YAZD | Before the Islamic Republic, before Islam in Iran, there was Varzesh-e-Bastani, the literal translation of which is “ancient sport”. This ancient Persian wrestling in on UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and is an aspect of Persian culture that survives to this day, a source of national pride. Varzesh-e-Bastani is a curious thing for a westerner to see as there’s no real equivalent to it in the western world. There’s the most obvious similarities to wrestling, but there are also similarities to martial arts, gymnastics, callisthenics and even yoga. Oh and there’s also those giant ancient weapons.
Unlike western wrestling, which is combat focused, Varzesh-e-Bastani is concerned with the promotion of inner and outer strength, with practitioners embodying traits such as kindness and humility, and being seen as protectors of the community. Various elements of Persian history including Zooastrianism, Mithraism, Islam and Sufism have influenced the development of Varzesh-e-Bastani over the centuries and today, practitioners from any social strata or religious background can be found.
Students are instructed in ethical and chivalrous values under the supervision of a Pīshkesvat (champion) and those who master the art may acquire the rank of Pahlevanī (hero), which provides them with a certain rank and authority in the community. From the beginning to the end, the important link with the community is continually emphasised.
Varzesh-e-Bastani takes place in a domed building called a Zoorkhane (“home of strength”), with an octagonal sunken arena and spectator seats surrounding the arena.
There are around 500 Zoorkhanes in Iran today, and the Saheb A Zaman Club in Yazd is one of these. The club is located inside an old ab anbar (water reservoir) dating back to around 1580.
The Saheb A Zaman Club is open to foreign visitors (both men and women) and the full ceremony which lasts about 1 hour can be witnessed. It begins with the Morshed (master) leading the Pahlevani ritual, performing epic and Gnostic poems and beating out time on a zarb (goblet drum). The poems convey ethical and social teachings and constitute part of Zoorkhanei literature.
At times, it’s almost as if the participants are dancing. During the solo portions of the ceremony, a range of rituals are performed using wooden clubs (mil), metal shields (sang), and bow-shaped iron weights (kabbadeh or kaman). Sufi whirling and juggling also perform part of the ceremony. The athletes movements are in sync with the drum beats of the morshed.
The ceremony climaxes with the core of combat practice, a form of submission-grappling called koshti pahlevani and then it’s over, the participants clear the arena, and spectators leave, and the Zoorkhane is set up for the next ceremony. A unique insight into a fascinating piece of Persian culture, and well worth experiencing.