In the House of Strength
A uniquely Iranian institution is the Zoor Khane (zoorkhane), or, House of Strength. This is a place where various kinds of exercises are performed, including body weight pushups on a plank and whirling dervish spinning (about 10x faster than you see the Mevelevi Sufis doing it), heavy club swinging, light club throwing, heavy shield lifting (similar to a bench press), and the pressing and swinging of a heavy iron bow over head. These are all derivative of military training dating back thousands of years over the rich Persian history. All are done to the accompaniment of a drummer who bangs out a loud, rhythmic beat along with verses from Persia’s beautiful poets and wisemen—Hafez, Saadi, Firdowsi, and others.
I had been longing to visit and participate in the zoorkhane for years now. Some of the exercises have entered American wrestling (not *professional wrestling* mind you) and other combat sports—especially through the “Hindu” pushups and squats of Matt Furey and the Clubbells of Scott Sonnon. Sadly, during my first two visits to the zoorkhane here in Qom I learned that the traditional form of wrestling, or Koshti Pahlevani is basically extinct in Iran, even though the Varzesh-e Pahlevani, or traditional exercises of the zoorkhane are still practiced.
In any case, the men of the zoorkhane welcomed me warmly and after watching one session last week I did my first exercise session today. Beginners train in a room off to the side of the main section of the zoorkhane itself, which is where the more experienced members gather to perform the exercises together, in unison. After getting my first taste of training I was much better able to appreciate the efforts going on in the training pit.
Most amazing is that many of the participants are older men, at least in their 50’s and several, including the main teacher appear to be in their 60’s. Yet they are in there chucking around the clubs, jumping and spinning in the air, and dropping into and out of the pushup position from standing! There’s something to be said for staying active.
These older men also epitomize the essence of the zoorkhane—humility, strength, courage, and guidance. Far from the pumped, mirror-ogling types in bodybuilding gyms, or the other cocky, self-centered professional athletes of football (both kinds), basketball, and so on, the men of the zoorkhane cultivate their morals and ethics along with their bodies. When people know you are a pahlevan or “strongman” it is also assumed you are just and righteous and they will come to you for help, mediation, protection, or whatever else they need. It’s no surprise then that the pahlevans have a long tradition of generosity and help for the poor.
No real pictures to post yet, but hopefully some will come in the near future. In the meantime, you can look at the gravestone of a pahlevan that I stumbled across in Tehran during the ceremony for the passing of Dr. Elahi’s uncle. Clearly visible are the two clubs, iron bow, and pushup plank.
You can read more about the sport here: http://www.pahlavani.com/