In Iraq, an ancient board game is making a comeback

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Iraqi artist Hoshmand Mofaq and British archaeologist Ashley Barlow (R) play an ancient board game that dates back to nearly 5,000 years ago. (AFP)
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Iraqi artist Hoshmand Mofaq sits over an ancient board game, known as the Royal Game of Ur, in the northern Iraqi city of Raniey. (AFP)
Updated 26 November 2018
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In Iraq, an ancient board game is making a comeback

  • Originating nearly 5,000 years ago in what would become Iraq, the Royal Game of Ur mysteriously died out
  • It was only in 1922 that the board game came to light

RANIYE, Iraq: After rolling pyramid-shaped dice, Iraqi Kurdish artisan Hoshmand Muwafaq shifted his pebble around an ornate board, his handmade recreation of one of the Middle East’s oldest and most popular games.
Originating nearly 5,000 years ago in what would become Iraq, the Royal Game of Ur mysteriously died out — until Muwafaq resurrected it by making his own decorated wooden board.
“It is a nice feeling when you rebuild and recreate a game which is not played by people anymore, and you try to show your generation and your people what we used to have before,” he told AFP.
“So you introduce the board again to the people. It’s just really something, somehow amazing.”
It was only in 1922 that the board game came to light.
A board — a kind of draughtboard in an elongated ‘H’ shape — together with its pieces and dice, were found during archaeological excavations at the royal cemetery in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, known now as Tal Al-Muqayyar, in southern Iraq.
Taken to the British Museum for closer study, it took more than five decades until experts managed to match up and translate a set of rules carved into a piece of clay with the board game.
It became known as the Royal Game of Ur.
Two players have seven circular pieces each, which they must move in a loop across the beautifully carved wooden board.
If a player lands his piece on a square already occupied by his rival, he can knock off the original piece and his rival must start again.
Some of the 20 variously inlaid square places on the board offer players a refuge from being knocked off, or allow for a second roll of the unusual, pyramid-shaped dice.
Despite its simple rules, it makes for ferocious competition.
“It’s not just a game of luck, there’s strategy,” said Irving Finkel, the British Museum curator who worked to decipher the game’s rules.
Not only had they discovered the game’s playing instructions, he said in a video published last year by the museum, but also that it could be played for more than just fun, with some people betting for drink and women.
Superstitious players in ancient Mesopotamia thought the outcome of each Royal Game was directed by the gods, or had an impact on their future.
Finkel said the board predated backgammon, a similar and extremely popular game now played across the Middle East.
“Before chess and before backgammon came into the world, everybody played this game,” Finkel said.
But it has largely been forgotten by modern-day Iraqis.


To revive the game’s prehistoric popularity, British archaeologist Ashley Barlow asked Muwafaq to recreate a board based on the dimensions and design of the original.
The aim is to create the first Ur game board “produced in Iraq for millennia,” said Barlow, who lectures at the University of Raparin in the town of Raniye, 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Baghdad.
Although it was invented locally, the game seems to have reached communities hundreds of kilometers away, even as far as India.
“The board itself, with its Afghan Lapis lazuli and Pakistani carnelian (gemstones), is testament to a globalized world connected by traders, merchants and craftsmen,” Barlow told AFP.
By reviving the game back in its birthplace, he hopes Iraqis can move past recent decades of violence to build an identity based on a shared ancient past.
“We want to reintroduce and re-educate people in their Mesopotamian history, something they can be really proud of — something that unites people rather than divides people,” he said.

Barlow and his team of volunteers are on a mission to bring back the spirit of Mesopotamia by spreading the game — first in the north, and then hopefully to Baghdad and Mosul.
Their first stop is the local park.
There, mainly older men play more mainstream games like checkers and backgammon — but can the Royal Game of Ur make a comeback?
“Yes!” says Mam Rasool, one of the elderly men there.
“I would play if there is someone to play the game with, like they (the Mesopotamians) did.”
He picked up a piece to move it across the intricate board.
“It’s 5,000 years old, but to us it’s new,” said Rasool.


Oscars: the show must go on... without a host

Updated 20 January 2019
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Oscars: the show must go on... without a host

LOS ANGELES: Hollywood’s biggest night — the Oscars — is set to take place next month without a host for the first time in 30 years, after comedian Kevin Hart pulled out of the gig and no suitable replacement was found.
Though organizers have yet to confirm the plans, entertainment insiders say the show’s producers are forging ahead with preparations for the 91st Academy Awards on February 24 with no emcee.
If all goes ahead, it would be the first ceremony without a host since the 1989 gala — one widely seen as one of the most embarrassing ever, featuring an infamous duet between actor Rob Lowe and... Snow White.
As gala organizers struggle to overcome a steady decline in viewership, many say the failure to find a host is actually good news.
“It’s a blessing in disguise,” Tim Gray, awards editor at entertainment magazine Variety, told AFP.
“People have been saying for years that the format — the same since 1953 — needs to change and they’re trying to cut down on running time. So personally, I think it’s a great idea not to have a host.”
Hart, who is currently starring opposite Bryan Cranston in “The Upside,” was named to host the Oscars in early December.
But the backlash was swift — homophobic tweets he made several years ago reemerged, prompting an outcry on social media, and he withdrew just a few days later.
“I have made the choice to step down from hosting this year’s Oscar’s (sic)....this is because I do not want to be a distraction on a night that should be celebrated by so many amazing talented artists,” he tweeted.
“I sincerely apologize to the LGBTQ community for my insensitive words from my past.”
So why can’t the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences find someone else?
The previous two shows have been hosted by late night funnyman Jimmy Kimmel. Comedian Chris Rock emceed in 2005 and 2016 and TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres hosted in 2007 and 2014.
All have apparently indicated they weren’t interested in the gig this year.
“I think a lot of people, especially when it comes to hosting the Oscars ... think nowadays it’s not worth accepting (to host) because of the scrutiny,” Gray said.
“It’s kind of a thankless job,” he added.
“A lot of hosts have said it’s a difficult job because you walk into that room, there are 3,000 people, and all they want to know is who won in each category.”
In recent years, several hosts were raked over the coals. Actor Neil Patrick Harris got rumbled over his 2015 effort and said he would never do it again. James Franco and Anne Hathaway were a dud in 2011.
The Academy declined several requests by AFP for comment on the hosting situation or the show’s possible format.
But according to several trade magazines, organizers are considering having multiple A-listers — probably actors — introduce various segments and the award presenters.
“The Academy awards regularly had multiple hosts in the 1970s and 1980s and the telecast worked very well,” said Dave Karger, a special correspondent for IMDb (the Internet Movie Database).
“So if this year’s producers are able to book big stars to perform in skits and present the prizes, I don’t think the show will suffer at all.”
Gray said the big challenge will be how to make the show entertaining — both to those attending and for people watching on television — while sticking to the promise of a three-hour telecast.
“I think the hostless situation is going to force them to come up with something imaginative,” he said.
“And the fact that the show is going to be different could keep the energy going.”