Chess Saved Seville's Taifa Kingdom

There are many interesting historical stories of Andalusia and one of the most fascinating stories has to do with chess and how it saved the Taifa Kingdom of Seville. When the Kingdom of Cordoba ended in the beginning of the 11th century, there were some small kingdoms that took its place. They were called Taifas, which came from an Arab word meaning faction or group. Their kings were called the Taifa kings. There is a saying that united we stand, divided we fall. When Cordoba ruled, it was very powerful and the Christian kingdoms in the north did not dispute its power. However when the kingdom of Cordoba fractured, the Christian kingdoms had an easier time to make war on the Taifa kingdoms.

The most powerful Christian king was Alfonso VI, who had inherited the throne of Castilla, Leon, and Galicia from his father. He made war on the Taifa kings and conquered Zaragoza, Granada, and Badajoz, and the Taifa kings of these cities had to pay him a very high tribute. Alfonso VI had the strategy of weakening the Taifa kings by asking for the high tribute.

A small kingdom in Seville was ruled by the Abadies and in 1069 Al Mutamid inherited the throne from his father. He had a wonderful court because he was interested in literature and many poets and intellectuals went to his court, where they were welcomed and given a stipend by the king. One of the poets who went there was Ben Ammar, who was born in Sicily and whom Al Mutamid admired very much for his verses. Ben Ammar became the king's best friend, so the king promoted him to vizier. Al Mutamid was the most successful Taifa king and he soon annexed several Taifa kingdoms near his own, including the one of Cordoba.

In 1078 Alfonso VI advanced towards Seville with a very large army, to subjugate that Taifa kingdom. It was Ben Ammar who saved the situation. He knew that Alfonso VI was a passionate chess player. The Arabs spread the game from Persia to Spain and Europe. For the Arabs, the game was a war between two armies. Today the rules of the game are still the same. Ben Ammar knew that Alfonso VI loved the game and decided to use a subterfuge using chess. First he had the most beautiful chess set made by his artisans. The chess set was made of ebony, sandalwood, and gold. It truly was a magnificent set, the most beautiful set ever seen.

Ben Ammar then went to the Christian camp, representing his king Al Mutamid. Alfonso VI greeted him warmly and with honors because he had heard of his reputation, one of the most competent men in Spain. Alfonso VI heard from his courtiers about the beautiful chess set and asked Ben Ammar to show it to him and play a game with him. Ben Ammar agreed to play the game, on one condition. If Alfonso VI won, the chess set would be given to him. If he lost, he would have to grant Ben Ammar one wish.

Alfonso VI was very anxious to possess the chess set, but he knew that if he lost, his risks were very great. He asked his courtiers what their opinion was. Unknown to him, Ben Ammar had bribed many of them. The courtiers advised their king to play the game and become the owner of the most beautiful chess set ever created. So the king decided to play the game. What he did not know was that Ben Ammar was a master of the game, and Ben Ammar won the game. When Alfonso VI asked Ben Ammar what his wish was, Ben Ammar asked the king to retire his troops from Seville. Alfonso VI was a honorable man and kept his promise, and he decided to remove his troops from the city. Ben Ammar gave Alfonso VI the chess set as a consolation prize, a small price to pay for a kingdom. That is how Seville was saved by a chess game. Incidentally the words check mate derive from the Arab "sah mat", which means that the king has died.

The Christian reconquest in Seville took place in1248 under Fernando III.

Reference: Arte y Arquitectura - Andalucia