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Chess And Other Games Pieces From Islamic Lands
Simon Bartle, Visual Arts Correspondent
Photography © Thames & Hudson Ltd and Robert Lorenzo with Muhammad Ali
What a year 2018 was for the UK games market. Spending on gaming hardware and software not only broke previous records with spending approaching £6bn, but it also exceeded the UK's combined spend on music and cinema.

What different worlds we live in.

Chess And Other Games Pieces From Islamic Lands is a glorious new book presenting medieval Islamic chess pieces, and other games pieces held by The Al-Sabah Collection, in Kuwait. It also includes gaming pieces from archaeological excavations around the world from both pre and post Islamic times.

The beauty of the pieces in this wonderfully illustrated book is there for all to see. The book celebrates the contribution made by the countries of the Middle East who in medieval times spread the game of chess to the western world. It reached Spain by 900 AD and over a century later had taken hold across most of the known world, from Europe to China.

Photography © Thames & Hudson Ltd and Robert Lorenzo with Muhammad Ali
The Islamic world dominated this pastime, so it is not surprising that some of the most sublime chess pieces come from the Middle East, Persia and also the Indian sub-continent. The book celebrates The Al-Sabah Collection which holds in excess of 500 pieces, not all of which are chess pieces. Some could be merely weights, pieces from other board games, and some are probably early backgammon pieces. All are tactile and just ask to be picked up.

The book covers the development of chess and backgammon in the Persian world. The pieces delight whether made of alabaster, bone, rock crystal, polished stone, glass or some other exquisite material.

Perhaps the most important and impressive pieces in the collection are ten rock crystal chess pieces with bevelled arabesque decoration, which have survived from the early Islamic period, 9th - early 10th century. The pieces include the king (shah) and queen (firzan), bishops (fil), knights (faras), a rook (ruhk) and three pawns (baidaq). The words in brackets are the Arabic names, but those names are in turn derived from Persian and Sanskrit words describing the function of the pieces.

The sheer variety of piece designs, and their sublime beauty would not be lost on the modern day gamer, but identifying the pieces may pose a predicament. The pieces do not necessarily conform to the expected standard modern western designs, because they have been abstracted.

Games have developed over the last thousand years. The intellectual challenge, and competitive spirit both live on, and whilst games are now played out on screens, and span continents, deep down nothing has actually changed. But there is one exception, pieces are no longer tactile, they cannot be rolled in the palm of your hand, they do not refract light and they do not enrich your soul, but the pieces in this book do all those things, and more.

That is why Deborah Freeman Fahid's book is so relevant. It provides a unique and authoritative record of chess and gaming pieces, and charts how chess and backgammon crossed geographic and cultural divides. It draws from, and links collections around the world, and it is a masterful piece of academic study. Let us reassure you this book is not dry, it is rich, and exciting and takes you on a journey to explore new horizons.


Photography © Thames & Hudson Ltd and Robert Lorenzo with Muhammad Ali
What the book does not do, is to look beyond the aesthetic impact of the pieces and their context. That is not its purpose. It is first and foremost an exquisite visual record of the Middle Eastern medieval pieces for games, which provided 'important accomplishments for a properly educated nobleman.' It cannot however be denied that, albeit unintentionally, it does open up a wider discussion.

Why? Because the book unlocks our minds, and leaves us not only to marvel at what we have seen within the text, but also it provides us with a framework so that we can understand the timeless universality of gaming.

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Having read the book, you will be able to contextualise the power that gaming has over individuals. It leaves us wondering, whether the creation of such exquisite gaming pieces may well have accounted for a significant portion of the medieval economy, because clearly they were valuable and prized. We are left in no doubt that Islamic gaming pieces were powerful, not only in their splendour, and the gaming opportunities that they provided, but also the thought processes that went into their creation.

This book leaves us wondering who are the foot soldiers of a timeless gaming world, and who are the kings and queens who profit from its development?

When you see the superb medieval rock crystal, amethyst, jasper and agate pieces you come to understand that nothing has changed over the ages, gaming enthusiasts have a timeless need, and that is to spend conspicuous amounts of income on their preferred pastimes.

No expense is now, or was in the past, spared when seeking pleasure, and exercising the human mind.

This beauty of this book, and the gaming pieces that it records, will make you gasp at the sheer radiance of The Al-Sabah Collection.

In summary, this book is truly magnificent.

Chess And Other Games Pieces From Islamic Lands, 8th April 2019, 12:22 PM