Iraj Bashiri

copyright © Iraj Bashiri, 2003

The traditional Iranian sports club, usually referred to as the zurkhaneh (lit., house of force or strength), is a covered structure lit by a single opening in the ceiling. At the center of the structure, sunken in the floor, is a circular or octagonal pit (gaud) of about three or four feet deep and about 30 or 40 feet in diameter. The main event, the champions' calisthenics, takes place in this pit directly below the audience level. In older zurkhanehs, the surface of the pit is covered by cement. In more modern zurkhanehs, it is covered with wood panels.

The main floor, above and around the pit, is divided into several sections, each separated from the other by means of a low partition. The main section, almost all around the pit, is given to the audience. A small section is used by the champions for changing clothes and for keeping their equipment. In more modern zurkhanehs, this section this section has been changed to lockers. Another section is used by the musicians who entertain the audience before the exercises begin. By the entrance, there is a kiosk-like structure where the person who recites poetry is located. This person is referred to variously as the murshed or the murabbi. The murshed has a somewhat elevated place over the audience so that from where he sits, he can see all the goings-on in the zurkhaneh, both in the pit and the audience. In front of him, slightly higher than eye-level, there is a bell and, below at his feet, there is a brazier. The former is for informing the audience of the arrival of prominent guests to the gathering, the latter is for heating his drum, as well as for preparing a cinnamon and cardamom flavored hot drink served to the champions after the completion of the exercises. The most well-known zurkhaneh in Iran was at the Bam Citadel (Arg-i Bam). Although the citadel is no longer in use, its zurkhaneh, its walls ornamented with stucco and lattice windows, remain intact.

The zurkhaneh has a little known but fascinating history. During the fall of the Persian Empire to the armies of Islam, Iranian athletes and warriors alike, lost their ability to perform their traditional sports in the open. Neither did they want to abandon their cherished traditions which were fundamental for keeping their minds and bodies sound and healthy. Consequently, Iranian athletes decided to gather in private homes and carry on their normal routine there. Later on they moved into the type of covered structure that we recognize now as the zurkhaneh.

During the early centuries of Islam in Iran, these clandestine clubs entered Iranian society as legitimate sports clubs. While the champions in both clubs used the same set of equipment and performed the same exercises, the makeup and ambiance of the newly emerging clubs were different as they were molded by the ideology of the individuals who managed them, as well as the champions who participated in their activities. Some of these champions emphasized the Shi'ite way of life, while some others emphasized Iranian nationalism. Two types of zurkhaneh emerged: those that followed the traditions and rituals of the Sufi orders and those that followed the manners of the national champions of ancient Iran.

The religiously-oriented zurkhaneh developed rituals that mimicked the rituals and traditions of Sufi orders prevalent in different localities. Sufic terms like master (murshed), leader (pish kesvat), crown (taj), and poverty (faqr) are heard more often in these zurkhanehs than in the nationally-oriented zurkhanehs.

Every move in these zurkhanehs begins with praise of the Prophet and his family. The ethics of the religiously-oriented zurkhaneh, too, follow the ethics of the Sufi orders, to wit, the champion must be pure at heart; upon entering the pit, he must bend and ritually kiss the floor of the pit, and the like. During the exercises, eating, drinking, smoking, talking, and laughter are forbidden. Individuals who wish to enter the pit must have the murshed's permission (rukhsat). The murshed, if he approves, indicates his approval by saying "permission granted" (fursat).

Furthermore, in the religiously-oriented zurkhaneh, the ambiance is one of devotion to the Imam Ali and his descendants. The poetry recited is written specifically for that purpose. It is in praise of the Prophet and the imams, especially Imam Ali, and his son, Imam Hussein who was martyred at Karbala. The equipment they use, e.g., the metal shields (sang) are decorated with pictures of the Shi'ite saints. The "patron saint" of the religiously-oriented champions is Pouriya-ye Vali, an exemplary pahlavan from the region of Khwarazm (in present-day Republic of Uzbekistan). He is believed to have died circa 772 AH (AD 1370).

The lay champions, on the other hand, tend to emphasize Iran's ancient past. Although they use some of the same equipment, the ambiance of their zurkhaneh is nationalistic. The poetry their murshed recites, for instance, is from the Shahname (Book of Kings) of Firdausi. Additionally, the mythical champion on whose actions their deeds are modeled is Rustam, Iran's deathless hero who had rescued countless kings from peril and who had confronted and vanquished evil at every turn.

Membership at the zurkhaneh is by rank. The lowest rank is that of the nowcheh. This is an individual who is being trained by a designated champion. The next higher rank belongs to the nowkhasteh. This is a nowcheh who has made a substantial degree of progress under a designated champion. The third rank belongs to the palavan or tested champion. The leader of the champions is pahlavan-i pahlavanan (champion of champions). It is he who organizes the schedule for the exercises. As mentioned. the zurkhaneh also has a coach who is variously referred to as davar or murabbi. The rhythm for the exercises is set by the poetry recited by the murshed, as well as by the beat of the murshed's drum.



The uniform of the champions at the zurkhaneh consists of either a loin cloth or a pantaloon, or a tight pair of short pants made from leather or some durable material. The pants are usually decorated with beautiful embroidery. In ancient times, the athlete kissed the pants both at the beginning when he was putting them on and, at the end of the event, when he had taken them off.


The exercises are varied. They include wielding the mil (Indian Club), pulling the kaman (bow-shaped iron weights), lifting various types of weights, push-ups, and gyration. Usually, the exercises begin with acrobatics and juggling presented by the pishrav (novice). They end with a wrestling match between two tested pahlavans. This is the event that determines whether the current champion is able to defend and hold his title. Before the wrestling begins the murshed places some fragrant espand on the fire to divert the evil eye. Some champions, it should be added, wear arm bands containing appropriate prayers for the same reason.

The wrestling is accompanied by prayers invoking the prophet, the imams, and the ulema. It also includes supplication to Allah on behalf of the sick and the infirm in society. When wrestling, the contestants hold each other tightly by the cummerbund or the belt, each trying to force the other off balance. The objective is to make the opponent's shoulder touch the floor of the pit

The ethics of the zurkhaneh are based on manliness and bravery. Much of it, as it was mentioned earlier, is related to Shi'ite Islam, Sufic orders, and Iranian nationalism. The rules of the zurkhaneh forbid employment of any tricks that might belittle an opponent or humiliate him before the audience.

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