When I was visiting Iran, there were loads of things that I wanted to try to get to see. I mean loads. Far more than I could have hoped to actually get to see in reality. What can I say? It’s the triumph of hope over expectation but I do think that it’s better to try and fail than not to try at all.
Anyway, one of the many things on the neverending list was to visit a zurkhaneh.
A zurkhaneh is a small gymnasium, also called a House of Strength. They have an octagonal pit in the middle in which a form of ritualized exercise called varzesh-e bastani is practiced. The exercises involve stretching, running, spinning, lifting iron bow-shaped weights called kabbadeh or kaman and swinging and tossing heavy wooden clubs called meels.
At the start of the session, prayers are offered up and songs are sung. The exercises are carried out to the beat of drums, the chime of bells, and chanting. I couldn’t understand the words but I’m told that these are uplifting and morally fortifying chants and sayings. There does seem to be a strong ritual element to this, alongside the social, physical and cultural aspects. The practice has actually been inscribed by UNESCO on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The meels are actually really heavy. A couple of the smaller ones were passed around for us to feel the weight and they’re even heavier than they look, so the men lifting and swinging these, and making it look easy, are really strong.
The club that we visited in Esfahan is just a small neighbourhood club but they’ve started letting visitors (including women) come along to watch part of the session and experience a little of this practice. I understand that it’s pretty popular in Iran and there was certainly a mix of ages present in this club, including this little boy (below), who had clearly been practicing hard because he was very good at it and knew all the moves*.
Some of the men who practice in the zurkhaneh go on to compete in the Iranian wrestling called Pahlevani and the images of the club’s champions are proudly displayed in the zurkhaneh. The older gentleman taking part when we were visiting (below, second from the right, in the long trousers) is an ex-champion. He’s in his 70s and can’t do everything any more, although he’s still in pretty good shape, but he was shown every due deference by all the other members of the club.
Our Iranian guide, Mohsen, also joined in, which I think was pretty brave of him. He has done this before but not for a couple of years. He was aching a bit the next day, and I’m not surprised.
I made a couple of little film clips which you can see on Youtube:
*The little boy didn’t stay in the main exercise space during the full session, as that would have been a bit unsafe for him. He was copying the exercises at the side.