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What an ancient Persian martial art form tells us about Iran

ISFAHAN, Iran — This is not the Iran you see on television news.

ISFAHAN, Iran — This is not the Iran you see on television news.

This is another Iran, an ancient side of a modern country in turmoil that is seeing its Persian culture, particularly its passion for the poetry of words and the poetry of motion, slipping away in too many places.

This Iran opens with the sound of the ritual beating of a drum and a burst of rhythmically chanted ancient poetry which announced the entry of a dozen strong men who came to their local Zurkaneh, or strength house, on a recent evening to practice Iran’s mystically infused martial art.

The men, clad in embroidered leather breeches and loose-fitting shirts, bowed their heads to pass through a low doorway as they entered; it is made that way to remind them that humility is central to the Zurkaneh tradition. They skip-stepped into a deep-set octagonal ring, bent to kiss the earth, and began a series of push-ups and breathing exercises. After a few minutes, they stood up and formed a circle around the edge of the ring. One man stepped to the center. He began twirling, ever faster, his eyes bulging as he struggled to keep his balance. When he was finished, he staggered back to his place and a comrade followed.

After each man had twirled, they began a round of juggling with heavy clubs that resemble giant bowling pins. The men at this Zurkaneh ranged from teens to middle age; their clubs weighed 10 to 100 pounds. Intense concentration, physical strength, agility, balance, and years of practice to allow these men to juggle several clubs at a time.

The drummer, called a morshed, presided physically and in spirit over these ritual exercises. His chant was deep and melodic, as befitting the masters whose poetry he was reciting from memory: Rumi, Shams, Hafez, Saadi, and other titans of Persian literature.

“When I pronounce the name of God, all will be good,” he sang. “We reject evil, and hope with our exertions to please the spirits of the right-guided ones.”

This is far more than sport or exercise. It is a bridge back over centuries, a legacy from the days when Persians shook the world. At its core, it is a spiritual practice, comparable in some ways to yoga. It is infused by pre-Islamic traditions, the evocative symbolism of Shiite Islam, and the mystic other-worldliness of Sufism.

This practice reflects the religiously tinged spirituality that is central to the Iranian character, and also the remarkable importance of poetry in Iranian life. Perhaps most intriguingly, it symbolizes the country’s desire to blend old and new. Fewer Iranians come to the Zurkaneh now than in past generations; many see it as a relic from a bygone era, and have moved on to more modern sports. But the fact that it still has a hold on the Iranian consciousness shows how reluctant this nation is to let go of its rich heritage even as it hurtles into the future.

Persian athletes began developing body-building practices several thousand years ago as training for war. These practices are said to have evolved into the Zurkaneh tradition during the Parthian period, around the time of Christ. The hero of Iran’s national epic, the Book of Kings, is a powerful athlete named Rustam who is taken as a noble paragon of this tradition.

There are and have always been Zurkaneh champions in Iran, but never a formal hierarchy. These athletes are not truly competitive. They use their bodies in a shared effort to connect with some higher wisdom or power.

The practice also has practical value, according to the men working out in Isfahan. “When I do it in the morning, I am more focused at work,” said one. “When I do it in the evening, I come home better prepared for my family.”

The lifelong struggle of Zurkaneh athletes is supposed to be against pride and the ego. Their paragon is Imam Ali, a central figure in Shiite iconography who is associated with spirituality, physical strength, and limitless sacrifice. When the morshed in Isfahan, Mostafa Noruzi, was asked what his job entails, he smiled and replied softly, “I am simply a servant.”

Zurkaneh athletes, many of whom are also wrestlers, have traditionally sprung mainly from the lower classes, and have always been associated with nationalism. Mongol and Arab occupiers feared their power and tried to restrict them. A British traveler who visited Isfahan in the 1670s, Sir John Chardin, wrote that even then, they were an important part of local life here.

“Wrestling is the exercise of of people in a lower condition, and generally speaking, only of people who are indigent,” he wrote. “They call the place where they show themselves to wrestle, Zour Kone, that is to say, the House of Force. They have ’em in the houses of their great lords, and especially of the governors of provinces, to exercise their people. Every town besides has companies of these wrestlers for show … They perform their exercises to divert people.”

In 1856, a court physician warned people to stay away from the Zurkaneh because men who congregated there were “dissolute and merry types.” Nonetheless royal patronage kept many houses alive.In the 20th century, though, the tradition began to weaken. Iranians were drawn to Western-style exercise, and to new diversions like cinema. The Zurkaneh was scorned as an unhealthy, smelly place full of uncouth ruffians. Besides, it was said, Zurkaneh exercises are unscientific and do not correctly develop the full body. The rich preferred polo, the middle-class football.

Zurkaneh might have faded away if the Iranian regime had not decided in 1934 to throw a nationwide celebration marking the thousandth birthday of Ferdowsi, the national poet and author of the Book of Kings. Since he is associated with Zurkaneh, many exhibitions were staged. In 1941, Radio Tehran began broadcasting the drumming and chanting of a morshed every morning, so people could practice at home. Zurkaneh programs were opened to women, children and non-Muslims, all of whom had traditionally been forbidden to witness them.

After Iran participated in the 1948 Olympics, the government decided that the path to sports glory lay in steering young athletes toward Olympic events. This led Iran to great success in wrestling and weightlifting, two Olympic sports closely linked to Zurkaneh. By siphoning off promising strongmen, however, it also further weakened the Zurkaneh tradition.

Today, hip young Iranians go to the gym, not the Zurkaneh. They lift weights instead of juggling barbells, and run on treadmills instead of twirling. Not many connect their training to spirituality. On their walls hang posters of action heroes like Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme, not the Zurkahneh masters of past generations.

In remote towns, the Zurkaneh once furnished strong men to keep order. The swiftest of them became royal couriers. But as the modern age dawned over Iran, such men were no longer needed. Some Zurkaneh athletes became thugs-for-hire, or worked as enforcers for protection rackets.

When the CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt arrived in Tehran in 1953, assigned to overthrow Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, he sought help from a powerful Zurkaneh leader called Shaban the Brainless. For a fee, Shaban placed his men at the head of riotous parades that threw Tehran into chaos.

“They started with the Zurkaneh giants, weight lifters who developed their physiques through a series of ancient Iranian exercises which included lifting progressively heavier weights,” one historian wrote of these parades. “The Zurkanehs had built up tremendous shoulders and huge biceps. Shuffling down the street together, they were a frightening spectacle. Two hundred or so of these weight lifters began the day by marching through the bazaar, shouting, ‘Long Live the Shah!’ and dancing and twirling like dervishes … As the throng passed the offices of a pro-Mossadegh newspaper, men smashed the windows and sacked the place.”

The coup against Mossadegh was successful, and after returning to his throne, Mohammad Reza Shah rewarded Shaban with a yellow Cadillac and his own modern Zurkaneh. His athletes performed at public events like celebrations of the Shah’s birthday.

In more recent years, Iran’s religious regime has promoted the Zurkaneh tradition, portraying it as essentially Islamic. Political candidates seeking support from the poor sometimes campaign with famous Zurkaneh athletes.

At the Zurkaneh in Isfahan, athletes worked out for an hour and a half. They finished by lifting and swinging a steel plank to which a chain was attached on both ends. This apparatus, called a kabbada, is a stylized and far heavier version of the bow and arrow ancient Persian warriors used in their far-flung conquests.

One recent study of Zurkaneh concludes that it is has declined because it “could not withstand the influx of materialistic western concepts of sport.” But when poor Iranians seek connection to their rich history, the Zurkaneh is still one place they turn.

“I am a lonely searcher, looking in every house for the beloved,” the morshed chanted as this evening of mind/body exercise ended. “From deep in my chest I chant the name of God, and of Ali also. But Lord, the distance to you is so great that I cry tears of blood.”