A couple of weeks ago, I managed to negotiate myself into a zoorkhaneh. The term literally means ‘House of Strength’, and refers to an ancient Persian institution where athletes practice rigorous regiment training in a domed structure, a sort of traditional gymnasium (the zoorkhaneh). As a system of athletics originally intended to train warriors, it dates back to the Parthian era and is currently recognised by UNESCO as one of the world’s longest-running forms of such training. Although there were efforts to curb the sport, first during the modernisation campaigns of the Pahlavi era due to it being a ‘relic of the past’, and then shortly after the Islamic revolution due to its pre-Islamic origins, it is currently promoted as varzesh-e bastani (ancient sport) and is a symbol of Iranian culture and pride for many. In their contemporary form, zoorkhaneh rituals blend elements of pre-Islamic Persian culture (including Zoroastrianism and Mithraism) with the spirituality evident in Shi’a Islam and Sufism. While difficult to do it justice in words, the sport is ritualistic in essence and consists of a series of exercises combining martial arts, physical aptitude and special skills which are practiced against the backdrop of sacred poetry chanted by a musician, with drums and bells being sounded to mark the beginning of the different sections.
It had been a goal of mine to visit a zoorkhaneh ever since I’d heard about the ancient practice during my first couple of months in Iran. I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it – while in the past one could expect an audience to be watching the athletes’ exercises, this is no longer the norm; moreover, women aren’t exactly a prominent feature in the zoorkhaneh, as the sport is traditionally practiced by men. The idea of visiting one got pushed to the back of my mind over the months as it seemed less and less of a possibility, to be occasionally brought up between myself and other interested friends but never truly acted upon. Most recently, we decided to try the most obvious method – shamefully late for people of the internet generation – a simple online search. This hadn’t occurred to us before; perhaps this had something to do with the pre-historic roots and mysticism surrounding the sport. In any case, after finding a list of Tehran-based venues, I called one that was very conveniently located in a hamlet adjacent to my neighbourhood. I got through to Agha (a term denoting ‘Mr.’) Sasani, and explained that we were a group of foreigners studying Iranian culture, history and the like, and would be extremely grateful for the opportunity to watch a session at the zoorkhaneh. Judging from his reaction, it seemed to be the first time Agha Sasani ever received such a request, but he was nonetheless extremely forthcoming and welcoming. He suggested a suitable evening for us to attend, and before I knew it I was sitting in an underground zoorkhaneh along with my Japanese friend Kenichi and my Iranian-American friend Ramin, ready to finally see what it was all about.
Without a doubt, the athletics on display for the next hour or so were unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. About ten men of varying ages were in the main octagonal pit, with several more practising in the surrounding areas of the gymnasium. Lining the walls were trophies as well as photos of past members and champions of the zoorkhaneh, some seemingly dating back numerous decades. In an elevated stand in the corner sat the musician-cum-reciter, along with his fellow drummer, who turned out to be the elder brother of one of the most talented athletes we were to see.
Now, for the crux of the matter. First we watched the swinging, with precision, of the ‘meel’ or ‘Indian club’ in sync with the drumbeats, perhaps one of the most well-known symbols of zoorkhaneh rituals. The weight of the specific meel chosen by the athletes can vary, but even the lightest ones are considerably heavy (as a post-session attempt at lifting one showed me), which accentuates the skill and strength required to wield and control them for prolonged periods of time. Following this, the athletes performed sequential acrobatics in unison, again to the pace of the accompanying acoustics. The intense focus of the men was palpable with every movement, as was the physical discipline and dexterity necessary for the gymnastics being practiced. This was no more apparent than in the case of the eldest athlete present, whom I was later informed was 80 years of age. Observing his agility and vigour during the practices, this was quite hard for my friends and I to believe. Another feature involved the athletes spinning around the pit in turn, in a practice somewhat similar to Sufi whirling but – from what I could see – with a wider sphere of movement and more emphasis on physical capacity rather than the quest to reach a state of trance. That being said, during this and all of the other activities we watched, one could discern a clear link between the physical and the spiritual in both the participants’ actions as well as the general mood. Moreover, an atmosphere of camaraderie and mutual encouragement prevailed. For example, one of the customs I found particularly intriguing was during the abovementioned individual spinning exercises, when the remaining athletes would form a circle around the pit; whenever the spinning athlete would approach one of the sides or edges of the pit, the others would raise their arms as a gesture of protection and support. While this may well be done out of tradition rather than necessity for most of the athletes, the beauty lies in the meaning of the gesture itself. Incidentally, the act seemed to be performed with more attentiveness when one of the athletes brought his two young sons into the pit (who were previously practising enthusiastically in the outer area) to practice spinning; in both cases there were a couple of close falls, during which the athletes would ring closer to ensure the safety of the boys, while later offering words of advice for the development of the skill.
All the while during the sessions, the musician would sing/chant in a calming tone in harmony with the exercises; in the ancient practice, this singing is said to have served as a form of oral education intended to imbue social knowledge, moral codes and religious teachings to the warriors in training. In between the sessions, he would recite valuable idioms and anecdotes, broaching topics such as human dignity, togetherness and respect for all. From what I understood, one such saying expressed the fact that we humans are all the same in essence and will eventually all end up in the same place, and we must therefore show the utmost empathy and understanding in our dealings with each other; this is in line with the whole philosophy and ethics surrounding the zoorkhaneh, which is comparable to Sufism in its emphasis on purity of the heart and excellence of the mind. My friends and I also found ourselves to be the subject of the narrations at one point, as the musician drew attention to the “foreign guests” in the audience. He proceeded to graciously welcome us while praising our inclination to observe this aspect of Iranian culture. As the athletes looked on with interest, he continued to wish us continuous health and safety, and hoped that we experience and witness nothing but good in Iran. He then ended this commentary by asking if their honoured sister (yours truly) would kindly translate his words to my two friends. Since I had organised the logistics, Agha Sasani had assumed I was the only Farsi-speaker among our group, which gave us a bit of a chuckle considering that Ramin is natively fluent. From my previous knowledge as well as some of the reactions I gauged when I first entered, it was exceedingly apparent that having a woman in the zoorkhaneh was an extreme rarity. This is not to say that there was any noticeable objection or discomfort; on the contrary, similar to the musician, the athletes seemed to appreciate our interest in the practice, regardless of gender. There was a tremendously positive, light-hearted and congenial vibe to the place in general, for example when the athletes would praise each other’s execution of a particular exercise. From what I could garner from my impressions, it seemed that these men truly strive to live by the philosophy underpinning the zoorkhaneh. As the final session had come to an end, one of the athletes who it turned out was an employee at the Japanese embassy in Tehran came over to speak to Kenichi in Japanese; as I looked on, I saw another athlete putting on his robes, showing that he was a member of the clerical class (a rouhani). I caught myself somewhat surprised that this religious man was a member of the zoorkhaneh, before realising that this was a completely baseless assumption, especially considering the musician’s previous orations regarding our common ground; there’s no reason why this type of practice wouldn’t be appealing or beneficial to people from all walks of life.
Today, there are reportedly still about 500 zoorkhanehs in Iran. Traditionally, rather than relying on payment from the athletes, the zoorkhaneh sustained itself through public donations in return for community services and protection. One such example is a ceremony in which athletes would hold Iranian wrestling, or koshti, matches and other displays of strength to raise funds for the needy, including those faced with unexpected, adverse circumstances. Such ceremonies were named gol rizan, or ‘casting of flowers’: the money would be gathered on a wide piece of cloth, however the term ‘flowers’ was used instead of money out of respect and consideration for the sensitivities of those receiving it. While such customs may no longer be in widespread practice, the zoorkhanehs maintain strong ties with their local community, especially in more remote areas of the country. In a subsequent conversation with Agha Sasani, he explained that this particular zoorkhaneh was established as a cooperative by a number of locals who together raised the funds to open it. After setting up a board, he was elected as the administrator to be responsible for the zoorkhaneh’s management and maintenance. Climbing the stairs up to the main door to exit while contemplating the possibility of becoming a female zoorkhaneh champion, I felt quite a distinctive contrast, having just watched one of the world’s oldest and most spiritual sports to then step back out to the spectacle of ‘modern civilisation’. The irony is in the fact that if the ideals and philosophies espoused by ancient institutions such as the zoorkhaneh and other comparable traditions were recognised and practiced more widely, I believe humanity would on the whole find itself to be far more civilised at this point in time.