When he saddled his stallion for some nocturnal adventure the moon eclipsed out of jealously for he rent the air like some supernatural winged being. One day, taking his bow, he shot an arrow right into the fifth story of heaven and the whole universe trembled.”
In perpetuating the traditions of their fathers the knights were a great help to the victims of Mongolian cruelty and extortions. In spite of this severe oppression, the knights rebelled at Khorasan and set up the Sarbedarian dynasty.
Shah Ismael of whom we have already spoken, was an undisputed master of physical exercises and practiced all the arts of “Zoorkhaneh”. Moreover, everyone knew his wit, and his sincerity was beyond doubt. Owing to his personality, his adhesion to the “Ayyari” and to the principals of “Pahlavan” were unquestioned. In the collection of poems which he wrote, in Turkish “Azeri” dialect, he enthusiastically defended the “Ayyari” and the virtues it demands and practices.
The ideal of the athlete was to attain the title “Jahan Pahlavan” – champion of the world. All those who have been elevated to this glory in the Iranian history, the veterans and the modern heroes of “Zoorkhaneh”, are so many symbols of athletic virtuosity joined to ethical fulfilment.
The schools of “Shater”, the runners Mercury or Hermes of the King of kings of Iran, inspired the institution of “Zourkhaneh” as much did the principles of the “Ayyari” or the “Pahlavan”. Through all times the profession of the “Shater”, new bringer, was highly regarded. The geography of the country and the often very narrow passes between the steep mountains, favored the winged heels of running, rather than mounted messengers. The adolescents who had the necessary talents to become “Shater” were trained by senior master messengers who also belonged to the “Ayyar” associations and who formed their pupils into war hardened knights. The apprenticeship of the messengers was crowded by a ceremony solemnized by the presence of the Shah.
Tavernier and Chardin, who travelled in Persia in the 17th century left us abundant descriptions of these majestic occasions. The “Shater” disappeared from Iran less than half a century ago. They would accompany the caravans of traders and pilgrims and solitary travelers and protect them against the dangers of the highways – brigands and ambushes. Very much aware of the cunning of brigands, but protected by a code of chivalrous honor, the messengers would risk their lives to save people in danger. They have of course, been replaced by modern methods of security but nevertheless hold great prestige in memory.
Thus in certain villages, during performances of shiist mysteries relating the tragic end of the Alidians who died for their faith in the burning desert, one would see two men dressed like messengers of the Safavid era (17th centur). They mimed the acts of bravery which the “Shater” would most certainly have performed to save the descendants of the prophet from disaster.
The instruments and accessories used at the “Zoorkhaneh” are: “mil” or wooden clubs which look like maces; the “kabadeh” which is reminiscent of the supple training bow and the “senj” – a wooden “door” calling to mind the defence shield. This imitation arsenal prepared the men for the handling of real weapons and at the same time developed their muscles and endurance.
The “Zoorkhaneh” confirms its long history as a former school of war, by the shape of the building which houses the gymnasium. Former “Zoorkhaneh” were in every respect identical to those inexistence today. The resemblance between the dome which crowns them and the domes of the monasteries of Dervishes is not accidental.
The interior fittings of the gymnasium recall the conference rooms of the shiists: there as well as here, there is an arena dominated by a pulpit. The election of the preachers of the shiist Pantheism with its mystical character, took place in the “Zoorkhaneh”. During difficult periods of foreign domination the evocation of Alidian names punctuating the exercises of the athletes, where so many cries of hope for a better future, for adherence to shiism, was one of the features of the Iranian personality. Ancient sport, presented with the customs of chivalry and nobility, always narrowly observed the principles of religion and placed a halo of devotion over the descendants of the prophet.
The rostrum at the entrance of the “Zoorkhaneh” where the “morshed” sits, rhythmically accompanying the gymnastics with drum beats “tabl” and bells “zang” and punctuating the stages of the exercises with couplets or prayers, is a replica of the pulpits that were built in the hermitages of Dervishes and tea houses, to commemorate the shiist sorrow, or during the fasting month of Ramadan. A well known orator stood up on this podium and facing the attendants, sang psalms in his honor of the great periods of shiism. The pulpit appeared in the first Islamic “Zoorkhaneh” and it is from here that the rhythm of the gymnastic movements as we know it today, was given by the “morshed”.
During Safavids, with the spread of shiism all over Iran, preachers increased and the oratory pulpit became an integral part of the life of the Iranians. Living their religion it was unthinkable for them to do physical exercises without giving them devotional meaning. Materially strengthened by the presence of the pulpit their devotion was illustrated by strict obedience to the shiist principles observed by the athletes, equally influenced by the rules of the mystic shiist way. Thus the life of the gymnasts exists in the observance of the puritan principles of Islam which thrashes out easy pleasures and “Arrangements with heaven”. The pit “gowd” of the Zoorkhaneh where the exercises take place is covered with a thick layer of stamped down earth.
Here are to be seen in practice, maxims professed by a Dervish sect of Khorasan, the “Khaksar”, who lived in complete humility, sleeping on the bare soil so as not to forget the humble origins of mankind and the fragile folly of glory.
Therefore, during their exercises the “Pahlavan” touch the earth of the arena with their bare feet and backs to sauge the worthlessness of a body made of clay and which will return to dust.
The ‘morshed’ who leads the games in the pit with his exclamation and the percussion of his musical instruments is the equivalent of ‘ghotb morad’, ‘sheykh’, or ‘vali’, all these designating the master of a sect. the mystic way is characterized by successive stages ranging from searching to destruction in divine love. The devotees of this ancient sport passed through these stages and knew a long apprenticeship. It was only after severe trials that they were recognized masters in their skill and attained ‘kamal’ perfection. When the disciple of, the ‘Zoorkhaneh’, also known as ‘salek’ – he who follows – arrives at the gymnasium as a novice, during his apprenticeship he is guided by an experienced man who takes trouble in initiating him into the secrets of harmony of body and balance of mind.
The duration of this first stage varies for each aspirant. At the end of this period the follower will be compensated for his efforts and will become a ‘no-khasteh’ – “adolescent”- and will already be held in some regard among the athletes. By persevering in his efforts to obtain self -mastery and by assimilating the techniques of the Zoorkhaneh the young man may be elevated to the status of ‘khod-sakhteh’ – he who made himself and who, having started from nothing was now considered among valiant and generous men. Sometimes he is also called “salavati” – he who deserves praise, for his entrance is henchforth greeted by the roll of drums followed by an ovation which the “morshed” asks from those present.
They will exclaim in his honour: “May divine mercy spread over Mohammad and all his descendants!” The accomplished knight, a model of strength and courage is the “pishkesvat”. He is able to perform feats of athletic prowess and is at the same time governed by restraint and wisdom. He is the “pahlavan” par excellence, he who teaches the novices and who guides the youths. The arrival of the “pishkesvat” is announced by a beating of drums after the “morshed” asks those present to manifest their respect for the hero by chanting the sacred formula:
“May divine mercy spread over Mohammad and all his descendants!” Afterwards the “morshed” addresses the “pishkesvat” as “bearer of the bells” and “bearer of the drums. These titles are superior signs of respect which sanction the position of distinction of the “pishkesvat”. He is the one who shapes his life according to the shia principles and the rules of chivalry. In time of war, the “pishkesvat” owes it to himself to be unconquerable and never to be thrown on the ground by his title and the honor bestowed on him.