magi-of-persia

Calling Iranians “Descendants of the Magi” is Actually a Compliment

The article below by Shireen T. Hunter entitled Calling Iranians “Descendants of the Magi” is Actually a Compliment” originally appeared in the LobeLog on September 14, 2016.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen T. Hunter is a Research Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Her latest publication is God On Our Side: Religion, Foreign Policy and International Affairs (Rowman & Littlefield, December 2016).

Kindly note that excepting one picture, all of the accompanying images and their descriptions that appear in the below posting did not appear in the original posting in the LobeLog.

Readers may also be interested in the article “Pan-Arabism’s Legacy of Confrontation with Iran”; the article has undergone several revisions on Kavehfarrokh.com with the latest on July 4, 2016. An academic version of this article (in Persian) was first published in 2004:

More recently, a second and newer academic article on pan-Arabism by Kaveh Farrokh has also been published in the Palgrave-macmillan Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism in 2015:

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Recently, the chief mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, said that Iranians are Majus. This is the Arab name for Iran’s Zoroastrians, who were the majority of the people at the time of the Arab invasion of Persia in the 7th century AD. The mufti was implying by this statement that Iranians are not Muslims.

This belief is neither new nor limited to the Saudis or the Wahhabis. However, as far as I can recall, no significant Muslim religious leader had openly called them non-Muslims, although some secular leaders had done so before. For example, during the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein regularly referred to the Iranians as Majus, and even worse, as insects that should be sprayed with pesticides. Indeed, he did just that by using chemical weapons against them.

Saddam in his Office

The late Saddam Hussein (1937-2006) in his office in the last days of the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam’s hatred of Iranians endured right up to his last moments – as he shouted “down with the Persians” during his execution on December 30, 2006 (see December 31, 2006 BBC Report “Saddam Hussein’s last moments”  and New York Times report, December 31, 2006). For more see Pan-Arabism’s legacy of Confrontation with Iran

This widely held Arab belief that Iranians are not real Muslims is based on the premise that they never fully converted to Islam. Instead, they developed Shi’ism, which is allegedly nothing more than their old religion with a thin guise of Islam. Moreover, Arabs believe that the Iranians did so in order to subvert and undermine their true and pure Islam. In a Cairo bookshop near Al-Azhar several years ago, I saw a book for sale entitled Shia Conspiracy Against Islam. Since then, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others, along with religious figures such as the Egypt-born resident of Qatar Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, have sponsored many more books on Shi’ism’s threat to Islam and Iran’s plans to convert Sunnis to Shi’ism.

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Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi

Some highly educated and otherwise reasonable and tolerant people also subscribe to this view. Once at a meeting in Cairo, long before the current upsurge in Sunni-Shia disputes, a very enlightened and tolerant Egyptian colleague, in response to a comment of mine about the dangers of sectarianism in the Muslim world, said: “Yes, you are right. We have a big problem and that is the conflict between the Muslims and the Shias.” He thus betrayed an ingrained attitude toward Shias.

The idea of Shi’ism as an Iranian creation has, of course, no historical validity. The split that occurred within the Muslim community of Arabia immediately after the Prophet Muhammad’s demise and that eventually led to the Sunni-Shi’a divide, was a purely Arab phenomenon. At the time, Arab/Islamic armies had not yet conquered Iran. Later, some Iranians might have seen in the Shi’a split from Sunnism a reflection of some of their ancient values and rites. But they certainly did not invent Shi’ism. The first impetus for the Iranian embrace of the House of Ali came after the Arab invasion and the policy of ethnic discrimination practiced by Iran’s new Arab rulers, beginning with the first Caliph Omar, despite Islam’s claim to the racial and ethnic equality of all Muslims. The Abbasids even perpetuated this practice, although Persian Muslims had contributed considerably to their victory over the Umayyad dynasty.

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The late King Khalid ibn Abd al Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia (1975-1982) who called on the late Saddam Hussein to “crush the stupid Persians”. 

If Iranians are non-Muslims then Islam’s edict that Muslims should not fight other Muslims does not apply to them. Therefore, you can kill Shi’a Iranians just like any other infidel without any twinge of conscience. In the current atmosphere of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, spreading the view of Iranians as non-Muslims has considerable political ramifications. For example, it can help the Saudis enlist other Muslims in their fight, both overt and covert, against Iran. Already, groups such as the Taliban, the Islamic State, and al-Qaeda have internalized this Saudi view and view the Iranians as infidels.

Bin Laden-Followers in Pakistan

The late Osama bin Laden (1957-2011) (left) and his supporters in Pakistan (right) who continue to regard him as a hero. Before his ouster from Afghanistan, Bin Laden had turned the country into his own anti-Persian mini-Caliphate. Among his draconian Persophobic laws were bans on the use of the Persian language, Persianate musical instruments and the Nowruz (Iranian New Year). His mentors in Pakistan and India have gone so far as to insist that the Iranian word for Goodbye or “Khoda-Hafez” now be re-defined as “Allah-Hafez”. Bin Laden’s’ followers in Pakistan often shout “Death to Iran” during their regular anti-Western rallies.

The Real Gift of the Magi

The Saudi mufti’s undignified outburst is understandable given these latent prejudices as well as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s criticism of Saudi handling of the Haj. More surprising is that Iranians are offended at being called “Majus.” Majus means disciples of the Magi (Mogh), which means Zoroastrian (or pre-Zoroastrian) priest. These same Magi, of whose wisdom Plato spoke highly, brought gifts to the Christ child.

The School of Athens by Raphael 1509- Zoroaster left, with star-studded globe

A detail of the painting “School of Athens” by Raphael 1509 CE (Source: Zoroastrian Astrology Blogspot). Raphael has provided his artistic impression of Zoroaster (with beard-holding a celestial sphere) conversing with Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE) (with his back to viewer) and holding a sphere of the earth. Note that contrary to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm, the “East” represented by Zoroaster, is in dialogue with the “West”, represented by Ptolemy.  Prior to the rise of Eurocentricism in the 19th century (especially after the 1850s), ancient Persia was viewed positively by the Europeans. For more see Ken R. Vincent: Zoroaster-the First Universalist

In fact, Zoroastrianism is the first of the world’s monotheistic religions, although it is often seen as dualistic because it recognizes the existence of an evil force (Ahriman) that fights the good God (Ahura Mazda). But, as in the Old Testament, the good God ultimately triumphs. Zoroastrianism has a sophisticated cosmology and is the foundation of many principles that are part of the Abrahamic religions, including the abstract concepts of heaven, hell, a bridge of judgment, a cosmic denouement at the end of the world, and the coming of a messiah, or Mahdi (Saoyeshant) in Zoroastrianism.

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The three magi, from an illuminated manuscript in Farnborough Abbey (Source: Lobe Log).

In fact, Zoroastrianism offers the first dialectic rather than circular understanding of human history and destiny. The conflict between two opposing forces leads to a final denouement rather than perpetual reincarnations or the soul’s absorption into a vast center of energy. It’s ironic that Westerners, with their emphasis on the battle between good and evil on display during the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, do not recognize its source. Zoroastrianism recognizes free will and enjoins good thoughts, good works, and good words. It is a positive religion and emphasizes the role that the individual should play in the ultimate victory of good over evil. Also a happy religion, its festivals outnumber its mourning ceremonies.

Under the Sassanids, Zoroastrian Iran developed what the Danish historian, Arthur Christensen, has called “a magnificent edifice.” Although not on a par with Greece or Rome, it had its centers of learning, including the famed university of Jundi Shapur, today’s Ahwaz, where many Christian and Greek scientists came when Byzantium’s policies discouraged learning. The sixth-century Sassanid King Khosrow Anoushirvan had a reputation for modeling himself after Plato’s philosopher king, a reputation that enticed some Greek philosophers to go to his court. Although he did not live up to their expectations, they were surprised that he was familiar with Greek philosophy and the ideas of Plato and Aristotle. Sassanid Iran had a flourishing culture of art, painting, sculpture, and music. In short, the children of the Magi had not done so badly for themselves.

Ctesiphon-Top View-kavehfarrokhCom

Remains of the Archway of Khosrow (of the ancient Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon– see also Sassanian Architecture and Castles-کاخ‌های ساسانیان– and Ctesiphon-تيسفون–), located just forty kilometers from Baghdad in Iraq. The term “Baghdad” is old Persian for “Bestowed by God” or “Godiva”.

By the time of the Arab invasion in 642, Iran’s Zoroastrianism had lost some of these positive aspects. It had become more fatalistic, partly because of the influence of Babylonian creeds, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Asceticism had replaced its more active spirit. Imperial overstretch had weakened the Sassanid Empire, thus making it easier for the Arabs to defeat it.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Despite their defeat, the Iranians largely formed and shaped what has come to be known as Islamic Civilization. For 300 years, Muslims used the Sassanian tax and other archives for their own administrative purposes. Sassanian administration, court etiquette, and governing methods became the model for the Islamic Caliphates and later Turkic rulers from the Seljuks to the Ottomans. Most post-Islamic books on politics, such as Siyastnameh of Khajeh Nezam ul Molk—the vezir of the Seljuk king, Malekshah—and later books were modeled after the book of Ardeshir Babekan, the founder of the Sassanid Empire, called Karnameh Ardeshir Babekan. Many Persians, such as the Barmaki family, actually ran the chancelleries of the Abbasid caliphs and later those of Turkic rulers.

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A statue of Arabo-Islamic historian, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) in Tunisia. Ibn Khaldun emphasized the crucial role of the Iranians in promoting learning, sciences, arts, architecture, and medicine in Islamic civilization.  It was pan-Arabists such as Sami Shawkat () who insisted that history books such as those by Ibn Khaldun be destroyed or re-written to remove all references of Iranian contributions to Islamic civilization. The former Baathist regime in Iraq promoted such policies and even worked alongside numerous lobbies to promote historical revisionism at the international level.

The Baghdad Dar Ul Hikma was modeled after the Sassanid Khaneh e Danesh (both mean houses of knowledge). Its art forms, which later were much diminished by Islamic restrictions on painting, sculpture, and music, shaped Islamic art from Mesopotamia to Andalusia to Mogul India. As noted by Professor Roman Girshman, the real inheritor of Sassanid art was Islam, which took that art with it everywhere it went. Professor Ada Bozeman has called this influence Iran’s conquest of Islam. Sibveyh, a Persian, wrote the first Arabic grammar, and the Iranians, together with Christians, translated Greek works into Arabic. Even the Persian One Thousand and One Nights (Hezar Afsaneh) became the Arabian Nights. In short, while not perfect, Iran’s pre-Islamic civilization could more than hold its own with other existing civilizations, including that of Byzantium.

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German painter Ferdinand Keller’s (1842-1922) 1880 painting of Sheherzade (Shahrzad) and Shahyar.

It’s not surprising for the Saudi mufti, out of political expediency, to call Iranians Majus. What is sad is that present-day Iranians should see this appellation as an insult. But then Iran’s Islamists have been waging a campaign against the country’s indigenous culture for at least 60 years. Since their victory in the 1979 revolution, they have worked relentlessly to erase all vestiges of Iran’s indigenous culture and to subsume it under a state-sponsored, politicized, and ideologized form of Islam that is totally alien to Iran’s traditional Shia Islam, which is closely intertwined with Iran’s early civilization.

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Persian Shamshirs in the State Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg in 2014 by Dr. Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani

Next to Iranian museums the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg has one of the most beautiful collections of Persian shamshirs in their collection. The following article below by Dr. Manouchehr M. Khorasani (see also his article on the subject in Academia.edu) shows some of these magnificent pieces:

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A 19th century ritual sword (šamšir-e mostāqim: straight sword)  from Iran (Source: M. Khorasani Consulting). It was acquired in 1931 and was formerly held in the collection of Count Sergey Sheremekev’s collection.

A magnificent Persian shamshir with a Safavid period blade and Qajar-period fittings. the State Hermitage Museum provides the following description:

Steel, gold, leather, precios stones, enamel, forging, casting, chasing, carving. Iran, First half of the 19th century. Acquired in 1885-1886 from the Armoury of Tsarskoye Selo“.

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The bolčāq ﺒﻠﭽﺎﻖ (crossguard) of the shamsir is made of gold and inserted with diamonds and precious stones as well as the kolāhak (pommel cap).  The handle slabs are made of ivory. The book Lexicon of Arms and Armor from Iran: A Study of Symbols and Terminology, Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani (2010) provides the following information on the term bolčāq ﺒﻠﭽﺎﻖ:

bolčāq ﺒﻠﭽﺎﻖ: (Haft Darviš) (n) handguard, crossguard of a sword; the term bolčāq is also used in the manuscript on futuvvat called “Haft Darviš” (seven dervish) which was probably written in naskh and is undated (Afshari & Madayeni, 1381:123).  Afshari and Madayeni (1381:123-4) attribute this book to the 11th or 12th century (17 or 18 A.D.) as it belonged to the library of Etezadol Saltane (the minister of science and mines) in 1296 hegira (1876 A.D.).  Afshari and Madayeni (1381:184) quote from this manuscript which says that one day a butcher who was a jawanmard went to Ali, kissed his hand and asked for help saying that his kārd became blunt very quickly.  Ali touched the bolčāq of his Zulfagar (the famous legendary sword attributed to Ali), rubbing it so long that a kardmal (a knife sharpener) was created.  Afshari and Madayeni (1381:184) further explain that bolčāq is originally a Turkic term describing the handguard which separates the qabze (handle) from the sword’s blade, tiqe-ye šamšir.

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The magnificent Persian crucible Damascus steel blade as the pattern of Kirk nardeban (forty steps/rungs) in the western literature.  Persian manuscripts call this patttern pulād-e jŏhardār-e qerq nardebān : (New Persian) (n + adj + adj + n) watered steel with ladder pattern; a type of crucible steel with ladder pattern; known as forty ladder rungs (Romanowsky,1967b/1346:78).  Note that pulād ﭘﻮﻻﺩ (n) means “steel,” jŏharﺟﻭﻫﺮ(n) means “watered steel,” dār ﺪﺍﺭ derives from the verb dāštan ﺩﺍﺷﺘﻦ (to have), qerqﻗﺮﻖ (adj) means “fourty,” and nardebān ﻧﺮﺩﺑﺎﻥ (n) means “ladder”  This pattern is also known as čehlband  ﭼﻬﻞﺑﻨﺪ (forty straps) (see Lexicon of Arms and Armor from Iran; A Study of Symbols and Terminology (2010) by Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, Tübingen: Legat Verlag.  For a detailed discussion of this pattern see Arms and Armor from Iran: The Bronze Age to the End of the Qajar Period (2006) by Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, Tübungen: Legat Verlag.

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The blade has a beautiful gold-inlaid maker’s mark which reads “amal-e Assadollāh Esfahāni (Isfahāni)” : (the work of Assadollāh Esfahāni).

This maker’s mark appears on a number of high quality Persian swords.  Other variants of this signature also exist as amal-e Assadollāh  (the work of Assadollāh), Amal-e Assad Esfahāni (the work of Assad Esfahāni), and Assadollāh Esfahāni (Assadollāh Esfahāni) – for more information see Moshtagh Khorasani (2006:156-163).  Dated swords with this maker’s mark complicate the issue even more.  There are seven dated examples that, rather than solving the mystery behind the smith Assadollāh’s life, only complicate the matter as the time span over which these swords are purported to have been constructed is too long for a normal human life, let alone the active life of a smith.  Among the swords discussed in the book Arms and Armor from Iran: The Bronze Age to the End of the Qajar Period, the earliest date is 992 Hegira (1583 C.E.), and the latest is 1135 Hegira (1722 C.E.), a time span of 139 years (Moshtagh Khorasani, 2006:156-163).  Even the positioning of the individual words in this phrase varies from sword to sword.  Taking all these factors into consideration, it seems unlikely or even fundamentally implausible that a single smith named Assadollāh produced all these blades.  It seems feasible and probable that “Assadollāh” ﺍﺴﺪﺍﷲwas a title of honor signifying the highest level of mastery in swordmaking.  The theory that some of these inscriptions were counterfeited to add to the value of a sword may be true of later swords bearing cartouches where one finds poorly executed inlayings or even overlayings, but all examples presented in the book mentioned above have inscriptions with finely executed calligraphy and workmanship and exhibit outstanding inlaying techniques.  If one assumes that the name “Assadollāh” ﺍﺴﺪﺍﷲwas the highest title given to an Iranian smith who had attained a very high level of mastery in making swords, the mystery of the existence of a variety of handwriting and calligraphy styles over a long period of time appears to be solved.  As mentioned by Mayer (1957-9:1), a person counterfeiting a fraudulent cartouche would most likely imitate the original as precisely as possible in order to deceive buyers since he attempted to sell his swords under a fake name.  Additionally, a counterfeiter would surely have ensured that the date on forged cartouches exactly matched the era of Šāh Abbās Safavid if there were only one famous smith named Assadollāh during the relevant period.  Another fact reinforcing the hypothesis that “Assadollāh” ﺍﺴﺪﺍﷲwas presumably an honorary title bestowed during the Safavid period is that there are three dated swords bearing the phrase of Amal-e Assdollah Esfahāni from the same time period, namely Amal-e Assadollāh Esfahāni 116, Amal-e Assadollāh Esfahāni 117  , and Amal-e Assadollāh Esfahāni and Bande-ye Šah-e velāyat Abbās saneye 135 (see Moshtagh Khorasani, 2006:156-163), all originating during the period of Šāh Sultan Hossein Safavid, who ruled from 1105-1135 Hegira (1694-1722 A.D.).  However, all three swords look different in many respects, especially regarding the handwriting style.  This is further evidence that, at least during the period of Šāh Soltān Hussein Safavid’s reign, various smiths signed blades using the signature Amal-e Assadollāh Esfahāni and further corroborates the theory that Assadollāh  ﺍﺴﺪﺍﷲwas, indeed, an honorary title.  . . . . . . .

For more information on this topic read the entry amal-e Assadollāh Esfahāni in the Lexicon of Arms and Armor from Iran; A Study of Symbols and Terminology (2010) by Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, Tübingen: Legat Verlag. For more information see:

Moshtagh Khorasani, Manouchehr (2010). Persian Swordmakers (Armeiros Persas). In: Rites of Power: Oriental Arms(Rituais de Poder: Armas Orientais), Casal de Cambra: Caleidoscópio, pp. 41-55.

and

Moshtagh Khorasani, Manouchehr (2013). Les Légendaires Forgerons Iraniens Assadollȃh et Kalbeali. La Revue de Téhéran Mensuel Culturel Iranien en Langue Française. No. 90, 8e Annee, Mai 2013, pp. 20-40.

The next gold-inlaid cartouch is the symbol of bodduh in numbers;

bodduhﺒﺩﻭﺡ : (Dehkhoda) (n) the name of a genie or an angel who can do miraculous things, whose name is written by letters or numbers in occult sciences.  Certain characteristics are attributed to this angel. For example, if one writes its name on an envelope, the letter will certainly arrive.  Therefore, it serves as the angel for protecting the letters.  It is a secret telesm ﻂﻠﺴﻢ(talisman).  The are certain beliefs regarding this sign.  For example, when a traveller has this sign, he would be able to travel day and night without getting tired, or a pregnant woman would be able to give birth without fearing a miscarriage.  The term bodduh ﺒﺩﻭﺡ is also used to conjure feelings of love.  It consists of the even numbers 2, 4, 6, 8 or 8, 6, 4, 2.  The numbers are equivalent to the lettersﺐ, ﺩ, ﻭ, and ﺡ of huruf-e jomal ﺠﻤﻝ ﺣﺮﻭﻑ.  Anandeaj reports that bodduh is the name of an angel who died and left this world and whose name is gold-inlaid on swords and daggers and is used for protection. (Digital Lexicon of Dehkhoda).  For more information on this topic read the entry bodduhﺒﺩﻭﺡ in the Lexicon of Arms and Armor from Iran; A Study of Symbols and Terminology (2010) by Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, Tübingen: Legat Verlag.

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For another classification of Persian crucible steel see:

Moshtagh Khorasani, Manouchehr (2011). Tabaqebandi-ye Fulād-de Johardār bar Asās-e Nosxehā-ye Xatti (Classification of Persian Watered Steel on the Basis of Old Manuscripts). Journal of the Iranian Studies. Faculty of Literature and Humanities. Šahid Bāhonar University of Kermān. Volume 9, Number 18, Autumn 2010, pp. 243-281.

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Varband (scabbard fittings) are also made of called and inserted with diamonds.

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The wooden scabbard consists of two parts glued to each other and covered with the precious  sāqari ﺳﺎﻏﺭﻯ or kimoxt ﻜﻴﻤﺧﺖ (shagreen leather), which is the skin of the back of the horse and donkey that is used as a special leather.  The book  Lexicon of Arms and Armor from Iran; A Study of Symbols and Terminology (2010) (Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, Tübingen: Legat Verlag) provides the following entry on this type of leather:

sāqari ﺳﺎﻏﺭﻯ: (Rostam al Tavārix) (n) shagreen leather (Āsef, 2003/1382:90). Shagreen leather was often made from the skin of jackass (donkey) hindquarters.  According to Dehkhoda, saqari ﺳﺎﻏﺭﻯ is a type of leather made of the hide of jackass hindquarters.  Its surface is rough.  Saqari ﺳﺎﻏﺭﻯ can be obtained from the hindquarters of a horse as well as zebra hide.  With regard to the processing and tanning of shagreen leather, Chardin (268) states that significant amounts of this leather was made in Iran and exported to the Indies (India), Turkey, and neighboring kingdoms.  He states that shagreen was made from jackass (donkey) hindquarters, and a seed called toxm casbini, (seed of casbin that is said to be black, hard, and larger than the mustard seed).  Toxm ﺗﺨﻡ stands for both “egg” and “seed” in Farsi as Chardin rightly says.  He further states that the name shagreen comes from the Persian word saqari, meaning “hindquarters.”  According to Chardin, this was the name of any animal they rode on, similar to the English word “steed,” and this name was given to this sort of hide because it was made of an jackass’s hindquarters.  The coarse hides were dressed by tanners with lime.  They used salt and galls in the tanning process instead of bark, which, according to Chardin, was sufficient due to the hot Iranian climate.  Floor (2003:383) quotes Olmer, who stated that sagari was primarily prepared in Yazd and describes it as a type of tanned leather made of the skins of a horse or donkey and, sometimes, even that of a cow.  The cleaning of the skin was performed using almost the same method as that used for sheepskin.  Olmer explained that before applying the barley treatment to the skin, the tanners covered them with small, dried grains and let them dry.  The grains worked their way into the skin, resulting in unevenness of the surface and a grained appearance.  After the skins dried, they were soaked in water with fermenting barley, causing them to swell.  The workers, then, used somāq ﺴﻤﺎﻖ leaves (rhum coriaria) for the tanning process.  Olmer reports that these leaves contained much tannin.  Floor (2003:383) also quotes Consul Abbot, who provides more information on the making of shagreen leather in Esfahān.  He said that this leather was made from the raw hides of horses.  They spread the wet skin on a level surface, threw small, round seeds over it, and trod upon it.  After the skin partially dried, they shook off the seeds, shaving the surface of the hide to remove all but the indented parts that gradually rose again to their former level, producing the bumps on the shagreen.  Then, they applied a preparation of copper and sal ammoniac to the reverse side, which penetrated to the front, coloring it green.

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The scabbard chape tah-e qalāf is also made of gold.

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This Persian shamshir has engraved and gold-inlaid spatulated quillons.  The pommel cap is also gold-inlaid.  The handle slabs are made of walrus ivory.  The blade is made of Persian crucible damascus steel. The blade has three cartouches.  The upper and middle cartouches are the original ones from the Safavid period to the blade and are gold inlaid.  The lower cartouche is gold-overlaid and added to the blade during the early Qajar period.

The upper cartouche reads bande-ye šāh-e velāyat Safi . The book “Lexicon of Arms and Armor from Iran: A Study of Symbols and Terminology” provides the following entry for this phrase:

bande-ye šāh-e velāyat Safi : (New Persian)(n + n + n + n) literally means, “The subject/ slave of the kingdom/ dominion/trusteeship of Ali, Safi.”  This translates into the following:  “Safi is the representative of Ali’s rule and acts on his behalf.”  Note that bande ﺑﻨﺪﻩ (n) means “slave/subject,” šāh ﺷﺎﻩ (n) means “king,” and velāyat ﻮﻻﻴﺕ (n) means “country, trusteeship,” and Safi ﺼﻔﻰ (n) is a king’s name.  ……

For the same cartouche on royal pieces of Iranian Military Museums see “Arms and Armor from Iran: The Bronze Age to the End of the Qajar Period” (Moshtagh Khorasani, 2006444, cat.80; 446, cat.81; 448, cat.82).

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The gold-inlaid cartouche in the middle reads Yekšanbe Helāl Šahr Kār Mehr Ali which means “Sunday the first day of the month the work of Mehr Ali.”

Note that a smith named Mehr Ali made a dated pišqabz in 1109 hijra, dedicated to Mohammad Mehdi Khan Zand.  For more information and to see the dagger consult the book “Arms and Armor from Iran: The Bronze Age to the End of the Qajar Period”, Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, 2006, which explains:

The date, 1190 hegira, is 1776 A.D.[1]  Additionally, the name of the owner is engraved on the back of the blade close to the handle: Sahebe Mohammad Mehdi Khan Zand (The owner Mohammad Mehdi Khan Zand).  The name of the smith is gold inlaid on the blade and reads, “Mehr Ali.”  There is a spade-shaped eyelet at the base of the handle with engraved inscriptions on one side, Howal Kafi (one of the names of God, meaning that God is independent and without needs), and on the other side, Howal Bagi (another attribute of God, meaning that he is eternal).

[1]  This is within the reign of Karim Khan Zand, who ruled from 1163–1193 A.D. (1750–1779 A.D.) (see Safaraz & Avarzamani, 2004/1383:275).

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The lowest cartouche is the royal seal of Fath Ali Shah Qajar which reads “Abu al Seif al Soltān Fath Ali Šāh Qājār” (The father of the sword Fath Ali Shah Qajar).  A number of royal shamshirs attributed to Fath Ali Shah Qajar which are kept in the Military Museum of Tehran have the same cartouche which is the royal seal of Fath Ali Shah Qajat.  To see these examples see “Arms and Armor from Iran: The Bronze Age to the End of the Qajar Period”, Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, 2006, Tübingen: Legat Verlag.

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A Persian shamshir with a typical wedge-shaped blade with a high curve. The handle slabs are made of ivory.

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The blade has a beautiful crucible damascus blade with the pattern pulād-e jŏhardār-e mošabak, watered steel with net pattern; a type of crucible steel with woodgrain pattern (Romanowsky, 1967b/1346:78).  For more information on this pattern see  Lexicon of Arms and Armor from Iran; A Study of Symbols and Terminology (2010) by Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, Tübingen: Legat Verlag.

For another classification of Persian crucible steel see:

Moshtagh Khorasani, Manouchehr(2007). The Magnificent Beauty of Edged Weapons Made with Persian Watered Steel.Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 9 Volume 16, number 3, pp. 8–21.

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The Persian blade has three catouches: The upper cartouche is a bodduh sin in numbers. The lower is a maker’s mark amal-e Assadollāh (Work of Assadollah), The carouche in themiddle reads: bande-ye šāh-e velāyat Abbās.

For the meaning of this pharse see the entry bande-ye šāh-e velāyat Abbās from the book Lexicon of Arms and Armor from Iran; A Study of Symbols and Terminology (2010) by Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, Tübingen: Legat Verlag:

bande-ye šāh-e velāyat Abbās: (New Persian) (n + n + n + n) literally means, “The subject/ slave of the kingdom/ dominion/trusteeship of Ali, Abbās.”  This translates into the following:  “Abbās is the representative of Ali’s rule and acts on his behalf.”  Note that bande ﺑﻨﺪﻩ (n) means “slave/subject,” šāh ﺷﺎﻩ (n) means “king,” and velāyat ﻮﻻﻴﺕ (n) means “country, trusteeship,” and Abbās ﻋﺒﺎﺱ (n) is a king’s name.  For this inscription see Moshtagh Khorasani (2006b:430, cat.70; 432, cat. 73, 434, cat. 74; 435, cat. 75; 436, cat. 76; 438, cat. 78; 441, cat. 79; 451, cat.85; 453, cat.86; 454, cat.87; 456, cat.89; 475, cat.107; 481, cat.112; 526, cat.151; 541, cat.162).

Also part of the next entry from the same book:

bande-ye šāh-e velāyat : (New Persian) (n + n + n) the slave/subject of the king of that country/trusteeship.  Note that bande ﺑﻨﺪﻩ(n) means “slave/subject,” šāh ﺷﺎﻩ(n) means “king,” and velāyat ﻮﻻﻴﺕ(n) means “country, trusteeship.”  This is a phrase that frequently appears on Safavid blades is bande-ye šāh-e velāyat… in combination with the name of the Safavid king who ruled at that time.  The phrase amal-e Assadollāh appears often with the phrase bande-ye šāh-e velāyat Abbās .  According to Digital Lexicon of Dehkhoda, bande ﺑﻨﺪﻩ means “subject” or “slave.”  Obviously, people who serve or inhabit the realm ruled by a king are his subjects.  velāyat ﻮﻻﻴﺕmeans “kingdom” or “ruled land”; therefore, a king has a velāyat  ﻮﻻﻴﺕ  to rule.  Dehkhoda further states that the person to whom velāyat-e Ali relates considers himself the representative of Imām Ali and, consequently, rules and governs on his behalf.

………………..

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A Persian shamshir with a steel handle and a highly curved blade. The State Hermitage Museum states that this shamshir was acquired in 1885-1886.  It was formerly held in the Armoury of Tsarskoye Selo.

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The gold-inlaid maker’s mark reads “amale-e Kalbeali Esfahāni 1019” (The work of Kalbeaöo Isfahani 1019).   1019 stands for the Gregorian year 1610-1611- For more information see part of the entry amal-e Kalbeali from the book Lexicon of Arms and Armor from Iran; A Study of Symbols and Terminology (2010) by Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, Tübingen: Legat Verlag:

amal-e Kalbeali: (New Persian) (n + n) the work of Kalbeali (dog of Ali).  Note that amal ﻋﻤﻞ (n) means “work,” kalbﻜﻟﺐ (n) means “dog,” and Ali ﻋﻟﻰ (n) is the name of Hazrat-e Ali.  The expression “The dog of Ali” is used to show the devotion of the maker to Hazrat Ali , the first Imam of the Shiites.  This maker’s mark is also a mystery as different swords with different handwriting and calligraphy with this maker’s mark exist.  The existence of different phrases of the signature of “Kalbeali” indicates that there were, indeed, different smiths who signed their swords with this title.  There are three different types: a) amal-e Kalbali , b) amale-e Kalbeali Esfahāni, and c) amal-e Kalb-e Ali ibn Assad-e Esfahāni.  The name “Kalbeali” is sometimes written as one word asﻜﻠﺒﻌﻠﻰ, and it is written in two words on other cartouches as well as ﻋﻠﻰﻜﻠﺐ.   Even the reference to the father, Assadollāh, is different.  One cartouche bears the expression, Ibn Assad Esfahāni  , whereas another cartouche reads, Ibn Assad Zahābdār .  The inscription, Valad-e Kalbeali ibn Assad Zahābdār, reveals that the smith wanted to stress that his grandfather had the title “Assadollāh” ﺍﺴﺪﺍﷲ, the highest level, or wanted to stress that he was a seyyed (descendant of the Prophet Mohammad’s family), for a detailed discussion of the maker’s mark of Kalbeali ﻜﻠﺒﻌﻠﻰ, see Moshtagh Khorasani (2006:163-167).  Assuming that Assadollāh ﺍﺴﺪﺍﷲ was an honorary title, one is faced with the problem of interpreting the phrase Amal-e Kalbeali ebn Assad  (“the work of Kalbeali the son of Assad”).  In this regard, Mayer (1957-9:2) states that there were two sons of Assadollāh ﺍﺴﺪﺍﷲ, Kalbeali ﻛﻠﺒﻌﻠﻰ and Esmāil ﺍﺴﻣﺎﻋﻳﻞ.  He asserts that only one blade is signed “The work of Esmāil son of Assadollāh. ………………………”

The blade has also a gold-inlaid bodduh sign in numbers.

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A Persian shamshir with a curved blade and a raised backedge (yalman). The handle is the shape of karabela hilt. The downward quillons end up in dragon heads. The State Hermitage Museum attributes this shamshir to the late 17 century (or early 18th century) and adds that it was acquired in 1885-1886. It was formerly held in the Armoury of Tsarskoye Selo.

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The handle slabs are made of ivory with  the steel crossguard decorated with gold-overlaid floral design.

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The blade has an engraved and gold-inlaid maker’s mark amal-e Mesri Mo’alam.  For this maker’s mark see the book Lexicon of Arms and Armor from Iran; A Study of Symbols and Terminology (2010) by Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, Tübingen: Legat Verlag which provides the following entry:

amal-e Mesri Mo’alam or amal-e Mo’alam Mesri : (New Persian) (n + n + n) the work of Mesri Mo’alam or the work of Mo’lam Mesri.  Note that amal (n) means “work” and Mesri Mo’alam (n) is a name.  A sword signed by amal-e Mesri and attributed to Sāh Safi is kept in the Military Museum of Tehran.  For more information see Moshtagh Khorasani (2006:444, cat. 80; 538, cat.159).

The forte of the blade is also gold-overlaid in floral design and also the inscription in Persian reads:

Ze huše Falātun domaš tiztar [upper part]

Ze abruye deldār xunriz tar [lower part]

Its edge [literally, tail] is sharper than the intelligence of Plato!  It sheds more blood than the eyebrows[1] of the beloved.
[1] Persian literature always refers to eyebrows as one of the physical beauties of women (author’s observation).  For the same inscription on Persian qaddāres see Arms and Armor from Iran: The Bronze Age to the End of the Qajar Period by Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, 2006, Tübingen: Legat Verlag.

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A highly curved Persian shamshir with a handle with walrus ivory slabs. It has a wooden scabbard covered with shagreen leather. The State Hermitage Museum attributes this shamshir to the first half of the 18 century and adds that it from the Winter Palace. The crossguard (bolčāq) has an engraved inscription Bismellah al Rahman al Rahim (In the name of God, most benevolent, ever-merciful) in the gilded background.

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A highly curved Persian shamshir with a handle with walrus ivory slabs. The State Hermitage Museum attributes this shamshir to the 17- 18 century and adds that it from the Winter Palace. The crossguard (bolčāq) is beautifully gold-overlaid with the inscription Bismellah al Rahman al Rahim (In the name of God, most benevolent, ever-merciful).

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A Persian shamshir made of crucible steel with a raised backedge (yalman).  The handle slabs are made of walrus ivory.  The steel crossguard is decorated with gilded image of a lion hunting a deer (for a detailed explanation of this symbol see “Arms and Armor from Iran: The Bronze Age to the End of the Qajar Period” by Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani (2006).

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The upper gold-overlaid cartouche reads Bismellah al Rahman al Rahim( In the name of God, most benevolent, ever-merciful). The length of the blade is gold-overlaid with a Persian poem.

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For a technical analysis of Persian crucible steel see:

Moshtagh Khorasani, Manouchehr and Zahra Karamad (2008). The Microstructure and Elements of Persian Crucible Steel, Pāyām-e Bāstānšenās (Journal of the Archaeology of the Islamic Azad University of Abhar), Volume 5, No. 9. Spring and Summer 2008, pp. 6–26.

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A highly-curved Persian shamshir with a typical wedge-shaped blade. The wooden scabbard is covered with shagreen leather.

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The handle slabs are made of walrus ivory and the steel crossguard and pommel cap are engraved. The State Hermitage Museum attributes this shamshir to the 18 century and adds that it was acquired in 1885-1886.  It was formerly held in the Armoury of Tsarskoye Selo.

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A highly-curved Persian shamshir with downward quillions and a karabella hilt. The crossguard is made of steel and decorated with gilded floral design.  The handle slabs are made of stag horn.

The blade is made of Persian crucible damascus steel and has a central fuller. The State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg attributes this shamshir to the 19 century and states that it is from the Winter Palace.

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A straight sword šamšir-e mostāqim from the second half of the 19th century. It was acquired in 1926 from the Marble Palace. The handle is made of steel with downward quillons.  For a detailed analysis of this types of swords see “Arms and Armor from Iran: The Bronze Age to the End of the Qajar Period” (Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, 2006, Tübingen: Legat Verlag):

“Lebedynsky (1992:56) provides a brief analysis on Qajar straight swords.  He states that the later straight swords (such as Qajar straight swords) share the same features as their medieval ancestors.  These Iranian swords of the 17th and 18th century have blades with a rounded tip, downward quillions, and a three-lobe pommel and, thus, share the same feature of the grip as on some older swords”.

For more information on Iranian straight swords also see:

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A 19 century ritual sword (šamšir-e mostāqim: straight sword) from Iran. It is from the Winter Palace.

For another article on Iranian straight swords see:

Moshtagh Khorasani, Manouchehr(2008). Dragons Teeth: The Straight Swords of Persia. Classic Arms and Militaria, Volume XV Issue 1, pp. 21–25.

Moshtagh Khorasani, Manouchehr and Iván Szántó (2012). Straight Swords in Iran: A Continuing Tradition (A perzs pallos: egy töretln hagyomány). In: Persian Treasures – Hungarian Collections (Perzsa Kincsk – Magyar Gyüjtemények), pp. 39-51.

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A 19 century ritual sword (šamšir-e mostāqim: straight sword)  from Iran. It was acquired in 1931 and was formerly held in the collection of Count Sergey Sheremekev’s collection.

Pre-Islamic Zurkhaneh

The Zur-Khaneh (House of Strength)

The article below by Houchang E. Chehabi on the Zoor-Khaneh, Zur-khaneh or Zur-Kāna (House of Strength) was originally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on August 15, 2006.

Kindly note that the pictures/illustrations and accompanying descriptions were not posted in the original Encyclopedia Iranica article. All descriptive captions for the pictures/illustrations are from Kavehfarrokh.com. In addition certain assertions made by Chehabi are questioned by Kavehfarrokh.com (esp. with respect to the notion that the Zoor-khaneh is unrelated to pre-Islamic era training regimens).

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Zoor-Khaneh, Zur-khaneh or Zur-Kāna (lit. house of strength), the traditional gymnasium of urban Persia and adjacent lands. Until the mid-20th century the zur-ḵāna was associated primarily with wrestling, and it bore great resemblance to the wrestlers’ tekkes (Pers. takia, Ar. takiya “lodges, buildings designed for confraternal life) of Ottoman Turkey (Kreiser, pp. 97-103), to the harkaras of Afghanistan, and to the akhāṛās (wrestling ground) of India (Alter). This would seem to indicate the existence in the past of an agonistic tradition common to the ethnically diverse populations of a wide region stretching from the Balkans to Bengal.Descriptions of the zur-ḵāna often imply a timeless essence, while in fact the institution has constantly evolved and continues to do so. The traditional zur-ḵāna consisted of a building whose architecture resembled that of a public bathhouse, in whose close proximity it was often located. The zur-ḵāna’s main room was often sunken slightly below street level to provide constant temperatures and prevent drafts that might harm the perspiring athletes, but its roof contained windows for light. Access to the main room was possible only through a low door, forcing everyone to bow in respect while entering. At the center of the room lay the gowd, a hexagonal sunken area about one meter deep in which the exercises took place. To provide a soft surface for wrestling, the bottom of the arena used to be covered first with brushwood, then with ash, and finally with a layer of clay earth, but gradually this was replaced with linoleum or wooden planks. The gowd was surrounded by stands for spectators and racks for exercise instruments, and the walls were adorned with pictures of athletes and saints (Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 35-36). Of particular importance was an elevated and decorated seat, the sardam, which was reserved for the man who accompanied the exercises with rhythmic drumming and the chanting of Persian poetry. This included poems by Saʿdi, Ḥāfeẓ, Rumi, Ferdowsi, and other great classic poets, as well as a type of maṯnawi specific to the zur-ḵāna, the gol-e košti (flower of wrestling), of which the most famous is that of Mir Najāt Eṣfahāni (repr. in Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 379-419). Since the early 20th century, the drummer has been called moršed (guide or director), a title previously reserved for the most senior member of the group (Partow Bayzāʾi, p. 37).

History of the Zur-khaneh or Zur-Kāna and the story of Hossein e Golzar Kermanshahi (narrated in Persian with English subtitles). The above video is a documentary film in Persian whihc first provides a historical overview of the traditional martial art of Iran to then outline the life and times of Hossein e Golzar Kermanshahi – a legendary Iranian Pahlavan from Kermanshah. This video was forwarded to Kavehfarrokh.com by Shooresh Golzari.

In the gowd athletes had to be bare-chested and barefoot, symbolizing the irrelevance of outside hierarchies and distinctions (Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 27, 53). Their standard attire was the long, a cloth wrapped around the loins and passed between the legs. When they were wrestling, leather breeches (tonbān) were worn; these were sometimes embroidered (Baker). As they entered the gowd, athletes showed their respect for the hallowed space by kissing the ground, which in practice took the form of touching the floor with their fingers and then raising these to their lips. Once inside, they had to desist from eating, drinking, smoking, laughing, or chatting. Until the mid-1920s, men went to the zur-ḵāna in the morning after morning prayers, except during Ramadan, when exercises took place in the evening after breaking the fast (efṭār). Since then, however, evening sessions have gradually become the norm (Partow Bayżāµʾi, pp. 52-4).

Exercising at the Jaffary Zurkhaneh (House of Strength) in TeheranIranian men exercising at the Jaffary Zur-Khaneh or Zur-Kāna (House of Strength) in Tehran, Iran on December 5, 1968 (Source: CAIS).

The exercises took place in a more or less standard order, and were led by the most senior member present, the miāndār. After some warming-up calisthenics (pāzadan), in the course of which one of the athletes might leave the gowd, lie on his back, and lift heavy wooden boards called sang with each arm, athletes did push-ups (šenā) and then swung mils (Indian clubs), both exercises being accompanied by the moršed’s drumming and chanting. They would then take turns whirling rapidly (čarḵ) about the gowd, after which one or two athletes would in turn step forward to swing a kabbāda above their heads, this being a heavy iron bow on the cord of which heavy rings are strung. In the individual exercises (čarḵ and kabbāda), members came forth in ascending order of seniority, and so, uniquely in Persian social convention, humility was shown by trying to go first. To come forth, an athlete would ask the miāndār for permission by saying roḵṣat (permission), to which the answer was forṣat (chance, opportunity). Until about the 1940s, the crowning event of a zur-ḵāna session was wrestling (košti), which was the original raison d’être of the gymnasium. With the introduction of international freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, however, wrestling disappeared from the gowd. Traditional wrestling survived in a modernized form under the name of košti-e pahlavāni (pahlavāni wrestling), but lost its organic link with the zur-ḵāna, where it is now rarely taught. The loss of its agonistic component has somewhat contributed to the decline of the institution’s popularity among young men.

Sang and MeelThe Sang (left) and Meel (right) (Source: www.persianyoga.com) Tare traditional Zur-Kāna or Zur-khaneh tools for building strength, power and endurance. The Meel is wielded by he handles and used in several motions for building power in the arms and wrists. These types of exercises enable the Pahlavan to wield heavy traditional weapons such as maces and heavy swords with greater ease, endurance and handling. The Sang is mainly used for performing double arm presses, in numerous ways, as well as single arm rolling presses.

Traditionally, athletes were divided into a number of grades. These were, in ascending order of seniority, nowča (novice), nowḵᵛāsta (beginner), pahlavān (athlete), and finally each establishment’s most accomplished member, the miāndār (formerly kohna-savār), who conducted the proceedings. At each grade, the long was wrapped somewhat differently. Beginning in the 1940s, however, these grades gradually fell into disuse and were replaced by the standard international categories “cadet, “ “junior,” and “senior,” and, for pahlavāni wrestling, weight classes.

The practices and rituals of the zur-ḵāna are permeated with the symbolism of Twelver Shiʿism. Veneration of the first Shiʿite Imam, ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb, plays a major role, and the exercises are frequently interrupted by salvos of the invocation of God’s blessing upon the Prophet Moḥammad (ṣalawāt). Traditionally, a man had to be ritually clean to enter the gowd, and admittance to the premises was forbidden to women, non-Muslims, and prepubescent boys. In spite of the institution’s Twelver Shiʿite affinities, zur-ḵānas spread to Sunnite Kurdistan in the 18th century (Kamandi), and in the mid-20th century there were even a few Jewish zur-ḵānas in Tehran and Shiraz and a Zoroastrian one in Yazd; their rituals were adapted accordingly (Chehabi, pp. 5-9).

The origin of the zur-ḵāna is shrouded in mystery. Its vocabulary, rituals, ethos, and grades recall those of fotowwa and Sufism, but a direct affiliation cannot be established at the present stage of knowledge. Since wrestling has an old tradition in west, central, and south Asia, it is possible that sometime in the 14th or 15th centuries wrestlers formed guilds and adopted rituals borrowed from fotowwa and Sufism. Wrestlers were mostly entertainers with low social status (Chardin, p. 200), and so perhaps this appropriation of noble ideals was an attempt to acquire greater respectability (Piemontese). The synthesis of wrestling prowess and Sufism is embodied by the 14th-century Pahlavān Mahmud of Ḵᵛārazm, better known in Persia as Puriā-ye Wali, whom zur-ḵāna athletes (as well as wrestlers in Turkey) regard as a role model.

Pre-Islamic ZurkhanehDepiction of ancient exercise routines and equipment from the late Sassanian era (Source: Zurkhaneh Review, No.2, July 2011, pp.14-15; above item currently stored in the British Museum (number: 1849,0623.41). Note the “meel”-type weight-handle held by upright person at left and the – held by the arms of the person lying down; note that he is simultaneously pressing some type of “eights” with his feet. The author of the Encyclopedia Iranica article, Houchang E. Chehabi, states later below in his article that “The fact remains that there is no textual or architectural evidence for the existence of zur-ḵānas before Safavid times (Elāhi). The idea of a pre-Islamic origin, however, lives on in popular writing.” While true that the specific term “Zur-Kāna” is not seen with the Classical and other ancient pre-Islamic sources, Chehabi’s suggestion of no evidence is questionable: the above ancient depiction provides clear evidence that the Zur-Kana exercises and exercise equipment were not spontaneously invented during the post-Islamic era. The British Museum however claims that the above item represents “…jugglers and an onlooker in oriental dress“. As noted already, the challenge with this interpretation is that the equipment in the above depiction (a) parallels contemporary Zur-Kāna training equipment too closely and (b) the routines shown by the above figures are too similar to contemporary Zur-Kāna training methods. However, little academic works have investigated the linkage between sports training in Iran’s pre and post-Islamic eras.

While references to wrestling and wrestlers can be found in classical Persian literature (see below), the earliest known mention of zur-ḵāna exercises and practices occurs in a fragment dating from the Safavid era, the Tumār-e Poriā-ye (sic) Wali (reproduced in Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 350-64). This suggests that zur-ḵānas appeared first under that dynasty, which would also explain the close connection between them and popular Twelver Shiʿism, which takes the form, for instance, of very active participation of their members in ʿāšurā processions.

The first Western traveler to describe a zur-ḵāna was John Chardin, who observed it in the 1670s:

Wrestling is the Exercise of People in a lower Condition; and generally Speaking, only of People who are Indigent. They call the Place where they Show themselves to Wrestle, Zour Kone, that is to say, The House of Force. They have of’em in all the Houses of their great Lords, and especially of the Governours of Provinces, to Exercise their People. Every Town has besides Companies of those Wrestlers for show … They perform their Exercises to divert People” (Chardin, pp. 200-1).

A century later, Carsten Niebuhr also described a house of strength, and to him we also owe the first graphic representation of one. It shows musicians accompanying the exercises, a practice still common at folk wrestling events throughout west Asia and the Balkans, but one that has disappeared from the Persian zur-ḵāna, perhaps under the impact of the Shiʿite clergy’s distaste for music. The Qajar rulers of Persia were enthusiastic patrons of wrestling, and consequently zur-ḵānas thrived in the 19th century. They were embedded in the social structure of town quarters and constituted an important part of community life (Arasteh). Some were frequented by craftsmen and tradesmen associated with the bazaar, some had a Sufi membership, and still others were used by the luṭis (urban thugs). In 1865 Nāṣer-al-Din Shah’s court physician noted that “since a lot of dissolute and merry types frequent [the zur-ḵāna], young men of good families do not go there” (Polak, p. 189). However, men of higher birth did occasionally participate in the exercises and wrestle in the gowd (Drouville, II, p. 58), a development that reached its peak under Nāṣer-al-Din Shah (r. 1848-96), when a number of statesmen built themselves private zur-ḵānas (Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 9, 154-55).

Zoorkhaneh-QajarWrestlers at a Zur-Kāna in the Qajar era, likely late 19th or early 20th centuries (Source: IZSF).

With the advent of the Constitutional Revolution in 1905-06, royal patronage ceased. This dealt a severe blow to the zur-ḵāna, which became once again a feature of urban lower and lower middle class culture only. By the 1920s the introduction of modern Western sports and physical education further diminished the appeal of zur-ḵāna exercises among athletically inclined men, while cinemas drew spectators away. At the same time the growing penetration of society by the state, which resulted in better security, diminished the role of the strongmen who used to maintain law and order in neighborhoods and who trained in the zur-ḵāna. Another function of the zur-ḵānathat disappeared in the first decades of the 20th century was the training it provided for šāṭers, long distance couriers in the service of the shah and high officials, whose profession became obsolete with the introduction of modern transportation. Šāṭers had their own special exercises (e.g., šelang), which have completely disappeared (Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 28-38). In the troubled times after the end of the Qajar régime, a number of amateur athletes kept the zur-ḵāna alive independently of elite patronage, and in 1924 they founded a Jamʿiyat-e gordān-e Irān (Society of Iranian heroes) to organize traditional physical education and make it respectable again by a rigorous admission process (ʿAbbāsi, I, pp. 296-303).

Photo 2-PahlavanIranian wrestler of 1920s training with traditional strength-training equipment (Source: Farsizaban). In the background to the left can be seen two upright Zoorkhaneh (House of Power) Meels with handles designed for increasing the strength and stamina of the arms. While Classical sources do not cite the term “Zur-Khaneh” or “Zur-Kāna” by name, the same sources report of the hard training experienced by the armies of the Sassanians.

The pioneers of modern physical education in Persia had no respect for zur-ḵāna-type exercises and ignored them in the physical education curricula they drew up for Persia’s modern schools. In the 1920s and 1930s numerous articles appeared in the Persian press denouncing the institution. Four criticisms were leveled at it. Firstly, it was implied that members were morally corrupt (e.g., Ṣamimi, p. 11). This was an oblique reference to the allegation that sodomy was prevalent among some athletes (Šahri, 1968, pp. 204-8; idem, 1990, I, p. 414, V, pp. 247-49). Secondly, zur-ḵānas were castigated for harboring uncouth ruffians, a reference to the marginal luṭis and their frequent brawling. Thirdly, it was pointed out that the exercises did not satisfy modern expectations in that they contained no team sports and developed the body unevenly. Finally, the gymnasia were criticized for their insufficient ventilation (“Dar zur-ḵāna,” Eṭṭelāʿāt, 17 Ābān 1317/8 November 1938). The last point was a constant theme, and we find it as late as 1947 in the first empirical study of zur-ḵānas in Tehran, which averred: Zur-ḵānas “are generally narrow and dark and lack sufficient sun-light. The air is heavy and humid, and constantly poisoned by the smell of the coal of the moršed’s brazier and by the petrol of the numerous lamps. Moreover, the stench of the toilets, which are inside the building, and the unwashed longs and dirty rugs, add to the heaviness of the air inside zur-ḵānas. In addition, the constant pipe and cigarette smoke of themoršed, the spectators, and even the athletes themselves is a health hazard for the athletes’ lungs” (Guša, p. 49).

Lithuania-Zoorkhaneh-TajikestanMembers of the Lithuanian team compete in the 3rd Zur-khaneh Sports Men Championship of Europe May 18-20, 2011 in the Arena Complex of Šiauliai, Lithuania (Source: Zurkhaneh Review, No.2, July 2011, pp.14-15; Photo-IZSF). The Lithuanians are engaged in the traditional Takhteh-Shena (Push up board) exercise. This event was  broadcast live on Lithuanian TV.

Zur-ḵānas might have died out completely had it not been for the nationwide millenary celebration of Ferdowsi’s birth in the summer of 1934. Exhibitions of zur-ḵāna exercises featured prominently in them, and thenceforth the state showed more interest in them (Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 138, 211-17). Until about 1938 the term varzeš-e qadim (old sport) was used to designate zur-ḵāna exercises, but then gradually the term varzeš-e bāstāni (ancient sport) caught on, implying a pre-Islamic origin for the exercises (“Varzešhā-ye bāstāni,” Eṭṭelāʿāt, 10 Šahrivar 1318/1 September 1939). When in 1939 the crown prince married Princess Fawzia of Egypt, the wedding celebrations included exhibitions of “ancient sport” as part of the mass gymnastic displays in Tehran’s main stadium, a practice that was continued until the end of the monarchy. In 1941 Radio Iran started broadcasting zur-ḵāna poetry and drumming in the morning, allowing amateurs to swing their Indian clubs at home.

The ideas adumbrated in the late 1930s were given substance beginning in the 1940s. Towards the end of his life, Persia’s last poet laureate, Moḥammad-Taqi Bahār, published a number of articles on traditional Persian javānmardi, in which he mentioned the ethos of the zur-ḵāna as a contemporary manifestation of this tradition. By this juxtaposition, the early history of popular anti-centralist movements in Persia such as those of the ʿayyārs (members of medieval brotherhood organizations) was constituted as the early history of the zur-ḵāna. Gradually, as one author uncritically quoted another, it became conventional wisdom that the zur-ḵānas originated in the underground resistance activities of Persian patriots against Arab and later Mongol invaders (Guša, pp. 47-48), which made them acceptable to the elites again by providing them with an aura of patriotism.

- کبادهZur-khaneh or Zur-Kāna athlete engaged in the the Kabadeh (two arched iron pieces attached with short iron chains) exercise (Source: Salam Khabar & Hossein Zohrevand).

There remained the irritating fact that a moral ambiguity attached to the institution in the minds of most Persians, who took the zur-ḵāna pahlavāns’ protestations of chivalry with a grain of salt. To explain (away) the unseemly behavior of many zur-ḵāna habitués, it was now suggested that the institution had entered a period of moral decline under the Qajars. This fit in well with the official Pahlavi view of that dynasty, which legitimated the usurpation of the throne in 1925 by holding the Qajars responsible for both Persia’s economic backwardness and moral degeneration. The idea of a golden age of virtue preceding the degeneration of the late Qajar years is not borne out by evidence, however, as is shown, for instance, in the satirical poetry of ʿObayd of Zākān (d. ca. 1371), who already repeatedly impugns the morality of pahlavāns.

Another theory about the pre-Islamic origins of the zur-ḵānawas proposed by the Iranist Mehrdād Bahār. Struck by the similarities between the architecture and rituals of traditional zur-ḵānas and those of temples dedicated to the Iranian deity Mithra (Mithraeums), he speculated that the gymnasia had a Mithraic origin (Bahār). The fact remains that there is no textual or architectural evidence for the existence of zur-ḵānas before Safavid times (Elāhi). The idea of a pre-Islamic origin, however, lives on in popular writing.

mithras-the-bringer-of-lightA Roman version of the statue of Mithras “Bringer of Light” in a Mithraic temple in Ostia, Italy (Consult, Hinnels, 1988, pp.83). There is a school of thought that traces the Pahlavan martial tradition with its emphasis on physical strength and martial arts training to the Mithraic traditions of pre-Islamic Iran.

In 1953, one of the most prominent traditional athletes, Šaʿbān Jaʿfari, was a ringleader of the CIA-financed riots that accompanied the military coup d’état of 1953 against Prime Minister Moḥammad Moṣaddeq. The shah rewarded Jaʿfari with a modern club, whose facilities were lavish by the humble standards of traditional zur-ḵānas, and he himself opened it on 17 Ābān 1336/8 November 1957 (Behzādi, p. 190; Jaʿfari, pp. 159 ff., 207 ff.). Led by Jaʿfari, zur-ḵāna athletes performed by the hundreds in Tehran’s main stadium on such occasions as the shah’s birthday. It was at least partly due to Jaʿfari’s good contacts to the court, which allowed him to be the center of a patronage network, that many young men were inducted into the world of ancient sport, and he may yet be credited for having ensured the survival of the tradition.

Photo-Zoorkhaneh-1-Pahlavan BagheriPahlavan Bagheri in the early 1960s, lifting the rear of an Iranian army vehicle with leg press while holding aloft 30kg kettlebells on each of his pinky fingers (Source: www.persianyoga.com; Original photo from Zurkhaneh Takhti, Yazd, Morshed Alireza Hojjati).

Jaʿfari’s club received competition in the late 1950s, when the influential head of Persia’s Planning Organization (Sāzmān-e barnāma wa budja), Abu-al-Ḥasan Ebtehāj, had a luxurious zur-ḵāna built for the country’s main bank, the Bank Melli. The director of this club, Kāẓem Kāẓemayni, published a number of books and articles on the zur-ḵāna and on the heroic exploits of Persia’s past pahlavāns and heroes, books that stand out by their shrill nationalism shading into xenophobia (Kāẓemayni, 1967). The Jaʿfari and the Bank Melli clubs vied for the honor of performing for visiting monarchs, presidents, prime ministers, secretaries general of Communist parties, film stars, and singers, including women.

Zanjani-Toosi [Click to enlarge] At right is Pahlavan (lit. brave intrepid champion) Mustafa Toosi wielding Zoor-khaneh or Zur-Kāna meels at 60 pounds each (Picture source: Pahlavani.com). Meel training is one of the Zoor-khaneh regimens used for building strength, stamina, and overall physical strength. Each Meel can range from 25-60 pounds and can be as tall as 4 ½ feet. At left is Pahlavan Reza Zanjani with traditional Iranian weights  (Picture source: Abbasi, M. (1995), Tarikh e Koshti Iran [History of Wrestling in Iran], Tehran: Entesharate Firdows, page 133).

While in some cities (Isfahan, Kāšān, and Qom) there existed zur-ḵānas that were pious endowments (waqfs; see Partow Bayżāʾi, pp. 36), until the 1960s most zur-ḵānas were owned by private individuals who charged athletes a fee. The numbers of zur-ḵānas rose until 1961, but remained stagnant in the last years of the monarchy (Tehrānči, p. 11). In the provinces, the state did not much support the zur-ḵānas, which in many places fell into disrepair (Kamandi, pp. 70-72). Beginning in the 1970s, many private zur-ḵānas closed down, since they were no longer profitable. Their place was taken by zur-ḵānas attached to major private companies, state enterprises, or state organs (Rochard, 2000, p. 77).

Turkish Team in Lithuania in 2011Members of the Turkish Zurkhaneh team at the 3rd Zurkhaneh Sports Men Championship of Europe May 18-20, 2011 in the Arena Complex of Šiauliai, Lithuania (Source: Zurkhaneh Review, No.2, July 2011, pp.14-15; Photo-IZSF). The Turks and Turkic world in general share a common Persianate or Turco-Iranian cultural heritage.

After the Revolution of 1978-79, the authorities of the Islamic Republic emphasized the Islamic character of the institution and tried to popularize it again. To attract young people, boys were permitted into the gowd, and even though women are once again barred from attending the zur-ḵāna, athletes have been made to wear tee shirts. A plethora of competitions are held with the aim of turning the exercises into modern sport replete with point systems, records, and champions. One result of these efforts has been a certain homogenization of practices, visible, for instance, in the renaming of many provincial zur-ḵānas that now carry the name of Puriā-ye Wali. Older athletes resent this intrusion of an official body into a sector of civic life that had always been self-regulating. Partly as a result of internal quarrels, the center of zur-ḵāna activity shifted to Mashad in the 1990s, where the Āstān-e Qods-e Rażawi has proven a generous patron.

Outside Persia, zur-ḵānas can be found in the Republic of Azerbaijan, and they were introduced into Iraq in the mid-19th century, where they seem to have existed until the 1980s (Ṭāʿi). In the 1990s a zur-ḵāna was founded in London by Persian émigrés.

Zoorkhaneh in AfricaThe Zur-ḵāna welcomed in Africa (Source: Zurkhaneh Review, No.2, July 2011 edition). African Zur-khaneh or Zur-ḵāna athletes have rapidly achieved mastery status in this ancient sport.

Bibliography

Mahdi ʿAbbāsi, Tāriḵ-e košti-e Irān, 2 vols., Tehran, 1995.

Joseph S. Alter, The Wrestler’s Body: Identity and Ideology in North India, Berkeley, 1992.

A. Reza Arasteh, “The Social Role of the Zurkhana (House of Strength) in Iranian Urban Communities during the Nineteenth Century,” Der Islam 36, February 1961, pp. 256- 59.

Mehrdād Bahār, “Varzeš-e bāstāni-e Irān wa rišahā-ye tāriḵi-e ān,” Čistā 1, October 1981, pp. 140-59; republ. as “Āʾin-e Mehr, zur-ḵāna, ʿayyāri, wa Samak-e ʿAyyār,” in Moḥammad-Mahdi Moʾaḏḏen Jāmeʿi, ed., Adab-e pahlavāni. pp. 323-42.

Moḥammad-Taqi Bahār, “Āʾin-e javānmardi,” in Eḥsān Narāqi, tr. and compiled, Āʾin-e javānmardi, Tehran, 1984, pp. 109-20.

Patricia L. Baker, “Wrestling at the Victoria and Albert Museum,” Iran 35, 1997.

ʿAli Behzādi, Šebh-e ḵāṭerāt, Tehran, 1996.

John Chardin, Travels in Persia, 1673-1677, New York, 1988.

Houchang E. Chehabi, “Jews and Sport in Modern Iran,” in Homa Sarshar and Houman Sarshar, eds., The History of Contemporary Iranian Jews IV, Beverly Hills, 2001.

Gaspard Drouville, Voyage en Persependant les années 1812 et 813, 2 vols., Paris, 1819-20; tr. Manučehr Eʿtemād Moqaddam as Safar dar Irān, Tehran, 1985. Ṣadr-al-Din Elāhi, “Negāh-i digar ba sonnat-i kohan: zur-ḵāna,” Irān-šenāsi/Iranshenasi 6/4, 1995, pp. 726-45.

Ḡolām-Reżā Enṣāfpur, Tāriḵ o farhang-e zur-ḵāna wa goruhhā-ye ejtemāʿi-e zur-ḵāna, Tehran, 1974.

R. A. Galunov, “Zurkhana: atletchyeskaya arena persii (Zur-ḵāna: The athletic arena of Persia),” Iran (Leningrad) 1, 1926, pp. 87-110.

Ḥasan Guša, “Varzeš-e bāstāni dar Irān,” Payām-e now 3/6, Farvardin 1326/March-April 1947, pp. 47-55.

Šaʿbān Jaʿfari, Šaʿbān Jaʿfari (text of the interview by Homā Saršār), Los Angeles, 2001.

ʿAbbās Kamandi, Varzeš wa sargoḏadšt-e varzeš-e bāstāni-e Kordestān, Sanandaj, 1984.

Kāẓem Kāẓemayni, “Zur-ḵāna,” Honar o mardom, N.S., nos. 56-57, 1967, pp. 55-62.

Idem, Dāstānhā-ye šegeftangiz az tāriḵ-e pahlavāni-e Irān, Tehran, 1967.

Klaus Kreiser, Edirne im 17. Jahrhundert nach Evliyā Çelebī: Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis der osmanischen Stadt, Freiburg, 1975.

Eḥsān Narāqi, tr. (of Henry Corbin’s articles) and compiler, Āʾin-e javānmardi, Tehran, 1984.

Carsten Niebuhr, Reisebeschreibungnach Arabien und anderen unliegenden Ländern, Copenhagen, 1778.

Ḥosayn Partow Bayżāʾi Kāšāni, Tāriḵ-e varzeš-e bāstāni-e Irān: zur-ḵāna, Tehran, 1958, new ed., Tehran, 2003.

Angelo Piemontese, “Il capitolo sui pahlavān delle Badāyiʿ al-Waqāyiʿ di Vāsfi,” AIUON, N.S. 16, 1966, pp. 207-20.

Jacob Eduard Polak, Persien: das Land und seine Bewohner, Hildesheim, 1976; tr. Keykāvus Jahāndārī as Safar-nāma-ye Pūlāk (Īrān wa īrānīān), Tehran, 1982.

Philippe Rochard, “Le ‘sport antique’ des zurkhâne de Téhéran: formes et significations d’une pratique contemporaine,” unpubl. Ph.D. diss., Université Aix-Marseille I, 2000.

Idem, “The Identities of the Zūrkhānah,” tr. Houchang E. Chehabi, Ir. Stud. 35/3, 2002, pp. 313-40.

Moṣṭafā Ṣadiq “Gowd-e moqaddas: peydāyeš-e zur-ḵāna,” Honar o mardom, N.S. no. 145, 1974, pp. 55-62.

Idem, “Negāh-i moḵṭaṣar bar varzeš-e zur-ḵānaʾi dar Irān,” in Majmuʿa-ye maqālāt-e mardom-šenāsi darIrān 1, 1983, pp. 45-78.

Jaʿfar Šahri, Šakar-e talḵ, Tehran, 1968.

Idem, Guša-i az tāriḵ-e ejtemāʾi-e Tehrān-e qadim, Tehran, 1978, pp. 82-93.

Idem, Tāriḵ-e ejtemāʿi-e Tehrān dar qarn-e sizdahom, 6 vols., Tehran, 1990, I, pp. 410-14; V, pp. 244-51.

Noṣrat-Allāh Ṣamimi, “Varzeš,” Irān-e bāstān 2, no. 29, 3 Šahrivar 1313/25 August 1934.

Jamil Ṭāʿi, al-Zurḵānāt al- baḡdādiya, Baghdad, 1986.

Moḥammad-Mahdi Tehrānči, Pažuheš-i dar varzešhā-ye zur-ḵānaʾi, Tehran, 1985.

Iranian army troops 1930s or early 1940s

Organization of the Iranian Army in 1921-1941

When Reza Shah engaged in his Tehran coup in early 1921, there was no unitary Iranian army. Instead, there are a number of independent “official” forces composed of the following:

This left Iran with a minuscule force of 22,800 men. These were not a unitary force with the gendarmerie being the best trained and organized of all the above forces. The Qajar units (3800 troops in total) were wholly ineffective with the Persian Cossack brigade being first a Russian instrument and after the Bolshevik takeover, under the British influence. There were also the pro-British South Persia Rifles (S.P.R.) that had been formed during the First World War as noted again below.

Iranian Gendarmes-75 mm guns[Click to Enlarge] The most effective force of the Iranian military prior to and during World war One: the Gendarmerie – above are Iranian Gendarmerie posing with two 75mm (Shneider-Cruesot?) in Tehran prior to World War One (Source: Morgan Shuster, The Strangling of Persia, T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1913, pp. 144, 152). Despite being a para-military force, the Iranian Gendarmes fought very well against opponents who enjoyed superiority in numbers and military equipment. For more on the Iranian Gendarmerie, consult Professor Stephanie Cronin’s article originally posted in the Encylopedia Iranica.

In the first serious step towards restoring a unified army for Iran, Reza Shah ordered on December 6, 1921 for the Gendarmerie and the Persian Cossacks to be unified into a single military force. The South Persia Rifles (S.P.R.) created by the British during World War One had already been disbanded two months previous in October 1921. Numbers of the former S.P.R.’s Iranian officers and troops entered service into the new Iranian army. The formation of a single unified Iranian army beholden to the state (not foreign interests) had fulfilled one of the primary objectives of the early twentieth century Constitutionalist movement. Despite this achievement and others cited in this article, the new Iranian army had several challenges to face when the Anglo-Soviet invasion struck Iran on August 25, 1941.

2-Farrokh-Family-Photo-Reza-Shah-Coronation-1926[CLICK TO ENLARGE] A photo taken in 1926 of a military assembly in Tehran (book cover for Iran at War: 1500-1988). This was the Iranian Army headquarters at the time and is today the Iranian University of the Arts (محوطه ساختمانی که قبلا ستاد ارتش بوده و الان دانشکده هنر است ). Note the diverse nature of the Iranian troops – reminiscent of the armies of Iran since antiquity: one can see Kurds, Azaris, Lurs, Baluchis, Qashqais, Persians, etc. partaking in the assembly.  Note that Colonel Haji Khan (far left – hand on sword hilt) and the officer to the right are members of the Gendarmerie para-military forces. Haji Khan died just a year later when fighting as a colonel with the Iranian army against Bolshevik/Communist and Russian troops attempting to overrun northern Iran after World War One.

Organization of the Unitary Iranian Army

As soon as he had seized power, Reza Shah proceeded to modernize and expand Iran’s newly formed unitary forces, known at this time as the Imperial Iranian Armed Services (IIAS). Reza Shah ordered the formation of five Lashgars on January 5, 1922, each to be composed of 10,000 men. These were as follows:

  • First (Central) Division: based in Tehran
  • Second (Northwest) Division: based in Tabriz
  • Third (Western) Division: based in Hamedan
  • Fourth (Southern) Division: based in Isfahan
  • Fifth (Khorasan) Division: based in Mashad

This five-division system was then used organize the defense of the country into five military regions:

  • North (Gilan, Mazandaran, Semnan, Tehran)
  • Northwest (Azerbaijan)
  • West (Kurdistan, Kermanshah, Luristan)
  • South-southwest (Fars, Khuzestan, the Persian Gulf coast, Seistan-Baluchistan)
  • Northeast (mainly Khorasan and environs to its south and west)

Iranian army troops 1930s or early 1940sMarch-past of Iranian army troops in the 1930s or early 1940s (Source: lead-adventure.de).

By 1930 the Iranian government had allocated up to 50 percent of Iran’s GNP (gross national product) for the Iranian military for the following tasks:

  • Creation and expansion of a Ministry of War
  • Acquisition of modern combat vehicles, aircraft, and naval vessels
  • Creation of an indigenous armaments industry the building of armaments factories
  • Formation of effective security forces for the country
  • Allocation of scholarships for military cadets to be send abroad for study in European military academies

Below is a comparison of the numbers of rifles, machine guns and artillery in 1922 and 1941:

  • 1922: rifles [37,325], machine guns [66], artillery [86]
  • 1941: rifles [507,587], machine guns [8158 ], artillery [874]

Berno-13-Kootah-FullThe Berno e Kootah (the short Berno) (Picture Source: Aliparsa.com). The required machinery and training for producing the Berno (Brno) rifles was provided by the Czech powerhouse firm, Škoda, which has had long-standing ties with the Iranian industrial sector. For more on the Berno (Brno) in Iranian army service see here

In less than two decades Iran’s inventory of rifles and cannon had increased ten-fold with its machine gun stocks having expanded 120-fold. During that period Iran had ordered approximately 300,000 rifles, 350 cannon (mainly light and medium calibers – some of these motorized) along with 6000 heavy and light machine guns. This meant that by the Second World War most units of the Iranian army were equipped with modern rifles and machine guns.

It is notable that while Iran did order much of its equipment from abroad, the military sector’s buildup of rifles, machine guns and artillery had been significantly assisted by the newly established Iranian armaments industries during 1922-1941.

Iranian Army-75mm AAA-Bofors[Click to Enlarge] Iranian artillery unit of 75mm Bofors anti-aircraft artillery (Picture Source:Network54). At least another twenty of these which had been on order were never delivered to Iran.

All of this was a remarkable achievement for a country that had been on the brink of chaos in the early 20th century. Under the Qajar administration, Iran had lacked a true national army capable of defending its borders against invasions and political interference.

Despite their achievements, the Iranian army was beset with one big liability: the artillery corps still deployed obsolete equipment such as the 75mm Bofors mountain guns and the Shneider-Cruezot 75-mm cannon. These types of equipment had been in use during the Constitutional revolution in the early 20th century. This was a serious liability, a fact demonstrated when the Anglo-Soviet invasion struck Iran in August 1941.

Bofors-75 mmAn old undated photo of an Iranian Swedish made Bofors 75mm mountain gun. These had seen service with the Iranian army since the early 20th century. Four of these have survived to this day, now on display at the gates of the Gilan barracks in northern Iran (Source: Matofi, A., 1999, Tarikh-e-Chahar Hezar Sal-e Artesh-e Iran: Az Tamadon-e Elam ta 1320 Khorsheedi, Jang-e- Iran va Araqh [The 4000 Year History of the Army of Iran: From the Elamite Civilization to 1941, the Iran-Iraq War]. Tehran:Entesharat-e Iman, p. 1043).

Iran in the 1922-1941 period succeeded in building up armored forces composed of  tanks and combat vehicles. The first tanks to arrive into Iran were the French FT-17 light tanks in 1925. These were armed with the 7.92 mm machine gun. After the FT-17 light tanks came the US-made Marmon Herrington which was also armed with machine guns. Interestingly, the Marmon Herrington company was to also deliver numbers of trucks for the Iranian army prior to 1941.

1-Citroen-half TrackIranian army personnel on maneuvers with what appear to be French made Citroen half-tracks. According to Matofi, these were the first half-tracks to enter service with the Iranian army in 1925 (Picture Source: Matofi, A., 1999, Tarikh-e-Chahar Hezar Sal-e Artesh-e Iran: Az Tamadon-e Elam ta 1320 Khorsheedi, Jang-e- Iran va Araqh [The 4000 Year History of the Army of Iran: From the Elamite Civilization to 1941, the Iran-Iraq War]. Tehran:Entesharat-e Iman, p.1045).

By the onset of the Anglo-Soviet invasion in August 25, 1941, Iran had a modest force of just 200 tanks. The most modern tanks in the Iranian inventory at the time were the Czech built AH–IV and TNH light tanks armed with the 37mm gun. The TNH rapidly gained popularity in Iran’s military and public circles. Iran had 300 more of these but none of these were to be delivered due to the Anglo-Soviet invasion in August 1941.

6-TNH light tankThe TNH light tank of the Iranian army first delivered in 1937. Note the Sherman tank (delivered to Iran after World War Two) behind the TNH (Photo Source: (Picture Source: Matofi, A., 1999, Tarikh-e-Chahar Hezar Sal-e Artesh-e Iran: Az Tamadon-e Elam ta 1320 Khorsheedi, Jang-e- Iran va Araqh [The 4000 Year History of the Army of Iran: From the Elamite Civilization to 1941, the Iran-Iraq War]. Tehran:Entesharat-e Iman, p.1134).

By the onset of the Second World War Iran also fielded 102 non-tank armored vehicles, including the British Rolls Royce India (1921) Pattern armored cars armed with Vickers machine guns alongside more powerful vehicles such as the American made LaFrance TK-6 armored car which was armed with a 37cm main gun and two machine guns.

7-AH-IV-TanketteAn AH-IV tankette engaged in practice drills in a Tehran barracks in the 1930s. Note the TNH light tank in the background (Photo Source: FSU.edu).

Despite the creation of the armored corps, the Iranian army still relied upon its cavalry for rapid attack and maneuver. The primary reason for this was because the Iranian armored corps had yet to master such operations at the battlefield level. To implement an armored force capable of rapid and coordinated battle maneuvers, the Iranian army had to create and organize a professional officer cadre trained in the latest methods of European armored warfare. In practice, Iran did have numbers of highly trained officers schooled in the European tradition of armored warfare, but these often were barred from advancing to  higher ranks due to endemic corruption within higher levels of command.

A serious problem that had not been addressed was the Iranian army’s conscription system. Despite advancements in several areas, conscription continued to rely upon the antiquated Qajar-era Bunichah system. Put simply, in this system:

  1. Each district was called upon for providing recruits for the regular army.
  2. Numbers summoned was based on calculations of that particular region’s amount of cultivated land.

Iranian Cavalry 1930sIranian cavalry in the 1930s (Source: lead-adventure.de). Despite the procurement of armored vehicles and their integration into the Iranian army, cavalry remained Iran’s prime asset for rapid strikes, shock and maneuver on the battlefield (Ward, 2009, p.142). One of the few successes scored by the Iranian army against the Anglo-Soviet invasion of late August 1941, was when an Iranian cavalry patrol forced back an advancing British force near the Paltak pass (in the Kermanshah area, western Iran) on August 27, and took numbers of them prisoner.

The inefficient Bunichah system of recruitment helps explain why each of the army’s five divisions failed to reach its target strength of 10,000 men. Even by 1926, the army still had a small force of just 40,000 troops. Realizing the problem, the Iranian army implemented a more modern mass conscription system. This finally allowed the Iranian army to expand the size of its personnel. By 1930 the army had a complement of 85,000 men. These were supported by the newly established (or re-established) Gendarmerie service, known as the Amnieh: these stood at-12,000 men. By 1937 the army had expanded its forces to 105,000 troops by 1937. By the onset of World War Two, the Iranian army fielded a total of 16 divisions composed of 126,000 men.

anahita temple ruins

The Temple of Anahita at Kangavar

The article below on the temple of Anahita in Kangavar near Kermanshah in Western Iran was originally published in the Historical Iran Blogspot.

Before proceeding to the posting, kindly note the following three points:

(1) Two of the photographs depicted below do not appear in  the original Historical Iran Blogspot article. All of the accompanying descriptions for the photographs are from Kavehfarrokh.com.

(2) At the end of the posting are photos provided by A. Parian from his article:

سنگهای شگفت انگیز – نگاهی به پرستشگاه کنگاور- ا. پریان – The Amazing Stones – An observation of the temple at Kangavar – by A. Parian (in Persian)

(3) The date of Kangavar’s construction is debated among scholars. The original consensus was that the structure had been built during the earlier Parthian era (c. 200 BCE). As noted by Mehrdad Kia (The Persian Empire: A Historical Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO-Greenwood, 2016):

The identification of the Kangavar structure as a temple of Anahita is based on a statement made by the first-century BCE author Isidore of Charax. In his short biographical account titled Parthian Stations, Isidore referred to Kangavar as Concobar and identified the city as home to a temple of Anaitis (Anahita). He did not, however, mention the exact date of the temple’s construction” (Kia, 2016, p.23).

Edward J. Keall has identified the academic challenges of pinpointing precise date(s) for the temple’s construction (Keall, E.J., Architecture: Parthian, Encyclopædia Iranica,Vol. II, Fasc. 3, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 327–329):

Under the Parthians any observable western influence can just as well be a survival from the Hellenistic period, which is why the monument at Kangāvar was once acceptably dated as early Parthian while recent investigations proved it to be late Sasanian” (Keall, 1986, p.328).

More recently, Warwick Ball (Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire, London & New York: Routledge, 2001) has stated:

Earlier studies favored a Seleucid date, with some suggesting an Achaemenid date for the platform. A date in the Parthian period has since been more generally favoured on stylistic grounds, but recent excavations found evidence for major Sassanian construction. However the colonnaded temenos is different in almost every respect to Sassanian architecture. Probably, the temple underwent numerous major reconstruction periods, with perhaps a 2nd-century AD date for the colonnaded temenos, and major Sassanian reconstruction of the sanctuary building inside” (Ball, 2001, p.332).

At this juncture, it would appear that Kangavar has witnessed various forms of construction spanning the the three major pre-Islamic eras of ancient Iran (Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian). What is certain is that Kangavar remains a critical historical site which requires more studies and excavations.

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The Anahita Temple is the name of an archaeological site in Iran popularly thought to have been attributed to the ancient deity Anahita. It is located at Kangavar in Kermanshah Province and is thought to be built by Achaemenian Emperor Ardeshir II (Artaxerxes II), 404 BC to 359 BC.

1-Kangavar-ColumnsA view of the columns at Kangavar (Source: Photographer Bahman Razei-IRNA in Payvand News). Kangavar’s remains reveal a combination of both Greek and Iranian elements. The edifice for example is Greek in style with the architecture showing Achaemenid designs.

The remains at Kangavar reveal an edifice that is Hellenistic in character, and yet display Persian architectural designs. The plinth’s enormous dimensions for example, which measure just over 200m on a side, and its megalithic foundations, which echo Achaemenid stone platforms, “constitute Persian elements”. This is thought to be corroborated by the “two lateral stairways that ascend the massive stone platform recalling Achaemenid traditions”, particularly that of the Apadana Palace at Persepolis.
The main structure of the Anahita Temple is a quadrilateral one. Its ramparts being 230 m. in length, and its thickness in most of the parts is 18 m. which reveals the archaic grandeur and magnificence of this structure. The stairway of the temple is bilateral and closely attached to the wall. The difference between the lowest and highest point of the structure is 30 m. and is in a form of steps, similar to the Achaemenian structures. At the foot of the eastern wall of the structure is a cemetery which is related to the Parthian era. It is noted that the deceased have been buried in such a way to face the Anahita structure.

2a-Kangavar stairwayStairway at Kangavar (Source: Behrah.com). There are two lateral stairways at Kangavar bearing parallels with that seen at the Apadana Palace at Persepolis.

In the nineteenth century, various Europeans investigated the ruins. Ker Porter in 1818 found them to form the foundations of a single huge platform – a rectangular terrace three hundred yards square, crowned with a colonnade. Professor Jackson in 1906 found one very well-preserved retaining wall at the northwest corner of the enclosure, probably part of the foundation of a single building; it was 12 to 15 feet high and runs north and south for more than 70 feet.

Excavation first began in 1968, by which time the large structure with its great Ionic columns set on a high stone platform had been associated with a comment by Isidore of Charax, that refers to a “temple of Artemis” (Parthian Stations 6). References to Artemis in Iran are generally interpreted to be references to Anahita, and thus Isidore’s “temple of Artemis” came to be understood as a reference to a temple of Anahita. Consequently, it has been commonly believed that the site was a “columnar temple dedicated to “Ardevisur Anahita,” the female guardian angel of waters. Some of the scholars who worked on the excavation believe it lacks the layout of a temple and must therefore be a palace.

2-Kangavar TempleA more panoramic view of the Anahita Temple at Kangavar (Source: Photographer Bahman Razei-IRNA in Payvand News). The very large dimensions for the plinth (platform for placing columns, monuments, statues, etc.) are 200 meters on a side, with stone platforms displaying Achaemenid Persian styles.

The temple was first plundered by Alexander in 335 BC, then further stripped during the reigns of Antigonus (BC 325-301) and Seleucus Nicator (BC 312-280). But when Antiochus the Great arrived at the city in 210 BC, he found columns covered with gold and silver tiles piled up in the temple, along with gold and silver bricks. From these he struck coinage amounting to about four thousand talents’ worth.
In 2005 archaeologists discovered four mines that provided the stones used in the construction of the Anahita Temple.

In an interview with the Persian service of the Cultural Heritage News (CHN) agency, Saeid Dustani (director of the Kangavar Cultural Heritage and Tourism Office) noted the following:

The mines are located in the National Garden in downtown Kangavar, Qureh-Jin and behind the Shahrak-e Vali-e Asr in the south (of the town), and Allah-Daneh district in the north. There is evidence that the mine had been utilized in ancient times. The vertical and horizontal incisions indicate that the stones had been cut for construction purposes. Even some unfinished columns and stone cubes were discovered in some of the mines”.

From the Northern Angle (photos by A. Parian)

These photos by A. Parian are of the north and northeast of the Temple, especially the wall, stairway and balcony facing the northeast.  These photos are from the following article:

سنگهای شگفت انگیز – نگاهی به پرستشگاه کنگاور- ا. پریان – The Amazing Stones – An observation of the temple at Kangavar – by A. Parian (in Persian)