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

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.

Art Dubai, where anything goes, gets off to a colorful start

The fair’s 13th edition runs from March 20-23 and features 92 Contemporary and Modern galleries from 42 countries. (Arab News)
Updated 20 March 2019

Art Dubai, where anything goes, gets off to a colorful start

DUBAI: Art Dubai, the largest art fair in the Middle East, got off to a colorful start on Wednesday and more than 92 galleries showcased their chosen artists in the city’s Madinat Jumeriah.

The fair’s 13th edition runs from March 20-23 and features 92 Contemporary and Modern galleries from 42 countries, as well as a bevy of galleries from the UAE.  There are also a number of events going on around the city, as part of Art Week, including Art Nights at the Dubai International Financial Center, which took place on Tuesday. 

You can read more about Art Nights, and see the wild and wonderful art on show, here

Highlights include new gallery section Bawwaba, showcasing art from the Global South; UAE NOW - the first section of its kind - spotlighting local independent artist-run platforms and subcultures, their place in the UAE’s evolving landscape and contribution to creating new ways of thinking, theory and artistic movements and the Contemporary section — two gallery halls presenting work from 59 galleries from 34 countries by some of the most notable contemporary artists working today. It will make you smile, smirk and everything  in-between.

Art Dubai 2019 welcomes more than 500 artists representing 80 nationalities across its four gallery sections: Art Dubai Contemporary, Art Dubai Modern, Bawwaba and Residents.

We take a look at six of our favorite artists and pieces here.

The diversity on show is notable, with galleries from Latin America placed next to booths from Beirut, Saudi Arabia and London.

Pablo del Val, Artistic Director of Art Dubai, said: “Art Dubai continues to develop original content to redefine what an art fair can be and contribute to the UAE and wider region’s cultural landscape. We represent an art world that is truly global and inclusive, rooted in artistic discovery and the promotion of new and alternative perspectives, community building, idea generation and cultural exchange. Geographies, galleries and artists, art typologies and thematics that are not often seen side-by-side, or even as part of the same conversation, will converge at the fair. We hope that new discoveries will be made and new synergies formed.”

It’s a melting pot of artistic expression and media, with sculptures, canvases and the odd video installation vying for space in the crowded halls.

There is a distinct focus on contemporary art, so if you’re into museum-worthy paintings, this may not be your cup of tea, but if you are willing to experiment, it’s the perfect spot to question the boundaries of art.

Battery-operated imaginary animals careened across the floor in one booth, while a fine spider’s web of black string formed an origami-like sculpture in another — anything goes at Art Dubai, as long as it’s not too risqué.

But, why tell you when we can show you? Scroll through the photo gallery to find out more about the art on show here.