“Truly, you have the first place.”
“No, really, I am dust in the face of your merits.”
“I affirmed before God, you are master of us all.”
The two “pishkesvat” exchanging these words of respect can however, both claim the position of “miandar” – the leader of the game who stands in the middle of the pit where the athletes form a circle around him. The most subtle courtesy rules the tradtions and the relationships between the gymnasts and reflects the conventional forms of ceremonious behavior highly considered in Iran. The juniors of the “Zoorkhaneh” bow before their elders and their elders before the veteran who will lead the way and be the first to jump into the pit, and kiss its soil as a sign of humility and in answer to the ovations which, mingling with the sounds of the instruments, hailed his entrance. His companions imitate his actions.
The veteran “pahlavan” stands in the middle of the arena facing the podium where the “morshed” sits. The “pishkesvat”, second in the gymnasium hierarchy, stands beneath the “morshed” ‘s pulpit. The descendants of the prophet, the “saadat” stand facing the podium, irrespective of their athletic status. Very young men are not seen in this pit. In fact, a young boy who has not yet reached puberty may not be trained in the ancient athletics. Until some years ago, beards were still more or less generally worn in Iran and the appearance of the “flowers of the chin and moustache” was a sign of the end of adolescence. Nowadays candidates must undergo serious examinations with regard to their physical development, before being admitted to the “Zoorkhaneh.”
The hierarchy in the “Zoorkhaneh” is based on the seniority and the accomplishment of an athlete. The veteran could well be, as in the “Dervish” brotherhood, an artisan or a worker who commands the respect and obedience of athletes for whose training he is responsible, even though these athletes may occupy important positions in their public or private capacity. It is not exceptional to see a minister or ambassador humbly come to serve the master who, in civilian life, is on the other end of the social scale. During these almost ritual exercises of the “Zoorkhaneh”, one does not eat, smoke, or listen to jokes.
Calling to one another or shouting and undisciplined words or gestures are prohibited. Order and solemnity are vigorously imposed.
Another well established custom is that of “golrizan” – sending flowers to sanction some chosen event: a wrestling match between two champions, the strengthening of friendship bonds between two athletes or the renewing of allegiance of a youth to an elder. Sometimes flowers are offered to the affronted by the offender. All praises destined for the athletes as encouragement or admiration are given in the following forms:
“May the Lord bless Mohammad and his descendants!”
“Sam, Nariman, Sohrab, Zal and Rostam!”
(legendary heroes of the “Book of Kings”)
“Ali, possessor of Zolfaghar!” (the name of Ali’s supernatural sword whose blade ended in two tapered tongues).
After having set out the principles on which the “Zoor Khaneh” is based and stating the main points in its history, we now propose to describe a “Zoor Khaneh” performance as we can see today in all the Iranian provinces. The enactment of the ancient performance respects the rules codified 150 years ago by two “pahlavan” s who, after travelling through the country collecting information on traditions faithfully kept by the population, established the laws of the pit – sanctified by the mystic and religious content and glorious national resistance in the face of foreign invasions, filling the muscular feats and performances with a very special significance.
At the Zoorkhaneh
The gymnasia where the ancient sports (varzesh-e bastani) are practiced, are generally situated in the heart of bazaars at the end of narrow, winding alleys – reminding one of the time when the Persians had to practice in the “Zoorkhaneh” secretly, since it was prohibited by the oppressors. A subterranean passage often linked the arenas to some or other mosque, sanctuary or tomb. At Tehran the sports club of Melli Bank, although constructed to traditional requirements, was built in gardens. The interior is entirely covered with facetted mirrors. Frescos inspired by the “Shahnameh” (Book of Kings) sing the praises of the athletes’ efforts, interspersing, on certain panels, the mirror decoration minutely stuck onto a layer of white plaster.
It stands one meter above the floor of the “Zoorkhaneh”, surrounded by a balustrade made of pilasters and small columns and surmounted with a bar of yellow copper forming a hand rail, the platform is constantly perfumed by grains of wild rue which burn in an incense burner with charcoal. Apart from its prophylactic property and beneficial virtues this “herb of grace” warms the hide of the drum, standing near it, which stretches and thus makes deep and profound sounds.
Just like the athletes in the pit the “morshed” wears the prescribed clothing of the Persian gymnasium: knee-breeches, “shalvar”, either in leather or embroidered material decorated with ornaments. The pattern of his trousers evolved historically from the soft leather garments worn by the messengers. The “shalvar” is tightened behind the legs with straps and buckles and forms a knee piece in front. The rest of the body is naked as a sign of valour and daring – reminiscent of the fearless, war-hardened knights who were always ready to fight without worrying about contingencies. The “morshed” sits on his right leg which is folded under him while his left leg is free to support the drum resting against his thigh. Above the “morshed” ‘s head, but within reach of his hand hangs a copper bell at the end of a string of two hemi-spherical bells which fit together and are topped with a plume of peacock feathers.
The Order of the Exercises
The athletes stand in a circle in the pit with the game leader the “meydandar” in the middle. In their hands they hold a wooden plank the “takhteh shenow”, seventy five centimeters long, eight centimeters wide and two centimeters thick, mounted onto two little feet each six centimeters high. This plank called “swimming plank” is the stay of fighters who, lying on the ground of the arena, imitate the ebb and flow of the waves by making undulating movements up and down and left and right. This exercise has four distinct phases “shenow-e korsi”. Face down, the legs stretched out as much as possible and arms open, the athletes, gripping the ends of their planks, raise themselves in imitation of the movement of wave the upper portion of the body before the lower while murmuring:
“O Lord assist us!” with all the strength of their muscles they raise torsos to form a right angle with the ground. “O Lord assist us!” they repeat. And they bring their bodies back to the initial position to recommence their contraction which the “miandar” counts for every one of them, while chanting all the time:
“Ali, Ali, O Lord assist us!”
All repeat this cry together at every contraction of the torso as it is raised and lowered against the plank. The counts of the movements which are said out aloud by the instructor, are interspersed with pious and encouraging words: “four forty…Oh Ali…..six forty…..” and so on, up to two hundred.
The movements slow down and the “morshed”, who has remained silent during this first part of the exercise, beats on his drum and begins reciting epic couplets to indicate the rhythm of the second phase of the work with the plank: “shenow-e korsi ba zarb”. These contractions, similar to the previous ones, are now accompanied by rolls of the drum and the pause are punctuated by the declamation of hemistches from the “Book of Kings:” (Shahnameh):
“Do not do as Goshtasp……..(roll of drums)……said…..(roll)…..for he did not follow……(roll)…..the way of wisdom (roll)…that, with his whole heart,….(roll)….that is why he ordered Esfandiar confront Rostam.”
Then the athletes begin the third part called “shenow do shalaghe”. With their legs stretched out and hands gripping the plank, the gymnasts lift their bodies, now towards the left then towards the right and every time touching the plank with the tip of either shoulder. The narrator – musician feverishly beats the drum to quicken the rhythm of the movement and continues to chant the lines of the “Book of Kings”. He recites:
“Go and tie Rostam’s hands….
And Rostam: “The universe itself cannot do it….
“If the Creator were to line up his stars……
“If from each one an army were to emerge….
“With my heavy club I would reduce them to dust…..
“And strew the particles to the four winds.”
The last part of the exercise “shenow-e pich” resumes the contractions carried out in the second movement. But this time the feet are together. The drum still beats out its deep rhythm. Now the “morshed” counts. When he says “one” the whole upper part of the body from the shoulder to the waist, supports itself on the plank, the left arm forms an angle of ten degrees with it. When he says “two” the athletes contract the right side as in the second movement, the right arm at an angle of sixty degrees. Then the “meydandar” gets up indicating the end of the “shenow”. The “morshed” confirms the accomplishment of these different exercises by ringing a bell. The gymnasts get up and put away their planks under the podium. The veteran thanks the narrator musician by saying aloud: “A thousand thanks to the morshed! May his hand and his arm never tire.”
The number of ‘Shenow’ contractions can reach a thousand but it is a record which only the older, trained men can attain.
Within the same time-span the others may accomplish a third of the movements or, as a sign of respect for their elders’ achievements, they move only their heads without lifting the torso. This ‘swimming’ with the plank is good for the development of all the muscles but also has the value of a prayer. Sometimes the exercise is punctuated with litanies recited by the athlete who is in the center – the ‘meyadandar’ having declined this part – and the athletes hail the names of the saints mentioned one after another with the exclamation:
Man is dust and will return to dust” , that is why he must also humble himself in the dust before his creator and beg his blessing, offering him the gift of his harmoniously developed body and of his soul. This is the philosophy of ‘shenow’ “muscles hard as bronze and humbleness of heart.”