Just as today’s board games range from the simple randomness of chutes and ladders to the complex strategies of Chess, the games and players of ancient Egypt come from just a wide background. Some games required no skill and were likely played by lower classes. Others were complex simulations of battle or religious experiences reflecting the spiritual lives of pharaohs and gods.
Ancient Egyptian board games came from many sources. Some traveled up from Southwestern Africa, while others found themselves in Egypt from the east. Traders and soldiers alike would teach new games to the locals, and Egyptians likely used many of the boards discovered for more than one game.
While we have many artifacts from the board games of ancient Egypt, the precise rules for playing have been lost. Modern recreators have done their best to find moves that suit the pieces, sometimes taking cues from murals and hieroglyphs found in the pyramids and tombs of Giza.
The board games of ancient Egypt share many similarities with today’s games. Some remind us of Cribbage, with pegs moved between holes, while others are precursors to modern Checkers or Chess. It is possible that players used dice or casting sticks to make moves.
Some games had precisely carved pieces that followed different rules.
Five unique board games we know existed in Ancient Egypt, each with its own stories, histories, and mythologies.
1. Mehen (Snake) And The Hyena Game
The game of Mehen dates back to around 3000 BC and continued to be played for over a thousand years. While its precise rules are unknown, archeologists have determined that the game used two or three different pieces. Some were shaped like lions or lionesses, while others would be flat discs or marbles.
These pieces would move around a large circular board looped in a nautilus pattern. Because of this configuration, it developed the name “Mehen”, after the mythological snake god. There is no evidence that the game was linked religiously to the god, and no Mehen board has been found in a place of spiritual significance. Rather, the boards were always seen among the “toys” or hobbies of the Egyptian people. For this reason, historians suspect that the game was popular among the lower and middle classes. While most Mehen boards were circular, carved “boards’ have also been found on the reverse side of Senet sets.
Recreationists believe that the game may have been played using dice or “throw sticks”, which would determine how many squares a piece could move. The aim of the game would be to move a counter to the center of the board and back out again before other players’ lions would “eat” it.
Mehen was a popular game, with over 700 boards discovered to date. Examples of Mehen boards have been found in Syria and Cyprus, with the game being extremely popular in the latter area. Archeologists estimate that Cypriots played the game for hundreds of years after it lost popularity in Egypt.
2. Aseb (Twenty Squares)
Aseb, often called “Twenty Squares”, is a game that has its clear origin in the popular Sumerian game known as “The Royal Game of Ur”. One of the oldest games to have been recorded in ancient Egypt, it was popular for lower and upper classes alike.
Aseb was played on a longboard with (unsurprisingly) twenty squares, with dice and markers (which could be pieces or carved figures). Many examples of Aseb we have today use a box with the board carved on top and pieces kept in a draw. Some Aseb boards have been plain, graffiti scratched onto clay brick, and using animal knuckles as pieces. Others have been intricately carved masterpieces, made from ivory, and would have taken months to create.
As the Aseb board could easily fit within the three-by-ten board of Senet, it is likely it was played on this later set using the same pieces.
Aseb first appeared in Mesopotamia over six thousand years ago, using the name “The Royal Game of Ur”. It first appeared in Egypt around 1600 BC, and soon became quite popular among all people. A “race game” between two people, the exact rules used by ancient Egyptians are unknown. However, professionals believe that, based on information found in archeological digs around the world along with more contemporary examples of “Twenty Squares”, they have a general idea of how it was played.
The aim of the game is to beat your competitor at moving five unique pieces through the board, using dice to determine moves. Your pieces are unable to pass each other, and if your piece lands on an opponent, the opponent’s piece must start again.
Variants of “Twenty Squares” have been found throughout history. As late as 1950, a small Jewish settlement in Koshi, India, was found to be playing the game using the name “Aasha”.
3. Shen (Hounds and Jackals)
“Shen”, “Hounds and Jackals”, or “Fifty-eight Holes” was a popular board game using pegs and holes, popular in the Middle Kingdom. Versions of boards have been found made of gold, silver, and ivory, and examples have been found in excavations as far away as the Caspian.
The Shen Symbol found on many game boards may represent the eternal loop of eternity or life. It is a popular symbol found in many Egyptian tombs, and is sometimes connected to the Sun-god Ra. The Nefer symbol is also found on many boards. As the symbol is a sign for “good”, some people believe that the game may have been played similar to chutes and ladders. It is also the symbol for “zero”, which Egyptians may have seen as indicating balance or peace.
The game of Shen may also be connected to the circular nature of the seasons; some academics have found that there are many parallels between the structure of the board and early Greek calendar systems. While it is assumed that Shen is a race game, similar to Aseb, the exact rules are unknown.
Mancala, a universally popular set of games that are still played today, was a popular game in the later centuries of the ancient Egyptian empire. Beads or small gems would be placed in small holes or pits, and two players would compete to “capture” the most beads. While many different versions of the game exist, ancient Egyptian Mancala used twelve holes in two columns of six.
Up to 72 beads or gems would be used, and both players will move those pieces about the board to collect them as their own. Whoever has the most pieces by the end of the game wins.
The word “Mancala” means “Movement” in ancient Egyptian, and it was likely used as a way to practice strategy and compete in competitions. Earlier versions of the game have been found in central Africa, suggesting that it came to Egypt from the south. Egypt’s version was then exported to Rome, where it was played under the name of Pente.
Strangely, a written account by Edward William Lane in 1833, describes modern Egpytian merchants playing two versions of the game. These were known as “The Game of the Ignorant” and “The Game of the Wise”. It is unknown if this was the case in ancient Egypt.
The game of Senet was the most popular board game in ancient Egypt, and the one that held the most cultural and religious significance. Meaning “passing”, the game has strong connections to the spiritual realm, with paintings in some tombs and pyramids showing that even the gods and pharaohs played the game.
Senet is played on thirty squares in three rows of ten and uses various game pieces. Likely a two-person game, the rules of Senet are unknown. Some historians have attempted to create a form of Senet based on the writings of ancient Egyptians, but it is difficult to know how close they were to the “game of the gods”.
The earliest images and mentions of Senet come from over five thousand years ago, and archeologists have discovered sets dating back to before 2600 BCE. Queen Nefertari plays it on a mural in her tomb, while a Senet board is found among the belongings of Tutankhamen. It is believed that Senet represents the challenges faced by those travelling the underworld. How a “win” or “loss” would be interpreted spiritually is unknown.
While boards have been found with intricately carved draws holding hand-made pieces, Senet boards have also been found scratched into stones or made out of wood, with the knuckles of animals used as pieces. In this way, it is similar to the game of Aseb, in that it was clearly popular for all classes.
While popular in Egypt and some versions have been found in the Levant, Senet did not gain popularity elsewhere and fell out of popularity by the time of the Roman Empire.
As games of luck, practice in military strategy, and metaphors for the afterlife, the ancient Egyptians loved their board games. Examples of clearly expensive sets have been found in the tombs of pharaohs. In contrast, archeologists discovered that lower classes would play on scratched carvings with whatever they could find at hand. Ancient Egyptians could use some boards for several different games, similar to how we treat our chess boards today.
The rules for many of these games have been lost, but modern enthusiasts have attempted to find a way to reverse engineer them. Using images, snippets of text from surviving texts, and hieroglyphics found in burial chambers, these strategists have attempted to recreate the popular competitions played by the priests and kings of thousands of years ago.
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