The Real Game of Thrones: Diplomacy through Gifts in the Middle East

While American politics have currently evolved into shouting matches and smear tactics, there was a point in time where diplomacy was more subtle. Whereas modern politics is built on rhetoric, politics in antiquity emphasized objects-specifically, their exchange. In the Middle East in the Medieval Era, politics used executed through gift-giving. While we generally consider these as positive things in the contemporary context, gifts could carry many compelling subtexts; they could be a show of wealth and power, a warning or even a veiled threat.

Chessboard, Egypt. 14th or 15th century (Image courtesy of the Benaki Museum, Athens)

There is perhaps nothing that evokes intellectual and cultural elitism quite like the game of chess. As such, it was a common gift item for noble leaders to send to one another. Originating in India during the 6th century, chess became massively popular before spread into Persia before ultimately reaching the Islamic world and beyond.In particular, I would like examine a prototypical chessboard crafted in Egypt during either the 14th century or 15th century (see left). This chessboard is the ultimate symbol of luxury and wealth. Crafted from ebony and ivory, the luxurious nature of the materials as well as the virtuosic artistry of the adornment establishes this piece as an object of the highest quality. It invokes politics on several levels by portraying the game of war within the context of the gift of diplomacy. Within one piece are the two sides of political relations, the martial strategy and the peaceful if scheming negotiations.

Furthermore, it represents trans-cultural influences, showing that these empires were part of a larger nexus and did not exist in isolation. As the game of chess spread westward, each culture altered the game slightly to reflect their cultural beliefs and Middle East was no exception. Through extravagant materials, political intrigue and cross-cultural connections the chessboard represents the dominance of the Islamic empire on the Medieval stage.

The chessboard is a piece that has immense intrinsic materialistic and artistic value. It was produced in Egypt in between the 14th and 15th centuries. Central to playing the game of chess is differentiating between black and white, between the player and their opponent. It is unsurprising then that the board would feature black and white materials of the finest quality. Inlaid with ebony and ivory, this wooden board is a luxury object based solely on the very expensive nature of the materials. The ebony and ivory draw a stark visual contrast when used together in the decorative elements of the board. In each of the “white” squares of the chessboard are four rinceau-like vines radiating from a central floral shape. A dark brown wood is used for the “black” squares of the board.  Because ivory, the tusk of an elephant, was such a rare material the use of ornamentation on the white square was perhaps the artist’s compensation for the limited amount of this precious material. However, the luxurious nature piece raises the question of whether the board was truly meant to be used recreationally or instead displayed as an art piece and statement to visitors. Four wooden legs that are also adorned with an inlaid geometric pattern, a combination of circles and diamonds, support the board and raise it roughly 8 inches off the ground. Although the board is larger than some other gift objects, measuring at 18inx18in, it still would have been easily portable throughout the empire. Though perhaps it lacks in size, the chessboard is an impressive exhibition of fine craftsmanship and extravagant materials.

“The Chess Game”, Ludwig Deutsch (1896).

The chessboard represents both a physical and metaphorical representation of diplomatic relationships in the Islamic world. On one level, the game of chess itself is playing at the game of war; it is an intellectual game that requires both skill and practice. Thus, only the elite could perfect chess; they were the only ones with enough education and leisure time needed to master the game. While the main objective of the game is focused primarily on strategically outwitting your opponent, the conditions under which the board would have been given and received would have been much more amicable. The function of gift giving was not only to be a gesture of hospitality but also a means of forming an alliance. The givers were not simply extending a gesture of goodwill but had a socially acceptable ulterior motive. It is through gift-giving that politics in the Medieval Islamic world found a smaller yet no less effective stage.

Furthermore, the act of giving a chessboard is perhaps the giver’s respectful acknowledgement of certain qualities about the receiver, such as their intellect and status. However, the giver could also assert their own status through the gifts they gave as well.  This could be demonstrated through the use of rare and costly materials as well as in impeccably crafted objects. Objects found from exotic locales would speak to the gift-giver’s widespread influence. Furthermore, life imitates art in this instances the very act of gift giving would require not simply the gift giver, but rather his subordinates as well. Diplomacy was a game that required many players and thus the chessboard would have been given by ambassadors to the sovereign recipient, rather than directly by the giver himself. The chessboard is an object of diplomacy that represents different sides of political relationships on several levels.

East India “John” Company Set; Mid 19th century. Photo copyright: Michael de Fillippo

The chessboard has an incredibly rich cross-cultural history that can be likened to a sort of cultural imperialism for Islam. Historians believe that the game of chess originated in India before the 6th century and later spread to parts of the Persian Empire.  With the fall of the Persian Empire in 7th century to the Arabs, it was then absorbed into Islamic culture.  As the game migrated west, each culture changed elements of the game. One way the evolution of the game can be traced is to consider the different names that arose over times for the game and pieces. The Indian game of chaturanga eventually gave way to the Persian shahtranj. The figures of the chess pieces draw on the myths and fairytales of the cultures from which they are derived; the elephant of the original Indian game gave rise to fantastical birds to camels and finally to castles. In its original form the game could not be truly considered Islamic because the shapes of many of the pieces could be representative of various animals. Thus, the pieces were abstracted to promote ambiguity in their readings.

But more than just the evolution of the game, the materiality of the board itself speaks to the success of the Islamic Empire. The ebony and ivory would not have been locally available in Cairo but instead of incredibly precious imports. Being able to construct the materials from imported from the far reaches of the empire speaks to the power of the gift giver. The use of such materials on a gameboard suggests that chess carried immense prestige as a leisurely intellectual pursuit. The game as it would have been played on this board was the product of a century of cultural adaptations and reformations.

The chessboard is a very tangible representation of the dominance of Islamic culture. Through the use of luxurious materials and a masterful execution of artistic aesthetic, the piece signifies that underscores the importance of the game and its place amongst high intellectual and artistic pursuits of the time. The board portrays the two extremes of political interaction, on one hand allowing players to perfect the art of war and on the other allowing dignitaries to extend their cordialities. However, the game and chessboard have much more significance outside of the Arabian empire. The use of luxury materials and circulation of goods demonstrates the economic power of the Islamic rulers. The changes made to the game from previous cultures further underscore the political supremacy of the Middle East over their Eastern and South Asian counterparts. In this way, the chessboard is a multi-layered manifestation of Islamic cultural, economic and political power in the Medieval world.

Cover Image: Muslim & Jew playing chess (13th century Spain, Al-Andalus).


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