Pahlevani and zoorkhaneh rituals

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Koshti Pahlevani
The pahlevan Mustafa Tousi holding a pair of meels
Also known asKoshti Pahlavāni
Country of originIran/Persia
Famous practitioners
Descendant arts
Olympic sportThrough lineage:
  • Pahlevani wrestling
    • Catch wrestling
      • Freestyle wrestling
Official website
MeaningHeroic wrestling
Pahlevani and Zoorkhanei rituals
Pahlevan Namjoo Zurkhaneh in Azadi Street
RegionAsia and the Pacific
Inscription history
Inscription2010 (4th session)
Pehlevanliq culture: traditional zorkhana games, sports and wrestling
RegionEurope and North America
Inscription history
Inscription2022 (17th session)

Pahlevani and zourkhaneh rituals is the name inscribed by UNESCO for varzesh-e pahlavāni (Persian: آیین پهلوانی و زورخانه‌ای, "heroic sport")[1] or varzesh-e bāstāni (ورزش باستانی; varzeš-e bāstānī, "ancient sport"), a traditional system of athletics and a form of martial arts[2] originally used to train warriors in Iran (Persia)[3][4] Outside Iran, zoorkhanehs can now also be found in Azerbaijan, and Afghanistan, and were introduced into Iraq in the mid-19th century by the Iranian immigrants, where they seem to have existed until the 1980s before disappearing.[5][6][7][8] It combines martial arts, calisthenics, strength training and music. It contains elements of pre-Islamic and post-Islamic culture of Iran (particularly Zoroastrianism and Gnosticism) with the spirituality of Persian Shia Islam and Sufism. Practiced in a domed structure called the zurkhāneh, training sessions consist mainly of ritual gymnastic movements and climax with the core of combat practice, a style of folk wrestling called koshti pahlavāni.[citation needed]

Studio Portrait of Three Persian Wrestlers by Antoin Sevruguin, c. 1890


Training push-ups

Traditional Iranian wrestling (koshti) dates back to ancient Persia and was said to have been practiced by Rustam, Iranian hero of the Shahnameh epic. grappling for combat was considered the particular specialty of the zourkhāneh. The original purpose of these institutions was to train men as warriors and instill them with a sense of national pride in anticipation for the coming battles.[9] The zourkhaneh system of training is what is now known as varzesh-e bastani, and its particular form of wrestling was called koshti pahlevani, after the Parthian word pahlevan meaning hero.[citation needed]

Following the spread of Shia Islam, and particularly after the development of Sufism in the eighth century, varzesh-e pahlavani absorbed philosophical and spiritual components from it.[citation needed]

Varzesh-e bastani was particularly popular in the 19th century, during the reign of the Qajar king Nāser al-Din Shāh Qājār (1848–1896). Every 21 March on Nowruz (the Iranian new year), competitions would be held in the shah's court, and the shah himself would present the champion with an armlet (bazoo-band). The sport declined following the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty in the 1920s and the subsequent modernisation campaigns of Reza Shah, who saw the sport as a relic of Qajarite ritual. Reza Shah's son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi took a different approach, emphasizing Iran's ancient Persian roots as an alternative to the heavily Islam-based identity of less developed nations in the Middle East. He attempted to revive the tradition and practiced it himself, and during his reign, the last national competitions were held.[citation needed]

Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 the tradition lost some of its popularity as the new regime discouraged anything tied to pre-Islamic paganism, which included the Gnostic chants and rituals of the zourkhāneh. This did not last, however, as the Islamic Republic eventually promoted varzesh-e bastani as a symbol of Iranian pride and culture.[citation needed]

The matter of attracting younger members has been a major discourse for some time. Suggestions have included making practice more upbeat and distributing duties among the younger members instead of adhering strictly to seniority. The IZSF was established in response to this and it is currently the world governing body for all zourkhāneh. In recent years, the sport appears to be gaining popularity in the countries adjacent to Iran, including Iraq and Afghanistan.[10][need quotation to verify]

One of the Baku's Inner City's entertainment areas was the Zorkhana. Baku's Zorkhana located just a few steps from the Bukhari and Multani caravanserais, towards the Maiden's Tower dates back to at least the 15th century. There were contests accompanied by a trio of musicians who performed traditional Eastern instruments like the kamancha, zurna and naghara. Most of these melodies have long since been forgotten. However, one by the name of "Jangi" (War) is still performed prior to the opening of Azerbaijani national wrestling competitions (Gulash).[11]

The zurkhāneh[edit]

A Ramadan performance in Jamaran Zoorkhaneh of Tehran, 2013

The traditional gymnasium in which varzesh-e bastani is practiced is known as the zurkhaneh (Persian: زورخانه, also spelled zoorkhāneh and zourkhāneh), literally the "house of strength". These gyms have a very specific and unique architecture and are covered structures with a single opening in the ceiling, with a sunken 1m-deep octagonal or circular pit in the center (gaud).[12] Around the gaud is a section for the audience, one for the musicians, and one for the athletes.[citation needed]

Rituals and practice[edit]

a shield of zoorkhaneh

Bastani rituals mimic the practices and traditions of Sufi orders, as evidenced by terminology like murshed or morshed ("master"), pishkesvat ("leader"), tāj ("crown") and faqr ("pride"). The ethics involved are also similar to Sufi ideals, emphasizing purity of heart. Every session begins with pious praise to the Prophet Muhammed and his family. The morshed dictates the pace by beating a goblet drum (zarb) while reciting Gnostic poems and stories from Persian mythology.[citation needed]

The main portion of a varzesh-e bāstāni session is dedicated to weight training and calisthenics, notably using a pair of wooden clubs (mil), metal shields (sang), and bow-shaped iron weights (kabbādeh or kamān).[citation needed]

Ancient Zoroastrians believed that the development of physical and mental strength could be used to enhance spirituality. Thus, aside from once preparing warriors for battle, this training is supposed to promote kindness and humility through the cultivation of outer strength. Under the supervision of a pishkesvat, students are instructed in traditional ethics and chivalry. Participants are expected to be pure, truthful, good-tempered and only then strong in body. Acquiring the rank of pahlevan (hero) requires mastery of the physical skills, observance of religious principles, and passing the moral stages of Gnosticism. The principles of unpretentiousness are exemplified by a verse recited at many meetings: "Learn modesty, if you desire knowledge. A highland would never be irrigated by a river." (Kanz ol-Haghayegh)[citation needed]

International Zurkhāneh Sport Federation[edit]

The International Zurkhāneh Sport Federation (IZSF) was established on October 10, 2004, to promote varzesh-e pahlavāni on a global level. The IZSF aims to regulate and standardize rules for koshti pahlevani and organize international festivals and competitions. In 2010 it started to regulate and organize para-zourkhāneh festivals for disabled athletes. Seventy-two countries are currently members of the IZSF.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ official IZSF
  2. ^ "Martial art | Definition, History, Types, & Facts". 9 April 2024.
  3. ^ "Pahlevani and zoorkhaneh rituals" at Encyclopædia Iranica
  4. ^ "Pahlevani and Zoorkhanei rituals".
  5. ^ "Pahlevani and zoorkhaneh rituals" at Encyclopædia Iranica
  6. ^ Shay, Anthony; Sellers-Young, Barbara (2005). Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism, and Harem Fantasy. Mazda Publishers. ISBN 978-1-56859-183-4. the zurkhaneh exercises of Iran, Afghanistan, and Azerbaijan
  7. ^ Afghanistan, Foreign Policy & Government Guide. International Business Publications, USA. 2000. ISBN 978-0-7397-3700-2. UNIVERSAL SPORTS PLAYED IN AFGHANISTAN Wrestling (Palwani)
  8. ^ Elias, Josie; Ali, Sharifah Enayat (2013-08-01). Afghanistan: Third Edition. Cavendish Square Publishing, LLC. ISBN 978-1-60870-872-7. Wrestling, or Pahlwani (pahl-wah-NEE), is popular with men all over the country.
  9. ^ Nekoogar, Farzad (1996). Traditional Iranian Martial Arts (Varzesh-e Pahlavani). Menlo Park. Accessed: 2007-02-08
  10. ^ CHN News (November 25, 2005). Iran's Neighbours to Revive Iran's Varzesh-e Pahlevani Archived 2012-04-24 at the Wayback Machine. Accessed: 2007-02-08
  11. ^ Baku's Old City. Memories of How it Used to Be by Farid Alakbarli // Azerbaijan International. Autumn 2002 (10.3). Pages 38–43.
  12. ^ Bashiri, Iraj (2003). Zurkhaneh. Accessed: 2007-02-08
  13. ^ IZSF official website.

Further information[edit]

External links[edit]

External videos
video icon The Pahlevani and Zoorkhanei Rituals (UNESCO official channel) on YouTube