like video games today, Medieval board games were exercises
of the mind that served not only as pastimes but as social
occasions and serious mental training. Games require leisure
time and reflect a luxurious and socially active
environment. Al-Andalus was just such a place. In the courts
and gardens of rulers and wealthy elites, and in the cities
and marketplaces, people took time to play games. Rulers
considered games of strategy like chess to be worthy
activities for themselves, their courtiers, and their
children’s training as thinkers.
literary sources such as poetry, biographies, and even
scientific works prove that chess was played in Al-Andalus
along with other games brought there from eastern Muslim
important source of knowledge about games played in Al-Andalus
is a 100-page illustrated book in Castilian called the
Book of Games,
Libro de los Juegos,
commissioned between 1251 and 1282 CE by the Christian ruler
of Toledo after the conquest of the city from Muslims.
Alfonso X, King of Leon and Castile, “Alfonso the Wise,”
commissioned many translations of Arabic works into Latin,
and his work documents the transfer of knowledge and culture
from Al-Andalus to European or Western civilization. As he
dictated the book to a scribe, he noted that God permits
pastimes, and said, "...those who like to enjoy themselves …
or those who have fallen into another's power, either in
slavery, or as seafarers, and in general all
those who are looking for a pleasant pastime which will
bring them comfort and dispel their boredom. For that
reason, I, Don Alphonso ... have commanded this book to be
book describes chess, the game that originated in India or
even China, and became known in Persia as
Originally, the game was played with animal pieces -- an
elephant, a crocodile, a mythical bird (see left). Later the
pieces came to represent the shah, or king, his minister (wazir),
knights, and soldiers. In Europe, the game pieces came to
reflect the feudal system. As the battle game moved
seems to have changed into a queen, and became a more
important piece in the game. Scholars are not certain, but
this change may have come about in Al-Andalus. The object of
the game, which requires great patience, skill, and
analytical effort, is to kill the king --
in Arabic, or “checkmate.”
entered Europe on more than one pathway. Harun al-Rashid (d.
809 CE) is said to have sent a diplomatic gift of a chess
board and pieces to Charlemagne (d. 814 CE)—an ivory set
that still exists -- but some scholars think chess came to
Europe around 1000 CE through Al-Andalus, and the set
belongs to a later time.
game depicted in Alfonso’s book is backgammon, still played
widely today in many countries. Al-Masudi (d. 956 CE)
about backgammon in his collection of anecdotes
Meadows of Gold.
It is a game of skill, but depends on luck as well. People
enjoy the combination of luck and skill as a reflection of
the tension between human fate and individual free will.
Backgammon came to Al-Andalus with the transmission of other
fashions and lifestyles.
game shown below is called Morris -- the mill game -- in
Its board has lines that intersect, onto which players move
pieces with a roll of dice. By strategy, the pieces move to
form a line of three pieces on intersections or other
variation, and eliminate the opponent’s pieces from the
board. The origins of this game is said to be the Roman
Empire, but there is evidence that it arrived from Asia, and
was played in Al-Andalus.
Alfonso’s book contains many other games whose origins are
not always certain, but surely reflect the mingling of many
cultural groups from Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean
region, and are unified by the enjoyment and togetherness
that games bring to families, friends, and associates. They
have been enjoyed in social circles among rich and poor,
men, women, and children, like the early version of
3-in-a-row or tic-tac-toe from the
Book of Games at
“Medieval Islamic Games.” History for Kids. Retrieved at
and 1001 Inventions online exhibition at
Birth of the
Chess Queen : A History. (HarperCollins, 2004.
L. Douglass. “Chess and Backgammon.”
Beyond A Thousand and One
Nights: A Sampler of Literature from Muslim Civilization.
Council on Islamic Education, 2000. pp. 41-42.
Miniature showing noblemen and their servants playing chess.
Al Andalus. 13th c. Madrid: El Escorial. Retrieved at
women playing backgammon. Al-Andalus 13th
century. Madrid: El Escorial. Retrieved at
with two players. Al-Andalus 13th century.
Madrid: El Escorial. Retrieved at
set attributed to Charlemagne, in the Bibliothèque Nationale,
Paris, with other early Mozarabic and European chess sets