Name of Object:

Chess piece


London, England, United Kingdom

Holding Museum:

The British Museum

About The British Museum, London

Date of Object:

Hegira 4th or 5th century / AD 10th or 11th century

Museum Inventory Number:


Material(s) / Technique(s):



Height 5.6 cm, diameter 5.1 cm

Period / Dynasty:



Egypt or Sicily.


A large, circular chess piece with incised concentric circles, dots and lines. This abstract piece probably represents a King or Queen. The game of chess originated in India and reached Persia (Iran) during the Sassanid period in the AH 1st / AD 6th century. Arabic treatises on chess appear in the mid- AH 3rd / AD 9th century. From the Arab World, knowledge of the game passed to the West where pieces were often modelled on Islamic prototypes. This chess piece must have been part of a particularly impressive set. An almost identical piece is now in the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. The Fatimids in Egypt were active patrons of luxury objects made of ivory. After conquering Sicily in the early AH 4th / AD 10th century, the way was opened for Muslim craftsmen to travel to Sicily. This resulted in the transference of Fatimid-style painting and decorative arts to Sicily, which continued even after the Normans conquered the island in AH 477/ AD 1085.

View Short Description

Chess originated in India but soon became popular throughout the Islamic world and beyond. This large ivory chess piece must have belonged to a luxury set made for a patron of high rank or for the Fatimid royal court.

How date and origin were established:

The shape and material of this piece relates to other pieces made in Fatimid Egypt in the 4th or 5th / 10th or 11th centuries. Given that there is a similarity in shape with another King or Queen chess piece made of rock crystal at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is dated to the early 4th / 10th century, it is likely that this ivory piece is contemporaneous.

How Object was obtained:

Acquired in 1862.

How provenance was established:

This piece would have been made in Fatimid Egypt or Sicily in the 4th–5th / 10th–11th centuries.

Selected bibliography:

Contadini, A., "Islamic Ivory Chess Pieces, Draughtsmen and Dice in the Ashmolean Museum", in Islamic Art in the Ashmolean Museum: Oxford Studies in Islamic Art, Oxford, 1995.

Phillips, T., (ed.), Africa: The Art of a Continent, London, 1996, pp.582–3, cat. no. 7.49.

Citation of this web page:

Emily Shovelton "Chess piece" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2024.;ISL;uk;Mus01;46;en

Prepared by: Emily ShoveltonEmily Shovelton

Emily Shovelton is a historian of Islamic art. She studied history of art at Edinburgh University before completing an MA in Islamic and Indian art at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Since graduating she has worked on a number of projects at the British Museum. Other recent work includes editing and writing for a digital database of architectural photographs at the British Library. She is currently working on a Ph.D. on “Sultanate Painting in 15th-century India and its relationship to Persian, Mamluk and Indian Painting”, to be completed at SOAS in 2006. A paper on Sultanate painting given at the Conference of European Association of South Asian Archaeologists, held in the British Museum in July 2005, is due to be published next year.

Copyedited by: Mandi GomezMandi Gomez

Amanda Gomez is a freelance copy-editor and proofreader working in London. She studied Art History and Literature at Essex University (1986–89) and received her MA (Area Studies Africa: Art, Literature, African Thought) from SOAS in 1990. She worked as an editorial assistant for the independent publisher Bellew Publishing (1991–94) and studied at Bookhouse and the London College of Printing on day release. She was publications officer at the Museum of London until 2000 and then took a role at Art Books International, where she worked on projects for independent publishers and arts institutions that included MWNF’s English-language editions of the books series Islamic Art in the Mediterranean. She was part of the editorial team for further MWNF iterations: Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean Virtual Museum and the illustrated volume Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean.

True to its ethos of connecting people through the arts, MWNF has provided Amanda with valuable opportunities for discovery and learning, increased her editorial experience, and connected her with publishers and institutions all over the world. More recently, the projects she has worked on include MWNF’s Sharing History Virtual Museum and Exhibition series, Vitra Design Museum’s Victor Papanek and Objects of Desire, and Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s online publication 2 or 3 Tigers and its volume Race, Nation, Class.

MWNF Working Number: UK1 65


 Artistic Introduction

 Timeline for this item

Islamic Dynasties / Period


On display in

Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)

The Fatimids | Pleasures and Celebrations at Court

MWNF Galleries

Ivory Toys and Games


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