education

Chess for sages or Şatranc-i Urefa

I recently became interested in Ottoman literacies (see previous post), and came across another aspect of that history which piqued my interest: the Ottoman board game Şatranc-i Urefa. I finally managed to track down the game to play at home.

Şatranc-i Urefa is a game that was played during Ottoman times, but has its origins in the instructive work the great Sufi Master Muhyiddin Ibn-i Arabi (see https://ibnarabisociety.org) who was born in Murcia in 1165 and died in 1240. Ibn Arabi used it to teach the stages of spiritual progress and enlightenment to his mureeds (disciples). Şatranc-i Urefa means ‘chess for sages’, and urefa is plural for arif which means ‘one who knows their creator’. He used the game to engender awareness about the stages of spiritual progress, and the various pitfalls of character that bring a person down. The game taught them about the self and unhealthy traits in life that, if left untreated, would drag them down and ruin them. It links together a person’s wholesome and praiseworthy traits that can allow one to lead to the ‘Unity of Being’ (wahdat al-wujud), which is the ultimate the goal of the game.

I first saw this game in a brief clip of a Turkish TV show on YouTube, and so I decided to track it down. After various mentions to Turkish friends, very few of whom had any knowledge of it, I finally found a place that sells Ottoman artefacts and I got it shipped out to me. It is very different to any other boardgames that I have seen before. There is much theory to this game and I am picking this up as I go along, including understanding Ottoman sufic terminology which, coincidentally, is not that different to Urdu terminology which I do have some background in.

While the arrows on some steps of the game take a player up, transitioning a person upwards, the venomous snakes on other squares cause a player to fall down, with metaphysical connections between the praiseworthy and negative traits at either end. As I understand it, in the game, the person who sinks (to moral depths) must start his journey again, and not give up hope on their path to enlightenment. Each negative character trait drags a person down to the lowest levels in the game through the connections. Each negative trait, if not dealt with in one’s life, leads to the emergence of another, more pronounced, negative trait, thereby dragging a person down to moral depths through a number of different pathways.

For Ibn Arabi, this game was more than a game prepared to kill leisure time, it is a “plate of wisdom” that shows the pitfalls and gifts endowed upon one in the spiritual journey of a person. I will let you know how I go 🙂

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