and 1282 AD).
The compulsory rule forcing a player to take whenever possible
was introduced in France around 1535, the resulting new game
being called Jeu Force. At this point the old game became known
as Le Jeu Plaisant De Dames or Plaisant for short.
The first book written on the game was published in Valencia,
Spain in 1547 and now resides in the Royal Library of Madrid.
Jeu Force is the game played in England today under the name
of Draughts and the game was taken to America and called Checkers.
The first book in English about it was written in 1756 by Wiliam
Payne, a mathematician from London.
The rest of Europe took to playing a different development
of Le Jeu Plaisant De Dames which appeared in Paris in 1727 and
which is now the internationally recognized game of Polish or
Continental Draughts. This game is superior in complexity to
English draughts (or checkers) by virtue of the fact that it
is played on a board ten squares by ten squares.
When researching this, we began to wonder if the 7 x 7 boards
in Petra were Seega boards or large Quirkat boards. Since the
Europeans expanded the board to 10 x 10, could the Nabataeans
not have played the same game on a 7 x 7 board? In that case,
a 7 x 7 board could be used for both Quirkat or Seega.
In his report to the Second Annual Conference for Nabataean
Studies, Dr. Bilal Khrisat mentioned that he had found Labyrinth
symbols in Petra. This symbol has been used for many centuries,
and is found in many different locations around the world. No
one knows of its origin, it's meaning, nor why it was transported
and adopted by so many different people around the world. There
was an ancient building, known as The Labyrinth. It was a Minoan
palace/temple complex that was destroyed several times during
its long history, but was finally abandoned around1380 BC. Interestingly,
no examples of the labyrinth symbol have survived from the original
|The symbol right is a typical Labyrinth symbol
as found in antiquity. No one knows if it was connected with
the ancient Labyrinth temple. During the last few years, a growing
number of websites have begun that focus on the Labyrinth symbol.
Most of them are 'New Age sites' that try and attach some mystic
or spiritual experience with the design. A small number of these
sites also mention some of the historical and archeological background
behind this symbol. You can read more about labyrinths by following the links on
this page. Some of the ancient places around the world that
this symbol has shown up are listed below. The pictures of labryinths
below are taken from Caerdronia. (Used without permission)
|The earliest examples of labyrinths, for which
an accurate date can be ascribed are to be found around the shores
of the Mediterranean. A labyrinth-inscribed clay tablet from
Pylos, Greece is over 3200 years old; a similar date applies
to labyrinths on pottery fragments from Syria. (right)
||The depiction of the labyrinth on a wine jar
from Tragliatella dates to the 7th century BC; it shows armed
soldiers on horseback running from a labyrinth with the word
Truia (Troy) inscribed in the outermost circuit. (left)
|The famous labyrinth decorated coins from Knossos,
Crete, date from the last three centuries before Christ. (right)
Their designs are thought to allude to the legendary Labyrinth
at Knossos in which the Minotaur was imprisoned.
|| The labyrinth symbol was widely used and
adapted by the Romans; its geometric form was a popular subject
for depiction in mosaic pavements as over sixty known examples
attest. They are found throughout the Roman empire from Britain
to Yugoslavia and in north Africa. The designs used are quite
different from the classical labyrinth, but in fact a simple
development from it
|In the Americas, the labyrinth symbol has been
found etched into the sands of the Nazca Plain in Peru. It is
also in use among the Caduveo people of Brazil, and was scratched
on boulders and rockfaces in Northern Mexico, New Mexico and
Arizona many years ago. It is also a known symbol among the Hopi
Indians. These are all places that our
readers have hypothesized that Nabataeans sailors may have reached
in their travels.
Strange and Stranger Game Boards from Petra
|Just when we think we have an explanation for
all of the game boards in Petra, up pops a board like the one
on the right. Go and figure!