Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Visit to a Zur-Khana or 'House of Strength' in Isfahan

On my recent visit to Iran we were lucky enough to visit a Zur-Khana or ‘House of Strength’ – one of the traditional gymnasiums found in Iran.  (Thank you Stella for suggesting the visit). The activity taking place at the House of Strength is sometimes referred to as ‘Iranian wrestling’, but since the mid-twentieth century the sport has moved away from wrestling and now comprises a combination of different exercises, strength training, aerobics and musical ritual elements.

The traditional zur-khana building resembles a public bathhouse, with the main room below street level to prevent drafts and help regulate the temperature, and a domed roof. The dome was missing from the place we visited, but we were told that it had once been a traditional roof.  The focal point of the room is the ‘gowd’ a polygonal sunken area about a metre deep in which the exercises take place.

Historically the bottom of the gowd was layered with brushwood, then ash and finally a clay in order to be soft enough for wrestling, but gradually this has been replaced by wood or linoleum. The walls of the room are lined with chairs or in bigger zur-khanas stands for spectators, and storage areas for the equipment. One side of the room has an elevated area with a seat, and it is here that the morshed or master sits.  

The morshed is a combination of trainer, musician and singer, and he accompanies the exercises with drumming and chanting. The chants include works by the famous Persian poets Ferdowsi, Rumi, Saʿdi and Ḥāfeẓ, as well as verses specifically written for the zur-khana, known as the ‘gol-e koshti’ (flower of wrestling), and religious passages. 

The walls are covered with pictures of athletes over the years - lots of moustaches and chest muscles, and hanging on the wall either side of the morshed’s seat are historic examples of the embroidered leather shorts that the athletes wear.  Overlooking all is an image of Imam Ali.

The master starts by providing rhythmic drumming for the participants to warm up. The athletes arrive carrying their kit, and disappear into a curtained area at the side of the room to change into their costume and to warm up. One by one they appear from the curtained area and jump down into the gowd, touching the ground and kissing their fingers reminding me of a footballer touching the ground before running onto the pitch. 

The exercises used varying pieces of equipment, the most famous of which are the wooden clubs which are swung in a variety of ways, and even thrown into the air to a great height and juggled. The clubs are different weights, with each person selecting the ones to suit them. Another set of exercises featured small wooden ‘steps’ which were held while different types of press-ups and push-ups were carried out to the music and chanting.  Sometimes the master calls commands and individual exercises are performed whilst the others continue aerobic movements. 

Perhaps most impressive was the whirling – everyone took their turn, but one athlete in particular was so skilled it was like watching a dervish from Konya.  It was striking how everyone listened so carefully to the master, and at certain points echoed words or phrases. They entered into a trance-like state, and so did we! Whilst many of their utterances were responses to religious phrases, it was pointed out to me that when Alexander the Great was mentioned (presumably in a section from the Iskandernameh) the athletes responded with ‘Accursed!’.  The whole thing was mesmerizing, and the combination of elements of pre-Islamic rituals with the spiritual aspects of Shia Islam and Sufism fascinating.

The origins of the zur-khanas are unknown and much debated. Some scholars note similarities between the architecture and rituals of the zur-kanas with shrines or temples dedicated to Mithras (Iranian Mithra). In Mithraea, the temples have a ‘pit’ or lower area in which rituals take place, and the presence of water is important. Zur-khanas are often near to bath houses.

Traditional Iranian wrestling is known in Persian from Parthian times and is said to have been practiced by Rustam, one of the heroes of the Shahnameh. Many depictions of Rustam show him wrestling with deevs.   But zur-khana exercises are clearly connected to training men as warriors both physically and mentally. One of the pieces of equipment is a metal bow. Tradition has it that when the Arabs invaded Persia the zur-khanas were ‘underground’ places for training rebels, and that following the spread of Shia Islam and then the development of Sufism, spiritual elements and religious hymns were absorbed into the training. At some point the first Shi'ite imam Ali was adopted as the patron of zur-khanas. However, there is actually no textual evidence for the existence of zur-khanas before Safavid times, no matter how persistent the idea of pre-Islamic roots.

There are references to wrestling in classical Persian literature, but the earliest known mention of zur-khana exercises and practices is from the Safavid era, and if it is the case that they first appeared at this time, then this would explain the close connection between them and Twelver Shiʿism. Many members of the zur-khanas actively participate in Ashura processions, and it is easy to see that the exercises with the clubs, for example, would strengthen arms and shoulders: very important for carrying the nakhl on the shoulders and forearms.  

The institution of the zur-khana has continued to evolve. Until the mid-1920s, the zur-khana was mainly visited after morning prayers (apart from during Ramadan, when it was more appropriate to exercise in the evening after Iftar). Nowadays sessions take place in the evenings. Also, athletes used to be bare-chested and barefoot in the gowd to symbolize the irrelevance of hierarchies and distinctions, but these days T-shirts or club shirts are commonly worn.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Gonbad-e Jabaliyeh or Stone Tower of Kerman

Gonbad-e Jabaliyeh, also known as the Gabri Dome (also Jabel-I Sang)

Located in a cemetery that was once home to many tower tombs East of the Maydan-e Arg is the Gonbad-e Jabaliyeh, one of the earliest surviving tombs with a double dome to be found in Iran.

This stone and brick domed building is something of a puzzle to historians. The consensus is that it certainly predates the Seljuk period, but its origins may go back to the Sassanian period or even earlier.

A number of suggestions have been made as to its function, including as an observatory, but it bears a similarity to other tomb towers. It is remarkable though, for the fact that it is made of stone rather than baked brick. The double dome that you see now is a later addition and is made of brick. The ground plan is octagonal, and the building is interesting because it allows you to see, both inside and out, a transition from octagon to dome.

Restored many times, as this photograph of a century ago shows, the niches and arches, which would have helped with load-bearing as well as being decorative, would always have been an important feature of the building.

The Gonbad is now a museum, home to many stele, grave-markers and other worked stone from the local area.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sarvestan Palace - Bahram V's hunting lodge, or a local governor's residence?

The building known as Sarvestan Palace is thought to have been constructed during the reign of the Sasanian King Bahram V, who ruled from 420 – 438 CE.

Nowadays this stone and mortar building stands in splendid isolation, dominating the vast plain some 80km to the southeast of Shiraz, but on closer inspection it is clear from some of the mounds visible in the plain – for example one just to the north of the Palace - that this was not the only substantial building in the area.

The building is usually termed a ‘Palace’ but in fact its function is not clear. Certainly it is a substantial construction that would have been richly decorated. Some scholars have suggested that it may have been a hunting lodge for King Bahram, since many of the legends that grew up around the king relate him indulging in this princely pursuit. André Godard believed that it might have been a small palace for receiving guests built by Mehr Narseh, the Bahram’s Grand Vizier, who is known to have been responsible for a considerable number of building works, including fire temples, formal gardens and bridges while Oleg Grabar suggested that Sarvestan may have been some kind of sanctuary, an example of royal architecture converted into a fire temple. A residence of the local governor is another theory that has been put forward, however on the available evidence, the precise function of the structure remains unknown.

Originally the structure was approached from the south, via a façade with three iwans (today the path from the parking area takes you to near the north-east corner). The central, larger iwan of the south façade led onto a large square room with a large baked brick dome. The two smaller iwans on each side of lead into a series of interconnecting rooms.

The large square room had four windows between the corner squinches to support the dome which rested on corbelling, ensuring a perfectly circle. Instead of a central oculus, additional lighting was provided by hollow terracotta cylinders set into the dome at intervals.

This square domed room leads onto a rectangular courtyard with a single iwan on the central axis in the blind western wall. Rooms or suites of rooms surround the square domed room and courtyard and lead back to the two smaller entrance façade arches. Each room is architecturally different from the others, and there are individual features that make the building different from the earlier ‘palaces’ of Qalah-e Dokhtar and Ardašir, near Firuzabad, including that the building has entrances on all sides, and the use of piers to support the vaults of the façade.

Another interesting feature is that the rectangular side rooms feature columns as supports for the vaulting, with semi-domes above. There is a pleasing variety to the rooms, and a lack of symmetry within the building.

The palace is well preserved, but has also undergone considerable restoration. From the remaining decorative elements, including traces of stucco, we can imagine that the building must have been very fine indeed. Look for the dogtooth moulding in the zone of transition under the dome, and in the niches in the side rooms. Also note the quantity of pottery sherds, including glazed wares, littering the ground around the site.

So, an enigmatic building. It remains to be seen whether we will ever know its purpose. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Horse skeleton complete with hooves discovered in Archaic cemetery in Faliro, Attica

Construction works for the new Cultural Centre of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation in the Athenian neighbourhood of Faliro have revealed a large ancient necropolis. The cemetery was part of Phalerum, the main port of Ancient Athens before the port of Piraeus was developed in the 5th century BC, and small sections of the cemetery were excavated by the Greek Archaeological Service at the beginning of the last century.
Photo: Stavros Niarchos Foundation 
Over the past few years more than one thousand burials have been excavated in the cemetery, which was in use for almost three centuries, from the late 8th to the early 5th C BC. Most of the burials are pit graves, but there are also many pot burials of infants and young children and some cremations. The necropolis is also notable for its animal burials, including the interment of four complete horses. Last week the Head Archaeologist of the site, Stella Chrysoulaki, announced to the Central Archaeological Council the discovery of an unusually well-preserved horse skeleton.

The exceptional aspect of the skeleton is that it is in such a good state of preservation that it has its hooves. This level of preservation, plus the fact that are four horse skeletons, provides a rare opportunity for zoo-archaeologists to research the breeds and the evolution of the species.
Photo: Stavros Niarchos Foundation
The necropolis at Faliro has brought to light other unusual discoveries including two skeletons found with their hands clasped together, who were possibly a couple. This indicated that they may have died at the same time, since rigor mortis had not set in at the time of the joining of the hands.

The necropolis continues to shed light on daily life – and death – in Attica in the Archaic Period. The majority of grave goods were ceramic and all known styles are represented including Late Geometric, Protoattic, and Black-figure. Most of the ceramics were produced in Attica as might be expected, while the high number of Corinthian imports shows the dominance of Corinthian pottery and their export trade at the time. A number of the excavated pots were imports from eastern Greece and Euboea and this is indicative of the commercial network of Attica in the Archaic period.

A preliminary study of the burials and the humans remains indicates that there was not, at this stage, a wide social inequality, but also shows a high rate of infant mortality and incidences of pathological conditions which would suggest arduous daily work. Interestingly, the burials do not follow the same orientation, and even the positioning of the dead within the graves varies significantly across the cemetery.
Photo: Stavros Niarchos Foundation
The finds from the excavations are currently undergoing study and further investigation, but some of them will eventually be on display in a museum in a specially built museum in the Cultural Centre.

For more information:


Friday, August 7, 2015

Magnificent statue of Silenus discovered in the Agora of Pella

Excavations at Pella, the capital of ancient Macedon and birthplace of Alexander the Great, continue to show the immense wealth and quality of the Hellenistic city. In the last couple of weeks a beautifully sculpted marble statue of Silenus was brought to light in the Agora. The discovery was announced by Professor John M. Akamatis of the Department of History and Archaeology of Aristotle University, Thessaloniki.
The life size statue dates to the Hellenistic era, a reflection of the wealth of the city and the opulence of its public spaces at that time. It was found in the north stoa of Pella’s huge Agora. The Agora of Pella is the largest of any Hellenistic city so far discovered. It extends to 72,000 square metres and occupies the centre of the gridded street plan of the Macedonian capital.
The bearded Silenus, approximately 1.75cm in height, is of exceptional quality. Since we know that the god Dionysus was of particular significance to the Macedonians, it is not surprising to find a representation of Silenus, his companion and tutor, in a place of prominence.  Silenus is depicted standing, wearing an animal skin and high leather boots and showing traces of the red and ochre pigments that reveal he would have once appeared as a vivid painted figure rather than the plain marble seen today. Though broken at the head and the legs, the statue is in generally good condition, though there is sediment that needs to be removed from the front, and care must be taken to ensure that the colour that remains on the lower part is preserved. However, restoration and conservation will be carried out and it is intended that the restored piece will go on display in the museum at Pella.
The location of the find is interesting: Professor Akamatis postulates that it may have been where some kind of cult or ritual activity took place. The area nearby had revealed a semicircular construction with narrow lead pipes which supplied liquid from two small tanks positioned to the rear. The width of the lead pipes would indicate a small or restricted flow of liquid and it is possible that this may have been used for ritual ablutions or libations, and that the Silenus was connected with this fountain. A bronze fragment of drapery from a colossal statue was also discovered at the fountain, further underlining the importance of this area of the Agora of Pella.
The building of the Agora is thought to have been started during the reign of Kassander (ruled 305 to 297 BC) over an area which included the necropolis of the Classical city. The Agora was the commercial, administrative and social centre of the Hellenistic city until its destruction by an earthquake 200 years later probably. The nature of the sudden destruction of the city has meant that the contents of the rooms behind the stoae are almost intact, leading to valuable archaeological evidence for their use.
The statue has been identified as Silenus on the basis of its distinctive features and the animal skin. Sileni, along with Satyrs and Maenads, were followers of Dionysus, with Sileni depicted as older than the other followers. Originally a Silenus figure was depicted a nature spirit with the ears, and sometimes the tail and legs, of a horse.  Later depictions show Silenus - now singular - as totally human, but with unkempt hair and beard (though often bald on the top of his head), thick lips and a squat nose. By the Hellenistic era he was depicted as an individual named Silenus, the teacher and faithful companion of the wine-god Dionysus.
Dionysus riding a panther, Pella
The worship of Dionysus was very important to the Macedonians. One of the most famous of the pebble mosaics from Pella shows the god riding a panther, and Olympias, wife of Philip II and mother of  Alexander the Great, was said to be an avid devotee of his cult. Alexander himself is recorded as offering sacrifices to Dionysus in temples he dedicated to the god in the cities he founded during his campaigns in Asia, and a wonderful small ivory of Dionysus supported by a Maenad was part of a decorated couch from the tomb of Alexander IV in Vergina. Perhaps most intriguingly, Euripides wrote The Bacchae, based on the Greek myth of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agave, and their punishment by the Dionysus, at Pella itself. Euripides was invited to Pella, the new capital of Macedon, by King Archelaus I who had moved the capital from the city of Aegae (modern Vergina), and died there in 406BC. Thus this new find of exceptional quality adds to the body of material which shows the importance of the cult of Dionysus to the Macedonians, and also is testament to the refinement and luxury of this beautiful and important Hellenistic city.
Dionysus supported by a Maenad, Tomb III, Vergina

Thursday, March 5, 2015

New discoveries from the necropolis at Aegae, including the tomb of a possible priest of Dionysus

Gold earrings from 4th C BC tomb, photo: Greek Ministry of Culture 
Today the latest discoveries from the necropolis of Aegae (Vergina) were announced by Imathia’s Head of Antiquities Angeliki Kottaridi. And, as usual, they did not disappoint. The excavations revealed a total of 21 graves, of which 6 had been looted. The most spectacular find came from a tomb dating to the 4th C BC which contained the remains of a young girl. The girl had been buried with gold ornaments including earrings, but also a bronze mirror, the only one discovered so far in Aegae.  The mirror features a relief of Eros flying in to embrace the god Dionysus, who is seated on the skin of a panther laid across some rocks. 
Bronze mirror with Eros & Dionysus, photo: Greek Ministry of Culture
One of the tombs contained the remains of a funerary bed decorated with plaques made of terracotta, showing Athena watching a battle of Greeks against barbarians in relief.
 Perhaps the most intriguing find was a looted cist tomb, dated to the time of Alexander the Great, that contained a vase used as an urn. The urn was crowned with a bronze ivy wreath and contained the remains of a man aged around 50 years of age. The tomb contained a narrow wooden table upon which utensils of the type used in a symposium had been placed. 

Among the vessels was a bronze bowl used for mixing wine and water, with very fine decoration that showed the high degree of skill of the Macedonian craftsmen.
 The bowl was found lying on the floor of the tomb and surrounded by organic debris associated with the funerary couch. The remains of fabric from the bed and the clothes of the dead were lying amongst the debris of the wooden couch, and traces of purple could be seen amongst the fabric. The gilt decoration from the front of the couch is reminiscent of the gold and ivory beads discovered in the (so-called) tomb of Philip II at Vergina. Speculation has arisen about the occupant of the tomb. Mrs Kottardi noted that the occupant was an adult male so wealthy that he could afford clothes dyed with purple, yet at the same time there were no arms or armour within the tomb. The absence of arms, combined with the ivy wreath around the urn, suggested to Kottardi that the man may have been a priest of Dionysus, or an associated cult. Let’s hope that further investigations shed more light on the occupants of the newly excavated tombs.
Lifting the slabs of a cist grave, photo: Greek Ministry of Culture