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
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.
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)
|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
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
(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.
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
Guide to Traditional Games. Used with permission.
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 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.
|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.
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!
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.