Jump to content

Old rituals course through Iranian zurkhaneh


Recommended Posts


The Iranian zurkhaneh, or "house of strength," is more than an octagonal pit where men exercise, box and wrestle, practicing varzesh-e bastani or "ancient sport". It's a communal ritual space where men have come to refine their physical and moral character since pre-Islamic times. Though the zurkhaneh hosted competitions with professional wrestlers, it also served to educate amateur athletes in tenets of Sufi-oriented purity. Now, the houses of power are undergoing a resurgence. Al Jazeera's Imran Khan reports from Tehran.




Link to comment
Share on other sites


Devlin Nestor Daneshforouz

Jan 26, 2018

16 min read



House of Strength: The History and Traditions of The Zurkhaneh



House of Strength: The History, Traditions, and Rituals of the Zurkhaneh

Varzesh Bastani, meaning ‘ancient sport’ or Varzesh Pahlavani, meaning ‘the sport of heroes’ is a traditional Iranian system of athletics. Originally used to train warriors, Varzesh-e Bastani combines martial arts, calisthenics, strength training, spirituality, ethics, devotion, literature, art, and music. It fuses elements of pre-Islamic Persian culture (Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, and Gnosticism) with the spirituality and code of ethics of Shia Islam and Sufism. Varzesh-e Bastani is practiced in a dome structure called the ‘Zurkhaneh’ which, when translated into English, means house of strength.

The roots of Zurkhaneh stretch back to the time of Ferdowsi’s “The Shahnameh”, or more commonly known as “The Book of Kings.” The history of Varzesh-e Bastani can best be described by dividing its heritage into four major epochs: The Mystical Era, the Parthian Era, the Islamic Era and the Contemporary Era.

The Mystical Era is a period starting from 1065 BC and is described at length in The Shahnameh. The stories illustrate various mythical heroes of this era, including the holy warrior, Rostam, and his son, Sohrab. Many of the battles waged within the Shahnameh were tests of strength, whose winners were determined in hand-to-hand combat.



The Parthian Era is a period from 238bc-224ad, in which the Aryan Parthian expelled the Greeks from Iran forever. The Parthians were known for their bravery and during this period Mithraism reached its peak, and many of the Varzesh-e Pahlvani rituals resemble those of the Mithraism. It is also reported that the word pahlavan comes from this era.

The Islamic Era is a period from 650 AD -1450 AD and marks the rise of Islam in Iran. This period is largely known to have replaced or supplemented the devotion to physical strength of the Parthian era with spirituality and the philosophical values of Islam.

The Contemporary Era is a period starting in the 19th century and continues to the present. It is during the reign of Naser-e- din Shah of Qajar (1848–1896) that Varzesh-e Pahlavani reached its peak. During this period many Zurkhanehs were built in Tehran and throughout Iran. It is also during this period that Iran began awarding the official title of ‘Pahlavan of Iran’ to the winner of an annual wrestling competition conducted in front of the Shah on March 21st of each year. The winner would also receive the Pahlavani armlet from the Shah.



An aspiring member of a Zurkhaneh could be a male from any social class or religion. Before they were given an opportunity to join and enter the pit, they must spend a month watching from the audience. There are both private and state sponsored Zurkhanehs, although even the private Zurkhanehs do not require payment from their athletes. Instead, they depend on public donations.

In return for sponsorship from the state and private citizens, the Zurkhaneh provided community services and protection, and in the past the Zurkhanehs would function as the city’s police corps. As an unofficial grassroots police force, the Zurkhanehs have commonly had strong political affiliations. And because there was rarely consensus amongst the various Zurkhanehs on politics, one Zurkhaneh was often used against others by the political elite. Notably, during the time of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the CIA and pro shah-figures employed the help of the Iranian strongman and practitioner of Varzesh-e Bastani, Shaban Jafari, who played an instrumental role in overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in the 1953 Iranian coup d’etat.



There were also Zurkhanehs and Pahlavans that supported Mohammed Mossadegh and the National Front of Iran.Gholamreza Takhti was one of the pahlavans who supported Mossadegh. Pictures of Takhti, whose nickname was Jahan Pahlevan, meaning “the world Champion” for his chivalrous behavior and sportsmanship, continue to be readily displayed in contemporary Iranian Zurkhanehs and is commonly considered a national hero to many Iranians today.

The actions taken by strongmen, like Jafari, led the public to view these men as ignorant and rowdy, and have left a cloud of suspicion over the Zurkhanehs.These strongmen would come to be seen as benefiting and suffering from both positive and negative traits respectively. While they continued to cultivate admirable qualities like chivalry, selfishness and defense of the weak, they were also commonly seen as men whom could be easily deceived, extorted and having a manner of high-handedness.

The Zurkhanehs went through a particularly difficult stretch during the Iran-Iraq war. Many athletes left their Zurkhanehs in order to fight in the war, taking the traditions of the Zurkhaneh with them to the battlefield.Unfortunately many of the athletes died in the war and as a result, many Zurkhanehs were left without a majority of their members, consequently forcing them to close their doors. The athletes who lost their lives in the Iran-Iraq war obtained the title of martyr for their heroic sacrifice, and many Zurkhanehs were renamed after them. Such was the case with the famous ‘Shaban Jafari’ Zurkhaneh in Tehran, later changed again to the ‘Hossein Fahmideh’ Zurkhane. The Fahmideh Zurkhane was named after a 13-year-old boy who took a grenade and jumped underneath an Iraqi tank, killing himself and disabling the tank.

Architecture of the Zurkhaneh





The building of the Zurkhaneh has an architectural style distinctive to their sport. The entrance door of the Zurkhaneh is designed lower than standard doors, forcing those who enter the sacred structure to bow humbly. Similar to a mosque, the roof of the Zurkhaneh is high and dome-shaped, and the ‘gowd’ (octagon-shaped pit underneath the dome) is built 27 inches lower than the hall’s floor.



The most important structural characteristic of the Zurkhane is the matching of the center point of the gowd with the exact center of the dome. This alignment of the ‘gowd’ and the dome allows for the structure to spiral upward directly from the center, and accentuates various features, including music, which reverberates throughout the structure.

Inside the Zurkhaneh

گود Gowd



The ‘gowd’ is the circular pit in which the athletes workout, and is viewed as a sacred place. Consequently, athletes who are not pure in accordance to Islamic law are strictly forbidden from entering.

The pit sits lower than the floor (27inches lower) and represents humility and modesty. This reminds the athlete that they are always at the feet of those they love. Upon entering the gowd, the athletes must first kiss the ground signifying that we are from the earth, and that one-day we will return to it. To prevent injury to athletes, the whole of the gowd is covered with stretchable rubber

There is also a philosophy to how the athletes are positioned when they are exercising inside of the gowd. Based on seniority, the newest athletes are positioned opposite of the ‘sardam,’(the alter where the morshed leads the ceremony).This positioning of members is important because it allows the beginners to pay attention to the directions of the ‘morshed (leader of the zurkhaneh),’ and benefit from the their guidance. As the athletes become more senior, they move to either the left or the right of the gowd until the position beneath the sardam is reached. When positioned under the sardam, the athlete is considered a veteran and that they are no longer in need of instructions from the morshed.

مرشد Morshed


Morshed means leader, captain, and guide of his Zurkhaneh community. He leads the Zurkhaneh ceremony and sings epic poems and moral poems, which provide good advice for the athletes in the gowd. These poems and their message are meant to strengthen the athletes’ souls. The morshed must know the art of pahlavan wrestling and be well versed in the traditions and history of the sport.

The morshed’s duties are not confined to just the zurkhaneh. The morshed must be conversant with religious and social issues outside of the zurkhane as well and be expected to be well versed enough to answer any question asked of him.

If it is apparent that the morshed’s leadership is failing or in some way faulty, then he cannot continue holding the title of morshed.

Another tradition involves a situation where an athlete can ask permission to complete a task or conduct themselves in some manner by raising his arms and saying “rukhsat”. This term roughly translations to ‘permission’ while in the zurkhaneh. If the morshed grants the athlete permission he will simply reply “rukhsat from God,” meaning the athlete has permission to do or say what he wishes, while the response ‘forsat’ is used to decline the request.

سردم Sardam



The Sardam is a sacred and respected place where the Morshed performs the rituals of the zurkhaneh. The Sardam is traditionally decorated with the feathers’ of peacocks and doves, representing the warriors and commanders who commonly used these feathers on their helmets. It is from this platform that the morshed leads the exercises with rhythmic drumming and chanting of poetry. In front of the moshed, slightly higher than eye-level, is a ‘zang’ (bell) and below at his feet there is a portable heater. The bell is meant to inform the audience of the arrival of prominent guests. The portable heater is used to heat the drum of the morshed, known as the ‘zarb.’ The zarb is an ancient war drum made of clay with a broad opening covered with thin, tanned skin.



Islamic symbolism in the Zurkhaneh

Much of the philosophy, ethics and poetry present in the Zurkhaneh are linked to those of Shia Islam. When the Shias were an oppressed minority their paladins gathered in hidden basements to practice their sport. Their mission was to achieve great athleticism and redeem the rights of the helpless and the poor from their oppressors.



Imam Ali plays an important role in the Zurkhaneh. Not only is he viewed as the world’s first “real man,” he was also the world’s first “Pahelvan” and noble hero. He embodies what every practitioner hopes to become, and his stories and sacrifices guide the athletes. Ali is viewed as the Imam and guide to the Zurkhaneh, as well as the guardian of God. He is also viewed as the authority in the Muslim community, albeit after the prophet and his image hangs in every Zurkhaneh inside of Iran.



Praying is one of the oldest ceremonies of zurkhaneh which is done at the end of exercise, the prays have continued to exist with the same social aspects and opinions and the least change.

Sufism and the Zurkhaneh

The Varzesh-e Bastani rituals mimic the rituals and traditions of Sufi orders, as evidenced by like-terminology used by both groups, including morshed “master” (beating the drum and reciting poetry), pish kesvat “leader”, taj “crown” and faqr “poverty”. The ethics involved are also similar to Sufi ideals, which emphasize purity of heart.

Other Images

Beside the images of Imam Ali it is also common to find the walls of the Zurkhaneh covered with photos of previous pahlavans who were members of the club.



Rank of the Athletes

Nowcheh is the lowest rank. This is an individual who is being trained by a designated champion.

Nowkhasteh is the next highest rank. This is a nowcheh who has made a substantial degree of progress under the designated champion.

There are several champion grades:

Pahlavan’e Pahlavanan is a court-sponsored sportsmen. This person is also responsible for organizing the schedule for the exercises.

Pahlavan’e Zoorgar is the title given to a master wrestler or strong men.

Pahlavn’e Keshvar, meaning champion of the country is given to many Iranian wrestlers at world or Olympic competition

Pahlavan’e Bozorg is the equivalent to the Grand Master in Far-East Asian martial arts. This title was only given to a few pahlavans, such as Pourya Vali (c. 1300) and Haj Seyyed Hasan Razaz (1853–1941).

Jahan Pahlevan is the highest rank of Pahlavani in the Iranian army before the Arab invasion. This was the title given to Rostam, the legendary Pahlevan of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. The contemporary Gholam Reza Takhti (pictured below) is another Pahlevan who was given this title.




Javanmardi provides the Zurkhane with its code of honor, organizational principles, and rites of initiation. These ethics are similar to Sufi ideals, emphasizing purity of the heart. All Zurkhaneh athletes are expected to put themselves at the service of others. They are also taught that building physical strength does not give them permission to become a bully. Instead, the athlete must be guided by humility and generosity. Imam Ali is viewed as the first javan mard (gentleman) and stories of his chivalrous behavior also guides the athletes.



The Athletes also have a responsibility to the community. These responsibilities would include charity for poor widows and their families, as well as other charitable giving within the community. These donations are normally facilitated by The Zurkhaneh, using contributions collected from wealthy families within the community.

Similar to a fraternity, The Zurkhaneh is are a brotherhood of men who look after each other and have an obligation to make sure each member is true to the fundamental rules of the Zurkhaneh, which begins and ends with staying pure.



Athletic Attire



All athletes wear similar attire. The athletes wear either a loincloth or a tight pair of short pants made from a durable material. The pants are usually decorated with embroidery. Their similar attire signifies equality among the athletes. Regardless of a person’s status outside of the Zurkhaneh, inside everyone is viewed as an equal.

Music, Poetry, and Rhythm

Music is an important aspect of the Zurkhaneh workout. It reminds the practitioner about religion and ethics. It is also believed to provide its own energy to the practitioner’s body.

There are two genres of poetry used in the Zurkhaneh. The first one is contemporary poetry. This is poetry that can be composed by the morshed or a poet and are usually about a specific event such as the death of a pahlavan. The second genre is considered ancient poetry. These poems can be from The Shahnameh or from other ancient Persian poets. On sad occasions, such as the death of a member, the morshed will sing songs commemorating Imam Ali’s martyrdom in the month of Ramadan or the martyrdom of Imam Hossein. They will also always draw from ancient Iranian musical modes to commemorate their martyred leaders.

The musical mode used in the Zurkhaneh is called Homayun. Homayun is an expressive and eloquent mode that the morshed spends countless time mastering.


Varzesh-e Bastani or Varzesh-e Pahlavani

All the disciplines that ancient Iranians practiced on the battlefield are present in the Zurkhaneh.The symbolic movements represent the art of war. They are martial exercises that mimic the bow and arrow, maces, and wrestling. These disciplines were brought together and were gradually stylized into a symbolic form. The movements were ordered and disposed in sequence. This sequence is linked to philosophy, and every moment has a specific meaning.

میل Meel: The swinging of the clubs

The meels symbolize ancient war maces and would be used in ancient wartime by warriors to prepare themselves for the battlefield.

During this exercise an athlete will stand in the center of the gowd and lead the exercise. This athlete is known as the ‘myander,’ meaning owner of the center. The other athletes must repeat everything the myander does. The myander and morshed must work together in order for the rhythm of the workout to stay on key.



Meels come in different sizes and weight. The light meels weigh between 10 and15 lbs. These meels are used to improve stamina and lifted in sets of 100s. The lighter meels are also used for acrobatic stunts.



The heavy meels are used for building the practitioner’s strength. The weight of heavy meels can range from 25lbs to 60lbs each and can be as tall as four feet.

کباده Kabadeh: the bow and chain

The ‘kabadeh’ is inspired from the former war bows and, in fact, resembles it. It is a rod of iron, widened in the center to form a hand grip, and connected to a chain, generally with 16 links, each containing six discs. The string of links is attached to an iron rod, which is the grip.

The bow is gripped with both hands, kissed as a sign of respect, then raised above the head at arms length and balanced to the rhythm of the drum and shaken in all directions.



The athletes shake the bow while turning on the spot. Then they pass the chain around their neck and, while completely letting go of the bow, turn once again dragging along the bow that descends in this turning movement, from the shoulders down to the hips. Then the turner picks up speed and bends down in such a way that when the bow reaches his ankle, he jumps over it by throwing himself sideways.

The bows can weigh from 22 to 110lbs the most experienced athletes work with the heavy bows while they novices use lighter ones.

سنگ Sang: the lifting of the stones

As mentioned earlier, every exercise in this sport has a specific meaning and reason. This workout received the name ‘sang’ (meaning ‘stone’ in Persian) because in ancient times this workout was conducted using actual stones. Later, the stones were replaced for the wooden panels you see in the picture.The purpose of this workout is to simulate the holding of a shield. In ancient war hand-to-hand combat warriors used to hold up a shield to protect their body and face. The panels represent those shields.

It is also said by some Iranians that the stones also have Islamic symbolism. Those who believe this concept say that the sang is related to the pilgrimage to Mecca. When Muslims go on their pilgrimage to Mecca they throw stones against the devil after having returned from walking seven times around the Ka’ba. The stones are being casted against a person’s own ego, also considered to be the devil that lives within use. It is our ego that is punished.



The sang consist of two pieces of large boards in the form of a heelpiece of an old shoe, which is square in upper part and curved at the end. At the middle of each Sang there is a hole and a handle on two sides of which a piece of carpet is pasted to prevent the scratching of athletes hands. Sang has no specified weight and it depends the size and taste of the ordering person.

شنا Shena: Push-ups

The push-up board represents the sword the ancient warriors would use on the battlefield. Right before the push-ups a lyrical poem is sung. This poem is often of a religious or moral subject.

The athletes put the push-up board before themselves and put their hand on it. Following their Myandar they do some exercises holding their heads up.

The push-up board is a legged board of 70 cm length and 8 cm width; its legs are 5 cm high keeping it above the floor. Push-up board is not one of the main equipment of Zurkhaneh since it is possible to put the hands on earth and perform the four exercises without it.


چرخ Charkh and ‍پازدن Pazadan

Charkh and Pazadan is the portion of the ceremony in which the athletes take turn whirling and stomping there feet. The purpose of the whirling in ancient times was to prepare an athlete to take on multiple attackers with their sword and build up the strength of their feet. The stomping was used to practice kicks

Koshti Pahelvani

Every session ends with bouts of Koshti Pahelvan, which is a form of free style wrestling.


Wrestling used to be practiced in the gowd. However, this is practiced less commonly due to the high risk of injury.

The future of Zurkhaneh

Today there are about 500 zurkhanehs throughout Iran. Some are privately funded while others are owned by the ministry of cultural heritage. Since the revolution Iran has begun to codify the rules of the sport. They have also created a federation that is in charge spreading the traditions of the Zurkhaneh throughout the world. Iran has sponsored the building of Zurkhanehs in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Australia. In 2008, Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handcrafts and Tourism Organization registered Varzesh-e Bastani on its National Heritage List as Iran’s ninth national spiritual heritage. In the same year the 1st World Zurkhaneh Sport Championship was help in Busa, South Korea

However, even with the success the Zurkhaneh has had spreading to different regions of the world the Zurkhanehs and its traditions are becoming less popular with younger generations in Iran.


“International Zurkhaneh Sports Federation IZSF | International Zorkhaneh Sports Federation.” International Zurkhaneh Sports Federation IZSF | International Zorkhaneh Sports Federation. Web. 13 Dec. 2014. <http://www.izsf.net/en/home&gt;.

Ridgeon, Lloyd V. J. Morals and Mysticism in Persian Sufism: A History of Sufi-futuwwat in Iran. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Zurkhaneh. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. <http://www.zurkhaneh.com.au/&gt;.

Zurkhaneh: The House of Strength. University of Alberta, 2010. DVD

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You are posting as a guest. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...