Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Charlemagne and the Elephant
In the Persian game of chess, 'Chatrang,' from which our modern game of chess descended, the elephant piece sat on the board where the Bishop sits now. The elephant had been used in warfare, with mixed success, since ancient times, the oldest use of which may be Egyptian. It was a small herd in northern Syria, however, that supplied elephants to the ancient Persians for their army, before the animals were hunted to extinction some 3000 years ago, long before the game of 'Chatrang' is reported to have appeared in Persia. It has been recorded that various gifts were made to Charlemagne by Caliph Harun al-Rashid, among which were an elephant and a chess set. The elephant was used by Charlemagne in a few campaigns and struck terror into the heart of the calvary coming up against the creature. There are pieces reputedly from the "Charlemagne chess set" in various museums - but they have all been dated to the 11th century CE - too young to be pieces from the set gifted to Charlemagne by al-Rashid. The chess set gifted to Charlemagne by al-Rashid was a key part of Katherine Neville's best-selling novel "The Eight," which I have written about extensively in this blog. Here is a fascinating history about the gifts of al-Rashid to Charlemagne.