Ibn Sina, Persian Polymath and Physician, Never Demanded Money from his Patients

The article below entitled Ibn Sina, the great Persian polymath and physician, never demanded money from his patients” was written by Damjan Stojanovski and published in the Vintage news outlet on October 13, 2016.

Kindly note that three of the images and accompanying captions displayed below do not appear in the original Vintage News posting.
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The cultural and scientific enlightenment fostered by the Islamic Golden Age during the Abbasid Caliphate undoubtedly propelled mankind’s progress during the High Middle Ages. Contributing to various scientific fields, many thinkers and philosophers such as Al-Farabi, Al-Kindi, Rhazez, and others have cemented their names in the history of science. As for Ibn Sina (980-1037), his work and research are arguably the most revered.

13th-century illustration depicting scholars at an Abbasid library from the Maqamat of al-Hariri by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti. Baghdad, 1237 (Source: Vintage News).

Also known as Avicenna, Ibn Sina was a Persian polymath with contributions in medicine, psychology, geology, physics, astronomy (he was the first to propose that Venus was closer to the Sun than the Earth), and of course, philosophy. A prominent thinker and empiricist, in contrast with his scientific penchant for knowledge, he was also a poet and an Islamic theologian.

A Portrait of Ibn Sina (Source: CGIE.org).

Records and historical facts about his life are hard to pin down, as there exists only one known autobiography about him, written by one of his students, al-Jūzjānī. He was born in a village near Bukhara (modern-day Uzbekistan) in 980 CE, most likely in August.

The Statue of Ibn Sina at the Persian Scholar Pavilion in the Vienna International Center (Source: “Yamaha5” in Public Domain). To the right of Ibn Sina, holding a bulbous long-necked beaker, is Zakariya Razi (854 CE – 925 CE), known as “Rhazes” in the West). Razi was another important Iranian polymath, medical prodigy and physician, philosopher and alchemist. To the left of Ibn Sina is the Iranian Polymath and scholar from Khwarezm, Abu-Reyhan Biruni (973-1048 CE),

Because of his father’s position as a governor and a respected scholar, Ibn Sina received a quality education and upbringing. The young genius could memorize the Quran at the age of 10 and had a thirst for unconventional knowledge for his age. At times, he prayed in mosques, when challenged with difficult texts and ideas.

One of his many tutors, Nātilī, had the honor to teach elementary logic to Ibn Sina. However, his teachings were obsolete, since the young thinker was rapidly grasping advanced ideas and was already entering new fields of knowledge.

Undertaking a tremendous task of studying the works of Aristotle on his own, he gained a methodical approach to the sciences which, in return, aided his logical viewpoint. He had difficulty at fist, but once he read Al-Farabi’s commentary on the work, he quickly understood Aristotle’s “Metaphysics”. Contrary to popular belief, he was not the first to introduce Aristotelian philosophy to the Middle East, but he was by far the most distinguished.

Pages from a 17th-century manuscript of Al-Farabi’s commentary on Aristotle’s metaphysics (Source: Vintage News & Public Domain).

Ibn Sina favored medicine and anatomy over the rigid field of mathematics and logic; thus he began studying medicine at the age of 16 and became a skilled physician by 18. By 997 CE, Ibn Sina healed the local emir, Nuh II, from a life-threatening illness and was promptly appointed as the emir’s personal doctor. The respected position that Ibn Sina gained from this rather heroic deed allowed him valuable access to the Sāmānid royal library, consequently opening new doors of knowledge. Ibn Sina never required payment from his patients, as the practice of curing and mending their wounds was payment enough for the curious physician.

A manuscript written on paper during the Abbasid Era (Source: Vintage News & Public Domain).

By his 20s, Ibn Sina undertook writing his ideas, penning many books about astronomy, medicine, philosophy, mathematics, music, poetry, and philology.

Tomb of Ibn Sina in Hamedan, Iran (Source: Public Domain).

Sheda Vasseqhi PhD Study: Positioning of Iran And Iranians In Origins Of Western Civilization

Sheda Vasseghi has completed her PhD Dissertation at the University of New England entitled:

Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In Origins of Western Civilization. PhD Dissertation, University of New England (download this at Academia.edu …)

Sheda Vasseqhi

Vasseghi’s PhD academic advising team were composed of the following members: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi and Kaveh Farrokh.

Her study explored a number of widely taught college-level history textbooks in order to examine how these positioned Iran and Iranian peoples in the origins of Western Civilization. As noted by Vasseghi in her abstract:

“Western Civilization history marginalizes, misrepresents, misappropriates, and/or omits Iran’s positioning. Further, the mainstream approach to teaching Western Civilization history includes the Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman narrative.”

Vasseghi used a multi-faceted theoretical approach—decolonization, critical pedagogy, and Western Civilization History dilemma—since her study transcended historical revisionism. This collective case study involved eleven Western Civilization history textbooks that, according to the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), are most popular among American college faculty. Vasseghi reviewed and collected expert opinion on the following five themes:

(1) terminology and definition of Iran, Iranians, and Iranian languages

(2) roots and origins of Iranian peoples

(3) which Iranian peoples are noted in general

(4) which Iranian peoples in ancient Europe are specifically noted

(5) Iranians in connection with six unique Western Civilization attributes.

Vasseghi selected experts specializing in Iranian, Western Civilization, and Indo-European studies in formulating a consensus on each theme. She then compared expert opinion to content in surveyed textbooks. Vasseghi discovered that the surveyed textbooks in her study overwhelmingly omitted, ill-defined, misrepresented, or marginalized Iran and Iranians in the origins of Western Civilization.

Readers are encouraged to visit Kaveh Farrokh’s Academia.edu profile cited in the introduction of this post to download Sheda Vasseghi’s Dissertation. Here is one of the quotes from her study:

“The researcher recommends that textbook authors and publishers engage experts in the field of Iranian studies in formulating content. A caveat for engaging those in the field of Iranian studies when writing Western Civilization history textbooks involves making a distinction between a native Iran and post-Islamic invasion and colonization of Iran in early Middle Ages (7th century onwards). That is, in the Age of Antiquity, Iran was under an Iranian governance and ancestral beliefs such as Zoroastrianism and Mithraism.”

This is an important observation given Western Media and academic outlets using sweeping (if not simplistic) terms such as “Middle East”, “Muslims”, etc. without acknowledging the context of Iran’s unique background, ancient history and language(s). Put simply, terms such as “Middle East” are not scientific but geopolitical in origin. The term “Muslim Civilization” for example serves to dilute (or even blur) the critical role of Iranian and Indian scholars in the preservation and promotion of learning, sciences and medicine. Arab historians such as Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) who in his Muqaddimah (translated by F. Rosenthal (III, pp. 311-15, 271-4 [Arabic]; R.N. Frye (p.91) has acknowledged the role of the Iranians in the promotion of scholarship:

“…It is a remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars…in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs…thus the founders of grammar were Sibawaih and after him, al-Farisi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian descent…they invented rules of (Arabic) grammar…great jurists were Persians… only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works. Thus the truth of the statement of the prophet becomes apparent, ‘If learning were suspended in the highest parts of heaven the Persians would attain it”…The intellectual sciences were also the preserve of the Persians, left alone by the Arabs, who did not cultivate them…as was the case with all crafts…This situation continued in the cities as long as the Persians and Persian countries, Iraq, Khorasan and Transoxiana (modern Central Asia), retained their sedentary culture.”

[For more see: Farrokh, K. (2015). Pan-Arabism and Iran. In “The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism” (Immanuel Ness & Zak Cope, Eds.), Palgrave-Macmillan, pp.915-923.]

Sources such as Ibn Khaldun are now rarely mentioned in many modern-day “Islamic Studies” in Western history textbooks which may explain in part the numerous errors uncovered in Vasseghi’s study. She further avers:

“Critical pedagogy is important in transformational leadership in education. Educators are obligated to point out errors or problems in content and mainstream narratives. In regards to teaching history of Western Civilization, one should recall the warnings of its looming demotion by Ricketts et al. (2011) because unfortunately teaching it “had come to be seen as a form of apologetics for racism, imperialism, sexism, and colonialism” (p. 14). It appears that in perceiving that something is missing from or fragmented in Western Civilization history content, educational institutions are now marginalizing and omitting it from their curriculum in America, a Western nation. Therefore, the significance of this study is the need for authors and educators to shift the currently flawed narrative on the history of the West. Iran’s positioning is a key component in the study of Western Civilization. The researcher argues that Iran and Iranians not only influenced the making of the West; they are part of the West. By placing Iran and Iranians where they belong, historians may also address concerns about teaching the history of the West (Ricketts et al., 2011).”

In her final PhD defense session with her research committee (Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi and Kaveh Farrokh) on Monday, March 20, 2017, Vasseghi noted that she plans to author books tailored to Western audiences to help educate with respect to the role of Iranians in the formation of European civilization. Vasseghi’s books would also be geared towards a lay (non-academic) audience.

Education in the Parthian and Sassanian Empires

The article below by Ahmad Tafazzoli entitled Education in the Parthian and Sassanian Empires” was originally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1997 and last updated on December 9, 2011. The article is also available in print (Vol. VIII, Fasc. 2, pp. 179-180).

Kindly note that the pictures/illustrations and accompanying descriptions of these inserted below do not appear in the original Encyclopedia Iranica posting.


No concrete evidence on education in Parthian times has survived. It may be postulated, however, that it was similar to education in the Sasanian period. Information about the latter period is confined mainly to education of princes, the nobility, the clergy, and administrative secretaries (dabīrs). Most peasants were illiterate, but most urban merchants were probably acquainted at least with writing and calculation (Christensen, Iran Sass., p. 416).

The required education for a child of a noble or an upper-class family is described in the Pahlavi treatise Xusraw ud Rēdag (Pahlavi Texts, ed. Jamasp-Asana, pp. 27-38): writing, religious instruction, physical education, and training in courtly arts. A noble child would begin attending school (fra-hangestān) at the “proper age,” between five and seven years (Wizīrkard, p. 177; cf. Ṭabarī, I, pp. 815, 855: Ardašīr at seven years, Bahrām V at five years) and would have completed general training and religious studies by the age of fifteen years (Andarz ī Pōryōtkēšān, par. 1; Pahlavi Texts, ed. Jamasp-Asana, p. 41). At school he would learn to write and would memorize the yašts, Hādōxt, Bayān Yasn, and Vidēvdād, the same training provided for a future hērbed (religious teacher). In addition, he would listen to the Zand, the Pahlavi translation of the Avesta. Astrology was also part of the curriculum (Xusraw ud Rēdag,pars. 8-10, 14). The education of a certain Mihrām-Gušnasp, son of a noble Sasanian family who later converted to Christianity and was martyred, was similar. He was said to have been initiated into Middle Persian literature and the Zoroastrian religion at an early age. He could recite the yašts and hold the barsom at the age of seven years (Hoffmann, p. 94; Christensen, Iran Sass., pp. 413-14). According to Abū Manṣūr Ṯaʿālebī (Ḡorar, p. 712), Šīrōya (later Kavad II, r. 628 C.E.) read Kalīla wa Demna at school.

1-Avestan Literature

A copy of the Avestan Videvdad Sadeh with illustrations housed at the British Library (RSPA 230, ff. 151v–152r) (Source: Maia Atlantis). The text above was originally copied in 1647 in Yazd, Iran.

The account of the education of Dārāb given in the Šāh-nāma (Moscow, VI, pp. 359-60, vv. 93-103; cf. Ṯaʿālebī, Ḡorar, p. 394; cf. Xusraw ud Rēdag, pars. 11-12) probably reflects Sasanian norms: He first learned the Avesta and Zand and was then trained in riding, archery, polo, and the military arts. It was customary to entrust the education of a prince, especially a crown prince, to a tutor, in some instances far from the court. For example, at the end of the Arsacid period Bābak sent Ardašīr (224-40) at the age of seven years to the argbed Tīrī, who was probably commander of the fortress of Dārābgerd (see DĀRĀB ii), to be educated (Ṭabarī, I, p. 815; Balʿamī, ed. Bahār, p. 876). Writing (dibīrīh), riding (aswārīh), and other skills were parts of his education (Kār-nāmag, ed. Antia, chap. II, p. 5 par. 4). Ardašīr himself, while at the court of the last Arsacid king, Ardavān (see ARTABANUS), had trained princes in horsemanship and hunting (Ṯaʿālebī, Ḡorar, p. 475). Bahrām V (Bahrām Gōr; 421-39), whose education was said to have been entrusted to Monḏer, Arab ruler of Ḥīra in Mesopotamia, was instructed by various tutors (moʾaddeb) in writing, archery, riding, and law. His general education is reported to have finished at the age of twelve years, after which he continued training in archery and riding until he attained mastery (Ṭabarī, I, pp. 855-57; Meskawayh, pp. 78-79; Dīnavarī, ed. Guirgass, p. 53; Ṯaʿālebī, Ḡorar, p. 541; Šāh-nāma, Moscow, VII, pp. 270-71; Balʿamī, ed. Bahār, pp. 929-30).

A noble education also involved learning to play musical instruments and sing, games like chess and backgammon, and general information about wines, flowers, women, and riding animals (Xusraw ud Rēdag, pars. 13, 15, 57-58, 62-63, 66, 69-93, 96, 99-100). When Ardašīr was relegated by Ardavān to service in the royal stable, he reportedly amused himself by playing the lute (ṭanbūr) and singing (srōd-wāzīg; Kār-nāmag, ed. Antia, chap. 3, p. 11 par. 2; cf. Šāh-nāma, ed. Khaleghi, II, p. 30, VI, p. 178, about Rostam and Esfandīār respectively).

2-Goddess Chista

An artistic interpretation of the ancient Iranian Goddess of knowledge and science, Cheesta (Source: Mojarradat). The Avesta makes clear that women are equal to men in receiving education: there is a reference for example to the worship of frauuaṣ̌is (choices) of aēθrapaitinąm aēθriianąm narąm nāirinąm (teachers, of students—male [and] female) (Y. 26.7).

Ferdowsī’s description of the education of Prince Sīāvaš by Rostam in Zābol provides a model of princely education in Sasanian and probably Parthian times as well. The prince was not only trained in horsemanship, archery, hunting, and the arts of war but also learned social etiquette, ceremonial rites, conduct on festive occasions, and delivery of orations. The results of his education were later apparent in the skills in archery, polo, and hunting that he exhibited when he lived at the court of Afrāsīāb (Šāh-nāma, ed. Khaleghi, II, pp. 207, 289-94).

There is some evidence that in the Sasanian period women attended school, at least for general religious studies, though probably in relatively small numbers (Kotwal and Kreyenbroek, pp. 18, 38, 43); the main part of their training, however, consisted of domestic skills learned at home (Dēnkard, ed. Madan, I, p. 935; Christensen, Iran Sass., p. 418). There is one piece of evidence suggesting that some women were well versed in Sasanian civil law (Bartholomae, p. 35; Christensen, Iran Sass., p. 418).

Three terms for “school” are attested in Pahlavi books: frahangestān, lit., “place of education” (Xusraw ud Rēdag, par. 8; Kār-nāmag, ed. Antia, chap. 2, p. 8 par. 21); dibīrestān, probably a school for training scribes and secretaries (Andarz ī Ādurbād, pars. 58, 129, in Pahlavi Texts, ed. Jamasp-Asana, pp. 63, 69; Xwēškārīh ī Rēdagān, pars. 1, 3, 5, 23, in Junker, pp. 15, 16, 20; Sad dar naṯr, chap. 51, p. 37); and hērbedestān, evidently a school for religious studies (Andarz ī Pōryōtkēšān, par. 8, in Pahlavi Texts, ed. Jamasp-Asana, p. 43; Andarz ō kōdakān, par. 25, in Junker, p. 20). The general term for “teacher” was hammōzgār, for “religious teacher” hērbed, and for “instructor” frahangbed (Dēnkard, ed. Madan, pp. 274, 757; cf. Ṭabarī, I, p. 1063: moʾaddeb al-asāwera “instructor of horsemen”).

3-Yasna-Yazd 1630

A newly discovered Yasna manuscript announced on the Bibliographia Iranica on June 26, 2015 by Shervin Farridnejad (Source: Bibliographia Iranica). This discovery was first announced by Dr. Saloume Gholami on Facebook. Professor Alberto Cantera and his colleagues at the Avestan Digital Archive (ADA) project have been working to publish the manuscript and make it available for public access. This manuscript originally belongs to the Dinyar family of Yazd, Iran and has been dated to c. 1630.

The sources provide scanty information on educational methods. In two Pahlavi treatises (Xwēškārīh ī Rēdagān and Andarz ō kōdakān) that have survived in Pāzand, the duties of boys at school, at home, and on the way from home to school are described (Junker, pp. 15-21). Physical punishment was administered at school (cf. Zādspram, chap. 27, p. 97 par. 8; Pahlavi Texts, ed. Jamasp-Asana, p. 130, par. 9, where beating with a very long stick is mentioned).


(For cited works not found in this bibliography and abbreviations found here, see “Short References.”)

C. Bartholomae, Zum sassanidischen Recht IV, Sb. der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften 13, Heidelberg, 1922/5.

G. Hoffmann, Auszüge aus syrischen Akten persischer Märtyrer, Leipzig, 1880.

H. F. J. Junker, ed., Ein mittelpersisches Schulgespräch, Sb. der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften 3/15, Heidelberg, 1912.

F. M. Kotwal and P. Kreyen-broek, The Hērbedestān and Nērangestān I, Paris, 1992.

Meskawayh, Tajāreb al-omam I, ed. A. Emāmī, Tehran, 1366 Š/1987.

Sad dar naṯr, ed. B. N. Dhabhar, Bombay, 1909. Wizīrkard ī dēnīg, ed. P. Sanjana, Bombay, 1848.

Piece of carved wood suggests Persian taught maths in Japan 1,000 years ago

The report posted below on October 6, 2016 by Gabriel Samuel of Britain’s Independent newspaper was first released by the Japan Times on October 5, 2016.

Kindly note that excepting the first image, all other images and accompanying descriptions are from Kaveh Farrokh’s Fall 2014 course on the Silk Route at the University of British Columbia.


The piece of wood was discovered in the 1960s but as only now been fully analysed Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.

Archaeologists have unearthed a piece of wood revealing ancient Japan was a “cosmopolitan” nation “where foreigners were treated equally”, including details of one Persian man teaching maths more than a millennium ago.


Scientists analysed carvings on the wood using infrared imaging technology, which appeared to name a Persian lecturer who worked at a facility where government ministers were trained in the former Japanese capital of Nara.

Previous discoveries have revealed Japan had direct trade links with Persia as early as 600AD, but this is the first time it has been suggested a Middle Eastern official may have been employed in the country at that time.


Sassanian influences upon Japanese arts: the case of the metalwork plate of Shapur II hunting lions (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg – Inv. S-253) and motif-parallels in Japanese textile arts (Source: Fall 2014 course on the Silk Route at the University of British Columbia).

Akirhiro Watanabe of the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, who led the survey, suggested the man was likely to have taught mathematics due to Persia’s renowned expertise in the subject. As noted by Watanabe to the Japan Times:

Although earlier studies have suggested there were exchanges with Persia as early as the 7th century, this is the first time a person as far away as Persia was known to have worked in Japan… This suggests Nara was a cosmopolitan city where foreigners were treated equally”.

Throughout the 17th century, thousands of Persian merchants were known to travel to the city of Nagasaki for the purposes of trade, but it is now believed the ties between the two countries date back far earlier.


Sassanian and Soghdian merchants were actively trading with China, a process that led to Iranian links with ancient Korea and Japan (Source: Fall 2014 course on the Silk Route at the University of British Columbia).

Nara was the capital of Japan between 710 and 784, before it was shifted to Kyoto and later to present-day Tokyo.

A vast ancient tomb with colourful painted murals opened to the public at a museum in the Nara Prefecture last week, another impressive find by the local archaeological surveying team.

Last month, archaeologists were left baffled by the remarkable discovery of ancient Roman coins while excavating the ruins of Katsuren Castle on Okinawa Island recently.

The four copper coins were originally thought to be a hoax before their true provenance was revealed through detailed scanning.

Chess: Iranian or Indian Invention?

The article below has been edited by Shapour Suren-Pahlav of the CAIS website in London. As noted by Suren-Pahlav: “Large portion of this essay has been excerpted from “The Origin of Chess; Some Facts to Think About” by Ricardo Calvo, 1996.”


The Origin of Chess

Chess is one of humanities popular pastimes and has been described not only as a game, but also as an art, a science and a sport. Chess is sometimes seen as an abstract war-game and a ‘mental martial art. And teaching and playing chess have been advocated as a way of enhancing mental prowess.


Seven piece ivory set (7th century CE) (Source: CAIS).

It is very unlikely that Chess, almost as it is played today suddenly came into existence or invented by one person. The idea of it being a combination of elements from other board-games has merit. Since almost all known board games have religious backgrounds the astrological component is entirely possible, even though one prefers the version that all elements come from other games, as the basis for the counters. Iran as the area of origin is highly possible, especially because of the two excavated debated pieces from the second century CE, which were found in the area of Iranian cultural domination.


chess is an ancient game which is first mentioned in documents dating back to the early years of the 7th century CE. and associated with North West India and Iran. Before the 7th century the existence of chess in any land is not demonstrable by a single shred of contemporary evidence” (Fiske, the Nation).

Claiming the glory

Various scholars have proposed various origins for chess: Bidev states that “chess comes from China”, while Samsin suggests that there was hybridisation of Eastern and Western games in the post Alexander kingdom of Bactria in c180-50BCE. Josten is geographically between the two of them, favoring the Kushan empire in ca. 50BCE – 200CE.


A Knight chess-piece (7th c. CE) from Afrasiab (Source: CAIS).

However, possibly the strongest – or perhaps most vociferous – arguments have come from those who consider that chess originated in the Indian subcontinent in around 600CE. This view was propagated by Murray and van der Linde in the late 19th – early 20th centuries, and has subsequently been supported by Averbak.

This brief paper examines some etymological, literary and archaeological evidence for the Iranian origin of chess – and so suggests that the question of the origin of the famous game is still unanswered.

Etymological evidence

Various names have been, and are now, used for chess-like games. Indian Chaturanga, for example, is a chess-like game, but it is played on an eight by eight board (rather than the modern chess twelve by twelve board) and it uses slightly different pieces and rules to those in the modern game. It has been suggested to be a proto-game for chess, of Indian origin.

The word chaturanga means ‘quadripartite’ or ‘army’ which reflects the four components in Vedic army platoons, which are themselves reflected in the types of pieces used in the game. Ricardo Calvo notes that the first unmistakable reference to the game of chaturanga is in the Harschascharita by the court poet Bina, writing between 625 and 640CE. The word’s early literary use and its origin in the ancient language of Sanskrit have been suggested to provide supporting evidence for the Indian origin of chess. Murray specifically suggested that the Sasanian-Pahlavi word chatrang – used for a game equivalent to the current chess – was derived from chaturanga. However, one of the most etymological evidences can be identified in the terminology of chess pieces which are Persian such as Rook.

Rook which is a Western derivative of Rukh is another term for Iranian mythical bird Sên-Murv, and Simurgh in New Persian. In ancient Iranian literature (Avestan) Sên-Murv identified as Homâ and in Arabic introduced as Rukh. The Simurgh or Rukh, was depicted as a winged gigantic creature in the shape of a bird, that could carry an elephant or a camel. The functionality of the Rook piece in game of chess and its iconography in Iranian world is quite significant. The bird which Iranian believed imparted fertility to the land and the union between the earth and the sky. In India, the piece is more popularly called haathi, meaning “elephant“.

Chess-4-rukh-ferghana A Rukh piece found in Ferghana 8th to 10th centuries CE (Source: CAIS).

Another hint is the nomenclature of the pieces, persistently related to different sorts of animals rather than to components of an army: In the “Grande Acedrex” of King Alfonso of Castile (1283) lions, crocodiles, giraffes etc. play over a board of 12×12 cases with peculiar jumping moves, and the invention of it is connected to the same remote period in India as normal chess. They are very atypical in any context referring to India (see De Gruyter in bibliography).

Other chess terminologies are also deeply rooted in Persian language, such as “checkmate” (the English rendition of shāh māt, which is Persian for “the king is frozen“) as well as “bishop” and “queen” pieces.

Bishop” chess piece which is a western innovation, derived from the elephant, most likely in the 15th century – it is from the Persian pīl meaning “the elephant”. In Europe and the western part of the Islamic world people knew little or nothing about elephants, and the name of the chessman entered Western Europe as Latin alfinus and similar, a word with no other meaning.

 Chess-12-Vizier-BishopVazir (Bishop), found in Saqqizabad, Iran 7th to 8th centuries CE (Source: CAIS).

This word “alfil” is in fact is an Arabic loanword from Persian pīl < fil , and in turn the Spanish word alfil would most certainly have been taken from Arabic. Chess was introduced into Spain by Ali ibn-Nafi the famous Persian poet, musician and singer (also known as Zaryāb or Ziryab, “gold finder”) in the 9th century – it is described in a famous Libro de los juegos the 13th century manuscript covering chess, backgammon, and dice


Elephant in carved dolomite-stone circa 7th century CE (Source: CAIS).

Some argue that since one of the pieces are being referred to as “elephant”, must of an Indian origin – on the other hand, elephants are not at all exclusive to India (Gowers, p.173 ff; Walbank, p. 205-6.). However, Iranians were the first nation that introduced cavalry and they had also foot-soldiers, chariots and elephants as well as river and battle-ships. In Egypt, the Ptolemaic Kings obtained elephants regularly from Somalia. Strabo (16,4,5) mentions the foundation of several cities in Africa with the main purpose of hunting elephants (Gowers, p.173 ff; Walbank, p. 205-6.). The English name “bishop” is a rename inspired by the conventional shape of the piece.

 Chess-10-Krishna and Radha playing chaturangaAn Indian manuscript depicting Krishna and Radha playing chaturanga on an 8×8 Ashtāpada (Source: CAIS).

The chess piece known as “queen” is (Persian) farzīn also vizier. It became (Arabic) firzān, which entered western European languages as forms such as alfferza, fers, etc – then later it was replaced by “queen” – possibly brought to West by British during the British rule of India; the Indian equivalent of “queen” is rani.

Historical and Literary Evidence

Pre-Islamic written references to Chess or its development have all point out to it Iranian origin, in particular to two Persian records of about 600CE.  These documents have solidly connected chess with the last period of the Sasanian rulers in Iran (224-651 CE).

The “Karnamak-ī Ardeshīr-ī Pāpakān” (the Book of Deeds of Ardeshir-e Pāpakān), a treatise about the founder of Sasanian dynasty, mentions the game of “chatrang” as one of the cultural accomplishments of the Ardeshir as a young prince. It has a proving force that a game under this name was popular in the period of redaction of the text, supposedly during the reign of Khosrow II, Parviz (r. 590-628 CE) – the work could have been composed as early as 260 CE.

The third and final Pahlavi text is known as Khūsraw ud Rēdag (Khosrow and the Page). It mentiones together with other games in chapter 15 of the (ud pad Čatrang ud new-ardaxšî r ud haštpay kardan az hamahlan fraztar hom “and in playing Chess, backgammon and the hashtpay, I am superior to my comrades” (Unvala, p. 16; Monchi-Zadeh, 1982, p. 65; Panaino, 1999, p. 51). It seems the story was taken place at the court of Khosrow I, Anūshakrūwān (Immortal Soul – r. 488–531 CE) and states that chess is one of the cultural disciplines that a noble should learn.

Chess-7-afrasiab Chess pieces found at Afrasiab, ivory 7th-8th centuries CE (Source: CAIS).

Ferdowsi the greatest of Iranian epic-poets wrote also about it in the 10th century, but his sources are solid and form a continuous chain of witnesses going back to the middle of the 6th Century in Iran. He describes chess as arriving from Hind. According to Iranian historical sources this name “Hind” was not used for India until after the 11th century. Here “Hind” means Eastern-Province of Iranian Empire including modern Sistan va Baluchestan province, and while during the Achaemenid dynastic era it was extended to Khuzestan province.

As Bidev, the Russian chess historian pointed out, nobody could possibly generate the rules of chess only by studying the array position at the beginning of a game. On the other hand, such an achievement might be made by looking at Takht-ī Nard (backgammon), which is another Iranian game-invention – the use of dice also favors its Iranian origin. The world oldest pair of dice was discovered in Dahān-e Gholāmān located in in southeastern Iranian province of Sistan, which date back to the Achaemenid dynastic period or possibly even earlier (see below).

dice-burnt-cityAncient dices discovered at the Burnt-City. At present experts are (a) attempting to determine why the game was played with sixty pieces and (b) working to decode the rules of the game. Iranians call Backgammon “Takht-e Nard”. For more see here…

Archaeological Evidence

The oldest clearly recognisable chessmen have been excavated in ancient Afrasiyab (ancient Samarqand), in Iranian cultural domains contrasts with the absence of such items in India. Afrasiab was under thy Islamic rule since 712, but were essential a Persianate land and society by origin. Some other old pieces, possibly Chess pieces, are the occasionally named chess pieces of an elephant and a zebu bull kept in Tashkent. They were excavated in 1972 at Dalverzin-Tepe (see figure below following this paragraph), an ancient citadel nowadays in Southern Uzbekistan, and stem from the 2nd century. The Russian Chess history expert Linder feels that they are not Chess pieces, but belonged to a forerunner of Chess. They could mean an earlier than previously assumed existence of Chess.

Chess-3-chess_piecElephant and Bull (or Knight or Vizier ?), ivory , dated as early as 2nd c., found at Dalverzin-Tepe. Their use is unknown, some scholars think they can be game pieces (Source: CAIS).

However, there are no chessmen there from early times in India, and only in the 10th century appears an indirect mention from Mas’udi: “The use of ivory [in India] is mainly directed to the carving of chess – and nard pieces“. Some experts believe that old Indian chess pieces may be discovered one day. So far, this is mere speculation.

Next group of chess pieces (three chessmen) comes from Nishapur (see below), and another ivory set was discovered though belonging to later times, 9th or 10th century. These are not idols anymore and are carved following the abstract pattern which has been characterised as “Arabic“.

Chess-6-Rukh-Nishabur.A Rukh from Nishapur, 9th century CE (Source: CAIS). 

Introduction of Chess into India by Muslims

Games upon the “ashtapada” board of 8×8, with dice and with two or more players may have served as “proto-chess“, but the two types of games already differ too strongly in their nature and philosophy to make the evolution of “Chaturanga” into “Shatransh” a simple question of direct parentage via the Persian “Chatrang“.

Muslim writers stated quite frequently that they took the game of “shatranj/sh” from the Iranians, who called it “chatrang“. This happens in the middle of a political-cultural revolution, which has been analyzed in historical texts.

Chess-9-Players_of_Haft_AwrangJami’s 15th century Persian manuscript of Haft Awrang depicting two Persian chess players (Source: CAIS).

The ruling Umayyads were overthrown by a certain Abul-Abbas, who initiated a new era around the year 750 – transferring the Islamic political centre from Damascus to former Iranian territory and Baghdad, which still was under Iranian cultural influence. The Abbasid caliphs culturally and quasi ethnically of Iranian origin – so Iranian dominance became clearly the focal point in the cultural renaissance which took place inside the Arabic trunk. Large number of the previous knowledge from ancient Iran, Greece, Byzantium, Egyptian and Middle East civilizations was compiled and translated into Arabic. The new information absorbed in a scientific body which followed its further path towards the West. Chess was only a part of this knowledge, packaged together with earlier mathematical, astronomical, philosophical or medical achievements.

Chess-8-Basra_chessRock crystal CE 800 (possibly chess pieces) found at Basra (Source: CAIS).

However, we know that while chess flourished in Baghdad in the 9th century, the earliest reliable account of chess-playing in India date only from the 11th century.


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