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 Ancient Game Boards Discovered in Petra!

Can you believe it? An ancient city filled with game board. Yes, the ancient Nabataeans scratched game boards into flat surfaces all over the city. These game boards can be found in the most interesting places. So if you are fortunate enough to visit the city of Petra, keep a sharp look out for these interesting items. While the adults are looking at the big, huge tombs and carvings, you can be spotting the game boards, and maybe even stopping to play a game or two! Below are pictures of some of the game board that we discovered around the city.

4 X 14 board
This board appears to be 4 holes by 14 holes. For size, note the pop bottle cap above the board. This board is easy to locate. It is on the rocks behind the first row of small shops as one walks from the parking lot to the Government Resthouse, before you even enter the gates of Petra.
Perhaps a 7 X 7 board


Still behind the shops between the parking lot and Jeff's Book Shop
(Is this a 7x7 Seega board, with the top being weathered away?)
strange board near the Oblysk Tomb Found along the right side of the path, near the Jinn Rocks and Obelisk Tomb (7 x 8+?)

2 boards side by side
4 X 12 beside what might possibly be a Mancala 2 X 8, or is it 3 rows wide? That's the problem with these weathered game boards.
4 X 10 board 4 X 10? (These were all found along the right side of the path as one walks into Petra, before and around the Djinn Blocks)
 Near the Urn Tomb  This board is located on the rocks to the right of the Urn Tomb. It almost overlooks the theater. (4 x 12?)

 Faded board


This faded board can be found on top of the same mountain as Robinson's High Place. After viewing the High Place, continue along the mountain towards the the look out point, that looks down onto the Colonnade Street. Near the lookout point you can find this board.

 4x12 board This 4 X 12 game board can be found on a small rock hill infront of the Monastery. (Deir). It is quite sharp, and is either well preserved, (it is in a sheltered location) or quite recent.

So, how does one play these games? That is the interesting puzzle! We have the game boards, but no one bothered to leave us with the instructions! Perhaps you can help us by inventing your own instructions, that we can post here. Before you do this, read what we have discovered.

The Nabataean Game
4 X 12 board

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 playing board. Each of the playing spots was actually a small cup carved into the rock. (See left)

There are several games played around the world that are similar, but they really are not the same. First, read how they were played to get an idea of what this game might have been like.

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.


Left: 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
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.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. (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.

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.


Olinda Kaliya The picture of Olinda Kaliya on the left has been taken from The Online Guide to Traditional Games Used with permission.

 the roof of the temple of Seti I in Egypt
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 The Online 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.
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.

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. The game of Seega requires only one mover per location, so the holes do not have to be large. For an overview of the rules, and links to sites on the Internet about Seega, click here. Can you make the Petra game work to Seega rules?

The Royal Game of Ur
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.  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.

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.  Senet

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 glaze.

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)

 3 X 12
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.

4 x 23
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)

Twenty Squares
 Twenty Squares  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').
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 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.

20 Squares
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.

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!  Strange board

If you think you have invented a game that could be played on the Nabataean 4x10 or 4x14 game board, please contact us and we will print your ideas here.

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