Zurkhaneh - The House of Strength
Zur-khane (lit. house of strength), the traditional gymnasium of urban Persia and adjacent lands.
Until the mid-20th century the zur-khane was associated primarily with wrestling.
Descriptions of the zur-khane often imply a timeless essence, while in fact the institution has constantly evolved and continues to do so .
The traditional zur-khane consisted of a building whose architecture resembled that of a public bathhouse, in whose close proximity it was often located.
The zur-khane’s main room was often sunken slightly below street level to provide constant temperatures and prevent drafts that might harm the perspiring athletes, but its roof contained windows for light.
Access to the main room was possible only through a low door, forcing everyone to bow in respect while entering. At the center of the room lay the gowd, a hexagonal sunken area about one meter deep in which the exercises took place.
To provide a soft surface for wrestling, the bottom of the arena used to be covered first with brushwood, then with ash, and finally with a layer of clay earth, but gradually this was replaced with linoleum or wooden planks.
The gowd was surrounded by stands for spectators and racks for exercise instruments, and the walls were adorned with pictures of athletes and saints.
Of particular importance was an elevated and decorated seat, the sardam, which was reserved for the man who accompanied the exercises with rhythmic drumming and the chanting of Persian poetry.
Since the early 20th century, the drummer has been called morshed (guide or director), a title previously reserved for the most senior member of the group.
In the gowd, athletes had to be bare-chested and barefoot,symbolizing the irrelevance of outside hierarchies and distinctions.
Their standard attire was the ‘long’, a cloth wrapped around the loins and passed between the legs.
When they were wrestling, leather breeches (tonban) were worn; these were sometimes embroidered.
As they entered the gowd, athletes showed their respect for the hallowed space by kissing the ground, which in practice took the form of touching the floor with their fingers and then raising these to their lips.
Once inside, they had to desist from eating, drinking, smoking, laughing, or chatting. Until the mid -1920s, men went to the zur-khane in the morning after morning prayers, except during Ramadan, when exercises took place in the evening after breaking the fast (eftar). Since then, however, evening sessions have gradually become the norm.
The exercises took place in a more or less standard order, and were led by the most senior member present, the miandar.
After some warming-up calisthenics (pazadan), in the course of which one of the athletes might leave the gowd, lie on his back , and lift heavy wooden boards called sang with each arm , athletes did push-ups(shena) and then swung mils (indian clubs) , both exercises being accompanied by the morshed’s drumming and chanting .
They would then take turns whirling rapidly (charkh) about the gowd, after which one or two athletes would in turn step forward to swing a kabbada above their heads, this being a heavy iron bow on the cord of which heavy rings are strung.
In the individual exercises (charkh and kabbada), members came forth in ascending order of seniority, and so, uniquely in Persian social convention, humility was shown by trying to go first.
To come forth, an athlete would ask the miandar for permission by saying rokhsat (permission), to which the answer was forsat (chance, opportunity).
The origin of the zur-khane is shrouded in mystery.
Its vocabulary, rituals, ethos, and grades recall those of fotowwa (javanmardi) and Sufism, but a direct affiliation cannot be established at the present stage of knowledge.
Since wrestling has an old tradition in west, central, and south Asia, it is possible that sometime in the 14th or 15th centuries wrestlers formed guilds and adopted rituals borrowed from fotowwa and Sufism.
Wrestlers were mostly entertainers with low social status, and so perhaps this of noble ideals was an attempt to acquire greater respectability.
The synthesis of wrestling prowess and Sufism is embodied by the 14th- century Pahlavan Puria-ye Wali, whom zur-khane athletes (as well as wrestlers in Turkey) regard as a role model.
Zur-khane 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-khane exercises featured prominently in them, and thenceforth the state showed more interest in them.
Until about 1938 the term varzesh-e qadim (old sport) was used to designate zur-khane exercises, but then gradually the term varzesh-e bastani (ancient sport) caught on, implying a pre-Islamic origin for the exercises.
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-khane poetry and drumming in the morning, allowing amateurs to swing their Iranian clubs at home.
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-khane, athletes have been made to wear tree shirts.
Pahlevani and zourkhaneh rituals is the name inscribed by UNESCO for varzesh-e pahlavāni or varzesh-e bāstāni, a traditional system of athletics originally used to train warriors in Iran and adjacent lands.