Shatranj – Game (pieces) of Kings (and pawns and such)

We’ve got the history, the rules, and the board, now there’s just the pieces.

12th century complete Shatranj set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Between the Met, the V&A, and the PMA, there are a couple dozen sets and partial sets of Shatranj pieces. Most of the early (8th-12th Cen) sets are pretty uniform in appearance. The variables come in with materials used. A majority of the extant sets are glazed ceramics, usually fritware. There are a couple individual pieces that are carved from wood, bone or ivory. Wood being my medium of choice, I went to the firewood pile to find lumber that would meet my needs.

Turns out I chose both well and poorly. I grabbed a couple pieces of black locust which is related to a tree indiginous to the Eastern Mediterranean, but is also notoriously difficult to split. This made for a hell of a time splitting out billets with a froe. Split I did, however, and two cramping forearms later I had roughed 1″ square billets for the pawns, up to about 1 1/4″ for the kings.

Borrowing from a cooper’s method, the billets for the “round” pieces were turned into octagons or cylinders. That copper’s method was mounting my jointer plane to the front of a workbench, sole up. The stock was shaped by pulling the corners along the sole and across the blade. From there, the rough details were sawn and finished with knife and chisel.


The pawns were taken from long billets of nearly uniform dimensions and coopered to octagons. Not having a need to make them particularly detailed, they were then sawn off the octagonal billet.


Chariot (Rook) – Cut from a rectangular billet, the broad notch in the top was cut out with a small saw. Paring cuts with a fishtail chisel cleaned the exposed end grain to create a smooth set of faces. One side is beveled, the other has a convex curve. The chariot piece is a stylized depiction of two horses, the peaks being the two heads.


Horseman (Knight) – The billets for these were roughly triangular. Coopering brought around the general shape. The “head” was shaped by cutting out a little notch which was then cleaned up with paring cuts.


Elephant (Bishop) – Shaped similarly to the Horsemen, the Elephants are differentiated by having two protrusions that emulate the tusks of the beasts.

General and King

General (Queen) and King – These two pieces are constructed in the same methods, the only differences are size. It is generally consistent in the extant pieces that the two are of very similar form. A little kerf cutting and chisel work set in the “seat” shape and a chisel and spoke shave were brought in to work the corners over.

Most of the extant pieces are colored red and green, regardless of material. I’ve not found any particular purpose of this convention, just consistency. Being as I was making this set as “Things that may be gifted in the Court of Constantinople” I decided to have a little fun with the color scheme. There are two coats on each piece. The undercoat is pigment mixed with a casein binder, while the top coat is a tempera with more pigment than the undercoat. This makes for a mottled two-tone “thick over thin” layering. One the paints were dry, an olifa coat of oil was rubbed in to deepen the color and put just that little bit of extra protection on the finish.

The colors themselves are a subtle joke. By the middle “Byzantine” period, politics and horse racing had coalesced with the fans of the major factions merging with particular political, theological, and social groups. During the reign of Justinian I, a revolt broke out which resulted in the two largest factions, usually opponents at the track and otherwise, united against the Emperor. The Nika Revolt resulted in the Blues and the Greens turning on the Emperor and the rioting lasted for some days. Justinian and his court came to the verge of abandoning the city.
That bit of history in the brain, the pieces for this Constaninopolitan set were matched to the two main political/hooligan parties.

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