The traditional gymnasium of Iran, Zoorkhaneh, which is an academy of physical training, a school of strength and endurance, a nursery for warriors, has through the centuries, acted as conserver of moral, ethical and mystical values. A young man would learn the art of and prepare himself for battle. There he would not only handle a whole exercise of arsenal imitation weapons but also learn heroic tales and legends about exploits of Iranians attacked by nomadic tribes who roamed the steppes of Central Asia. There, in the Zoorkhaneh, the praise of Shiism was sung and the most beautiful poems of the Iranian mythology were recited. Today, Zoorkhaneh still attracts numerous enthusiasts.
The gymnasts who go there belong to all classes of society. They come to these brotherhoods to discover the limit of their physical strength and themselves to tests of remarkable difficulty while at the same time finding the very roots of their personalities through poetic declamation, punctuated by the roll of drums and by communal acts of worship.
Movement and action condition life, passivity and immobility surrender man to murderous physically as well as mentally. From the beginning of history, the daily actions of the hunt, the necessity of defense and even attack, obliged our ancestors to practice physical exercise in continuous and vital manner. The organized life in the city marked a new stage. Prosperity and peace were constantly threatened.
In order to defend themselves against acts of brigandage or raids the citizens but fortifications to protect themselves and their possessions against the hordes driven forth by misery and hunger. But a stronghold without defenders who allowed themselves to soften through the deceptive facility of protected existence, did not take long to experience the uselessness of arms when the muscles are slack. That is how the gymnastic exercises with accessories and instruments were created in order to train the young to excel – competition went with this and battle was imposed as a criterion of physical strength.
In Iran a whole arsenal of objects, copied from the warrior, made its appearance in the true school of fighting, Zoorkhaneh where strength and endurance were jointly cultivated, thus an ideal type of warrior emerged, the “Pahlavan”: gallant and courageous, strong and skillful, helpful, upright and unperturbed by the blows of fate. To him, lying and cheating were odious and was unanimously adored by all.
Gymnastics and chivalry developed together in Persia and had a considerable political and social importance. Thanks to these men with firm hearts and muscles hard as bronze, the country maintained its hegemony during constant onslaughts of invaders. Xenophon, who travelled in Persia under Darius the King of Kings of the Achaemenid dynasty (250-486 BC), noted with surprise that gymnastics were universally practiced by all young men who trained in the military art from the age of 16. We will illustrate the bonds that time created between chivalry and athletics with examples from epic poems which reflect the grandure of the people at a certain time in their history. Rostam of the Persians, Achilles of the Greeks, Siegried of the Germans, and Roland of the French are all true portraits of national heroes.
After two centuries of Arab domination Ferdowsi in Shah Nameh, Book of Kings, notes the rise of Persian literature in which a “national renaissance” is discernable. He gathered together legends and history of ancient Persia in 50,000 couplets – a fresco tracing the origins of the world until the end of Sasanian epoch (224-631). Rostam, the marvelous yet human hero of this Aryan epic, continues to live in the imagination and hearts of the Iranians.
Through Ferdowsi we know that the Sasanian “Ardeshir” made a law extending the practice of Zoorkhaneh and the arts of “Pahlavan” to all his subjects: “Conscious of military power, he sent messengers to the farthest corners of the country so that no father would allow his son to grow up without skill. He should know how to sit in a saddle and wage war, handle the club and the bow and arrow.
Child, in applying yourself to these activities you will be protected from all weakness. Then you will come before the Shah with your body as hard as bronze, you will decorate his place and his throne. When war comes you will leave the palace with the “Pahlavan””.
Boxing was highly appreciated by the Iranians. Courageous men entered in lists and began their jousts with their prowess in handling the club, archery and sword fighting. If the two combatants remained equal during these first fights, wrestling was finally restored to, to determine victory. Commanding chiefs of the armies and the generals of the highest repute periodically put their rank and titles to test by taking part in these tournaments. Ferdowsi enjoys describing single combats which take up more space in his account than do the battles involving groups of a hundred men or more.
“Two valiant knights each grasping his lance, the one resembling a dragon, the other a lion.”
Descriptions that are sometimes very detailed, sometimes tragically short, allow us to assist at a performance. Hand to hand combats, “koshti”, were always highly regarded in Persia. Even the mythical kings and others after them, did not hesitate to risk the fate of their countries in single combat.
In closed circles the boxing victories reinforced the soldiers’ confidence in their chiefs and especially when the imperial knighthood was bestowed upon them, their prestige was increased. These words were then recited: “Therefore thy mayest enter the glorious company of thy peers. Thou has given proof of thy infallible valour”.
In “Avesta”, Zoroaster raises strength and combat to the level of heavenly virtues: “we are the friends of the Lord Ahouramazda, let us unite our power in the struggle against the demon Ahriman, to conquer evil and expel it from our lands”.
Without any doubt, the school of strength and courage is greatly responsible for the resistance and survival of the Iranian nation which has been able to keep its independent personality in spite of some short periods of Greek, Arab and Mongol domination, whereas so many other ancient civilizations have disappeared: Egypt of Pharaohs, Babylon and the Greece of Pericles...Read more