Iran’s ancient Zoorkhaneh rituals allow visitors the chance to step back in time, and step into the arena of the warriors of old.
Rhythmic, precise, timeless, Iran’s Varzesh- e Zoorkhaneh rituals are among the most fascinating of the country’s cultural legacies. A traditional training regime for Persian warriors that combines martial arts, calisthenics, strength training and music, Zoorkhaneh dates back to 550BC and the Achaemenid Empire. Fusing elements of pre-Islamic culture with both a strong physical and ethical ethos, and detailed in Persian writer Ferdowsi’s classic tome Shahnameh or The Book of Kings, the UNESCO-recognised Zoorkhaneh rituals have been preserved as a gem in Iran’s rich cultural tapestry.
Varzesh- e Zoorkhaneh continues to be performed across Iran, almost always in a traditional domed arena called a Zoorkhane. Considered a sacred space, and translating literally as ‘a place of strength’, these unique venues allow antiquity and modernity to co-exist – watch your head as you enter, as many Zoorkhanes maintain the traditional low-slung entrance ways, a way to teach the pahlevan or ‘wrestlers’ modesty and respect as they bow as they enter. Within the Zoorkhane lies the Gowd, a recessed octagonal space where men follow choreographed movements to the haunting melody of traditional Persian music, played by a Morshed, who plays a drum-like tonbak and recites ancient versus from the Shahnameh, in which the mythological character Rustam practises koshti, or traditional wrestling.
In the movements of Zoorkhaneh, you’ll find elements of koshti (which is said to have contributed to Iran’s success in the Olympic wrestling ring), as well as strength exercises using weights in the shape of clubs, shields and bows. However, at the heart of this ancient practice is honour, compassion, community and wisdom rather than aggression, making it as much a national sport and a fascinating tradition to watch as it is a philosophy.
Experience the captivating movements of Zoorkhaneh next time you visit Iran.