Iranian martial art one of world's oldest sports

Traditional Iranian martial arts that combine calisthenics and gymnastics are totally hypnotic to watch. The exercises are performed to the beating of a drum and athletes use instruments such as large wooden clubs and heavy wood panels as weights.

For five days a week, the sound of a goblet drum is heard beating out from this traditional gymnasium. It's a musical accompaniment for a group of men training in Iran's oldest sport: Varzesh Bastani (ancient sport), also known as Varzesh Pahlevani (heroic sport).

The traditional Iranian system of athletics blends gymnastics, calisthenics, martial arts, music, spiritual and resistance training, art and literature.

The sport takes place in a Zoorkhane which translates as "house of strength." It's inscribed under "Pahlevani and Zoorkhanei rituals" by UNESCO, on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010, as one of the world's longest-running forms of such sport.

The ancient sport has been practiced as a means of training warriors for the battlefield since the Achaemenid Empire (550 BC-330 BC) and was systematized as the sport we see today about 700 years ago.

Having warmed up, athletes enter the octagonal pit, called the Gowd, which is sunken around 1 meter into the floor of the Zoorkhane. Stone seats are built around the Gowd for spectators. The roof of the Zoorkhane is high, shaped like a dome and has windows. The walls are decorated with pictures of athletes, holy places, verses and war martyrs.

Athletes must form a circle around a veteran athlete called the Pishkesvat (mentor) or Myandar, they then follow his lead. The training is usually carried out in the evening after the participants have finished their daily work. Each training session lasts from two to four hours depending on the course's intensity.

There are around 1000 Zoorkhanes around the country and officials are planning to double the number within four years.

The beginning of the ritual is marked by the Morshed, or master, beating a goblet drum. The Morshed is the highest rank in the Zoorkhane.

He sits at the most elevated, altar-like spot of the club and sings religious tunes, heroic poems from Persian literature, and verses of Quran or repeats names of Shia Imams to pump up the athletes.

Zoorkhane moves and tools have an exclusive terminology and the instruments used by the athletes symbolize ancient weapons. The three main instruments found in every Zoorkhane are 'Meels' wooden clubs that resemble war maces, ’Kabadeh’, an iron rod with a hand grip on one side connected with chains on its ends which symbolizes bows used in ancient wartimes and 'Sang' or enormous, heavy panels that resemble shields. Sang literally means stone and in the past they would be made of stone. But these days they are mainly made of heavy wood.

Push-ups and spinning are also compulsory rituals of the Zoorkhane. According to some sources, Zoorkhane spinning is aimed at strengthen balance.

In southwestern Tehran, there is one of the oldest Zoorkhane which is about 100 years old. 

"My father was a Zoorkhane keeper and the Zoorkhane pit was my playground when I was little. My soul is so attached to this pit, heroism, sportsmanship, bravery and the humbleness of this sport. My children also followed my path. The same pit here was their playground as well. Now it is handed down to my grandchildren," its owner says. 

(Source: AP)

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