“Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.
At first sight, what you see is simple enough: some basic shapes roughly carved into a slab of stone. It looks hardly like a work of art, but just like some scratched graffiti, done quite carelessly and fairly quickly.
It is indeed a graffiti, but a very ancient one and hardly meaningless, serving a very specific function. The pattern is carved into the flagstones of the eastern porch of the great Temple of Apollo at Didyma in Ionia (now Western Turkey), one of the most impressive specimens of ancient Greek temple architecture to survive (albeit only in part). In other words, the person or persons who created it placed it in a very public setting, next to the entrance into one of antiquity’s most renowned religious shrines.
Graffiti, carved or scribbled, is quite a common phenomenon on ancient sites in the Mediterranean, both written and drawn. Subject matters range far and wide, from politics via religion and “personal affairs” to random doodles. They occur in private homes, in shops or workshops and also in public spaces, such as markets, shrines, theatres and so on – in other words everywhere.
So, being at the front end of a huge temple, does our carving bear some religious meaning? Not at all!
Looking at the carving more closely, you can discern a pattern (see the image to the right, or above, if you are reading this on a mobile). A central line, made up of a star-incised circle and two crescents is flanked symmetrically on either side by three rows of six squares each. If you consider those squares as sets of pairs defining the areas between them, you end up with 24 “fields”, two sets of six on either side of the central divide.
Does that look at all familiar? It should – at least if you know classic board games or if you are familiar with contemporary Aegean culture (be it on the Turkish or on the Greek side of that beautiful sea). The graffiti is an improvised backgammon board, most likely carved at some point between the 2nd and 5th centuries AD!
That game, known as tavla in Turkish, as tavli in Greek (where the game has been called that since the Byzantine era) and as tabula in Latin, has been played in the region at least since Late Antiquity. It is derived from various earlier versions, especially from a Roman game known as duodecim scripta (“twelve lines”). Tavli was played with rules that appear to have been quite similar to the modern game, but initially with three dice instead of two and probably with the pieces beginning the game off the board rather than in the now-familiar starting position. Of course, the game is still immensely popular in both Greece and Turkey.
In fact, such ancient tavli boards are quite a common occurrence on many of the sites we visit. Along with other types of game boards, we find them scratched into pavements, steps or even buildings at places like Knidos in Caria, at Patara in Lycia, at Rhamnous outside Athens, at Messene in the Peloponnese, and so on. Most are quite informal, but here and there they are more carefully made, such as a very fine example from the Terrace Houses at Ephesus, on display in that site’s excellent museum, or a superb one in the courtyard of Bodrum Museum, bearing an inscription that even names the game!
So, what is our tavli board doing in such a prominent position in a temple that was certainly seen as a major architectural monument already then? The answer is simple: the temple of Apollo was a place where many people congregated on multiple occasions: pilgrims, visitors to the oracle, travellers eager to see the monuments and – most of all – participants in the annual procession from nearby Miletus, as well as athletes or spectators attending the games that took place in the stadium next to the temple. In other words: there were a lot of people about, sometimes for a long time, waiting for something to happen and needing to pass their time. Voilà, it is as simple as that – as the presence of several further game boards around Didyma clearly shows.
Such humble details, preserved in the shadow of much more prominent monuments, are no less fascinating: they permit us a little glimpse into the daily life of the men and women who used those sites and lived their lives among them so many generations before us.
You can see the Didyma tavli board on our tours of Ionia, e.g. on our classic Cruising to Ephesus. Other examples can be enjoyed on many of our escorted tours in Europe. And if you’re in the mood, you can also play tavli – or tavla, or backgammon – while relaxing on the boat or in your hotel. If you don’t know how, we’re happy to teach you!