Persian Zurkhaneh

The zurkhaneh, which translates to “house of strength,” was an institution for ritualistic mental and physical training in ancient Persia. Its original purpose was for military development, and as such the rituals held within these institutions were associated with great national pride. While its predecessor, the chartaa pit, was likely used only for grappling, the zurkhaneh rituals featured calisthenics and weight training in addition to grappling.

While zurkhaneh do exist today, the rituals that take place inside, as well as the teachings behind them, have been altered heavily since the inception of these institutions. They were heavily altered throughout the Islamic conquest of Persia beginning the 8th century AD, pushing these institutions away from Zoroastrianism to Islam. As such, prayers to Muhammed and Islamic hymns were incorporated into the rituals, and other changes to the customs and movements themselves likely took place.

Zoroastrianism held that mental and physical development would improve spiritual health, and thus the original zurkhaneh rituals centered around these ideas. Balance was expected in all areas of life, including physical and nutritional discipline (though the latter was likely fairly easy due to the fairly high quality of Persian nutrition). Participants were expected to embrace positive characteristics such as humility, truthfulness, and kindness before physical training could have its full effect, and only after completing all of these steps would their spirituality improve.


Origins and History

The zurkhaneh itself has origins in ancient Persian military training pits called chartaa, dating back to the first millennium BC. Over the ensuing centuries, chartaa training sessions migrated from outdoor pits to specialized indoor institutions. During this period, training shifted from what was likely only grappling for military combat purposes to a more ritualistic training routine that culminated with grappling. Arab oppression during the 7th century AD forced practitioners to meet in secret, coincidentally heightening the impression of sanctity within an already hallowed institution.


Athletic Usage

It is difficult to determine the original training rituals used in these institutions since many changes took place within them after the Islamic conquest of Persia. As such, the physical training used in modern zurkhaneh is summarized below.

The participants engage in a variety of bodyweight exercises and forms of weightlifting. They begin with set of movements ranging from dynamic and ballistic stretches to general muscle group warm ups, all performed in time with rhythmic music. Some of these exercises involve bouncing and other movements that have the appearance of dancing, exaggerated by the presence of music.

Following this, participants lift large wooden clubs called mil, moving them in turn behind the back and over the shoulder. Other weightlifting movements involve throwing these clubs in the air, bench pressing large metal shields (sang), and waving overhead weighted metal bows with jingling chains attached (kabbadeh).


Layout

Fashioned in the style of its ancestor the chartaa pit, the training area of the zurkhaneh was historically a circular or octagonal pit sunk 2 or 3 feet into the ground. This pit was housed in a building or enclosure with areas off to the side for spectators. It is possible that the ancient zurkhaneh had a section for a drum player like their modern counterparts, though they would not have been used for Islamic hymns.

Bibliography

Lorentz, J. H. (2010). The A to Z of Iran. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Loveday, H. (1999). Iran. Hong Kong: Odyssey Publications.

Burke, A., & Elliott, M. (2008). Iran. Footscray, Vic.: Lonely Planet.

History of the Zurkhaneh and the story of Hossein e Golzar Kermanshahi [Video file]. Reuploaded Persian documentary with English subtitles.