ZUR-ḴĀNA (lit. house of strength), the traditional gymnasium of urban Persia and adjacent lands. Until the mid-20th century the zur-ḵāna was associated primarily with wrestling, and it bore great resemblance to the wrestlers’ tekkes (Pers. takia, Ar. takiya “lodges, buildings designed for confraternal life) of Ottoman Turkey (Kreiser, pp. 97-103), to the harkaras of Afghanistan, and to the akhāṛās (wrestling ground) of India (Alter). This would seem to indicate the existence in the past of an agonistic tradition common to the ethnically diverse populations of a wide region stretching from the Balkans to Bengal.
Descriptions of the zur-ḵāna often imply a timeless essence, while in fact the institution has constantly evolved and continues to do so. The traditional zur-ḵāna consisted of a building whose architecture resembled that of a public bathhouse, in whose close proximity it was often located. The zur-ḵāna’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 (Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 35-36). 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. This included poems by Saʿdi, Ḥāfeẓ, Rumi, Ferdowsi, and other great classic poets, as well as a type of maṯnawi specific to the zur-ḵāna, the gol-e košti (flower of wrestling), of which the most famous is that of Mir Najāt Eṣfahāni (repr. in Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 379-419). Since the early 20th century, the drummer has been called moršed (guide or director), a title previously reserved for the most senior member of the group (Partow Bayzāʾi, p. 37).
In the gowd athletes had to be bare-chested and barefoot, symbolizing the irrelevance of outside hierarchies and distinctions (Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 27, 53). Their standard attire was the long, a cloth wrapped around the loins and passed between the legs. When they were wrestling, leather breeches (tonbān) were worn; these were sometimes embroidered (Baker). 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-ḵāna in the morning after morning prayers, except during Ramadan, when exercises took place in the evening after breaking the fast (efṭār). Since then, however, evening sessions have gradually become the norm (Partow Bayżāµʾi, pp. 52-4).
The exercises took place in a more or less standard order, and were led by the most senior member present, the miāndār. After some warming-up calisthenics (pāzadan), 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 (šenā) and then swung mils (Indian clubs), both exercises being accompanied by the moršed’s drumming and chanting. They would then take turns whirling rapidly (čarḵ) about the gowd, after which one or two athletes would in turn step forward to swing a kabbāda above their heads, this being a heavy iron bow on the cord of which heavy rings are strung. In the individual exercises (čarḵ and kabbāda), 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 miāndār for permission by saying roḵṣat (permission), to which the answer was forṣat (chance, opportunity). Until about the 1940s, the crowning event of a zur-ḵāna session was wrestling (košti), which was the original raison d’être of the gymnasium. With the introduction of international freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, however, wrestling disappeared from the gowd. Traditional wrestling survived in a modernized form under the name of košti-e pahlavāni (pahlavāni wrestling), but lost its organic link with the zur-ḵāna, where it is now rarely taught. The loss of its agonistic component has somewhat contributed to the decline of the institution’s popularity among young men.
Traditionally, athletes were divided into a number of grades. These were, in ascending order of seniority, nowča (novice), nowḵᵛāsta (beginner), pahlavān (athlete), and finally each establishment’s most accomplished member, the miāndār (formerly kohna-savār), who conducted the proceedings. At each grade, the long was wrapped somewhat differently. Beginning in the 1940s, however, these grades gradually fell into disuse and were replaced by the standard international categories “cadet, “ “junior,” and “senior,” and, for pahlavāni wrestling, weight classes.
The practices and rituals of the zur-ḵāna are permeated with the symbolism of Twelver Shiʿism. Veneration of the first Shiʿite Imam, ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb, plays a major role, and the exercises are frequently interrupted by salvos of the invocation of God’s blessing upon the Prophet Moḥammad (ṣalawāt). Traditionally, a man had to be ritually clean to enter the gowd, and admittance to the premises was forbidden to women, non-Muslims, and prepubescent boys. In spite of the institution’s Twelver Shiʿite affinities, zur-ḵānas spread to Sunnite Kurdistan in the 18th century (Kamandi), and in the mid-20th century there were even a few Jewish zur-ḵānas in Tehran and Shiraz and a Zoroastrian one in Yazd; their rituals were adapted accordingly (Chehabi, pp. 5-9).
The origin of the zur-ḵāna is shrouded in mystery. Its vocabulary, rituals, ethos, and grades recall those of fotowwa (see JAVĀNMARDI) 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 (Chardin, p. 200), and so perhaps this appropriation of noble ideals was an attempt to acquire greater respectability (Piemontese). The synthesis of wrestling prowess and Sufism is embodied by the 14th-century Pahlavān Mahmud of Ḵᵛārazm, better known in Persia as Puriā-ye Wali, whom zur-ḵāna athletes (as well as wrestlers in Turkey) regard as a role model.
While references to wrestling and wrestlers can be found in classical Persian literature (see below), the earliest known mention of zur-ḵāna exercises and practices occurs in a fragment dating from the Safavid era, the Tumār-e Poriā-ye (sic) Wali (reproduced in Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 350-64). This suggests that zur-ḵānas appeared first under that dynasty, which would also explain the close connection between them and popular Twelver Shiʿism, which takes the form, for instance, of very active participation of their members in ʿāšurā processions.
The first Western traveler to describe a zur-ḵāna was John Chardin, who observed it in the 1670s: “Wrestling is the Exercise of People in a lower Condition; and generally Speaking, only of People who are Indigent. They call the Place where they Show themselves to Wrestle, Zour Kone, that is to say, The House of Force. They have of’em in all the Houses of their great Lords, and especially of the Governours of Provinces, to Exercise their People. Every Town has besides Companies of those Wrestlers for show ... They perform their Exercises to divert People” (Chardin, pp. 200-1). A century later, Carsten Niebuhr also described a house of strength, and to him we also owe the first graphic representation of one. It shows musicians accompanying the exercises, a practice still common at folk wrestling events throughout west Asia and the Balkans, but one that has disappeared from the Persian zur-ḵāna, perhaps under the impact of the Shiʿite clergy’s distaste for music. The Qajar rulers of Persia were enthusiastic patrons of wrestling, and consequently zur-ḵānas thrived in the 19th century. They were embedded in the social structure of town quarters and constituted an important part of community life (Arasteh). Some were frequented by craftsmen and tradesmen associated with the bazaar, some had a Sufi membership, and still others were used by the luṭis (urban thugs). In 1865 Nāṣer-al-Din Shah’s court physician noted that “since a lot of dissolute and merry types frequent [the zur-ḵāna], young men of good families do not go there” (Polak, p. 189). However, men of higher birth did occasionally participate in the exercises and wrestle in the gowd (Drouville, II, p. 58), a development that reached its peak under Nāṣer-al-Din Shah (r. 1848-96), when a number of statesmen built themselves private zur-ḵānas (Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 9, 154-55).
With the advent of the Constitutional Revolution in 1905-06, royal patronage ceased. This dealt a severe blow to the zur-ḵāna, which became once again a feature of urban lower and lower middle class culture only. By the 1920s the introduction of modern Western sports and physical education further diminished the appeal of zur-ḵāna exercises among athletically inclined men, while cinemas drew spectators away. At the same time the growing penetration of society by the state, which resulted in better security, diminished the role of the strongmen who used to maintain law and order in neighborhoods and who trained in the zur-ḵāna. Another function of the zur-ḵānathat disappeared in the first decades of the 20th century was the training it provided for šāṭers, long distance couriers in the service of the shah and high officials, whose profession became obsolete with the introduction of modern transportation. Šāṭers had their own special exercises (e.g., šelang), which have completely disappeared (Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 28-38). In the troubled times after the end of the Qajar régime, a number of amateur athletes kept the zur-ḵāna alive independently of elite patronage, and in 1924 they founded a Jamʿiyat-e gordān-e Irān (Society of Iranian heroes) to organize traditional physical education and make it respectable again by a rigorous admission process (ʿAbbāsi, I, pp. 296-303).
The pioneers of modern physical education in Persia had no respect for zur-ḵāna-type exercises and ignored them in the physical education curricula they drew up for Persia’s modern schools. In the 1920s and 1930s numerous articles appeared in the Persian press denouncing the institution. Four criticisms were leveled at it. Firstly, it was implied that members were morally corrupt (e.g., Ṣamimi, p. 11). This was an oblique reference to the allegation that sodomy was prevalent among some athletes (Šahri, 1968, pp. 204-8; idem, 1990, I, p. 414, V, pp. 247-49). Secondly, zur-ḵānas were castigated for harboring uncouth ruffians, a reference to the marginal luṭis and their frequent brawling. Thirdly, it was pointed out that the exercises did not satisfy modern expectations in that they contained no team sports and developed the body unevenly. Finally, the gymnasia were criticized for their insufficient ventilation (“Dar zur-ḵāna,” Eṭṭelāʿāt, 17 Ābān 1317/8 November 1938). The last point was a constant theme, and we find it as late as 1947 in the first empirical study of zur-ḵānas in Tehran, which averred: Zur-ḵānas “are generally narrow and dark and lack sufficient sun-light. The air is heavy and humid, and constantly poisoned by the smell of the coal of the moršed’s brazier and by the petrol of the numerous lamps. Moreover, the stench of the toilets, which are inside the building, and the unwashed longs and dirty rugs, add to the heaviness of the air inside zur-ḵānas. In addition, the constant pipe and cigarette smoke of themoršed, the spectators, and even the athletes themselves is a health hazard for the athletes’ lungs” (Guša, p. 49).
Zur-ḵānas might have died out completely had it not been for the nationwide millenary celebration of Ferdowsi’s birth in the summer of 1934 (see FERDOWSI iv). Exhibitions of zur-ḵāna exercises featured prominently in them, and thenceforth the state showed more interest in them (Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 138, 211-17). Until about 1938 the term varzeš-e qadim (old sport) was used to designate zur-ḵāna exercises, but then gradually the term varzeš-e bāstāni (ancient sport) caught on, implying a pre-Islamic origin for the exercises (“Varzešhā-ye bāstāni,” Eṭṭelāʿāt, 10 Šahrivar 1318/1 September 1939). 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-ḵāna poetry and drumming in the morning, allowing amateurs to swing their Indian clubs at home.
The ideas adumbrated in the late 1930s were given substance beginning in the 1940s. Towards the end of his life, Persia’s last poet laureate, Moḥammad-Taqi Bahār, published a number of articles on traditional Persian javānmardi, in which he mentioned the ethos of the zur-ḵāna as a contemporary manifestation of this tradition. By this juxtaposition, the early history of popular anti-centralist movements in Persia such as those of the ʿayyārs (members of medieval brotherhood organizations) was constituted as the early history of the zur-ḵāna. Gradually, as one author uncritically quoted another, it became conventional wisdom that the zur-ḵānas originated in the underground resistance activities of Persian patriots against Arab and later Mongol invaders (Guša, pp. 47-48), which made them acceptable to the elites again by providing them with an aura of patriotism.
There remained the irritating fact that a moral ambiguity attached to the institution in the minds of most Persians, who took the zur-ḵāna pahlavāns’ protestations of chivalry with a grain of salt. To explain (away) the unseemly behavior of many zur-ḵāna habitués, it was now suggested that the institution had entered a period of moral decline under the Qajars. This fit in well with the official Pahlavi view of that dynasty, which legitimated the usurpation of the throne in 1925 by holding the Qajars responsible for both Persia’s economic backwardness and moral degeneration. The idea of a golden age of virtue preceding the degeneration of the late Qajar years is not borne out by evidence, however, as is shown, for instance, in the satirical poetry of ʿObayd of Zākān (d. ca. 1371), who already repeatedly impugns the morality of pahlavāns.
Another theory about the pre-Islamic origins of the zur-ḵānawas proposed by the Iranist Mehrdād Bahār. Struck by the similarities between the architecture and rituals of traditional zur-ḵānas and those of temples dedicated to the Iranian deity Mithra (Mithraeums), he speculated that the gymnasia had a Mithraic origin (Bahār). The fact remains that there is no textual or architectural evidence for the existence of zur-ḵānas before Safavid times (Elāhi). The idea of a pre-Islamic origin, however, lives on in popular writing.
In 1953, one of the most prominent traditional athletes, Šaʿbān Jaʿfari, was a ringleader of the CIA-financed riots that accompanied the military coup d’état of 1953 against Prime Minister Moḥammad Moṣaddeq. The shah rewarded Jaʿfari with a modern club, whose facilities were lavish by the humble standards of traditional zur-ḵānas, and he himself opened it on 17 Ābān 1336/8 November 1957 (Behzādi, p. 190; Jaʿfari, pp. 159 ff., 207 ff.). Led by Jaʿfari, zur-ḵāna athletes performed by the hundreds in Tehran’s main stadium on such occasions as the shah’s birthday. It was at least partly due to Jaʿfari’s good contacts to the court, which allowed him to be the center of a patronage network, that many young men were inducted into the world of ancient sport, and he may yet be credited for having ensured the survival of the tradition.
Jaʿfari’s club received competition in the late 1950s, when the influential head of Persia’s Planning Organization (Sāzmān-e barnāma wa budja), Abu-al-Ḥasan Ebtehāj, had a luxurious zur-ḵāna built for the country’s main bank, the Bank Melli. The director of this club, Kāẓem Kāẓemayni, published a number of books and articles on the zur-ḵāna and on the heroic exploits of Persia’s past pahlavāns and heroes, books that stand out by their shrill nationalism shading into xenophobia (Kāẓemayni, 1967). The Jaʿfari and the Bank Melli clubs vied for the honor of performing for visiting monarchs, presidents, prime ministers, secretaries general of Communist parties, film stars, and singers, including women.
While in some cities (Isfahan, Kāšān, and Qom) there existed zur-ḵānas that were pious endowments (waqfs; see Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 36), until the 1960s most zur-ḵānas were owned by private individuals who charged athletes a fee. The numbers of zur-ḵānas rose until 1961, but remained stagnant in the last years of the monarchy (Tehrānči, p. 11). In the provinces, the state did not much support the zur-ḵānas, which in many places fell into disrepair (Kamandi, pp. 70-72). Beginning in the 1970s, many private zur-ḵānas closed down, since they were no longer profitable. Their place was taken by zur-ḵānas attached to major private companies, state enterprises, or state organs (Rochard, 2000, p. 77).
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-ḵāna, athletes have been made to wear tee shirts. A plethora of competitions are held with the aim of turning the exercises into modern sport replete with point systems, records, and champions. One result of these efforts has been a certain homogenization of practices, visible, for instance, in the renaming of many provincial zur-ḵānas that now carry the name of Puriā-ye Wali. Older athletes resent this intrusion of an official body into a sector of civic life that had always been self-regulating. Partly as a result of internal quarrels, the center of zur-ḵāna activity shifted to Mashad in the 1990s, where the Āstān-e Qods-e Rażawi has proven a generous patron.
Outside Persia, zur-ḵānas can be found in the Republic of Azerbaijan, and they were introduced into Iraq in the mid-19th century, where they seem to have existed until the 1980s (Ṭāʿi). In the 1990s a zur-ḵāna was founded in London by Persian émigrés.
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(Houchang E. Chehabi)
Originally Published: August 15, 2006
Last Updated: August 15, 2006