|Pahlevani and Zoorkhaneh Rituals *|
|Region **||Asia and Australasia|
|* Name as inscribed by UNESCO
** Region as classified by UNESCO
The pahlevan Mustafa Tousi holding a pair of meels
|Also known as||Koshti Pahlavani|
|Country of origin||Iran|
|Famous practitioners||Alireza Soleimani
Pahlevani and zoorkhaneh rituals is the name inscribed by UNESCO for varzesh-e pahlavani (Persian: آیین پهلوانی و زورخانهای, "heroic sport")1 or varzesh-e bastany (ورزش باستانی; varzeš-e bāstānī, "ancient sport"), a traditional Iranian system of athletics originally used to train warriors. It combines martial arts, calisthenics, strength training and music. Recognized by UNESCO as among the world's longest-running forms of such training, it fuses elements of pre-Islamic Persian culture (particularly Zoroastrianism, Mithraism and Gnosticism) with the spirituality of Shia Islam and Sufism. Practiced in a domed structure called the zurkhaneh, training sessions consist mainly of ritual gymnastic movements and climax with the core of combat practice, a form of submission-grappling called koshti pahlevani.
Traditional Iranian wrestling (koshti) dates back to ancient Persia and Parthia and was said to have been practiced by Rustam, mythological hero of the Shahnameh epic. While folk styles were practiced for sport by every ethnic group in various provinces, grappling for combat was considered the particular specialty of the zourkhaneh. The original purpose of these institutions was to train men as warriors and instill them with a sense of national pride in anticipation for the coming battles.2 The Mithraic design and rituals of these academies bear testament to its Parthian origin (132 BC - 226 AD). The zourkhaneh system of training is what is now known as varzesh-e bastani, and its particular form of wrestling was called koshti pahlevani, after the Parthian word pahlevan meaning hero.
When the Arabs invaded Persia around 637 CE, the zourkhanehs served as secret meeting places where knights would train and keep alive a spirit of solidarity and patriotism. Invaders repeatedly targeted the houses of strength to discourage rebels, but new ones would always be organized in a different location. Following the spread of Shia Islam, and particularly after the development of Sufism in the 8th century, varzesh-e pahlavani absorbed philosophical and spiritual components from it. Religious hymns were incorporated into training, and the first Shi'ite imam Ali was adopted as the zourkhaneh patron.
Varzesh-e bastani was particularly popular in the 19th century, during the reign of the Qajar king Nassar al-Din Shah (1848–1896). Every 21 March on Nowruz (the Iranian new year), competitions would be held in the shah's court, and the shah himself would present the champion with an armlet (bazoo-band). The sport declined following the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty in the 1920s and the subsequent modernisation campaigns of Reza Shah, who saw the sport as a relic of Qajarite ritual. Reza Shah's son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi took a different approach, emphasizing Iran's ancient Persian roots as an alternative to the heavily Islam-based identity of less developed nations in the Middle East. He attempted to revive the tradition and practiced it himself, and during his reign, the last national competitions were held.
Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 the tradition lost some of its popularity as the new regime discouraged anything tied to pre-Islamic paganism, which included the Gnostic and Mithraic chants and rituals of the zourkhaneh. This did not last, however, as the Islamic Republic eventually promoted varzesh-e bastani as a symbol of Iranian pride and culture. Today, varzesh-e pahlevani is touted as the reason why Iranians are regular winners at international wrestling and weight-lifting events.
The matter of attracting younger members has been a major discourse for some time. Suggestions have included making practice more upbeat and distributing duties among the younger members instead of adhering strictly to seniority. The IZSF was established in response to this and it is currently the world governing body for all zourkhaneh. In recent years, the sport appears to be gaining popularity in the countries adjacent to Iran, including Iraq and Afghanistan.3
The traditional gymnasium in which varzesh-e bastani is practiced is known as the zurkhaneh (Persian: زورخانه, also spelled zoorkhaneh and zourkhaneh), literally the "house of strength". These gyms are covered structures with a single opening in the ceiling, with a sunken 1m-deep octagonal or circular pit in the center (gaud).4 Around the gaud is a section for the audience, one for the musicians, and one for the athletes. A portrait of Ali is hung on the wall of every zurkhaneh. An aspiring member may be a male from any social class or religion, but they must first spend at least a month watching from the audience before they can join. Traditionally, the zurkhanehs demanded no payment from their athletes, and depended instead on public donations. In return, the zurkhaneh provided community services and protection. One example is the "casting of flowers" ceremony in which athletes held koshti matches and other displays of strength to raise funds for the needy. There are today 500 zurkhaneh in Iran and each has strong ties to their local community. Zurkhanehs have commonly had strong political affiliations, either advocating or denouncing particular governments. This type of sports diplomacy is said to be a natural extension of the patriotic nature of zurkhaneh training dating back to the days when pahlevans served in the king's court.
Bastani rituals mimic the practices and traditions of Sufi orders, as evidenced by terminology like murshed or morshed ("master"), pishkesvat ("leader"), taj ("crown") and faqr ("poverty"). The ethics involved are also similar to Sufi ideals, emphasizing purity of heart. Every session begins with pious praise to the Prophet Muhammed and his family. The morshed dictates the pace by beating a goblet drum (zarb) while reciting Gnostic poems and stories from Persian mythology. As the most important member of the zourkhaneh, the morshed leads prayer sessions and spurs the athletes on with poems in praise of Shi'ite imams and excerpts from the Shahnameh. The singing itself once served as a form of oral education, passing down social knowledge, moral codes and religious teachings to the warriors in training.
The main portion of a varzesh-e bastani session is dedicated to weight training and calisthenics, notably using a pair of wooden clubs (mil), metal shields (sang), and bow-shaped iron weights (kabbadeh or kaman). This is followed by exercises like Sufi whirling and juggling, all of which are intended to build strength. The athletes move in unison to the drum beats of the morshed. Every session ends with bouts of koshti pahlevani.5
Ancient Zoroastrians believed that the development of physical and mental strength could be used to enhance spirituality. Thus, aside from once preparing warriors for battle, this training is supposed to promote kindness and humility through the cultivation of outer strength. Under the supervision of a pishkevat, students are instructed in traditional ethics and chivalry. Participants are expected to be pure, truthful, good-tempered and only then strong in body. Acquiring the rank of pahlevan (hero) requires mastery of the physical skills, observance of religious principles, and passing the moral stages of Gnosticism. The principles of unpretentiousness are exemplified by a verse recited at many meetings: "Learn modesty, if you desire knowledge. A highland would never be irrigated by a river." (Kanz ol-Haghayegh)
The International Zurkhaneh Sport Federation (IZSF) was established on October 10th 2004 to promote varzesh-e pahlevani on a global level. The IZSF aims to regulate and standardize rules for koshti pahlevani and organize international festivals and competitions. In 2010 it started to regulate and organize para-zourkhaneh festivals for disabled athletes. Seventy Two countries are currently members of the IZSF.6
- The 1st Koshti Pahlevani Championship (Tajikistan President Cup, 08–09 September 2005.
- The 1st International Zurkhaneh Sports Festival of the Cities of the World. Mashhad, I.R Iran, 11–16 November 2005.
- The 1st Zurkhaneh Sport Tournament of Asian Universities Students in Shomal University in Amol, I.R Iran, 15th November 2006.
- The 1st Asian Zurkhaneh Sports Festival in Tehran, I.R Iran, 18–24 November 2006.
- The 1st European Zurkhaneh Sports Festival in Saarbrücken, Germany. 26–31 March 2007.
- The 2nd International Zurkhaneh Sports tournament in Kish Island, I.R Iran, 16–20 February 2008.
- The 2nd Asian Zurkhaneh Sports Championship in Kathmandu, Nepal, 22–27 July 2008.
- The 1st Zurkhaneh Sports World Championship, during the 4th Busan TAFISA Sport For All Games, South Korea, 26 Sep – 2 Oct 2008.
- The 1st Zurkhaneh Sports World Cup, Baku, Azerbaijan, 13–17 March 2009.
- The 1st International Zurkhaneh Sports Tournament (Ferdowsi Cup), Dushanbeh, Tajikistan, 12–16 May 2009.
- The 2nd European Zurkhaneh Sports Championship, Frankfurt, Germany, 13–17 December 2009.
- The 1st International Zurkhaneh Sports Tournament (Ferdowsi Cup), Dushanbeh, Tajikistan, 10–13 July 2010.
- The 2nd Zurkhaneh Sports World Cup, Konya, Turkey, 20–25 October 2010.
- The 1st Junior European Zurkhaneh Sports Championship, Minsk, Belarus, 25–29 November 2010.
- The 1st Junior Asian Zurkhaneh Sports Championship (Ferdowsi Cup), Dushanbeh, Tajikistan, 4–7 December 2010.
- The 1st Asian Para Zurkhaneh Sports Championship (Ferdowsi Cup), Dushanbeh, Tajikistan, 8 December 2010.
- The 3rd Asian Zurkhaneh Sports Championship in Dhaka, Bangladesh, September 2012.
- The 3rd European Zurkhaneh Sports Championship, during the TAFISA Sport For All Games, Palanga, Lithuania, July 2012.
- The 4th Asian Zurkhaneh Sports Championship in Kathmandu, Nepal, September 2013.
- official IZSF
- Nekoogar, Farzad (1996). Traditional Iranian Martial Arts (Varzesh-e Pahlavani). pahlvani.com: Menlo Park. Accessed: 2007-02-08
- CHN News (November 25, 2005). Iran's Neighbours to Revive Iran's Varzesh-e Pahlevani. Accessed: 2007-02-08
- Bashiri, Iraj (2003). Zurkhaneh. Accessed: 2007-02-08
- Luijendijk, 2006, Zoor Khane, Ancient Martial Art of Iran, Boulder, US
- IZSF official website.
- Abassi, Mehdi (1984). Tarikh-e Koshtigari dar Iran (The History of Wrestling in Iran). Tehran
- Beizai, Hossein Parto (1967). Tarikh-e Varzesh-e Bastani (Zoorkhaneh). Tehran
- Documentary Video of Zurkhaneh Training
- Google Video on "Zurkhaneh"
- Luijendijk, D.H., 2006, Zoor Khane, Ancient Martial Art of Iran, Boulder, US
- PDF reports on Zurkhaneh.com 
|The Pahlevani and Zoorkhanei Rituals (UNESCO official channel) on YouTube|