The Spread of Ancient Chess – vol. 1

The game of chess has rich origins. In this series of articles, start the journey in 500 AD in India and learn how Arabs spread the knowledge of the game to the Middle East and Europe. By unfolding a part of the past, you can realize how chess reflects history. Nonetheless, through chess, we can see the history from a brand new perspective.

Ancient chess pieces

The game of chess originated around 500 AD in India and was spread by the Arabs through the Middle East to Europe. The design of the chessmen and the chess rules reflected the influence of each local culture.

The earliest chess set discovered in Europe is called Lewis chessmen, which was found in Scotland in 1831. The pieces were made of ivory and were exquisitely carved with human statues. It is believed that the chess pieces were made in Norway, and they can be dated back to the 12th century. At that time, Europe was in the Middle Ages, an era of “dark ages”, characterized by a strict hierarchy and constant warfare. The features of the Lewis chessmen vividly reveal the characteristics of Medieval European society.

Brown and white chess pieces
Lewis chessmen

The naming of some pieces was influenced by the social system in Medieval Europe. For example, the figure “Knight” is called “Horse” in Hindu and Chinese, but when it came to Northern Europe, it was renamed “Knight”. Knights were a prominent character in Medieval Europe. They were the most outstanding soldiers, who played a crucial role in the fight against the Muslims during the Crusades and in protecting the pilgrims to Holy Land – Jerusalem.

White ancient chess pieces

Similarly, the piece bishop is called “Elephant” in most Asian countries, but was renamed “Bishop”. In Medieval Europe, Christianity dominated people’s lives, and the bishop held one of the most powerful positions, even powerful enough to combat the monarch. Do you remember the monarch Henry VIII, who was famous for having six wives? The Christian Church did not allow him to divorce his first wife. So he had an argument with the pope (the highest bishop), and as punishment, he was excommunicated by the Church.

henry viii and wives
Henry VIII and his six wives

We can also notice from the Lewis chess set that all the pieces have human figures:

Light brown chess pieces

Except for the pawns …

Five white ancient chess pieces
Pawn: I am weak, poor, lonely, and humble …

Pawns represent the peasantry, which was at the very bottom of society in the Middle Ages. These peasants had to provide food and military service to their masters in order to acquire land and protection. They could easily be exploited by their masters and sacrificed in the battles. Therefore, pawns were deprived of their human forms and were given the least power.

When chess became prevalent in the Middle East, its design and rules were modified according to Islamic culture. Islamic religion prohibited idol worship. If you travel to the Middle East, you will find that the works of art and architecture were decorated with vibrant patterns, flowers, and animals, just like this:

islamic architecture door portal

And this:

The Putra Mosque ceiling

But not this:

david by michelangelo

Therefore, chess pieces were made more abstract without human forms. They might be more comparable to chess pieces nowadays.

In the Islamic world during the Middle Ages women did not have a high status. So for a certain time, the power of the queen was limited, or the queen was even replaced by other figures. In contrast, women in Medieval Europe had a relatively higher status. Women could inherit the land and possess power. Again, we should mention the famous Henry VIII. He had six wives but was blessed with only one son, who unfortunately died at a very young age.

king henry viii

Since there was no male heir, the daughters of Henry VIII, the Bloody Mary, and Elizabeth I, became monarchs one after the other. This indicates that the relatively high status of women in Europe might explain the queen’s greatest power in chess.

Learn about how chess developed in other periods of history in the second article es of the series: The Spread of Ancient Chess 2.



Young and active tournament player with excellent results including a 1st place at the BSSZ Aranytiz International Master, 1st place at the Chinese Youth Chess Championship G16, and part of the top 10 contenders in two World Chess Championships for girls G16 and G18.

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