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layered with brushwood, then ash and finally a clay in order to be soft enough for wrestling, but gradually this has been replaced by wood or linoleum.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.