Games from ancient Egypt
Amira El-Noshokaty investigates the children’s games today’s Egyptians have inherited from their ancestors
It is sometimes said that if you really want to know about a nation, look at the attention it pays to its children.
As people flock to see the relics of ancient Egyptian civilisation at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo they could do worse than look carefully at the children’s toys and board games amid all the grand statues and other objects.
These items reveal a lot about the civilisation that made them, particularly in the excellence and attention to detail shown in them.
According to a recent book, Ancient Egyptians at Play: Board Games Across Borders by Walter Crist, Anne-Elizabeth Dunn-Vaturi and Alex de Voogt, the “culture of board games in Egypt has long been a topic of interest for archaeologists, anthropologists and lay people alike, the climatic conditions of the Nile Valley allowing the preservation of perishable materials.”
On the second floor of the Egyptian Museum in the corridor that leads to the display of the funerary items found in the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, there are some very interesting ancient Egyptian royal toys.
There is the toy box of Tutankhamun himself, a white wooden box with a round handle so that the royal baby does not hurt himself when handling it. The box is very like those used today for children to keep their toys in while tidying up their rooms.
The display also contains a small wooden toy in the shape of a monkey, its arms and legs being mobile so the monkey can move up and down. Next to the monkey are two cone-shaped objects representing toy bread from ancient Egypt.
There are also children’s rattles made of rope and palm leaves to keep infants safely entertained. Like a modern rattle in concept, these ancient ones are softer and more eco-friendly. The rattles are tucked away on a shelf that also displays clay and wooden toys. There are dolls made of decorated leather with thread for hair, these being like the stuffed cloth dolls still seen in parts of Egypt today.
While the latter are not on display in the Egyptian Museum, people living in rural areas still often make handmade cloth dolls for their children from unwanted clothing. It is a form of recycling, in the olden days part of the village’s daily rituals.
On a parallel shelf there are all sorts of soft leather balls for toddlers to play with in different sizes and colours. Balls in different shades of blue and green are carefully displayed next to small statues that may have been figures for children’s entertainment.
The oldest toys ever found in Egypt, little toy boats carved from wood, come from a child’s tomb dating to the Pre-Dynastic Period. Wooden dolls for children have also been found. However, nothing beats the mobile toy frog made of bones and wood that can be seen on display in the Museum. The frog still has a thread dangling from it which made it hop when pulled.
There are also board games that are a mélange of chess and siga, a traditional Egyptian board game. A favourite of the young pharaoh Tutankhamun, there are several versions of the game. Known by historians as “senet,” this board game for two players with five to seven pieces per player resembles backgammon in its rules and was popular among our ancestors and was not only limited to royal entertainment.
The board had 30 squares which were traversed boustrophedonically (from left to right and then from right to left) along an S-shaped pathway. It is the pharaonic original of the folk game siga, still popular in Upper Egypt. Unlike senet, siga can be played on the ground by drawing a square with small squares inside it. It can be played with small stones or date stones.
Senet boards often had another game on the reverse side called the “game of twenty,” which bore a strong resemblance to an ancient Mesopotamian game called the “royal game of Ur” by archaeologists in which two players moved pieces along a path or track.
Another ancient Egyptian game, mehen (or snake), is the earliest known example of a linear-track game in which players attempt to move their pieces from one end of the board’s track to the other, often using tricks or shortcuts.
The ancient Egyptian “hounds and jackals” game is also on display. This takes the form of a square-shaped board with several small rounded holes and sticks with hound and jackal heads on top of them to play the game. The board has two sets of 29 holes. The pieces consist of ten small sticks with either jackal or dog heads. The aim was probably to start at one point on the board and to move all the figures to another point on it.
Another board game that resembles the modern game of Ludo can be seen at the Egyptian Museum. The latter also has a beautiful set of dice made from different coloured stones cleverly transformed into even squares with regular dots on them.
What’s great about all these games is that replicas of them are now also being sold online, meaning that today’s players can get a real taste of the games inherited from ancient Egypt.