Dr. René Gralla has done an interesting piece on a version of chess called “Senterej” which originates in ancient Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Gralla contends:
Historians and experts in cultural studies always look towards India, Persia and Arabia – and some even turn to China, more recently – when they search for the origins of chess. But with regard to Africa it is a sobering fact that up to now the science of chess has stubbornly ignored that continent which is the cradle of mankind.
Africa remains a white spot in the relevant publications so far. That is deplorable since Africa has contributed its own creative and very entertaining version to the universe of chess: the Ethiopian variant “Senterej” that has emerged parallel to the hitherto well-known lines of development.
A few differences in Senterej are significant. Each player can move as quickly as they want without waiting for the other to respond. The king and queen do not face each other and there is a different piece in the shape of an elephant. There is no castling and the pawn cannot move two squares at any time. No en passant and underpromotion is based on replacing a piece only if it has been captured by the opponent. Another very interesting point is that checkmates are not considered equal.
Queen Nefertari of Egypt playing Senet.
The Chess Drum has run a couple of pieces on the origins of chess and there are many different versions including Senet, an Egyptian board game. Of course “chaturanga” and “shatranj” are probably the most familiar predecessors of the game we play today. Senterej seems to have much in common with these games.
I discussed this issue with Dr. Gralla and raised the issue of whether chess was spread through commerce and expedition. It would be hard to understand how these games were created independent of each other. Perhaps the question is not whose version is first, but more important is the contribution each version has made to the game we play today.
He also highlights some important figures in Senterej such as Taytu Betul (ca. 1851-1918). According to the article, “she was the third of four children in an aristocratic Ethiopian family that was related to the Solomonic Dynasty – the traditional Imperial House of Ethiopia, claiming descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Taytu Betul married King Menelik of Shewa, later Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia.”
“Senterej – Ethiopian chess with a flying start“