An evocative, soulful sound rose above the hypnotic beat of a single drum. The Morshed (master) began the session by performing epic and Gnostic poems on a Zarb (goblet drum). His voice is as haunting as the photographic panoply lining the interior walls. Muscular men, from throughout history, proud in posed pictures.
We had stumbled upon an almost sacred ritual. Beyond the nondescript doors facing onto a busy Tehran street, we were granted entry into an old Iranian traditional gymnasium. Males of various ages and sizes were just arriving after breaking fast in the month of Ramadan. Donning traditional garb, they chatted while sipping hot tea and stretching to warm up. Soon after, the Zang rang. That was the starting-bell.
Zoorkhaneh is an ancient Persian sport, an athletic method originally used to train warriors. Combining martial arts, calisthenics, strength training and music, this ritual sport puts participants through a lengthy sequence of exercises. Health-wise, it aids muscular ability and endurance, along with respiratory and heart endurance, flexibility and body composition.
Training sessions consist mainly of ritual gymnastic movements, culminating in the core of combat practice, a form of submission-grappling called koshti pahlevani. The structure of the exercise regime not only focusses on the physical, it also engages philosophical, religious, cultural and educational bases, to cultivate body, mind and soul. Some of the simple tools used are Mils (club), Kabbadeh (bow with metal rings and coins), Sang Giri (heavy wooden shield) and Takht-e-Shena (a push-up plank).
The term Zoorkhaneh refers to the practice place, meaning ‘House of Strength’. The series of rituals are led by the Morshed, who chants sacred poetry while keeping time on a drum and ringing bells to mark the beginning of different sections. The Mitraic- influenced, Parthian origin (132 BC – 226 AD), instilled in the early warriors a sense of national pride in anticipation of upcoming battles.
Recognised by UNESCO as among the world’s longest-running forms of physical training, Zoorkhaneh fuses elements of pre-Islamic Persian culture (particularly Zoroastrianism, Mithraism and Gnosticism) with the spirituality of Shia Islam and Sufism. This historic legacy still survives in some parts of Iran and is taken very seriously by those who practice it. We were informed that it also teaches people to be more spiritual, kind and helpful to others.
After the bell rang, the men descended one by one into the Gowd, an octagonal pit, 75-100 cm deep. We were in effect transported to another era, another way of life. Once the warm-up was done, the men took their places according to seniority and began the exercise rituals, holding their accidental audience in thrall.
Heritage sport Zoorkhaneh, with its thousands of years of history, has played a significant role in mentally and physically empowering its practitioners. In a chaotic, fast-paced, modern world the oldest known form of martial arts, combined with art and literature, gives a grounding in stability. As relevant today as it was then.