Variations on the game of handball have been played all over the world for thousands of years. Known as one of the oldest ball games, handball was played in Egypt over four thousand years ago, in ancient Rome, and by many South American cultures.
The ancient Egyptians played a variety of ball games. Drawings of Egyptians playing handball have been found decorating five thousand year old tombs at Saqqara, which depict girls in teams of two playing the game. Balls used in Egyptian handballs were designed to be both light and durable – they were made of a leather skin stuffed with hay or other plant fibers such as papyrus.
In the Roman Empire, the game was called expulsim ludere, and was played on courts called sphaeristas. Alexander the Great is said to have been responsible for spreading the game amongst Greek colonies in Italy in the first millennium BC, and from there it spread to other countries of the Roman Empire. Details of how the game was played during this era are sketchy, but it is believed it was similar to what is known today as one-wall handball.
In France during the Middle Ages, the game was called jeux de paume (palm play) and was popular with both nobility and peasants. The ball was made from pieces of tightly-rolled cloth stitched together, and as the game evolved gloves were used to allow more forceful hitting of the ball. This form of handball is thought to be an early precursor of tennis – as the game evolved in France, players began to use larger and larger gloves, until eventually they began to use items which resembled early tennis racquets.
In America, handball is over three thousand years old, and originated in Mexico. Handball players are depicted on painted pottery items, sculptures, and wall paintings found at archeological sites in many parts of Central America. Of the games played by these ancient civilizations, the one which most closely resembles modern handball is Rebotea a mano con pelota dura, or “Hardball pelota rebounded with the hand”. This game was played by the Chichimeca people, on courts measuring 20 feet by 40 feet. Many ancient ruins sites in Central America contain such courts, and together with the multitude of art which depicts the game, indicates that it was an important part of life for these ancient cultures.
These days, handball is an increasingly popular sport – it has become part of the Olympic Games, and many international tournaments are dedicated to handball – not surprisingly, the Egyptian team is known to be very talented, perhaps because of all the civilizations in the world, they have been playing it the longest!
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