“Shoes off,” came the whisper as we crept up the steps of a non-descript building. I would never have found the place alone but once inside the circular building took on a spirit of its own. This was a House of Strength or Zurkhaneh and to enter was to go deeper into a unique aspect of Iranian culture.
The Zurkhaneh goes back centuries to the fall of the Persian Empire. With the rise of Islam warriors were not allowed to exercise and train outdoors. Instead clandestine training sessions were established in private homes. These developed further into the dome shaped buildings used today.
The House of Strength has a strict hierarchy with the Murshed as boss. He leads the prayers and drumming, and is the boss. Participants must ask his permission before entering the arena to train. The pahlavan-i-pahlavanan is the leader of the champions and organises the exercise routine. A pahlavan is a tested champion whilst the Nowreh is the novice athlete learning the tricks of the trade.
The Murshed began drumming and chanting a rich deep voiced prayer, calling the men to the arena. Each exercise begins with prayers and poetry to the Prophet.In particular these are dedicated to Imam Ali and Imam Hussain who were martyred at Karbala. The chants echoed round the domed building making it very atmospheric.
The exercises began with a running warm up in the arena and progressed to callisthenics at pace. This was a downward facing dog type move but done at speed and in rapid succession. With no sign of exhaustion the men moved to the exercises with the Indian clubs or mil. These weigh up to 25kg each and were effortlessly tossed and swung into the air to the beat of the Murshed. Miraculously no one was hit by these wooden clubs but the pace was impressive. Moving to the next exercise the men used metal shields decorated with the saints and huge chains. The exercising built to a climax with the heaviest of equipment being used to train but their was more to come. As a finale the Murshed leaped from his platform and juggled with the massive clubs as a display of strength to his team and to the wide eyed overseas visitor.
This is one of the oldest traditions in Iran and it was an honour to be allowed to sit and watch the display. No one spoke a word of English but their smiles had made me welcome.