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.


Film review: ‘Parkour(s)’ takes obstacle course through class conflict

The sport of parkour forms the backdrop of this Algerian film. Supplied
Updated 08 December 2019

Film review: ‘Parkour(s)’ takes obstacle course through class conflict

  • Fatma Zohra Zamoum’s “Parkour(s)” is set in a small city in Algeria
  • It screened at the recent Cairo International Film Festival

CHENNAI: The fast-paced sport of parkour — or negotiating obstacles in an urban environment by running, jumping and climbing — forms the backdrop of this Algerian film.

Fatma Zohra Zamoum’s “Parkour(s)” is set in a small city in Algeria, and it seems that the director has used the title to convey the kind of histrionics her characters indulge in. Take, for instance, Youcef (Nazim Halladja) — a sportsman playing parkour — literally cartwheeling through the urban landscape. His reckless antics also include threatening people with a gun and pleading with would-be bride Kamila (Adila Bendimered) to ditch her future husband, Khaled, (Mohamed Bounoughaz). 

The movie, which screened at the recent Cairo International Film Festival, unfolds during a day and takes us to the wedding and the assorted group of men and women gathered there. As we see these people making their way toward the occasion, we get to see that they are all motivated by different pulls and pressures.

The film unfolds during a day and takes us to a wedding and the assorted group of men and women gathered there. Supplied

Youcef is there to try to persuade Kamila from walking up the aisle. The kitchen help is set to make an extra buck. However, other characters have not been written with much conviction.

Zamoun says in a note: “The multi-character drama shows how a normal situation turns into major clashes reflecting the conflict between classes, ideas and generations in Algerian society, whose youth try to take control of their lives. But they are surrounded by those who try to handcuff them.” 

The movie is not convincing on this count. For example, how is the bride — who willingly prepares for the wedding (that was my impression, anyway) — “handcuffed?” The same can be said for other characters we encounter.

What comes across loud and clear, however, is the class difference. No clarity is lost when Khaled gives money to Youcef to buy a “decent” suit for the wedding and he is offended by Khaled’s arrogance. Youcef makes no bones about this to his friend — and perhaps he is taking his revenge when he tries to sow discord among his fellow characters. Also worthy of note is the performance by the young daughter of the kitchen help, Nedjma (Lali Mansour), who gives one of the most moving and natural sequences in “Parkour(s).”

The cinematography is nothing to rave about and Youcef’s parkour antics are rather intrusive and add little to the narrative.