Games of the Ancient Egyptians
By Raymond Binder
Games in ancient Egypt were diverse, and took many forms. Just as today, there were games favored by adults, children or both. There were indoor games, well organized outdoor sports games, and more informal games played by children.
One of the most popular indoor activities was a board game known as senet. Tourists who visit Egypt with a cautious eye may well run across a simple version of the board, sometimes found at antiquity sites marked out on the pavement or stone. However, much more elegant boards are to be found among the wealthy, including one found in the tomb of Tut. This game was an ancestor of draughts, with a checkered board known as the "perw" (houses) of three rows of 10 squares. Pieces of the opposing sides were distinguished by their size, color or shape. Each opponent usually had seven pieces.
Moves were determined by throwing sticks, or "astragals (knuckle-bones). The object was to move the pieces around a snaking track to the finish, landing on a number of specially marked squares representing good or bad fortune. Senet, which means "passing" became so popular it took on religious significance.
Another board game thought to have come from Asia was twenty squares. Several boards have been discovered, and it is known that the game was played by two players using five pieces, but otherwise the rules of this game are now lost. Other games are recorded using different numbers of squares, but all were position games usually played by two people sitting face to face.
There were several games that could be played by more than two people. In the game of "snake" (mehen), up to six people could play. It used a long field scratched out on the floor and stone pieces int he shape of dogs, lions and balls that were moved along it. In yet another game, pegs with their tops shaped into dogs, jackals and other animals were stuck into a row of 30 to 60 holes drilled into a board. Unfortunately, we currently know little about the rules for any of these games.
Many organized sports games were confrontational. Some of the favored sports were wrestling, boxing and fencing with sticks, and of these, wrestling was probably favored. However, the early Egyptians seemed to have their own early Olympics, with competition including an early form of hockey, handball, Gymnastics, spear throwing (javelin), weightlifting, various equestrian sports, high jump, swimming competition, boating competitions, archery, long distance running, tug of war and others. There is currently an effort in Luxor to revive some of these old games into a national event.
The Games of Children
Children's games appear to be much less organized, most often taking on spur of the moment challenges such as balancing, racing, wrestling, and tug of wars. We have also found that children played some sort of ball games, having found various balls made from papyrus. In one picture we find girls playing a game called "pressing the grapes". While we know nothing of this game, the girls are pictured holding hands in a circle. Dancing, which was very popular among children, may also have been made into a game by girls. It is also clear that children had many different toys to play with, some very complex in fact.
What is clear is that while the Egyptians labored to build pyramids, fought wars and practiced religious ceremonies, they also could, and did, have a good time.
Last Updated: June 13th, 2011
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