Qantara Qantara

Chess pieces

  • Title/name : Chess pieces
  • Production place : Egypt
  • Date / period :  

    Tenth to twelfth centuries  

  • Materials and techniques : Rock crystal
  • Dimensions : Height 2.5–4.5 cm; Length 1.9–3.1 cm; Width 1.8–3 cm
  • Conservation town : Llerida
  • Conservation place : Museo Diocesano, Lleida, Catalonia, Spain
  • Inventory number : 1473


Before its adoption by the Muslims, chess first appeared in India during the second half of the fifth century, or the first half of the sixth century. It then reached Persia and spread throughout the Muslim world in the seventh century. The game came to the West during the eleventh century.

This ensemble, from the Colegiata de Àger (Lleida), comprises twenty rock crystal pieces. The set was made in Egypt and then sent to Spain. It is believed (this is very difficult to confirm) that these pieces probably arrived in Spain between 950 and 1030. Nãsir-i Khusraw described the work involved in carving rock crystal in the eleventh century during the Fatimid period in Cairo. A royal workshop and other (private?) workshops supplied Cairo’s trade in rock crystal. Contemporary to the Fatimid production in Cairo during the ninth to eleventh centuries, Iranian and Mesopotamian workshops also excelled in the manufacture of rock crystal and glass.

The set held in Lleida is incomplete; some of the pieces were sold several times and are today held in Kuwait’s National Museum (ten pieces).  Nine other pieces have not been located. There are two theories about how these pieces ended up in the treasury of the church of Àger. The knight, Arnau Mir de Tost, is said to have donated this ensemble to the church, along with two other sets, circa 1068 or 1071, the date that these goods were recorded in the inventory. According to the second theory, the chess set was donated by Count Armengol I of Urgel (992–1010), who founded the church. Ibn ̀Idārī’s chronicles relate that the count’s descendants inherited the bounty he won during the battle—Muhammad al-Mahdī sought his alliance in a bid to establish his authority in Al-Andalus—with the caliphate of Sulaymān al-Musta ̀īn (1010). This bounty (known as the Córdoban bounty) comprised rock crystal objects, including this chess set, which was probably given to the church by the count’s family.

Therefore, if these pieces were donated by Armengol’s family, it would be reasonable to suppose that they arrived in Córdoba through trade between Egypt and Al-Andalus.

The Lleida pieces have three queens, three bishops, two knights, a castle, ten pawns, and a flacon in the shape of a molar. It seems that the craftsmen made the pieces according to the available rock crystal and didn’t always produce an entire set. The buyer would make up his set when he purchased the pieces. Thus, the set held in Kuwait is richer and finer than that held in Lleida. The large number of pieces in the Lleida set means that they were used right up until the time they were donated to the church. Certain pawns were also reused for other purposes when they arrived in Spain, like on the San Millán reliquary (containing the remains of San Felices), which was ornamented with rock crystal chess pawns.


[1] Jenkins, M., Islamic Art in the Kuwait National Art Museum. The Sabah Collection, Londres, 1983, photo 60. Ettinghausen et Grabar, O, The Art and Architecture of Islam, 650-1250, New Haven-Londres, Yale University Press-Pelican, History of Art, 1994, p. 195, fig. 181.


Casamar, M. et Valdés Fernandez, F., « Les objets égyptiens en cristal de roche dans Al-Andalus », in Barrucand, M. (dir.),  L’Égypte fatimide, Paris, Presses de l’université de Paris-Sorbonne, 1999, p.367-381

Trésors fatimides du Caire, catalogue d’exposition, Paris, Institut du monde arabe, 1998




Les Andalousies, de Damas à Cordoue, Institut du monde arabe-Hazan, (compiled by) M. Bernus-Taylor, Paris, 2001, p. 174, fig. 204



Expression #1 of ORDER BY clause is not in SELECT list, references column 'qantara.fr_index.in_poids' which is not in SELECT list; this is incompatible with DISTINCT