Games of the Great Silk Road – Mancala

Most parents will be quick to agree that they learn a lot from their kids. When you have kids, you cease to be the center of your own life and the lessons range from the mundane to the profound. When they are little, you realize how little they know when they come into the world and how much you, as an adult, have come to take for granted. When they are older, you begin to see fragments of yourself or of your spouse or partner who helped raise them. But these characteristics are not a direct reflection. Rather, they are more like a mosaic. From mother to daughter or father to son the tesserae can be the same, but the patterns that they are arranged in can be very different.

Ethiopian Mancala Board, 6th or 7th C.

I am beginning to pass into a new stage, with a teen and a tween in the house, they are beginning to introduce me to things I have never heard of before. By exploring their interests with them, I am learning things about the world that I never knew. This is quite humbling to someone like me who has always considered herself something of a well-traveled brainiac.

A couple of weeks ago we were at the National Geographic Society to see the latest treasure trove of Anglo-Saxon weapon fittings and religious items (The Staffordshire Horde) that have recently been uncovered in England. Rich, finely worked 24-carat gold with sparkling garnet inlay filled the display cases. Videos to explain the details of the craftsmanship accompanied the exhibition, along with recordings and quiz games of Old English helped to bring the exhibit alive and make it a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

Endodoi Board – Tanzania

On the way out, we did the obligatory pass through the gift shop on the way to the exit. While we were browsing, my daughter came flying at me – begging for a mancala set, telling me how fun it was and explaining how it was played. We got the set and later that evening she taught me how to play. That night, I learned that the game is played all over the world and has been for the better part of the last couple of millennia.

Pallankhuzi Board – Sri Lanka and S. India

What my further research has shown, is that the Silk Road trade of goods, ideas and cultural elements was probably responsible for its spread – at least across the Old World. From Vietnam and Mongolia, through Central and Western Asia, across Central and Northern Africa and into Europe through Andalusia, the Old World plays this game. It passed into the New World with the slave trade and is played from Louisiana and Haiti to the Dominican Republic and Brazil.

Toguz Kumalak Board – Kazakhstan

If you’ve never seen or played mancala, count and capture or any other variety of the game, it is often played on a board containing at least two rows of cup-shaped depressions or holes in which the pieces are arranged and moved. The number of cups varies across cultures and over time, but the game remains the remarkably the same. The goal is to move all of your pieces off the board before your opponent, and there are strategies, societies and in some nations, major competitions in which people play mancala. Our board is a nicely carved wooden set with small, irregularly shaped stones as pieces, but some mancala boards consist simply of holes dug in the ground or bored into stone into which other stones or objects are moved.

Girls Playing Oquan in Vietnam

There are 19th and 20th Century claims that the game is arose in ancient Egypt, Jordan or even Mesopotamia – but none of these are accepted by modern game scholars (did you know there was such a thing?) or archaeologists specializing in these areas. The oldest definitive set comes from Axum (Ethiopia) and date from the 6th or 7th century ACE, but an earlier set may come from a 4th Century Roman-era fort in Egypt along the banks Red Sea. The earliest European set is found in Spain’s the Museo de Burgos. It belonged to a daughter of Abd-al-Rahman III, the emir (912-929) and first caliph (929-961) of Cordoba. The scholar Murray, writing in the mid 20th Century, concluded that the game spread from east to west across Africa and from west to east across Asia – which again points to an Eastern African or Levantine origin.

Importantly, Arab and Muslim traders were probably an important force in moving the game around the Old World. The very name, “mancala” comes from the Arabic verb “naqala” meaning, “to move”. It is not mentioned in the Koran by this name, but must have been known to the Arabs in the Middle Ages, as it is referred to in the commentary to the Kitab al Aghani, the “Book of Songs,” which speaks of a “game like mancala.”

Ornate Congkak Board – Malaysia

Today, the game is played competitively in many Central Asian nations, with Kazakhstan having a national association for their version of the game, Toguz Kumalak, whereas in most of Africa, it is a game to be played while relaxing after the day’s work.  Interestingly, in the New World it is sometimes played as part of mortuary or funerary practices – to amuse the spirits of the dead.  This suggests that this might have been a practice among the Africans who carried the game with them to the New World, although this practice seems to have vanished in modern-day Africa.

I’ve played a few games with my daughter and can attest to the game being both fun and a great way to teach strategy and the consideration of future consequences when deciding current moves. Thanks to my daughter, to whom I dedicate this post, I’ve found an unexpected echo of the Silk Road found in an ordinary board game. (Words by Laura Kelley. All photos from Mancala Wiki).

N.B. I will be in China for the next couple of weeks and will blog if I can. Hopefully, I will return with loads of tales and photos.

Ye Ga’nna Ba-al (Merry Ethiopian Christmas)

“It comes without ribbons. It comes without tags. It comes without packages, boxes or bags. . .”

Christianity arrived in North Africa in the first or second century, coming first to Alexandria – the great melting pot of culture and scholarship. From there, it spread across North Africa and down the coastal cities to the east until it reached Ethiopia and was adopted as the official state religion in the fourth century – not long after Constantine declared it the religion of the Roman Empire in 312 CE.

Rock Church at Lalibela, Ethiopia

Most of the spread of the faith to sub-Saharan Africa outside of the coasts came after European explorers and traders began to frequent African shores in the 15th and 16th centuries. Today, more than 350 million of the world’s Christians reside in Africa.

Although there are many, unique and beautiful ways of celebrating Christmas in Africa, an examination of Christmas in Ethiopia allows us a window back in time to the early Christian practices that were prevalent when traders on the maritime Silk Road routes came to Ethiopian and Somalian harbors to trade goods from around the world.

Rock Church at Lalibela – Closeup

Some of the most enduring symbols of Ethiopian Christianity are its rock churches. Carved by hand into ancient lava domes, these churches – like the one picture here at Lalibela – are beautiful examples of the power of the faith in Ethiopia. The workmanship, still evident in the chisel marks on the walls, and the time it took to create these architectural masterworks is evidence of deeply held belief by the people who commissioned the work and by the men and women who forged it with their hands and minds. Although many early Christian churches and monastic cells are fashioned out of caves as in Cappadocia, the Ethiopian churches are greater works because they blend period architectural style with rock hard rock. Was the carving of the churches as statement about Peter? Was the placement of them in the ground in many cases a statement of the faith springing forth from the earth itself? Most of these buildings are still in use today and regularly visited by pilgrims and other faithful for services – especially on holidays.

Ethiopian Christmas is celebrated in accordance with orthodox Christian belief, one of the largest denomination of Oriental Orthodox Christians with some 40-45 million members. For Orthodox Christians, the holiday begins on January 6th – when people fast and begin to gather and sing songs. The weather throughout the country is warm at this time of year dipping into the 40’s to the 60s at night and because of this, people often gather outdoors to chant throughout the night. To accompany the chants, people play drums and shake sistra (plural of sistrum) as seen in this video from Ethiopia’s Orthodox Tewahedo* Church.

Ethiopian Priest at Lalibela – Closeup

The next morning just before dawn, people change into white or light colored clothes. Traditionally a robe-like white garment called a shamma is worn, but in modern urban settings, white western-style dress is often seen. Then people join processions to churches for services at dawn to celebrate the birth of Christ. After services, people feast, sing, dance and men and boys play an ancient game called gena that is a form of field hockey.

Twelve days after Ga’nna, Ethiopians celebrate the baptism of Christ in a festival called Timkat that includes more services and more feasting – for several days. Notably absent from these Orthodox celebrations are the Nordic and Germanic hallmarks of Western Christmases – christmas trees, lights, gifts and characterizations of (the Turkish) Saint Nicholas as Santa Claus or his “bad cop” Black Peter. No reindeer either. Just a simpler, less commercial glimpse back into Orthodox practices from centuries past – but with uniquely Ethiopian cultural highlights.

To Ethiopian Christians everywhere and to Orthodox Christians of any sect – A very Merry Christmas.

(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Lalibela Rock Church and Ethiopian Priest at Lalibela by Eddiie Van Ryckeghem at Dreamstime; Photo of Lalibela Church Closeup by Alan Wellings at Dreamstime.)

* An interesting linguistic similartiy is found between the Amharic word Tewahado (which refers to the unified nature of Christ of the Orthodox Christian sects) and the Arabic word Tawhid which refers to the worship of one God.