[the zur-ḵāna], young men of good families do not go there” (Polak, p. 189). However, men of higher birth did occasionally participate in the exercises and wrestle in the gowd (Drouville, II, p. 58), a development that reached its peak under Nāṣer-al-Din Shah (r. 1848-96), when a number of statesmen built themselves private zur-ḵānas (Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 9, 154-55).
Wrestlers at a Zur-Kāna in the Qajar era, likely late 19th or early 20th centuries (Source: IZSF).
With the advent of the Constitutional Revolution in 1905-06, royal patronage ceased. This dealt a severe blow to the zur-ḵāna, which became once again a feature of urban lower and lower middle class culture only. By the 1920s the introduction of modern Western sports and physical education further diminished the appeal of zur-ḵāna exercises among athletically inclined men, while cinemas drew spectators away. At the same time the growing penetration of society by the state, which resulted in better security, diminished the role of the strongmen who used to maintain law and order in neighborhoods and who trained in the zur-ḵāna. Another function of the zur-ḵānathat disappeared in the first decades of the 20th century was the training it provided for šāṭers, long distance couriers in the service of the shah and high officials, whose profession became obsolete with the introduction of modern transportation. Šāṭers had their own special exercises (e.g., šelang), which have completely disappeared (Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 28-38). In the troubled times after the end of the Qajar régime, a number of amateur athletes kept the zur-ḵāna alive independently of elite patronage, and in 1924 they founded a Jamʿiyat-e gordān-e Irān (Society of Iranian heroes) to organize traditional physical education and make it respectable again by a rigorous admission process (ʿAbbāsi, I, pp. 296-303).
Iranian wrestler of 1920s training with traditional strength-training equipment (Source: Farsizaban). In the background to the left can be seen two upright Zoorkhaneh (House of Power) Meels with handles designed for increasing the strength and stamina of the arms. While Classical sources do not cite the term “Zur-Khaneh” or “Zur-Kāna” by name, the same sources report of the hard training experienced by the armies of the Sassanians.
The pioneers of modern physical education in Persia had no respect for zur-ḵāna-type exercises and ignored them in the physical education curricula they drew up for Persia’s modern schools. In the 1920s and 1930s numerous articles appeared in the Persian press denouncing the institution. Four criticisms were leveled at it. Firstly, it was implied that members were morally corrupt (e.g., Ṣamimi, p. 11). This was an oblique reference to the allegation that sodomy was prevalent among some athletes (Šahri, 1968, pp. 204-8; idem, 1990, I, p. 414, V, pp. 247-49). Secondly, zur-ḵānas were castigated for harboring uncouth ruffians, a reference to the marginal luṭis and their frequent brawling. Thirdly, it was pointed out that the exercises did not satisfy modern expectations in that they contained no team sports and developed the body unevenly. Finally, the gymnasia were criticized for their insufficient ventilation (“Dar zur-ḵāna,” Eṭṭelāʿāt, 17 Ābān 1317/8 November 1938). The last point was a constant theme, and we find it as late as 1947 in the first empirical study of zur-ḵānas in Tehran, which averred: Zur-ḵānas “are generally narrow and dark and lack sufficient sun-light. The air is heavy and humid, and constantly poisoned by the smell of the coal of the moršed’s brazier and by the petrol of the numerous lamps. Moreover, the stench of the toilets, which are inside the building, and the unwashed longs and dirty rugs, add to the heaviness of the air inside zur-ḵānas. In addition, the constant pipe and cigarette smoke of themoršed, the spectators, and even the athletes themselves is a health hazard for the athletes’ lungs” (Guša, p. 49).
Members of the Lithuanian team compete in the 3rd Zur-khaneh Sports Men Championship of Europe May 18-20, 2011 in the Arena Complex of Šiauliai, Lithuania (Source: Zurkhaneh Review, No.2, July 2011, pp.14-15; Photo-IZSF). The Lithuanians are engaged in the traditional Takhteh-Shena (Push up board) exercise. This event was broadcast live on Lithuanian TV.
Zur-ḵānas might have died out completely had it not been for the nationwide millenary celebration of Ferdowsi’s birth in the summer of 1934. Exhibitions of zur-ḵāna exercises featured prominently in them, and thenceforth the state showed more interest in them (Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 138, 211-17). Until about 1938 the term varzeš-e qadim (old sport) was used to designate zur-ḵāna exercises, but then gradually the term varzeš-e bāstāni (ancient sport) caught on, implying a pre-Islamic origin for the exercises (“Varzešhā-ye bāstāni,” Eṭṭelāʿāt, 10 Šahrivar 1318/1 September 1939). When in 1939 the crown prince married Princess Fawzia of Egypt, the wedding celebrations included exhibitions of “ancient sport” as part of the mass gymnastic displays in Tehran’s main stadium, a practice that was continued until the end of the monarchy. In 1941 Radio Iran started broadcasting zur-ḵāna poetry and drumming in the morning, allowing amateurs to swing their Indian clubs at home.
The ideas adumbrated in the late 1930s were given substance beginning in the 1940s. Towards the end of his life, Persia’s last poet laureate, Moḥammad-Taqi Bahār, published a number of articles on traditional Persian javānmardi, in which he mentioned the ethos of the zur-ḵāna as a contemporary manifestation of this tradition. By this juxtaposition, the early history of popular anti-centralist movements in Persia such as those of the ʿayyārs (members of medieval brotherhood organizations) was constituted as the early history of the zur-ḵāna. Gradually, as one author uncritically quoted another, it became conventional wisdom that the zur-ḵānas originated in the underground resistance activities of Persian patriots against Arab and later Mongol invaders (Guša, pp. 47-48), which made them acceptable to the elites again by providing them with an aura of patriotism.
Zur-khaneh or Zur-Kāna athlete engaged in the the Kabadeh (two arched iron pieces attached with short iron chains) exercise (Source: Salam Khabar & Hossein Zohrevand).
There remained the irritating fact that a moral ambiguity attached to the institution in the minds of most Persians, who took the zur-ḵāna pahlavāns’ protestations of chivalry with a grain of salt. To explain (away) the unseemly behavior of many zur-ḵāna habitués, it was now suggested that the institution had entered a period of moral decline under the Qajars. This fit in well with the official Pahlavi view of that dynasty, which legitimated the usurpation of the throne in 1925 by holding the Qajars responsible for both Persia’s economic backwardness and moral degeneration. The idea of a golden age of virtue preceding the degeneration of the late Qajar years is not borne out by evidence, however, as is shown, for instance, in the satirical poetry of ʿObayd of Zākān (d. ca. 1371), who already repeatedly impugns the morality of pahlavāns.
Another theory about the pre-Islamic origins of the zur-ḵānawas proposed by the Iranist Mehrdād Bahār. Struck by the similarities between the architecture and rituals of traditional zur-ḵānas and those of temples dedicated to the Iranian deity Mithra (Mithraeums), he speculated that the gymnasia had a Mithraic origin (Bahār). The fact remains that there is no textual or architectural evidence for the existence of zur-ḵānas before Safavid times (Elāhi). The idea of a pre-Islamic origin, however, lives on in popular writing.
A Roman version of the statue of Mithras “Bringer of Light” in a Mithraic temple in Ostia, Italy (Consult, Hinnels, 1988, pp.83). There is a school of thought that traces the Pahlavan martial tradition with its emphasis on physical strength and martial arts training to the Mithraic traditions of pre-Islamic Iran.
In 1953, one of the most prominent traditional athletes, Šaʿbān Jaʿfari, was a ringleader of the CIA-financed riots that accompanied the military coup d’état of 1953 against Prime Minister Moḥammad Moṣaddeq. The shah rewarded Jaʿfari with a modern club, whose facilities were lavish by the humble standards of traditional zur-ḵānas, and he himself opened it on 17 Ābān 1336/8 November 1957 (Behzādi, p. 190; Jaʿfari, pp. 159 ff., 207 ff.). Led by Jaʿfari, zur-ḵāna athletes performed by the hundreds in Tehran’s main stadium on such occasions as the shah’s birthday. It was at least partly due to Jaʿfari’s good contacts to the court, which allowed him to be the center of a patronage network, that many young men were inducted into the world of ancient sport, and he may yet be credited for having ensured the survival of the tradition.
Pahlavan Bagheri in the early 1960s, lifting the rear of an Iranian army vehicle with leg press while holding aloft 30kg kettlebells on each of his pinky fingers (Source: www.persianyoga.com; Original photo from Zurkhaneh Takhti, Yazd, Morshed Alireza Hojjati).
Jaʿfari’s club received competition in the late 1950s, when the influential head of Persia’s Planning Organization (Sāzmān-e barnāma wa budja), Abu-al-Ḥasan Ebtehāj, had a luxurious zur-ḵāna built for the country’s main bank, the Bank Melli. The director of this club, Kāẓem Kāẓemayni, published a number of books and articles on the zur-ḵāna and on the heroic exploits of Persia’s past pahlavāns and heroes, books that stand out by their shrill nationalism shading into xenophobia (Kāẓemayni, 1967). The Jaʿfari and the Bank Melli clubs vied for the honor of performing for visiting monarchs, presidents, prime ministers, secretaries general of Communist parties, film stars, and singers, including women.
[Click to enlarge] At right is Pahlavan (lit. brave intrepid champion) Mustafa Toosi wielding Zoor-khaneh or Zur-Kāna meels at 60 pounds each (Picture source: Pahlavani.com). Meel training is one of the Zoor-khaneh regimens used for building strength, stamina, and overall physical strength. Each Meel can range from 25-60 pounds and can be as tall as 4 ½ feet. At left is Pahlavan Reza Zanjani with traditional Iranian weights (Picture source: Abbasi, M. (1995), Tarikh e Koshti Iran [History of Wrestling in Iran], Tehran: Entesharate Firdows, page 133).
While in some cities (Isfahan, Kāšān, and Qom) there existed zur-ḵānas that were pious endowments (waqfs; see Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 36), until the 1960s most zur-ḵānas were owned by private individuals who charged athletes a fee. The numbers of zur-ḵānas rose until 1961, but remained stagnant in the last years of the monarchy (Tehrānči, p. 11). In the provinces, the state did not much support the zur-ḵānas, which in many places fell into disrepair (Kamandi, pp. 70-72). Beginning in the 1970s, many private zur-ḵānas closed down, since they were no longer profitable. Their place was taken by zur-ḵānas attached to major private companies, state enterprises, or state organs (Rochard, 2000, p. 77).
Members of the Turkish Zurkhaneh team at the 3rd Zurkhaneh Sports Men Championship of Europe May 18-20, 2011 in the Arena Complex of Šiauliai, Lithuania (Source: Zurkhaneh Review, No.2, July 2011, pp.14-15; Photo-IZSF). The Turks and Turkic world in general share a common Persianate or Turco-Iranian cultural heritage.
After the Revolution of 1978-79, the authorities of the Islamic Republic emphasized the Islamic character of the institution and tried to popularize it again. To attract young people, boys were permitted into the gowd, and even though women are once again barred from attending the zur-ḵāna, athletes have been made to wear tee shirts. A plethora of competitions are held with the aim of turning the exercises into modern sport replete with point systems, records, and champions. One result of these efforts has been a certain homogenization of practices, visible, for instance, in the renaming of many provincial zur-ḵānas that now carry the name of Puriā-ye Wali. Older athletes resent this intrusion of an official body into a sector of civic life that had always been self-regulating. Partly as a result of internal quarrels, the center of zur-ḵāna activity shifted to Mashad in the 1990s, where the Āstān-e Qods-e Rażawi has proven a generous patron.
Outside Persia, zur-ḵānas can be found in the Republic of Azerbaijan, and they were introduced into Iraq in the mid-19th century, where they seem to have existed until the 1980s (Ṭāʿi). In the 1990s a zur-ḵāna was founded in London by Persian émigrés.
The Zur-ḵāna welcomed in Africa (Source: Zurkhaneh Review, No.2, July 2011 edition). African Zur-khaneh or Zur-ḵāna athletes have rapidly achieved mastery status in this ancient sport.
Mahdi ʿAbbāsi, Tāriḵ-e košti-e Irān, 2 vols., Tehran, 1995.
Joseph S. Alter, The Wrestler’s Body: Identity and Ideology in North India, Berkeley, 1992.
A. Reza Arasteh, “The Social Role of the Zurkhana (House of Strength) in Iranian Urban Communities during the Nineteenth Century,” Der Islam 36, February 1961, pp. 256- 59.
Mehrdād Bahār, “Varzeš-e bāstāni-e Irān wa rišahā-ye tāriḵi-e ān,” Čistā 1, October 1981, pp. 140-59; republ. as “Āʾin-e Mehr, zur-ḵāna, ʿayyāri, wa Samak-e ʿAyyār,” in Moḥammad-Mahdi Moʾaḏḏen Jāmeʿi, ed., Adab-e pahlavāni. pp. 323-42.
Moḥammad-Taqi Bahār, “Āʾin-e javānmardi,” in Eḥsān Narāqi, tr. and compiled, Āʾin-e javānmardi, Tehran, 1984, pp. 109-20.
Patricia L. Baker, “Wrestling at the Victoria and Albert Museum,” Iran 35, 1997.
ʿAli Behzādi, Šebh-e ḵāṭerāt, Tehran, 1996.
John Chardin, Travels in Persia, 1673-1677, New York, 1988.
Houchang E. Chehabi, “Jews and Sport in Modern Iran,” in Homa Sarshar and Houman Sarshar, eds., The History of Contemporary Iranian Jews IV, Beverly Hills, 2001.
Gaspard Drouville, Voyage en Persependant les années 1812 et 813, 2 vols., Paris, 1819-20; tr. Manučehr Eʿtemād Moqaddam as Safar dar Irān, Tehran, 1985. Ṣadr-al-Din Elāhi, “Negāh-i digar ba sonnat-i kohan: zur-ḵāna,” Irān-šenāsi/Iranshenasi 6/4, 1995, pp. 726-45.
Ḡolām-Reżā Enṣāfpur, Tāriḵ o farhang-e zur-ḵāna wa goruhhā-ye ejtemāʿi-e zur-ḵāna, Tehran, 1974.
R. A. Galunov, “Zurkhana: atletchyeskaya arena persii (Zur-ḵāna: The athletic arena of Persia),” Iran (Leningrad) 1, 1926, pp. 87-110.
Ḥasan Guša, “Varzeš-e bāstāni dar Irān,” Payām-e now 3/6, Farvardin 1326/March-April 1947, pp. 47-55.
Šaʿbān Jaʿfari, Šaʿbān Jaʿfari (text of the interview by Homā Saršār), Los Angeles, 2001.
ʿAbbās Kamandi, Varzeš wa sargoḏadšt-e varzeš-e bāstāni-e Kordestān, Sanandaj, 1984.
Kāẓem Kāẓemayni, “Zur-ḵāna,” Honar o mardom, N.S., nos. 56-57, 1967, pp. 55-62.
Idem, Dāstānhā-ye šegeftangiz az tāriḵ-e pahlavāni-e Irān, Tehran, 1967.
Klaus Kreiser, Edirne im 17. Jahrhundert nach Evliyā Çelebī: Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis der osmanischen Stadt, Freiburg, 1975.
Eḥsān Narāqi, tr. (of Henry Corbin’s articles) and compiler, Āʾin-e javānmardi, Tehran, 1984.
Carsten Niebuhr, Reisebeschreibungnach Arabien und anderen unliegenden Ländern, Copenhagen, 1778.
Ḥosayn Partow Bayżāʾi Kāšāni, Tāriḵ-e varzeš-e bāstāni-e Irān: zur-ḵāna, Tehran, 1958, new ed., Tehran, 2003.
Angelo Piemontese, “Il capitolo sui pahlavān delle Badāyiʿ al-Waqāyiʿ di Vāsfi,” AIUON, N.S. 16, 1966, pp. 207-20.
Jacob Eduard Polak, Persien: das Land und seine Bewohner, Hildesheim, 1976; tr. Keykāvus Jahāndārī as Safar-nāma-ye Pūlāk (Īrān wa īrānīān), Tehran, 1982.
Philippe Rochard, “Le ‘sport antique’ des zurkhâne de Téhéran: formes et significations d’une pratique contemporaine,” unpubl. Ph.D. diss., Université Aix-Marseille I, 2000.
Idem, “The Identities of the Zūrkhānah,” tr. Houchang E. Chehabi, Ir. Stud. 35/3, 2002, pp. 313-40.
Moṣṭafā Ṣadiq “Gowd-e moqaddas: peydāyeš-e zur-ḵāna,” Honar o mardom, N.S. no. 145, 1974, pp. 55-62.
Idem, “Negāh-i moḵṭaṣar bar varzeš-e zur-ḵānaʾi dar Irān,” in Majmuʿa-ye maqālāt-e mardom-šenāsi darIrān 1, 1983, pp. 45-78.
Jaʿfar Šahri, Šakar-e talḵ, Tehran, 1968.
Idem, Guša-i az tāriḵ-e ejtemāʾi-e Tehrān-e qadim, Tehran, 1978, pp. 82-93.
Idem, Tāriḵ-e ejtemāʿi-e Tehrān dar qarn-e sizdahom, 6 vols., Tehran, 1990, I, pp. 410-14; V, pp. 244-51.
Noṣrat-Allāh Ṣamimi, “Varzeš,” Irān-e bāstān 2, no. 29, 3 Šahrivar 1313/25 August 1934.
Jamil Ṭāʿi, al-Zurḵānāt al- baḡdādiya, Baghdad, 1986.
Moḥammad-Mahdi Tehrānči, Pažuheš-i dar varzešhā-ye zur-ḵānaʾi, Tehran, 1985.