Master Archers of the Achaemenid Empire

The article Master Archers” below written by Ḏḥwty was originally posted on the Ancient Origins website on September 18, 2015.


In the ancient Near East, archery became the predominant means of launching sharp projectiles, replacing spear-throwing. The history of archery, however, may have originated further down south during the Upper Paleolithic period. In South Africa, stone points thought to be arrow heads were discovered by archaeologists dating back 64,000 years old, and are believed to be the earliest evidence of the use of the bow and arrow. Apart from hunting animals for survival, human beings came to use the bow and arrow for a more destructive purpose – warfare. In the history of warfare, warriors of various cultures were renowned for their skill in using the bow and arrow. Of particular note were the soldiers of the Achaemenid Empire. Also known as the first Persian Empire (550 BC – 330 BC), the Achaemenid dynasty was known for its elite force of warriors named by Herodotus – ‘The Immortals’.

 تندیس آرش کمانگیر در مجموعه سعدآباد تهران – Statue of Arash Kamangir (Arash the Archer/Arash who grasps the bow) at Saadabad Palace in Tehran (Source: Drafsh Kaviani [درفش کاویانی] in Public Domain).

The Powerful Achaemenid Composite Bow

The bow used by the archers of the Achaemenid Empire is known as the composite bow. It is said that this weapon was developed by Central Asian nomads during the 2nd millennium BC. The body of this bow was constructed using horn and wood laminated together using animal resin. When the resin dried, a bond would have been formed between the horn and the wood, thus giving the body of the bow enough strength to withstand the immense pressures placed on it when the bow was drawn. To provide the bow with explosive power, sinews from animal tendons were then laminated to the outside face of the bow. It has been speculated that the construction of the composite bow might have taken up to 18 months to complete, and the end product was an immensely powerful weapon.

Early Training Makes a Strong Archer

In addition to such a deadly weapon, the Achaemenids were said to have been trained in archery from a very young age. Regarding the education of Persian boys, the Greek historian, Herodotus, has this to say:

“Their sons are educated from the time they are five years old until they are twenty, but they study only three things: horsemanship, archery, and honesty.”

From this statement, it may be said that archery was one of the skills most highly valued by the Persians of the Achaemenid Empire.

Exhibit of Achaemenid archers (Image Source: Ancient Origins).

Master archers  archers were used extensively by the Achaemenid armies. During battles fought by the Achaemenids, the archers were one of their first lines of attack. They would line up, take cover behind the shield bearers, and release volley upon volley of arrows against their enemies. An anecdote provided by Herodotus about the Battle of Thermopylae serves to illustrate this point:

“Before battle was joined, they say that someone from Trachis warned him [Dianeces] how many Persians there were by saying that when they fired their bows, they hid the sun with the mass of arrows. Dianeces, so the story goes, was so dismissive of the Persian numbers that he calmly replied, ‘All to the good, my friend from Trachis. If the Persians hide the sun, the battle will be in shade rather than sunlight.’”

Painting made in 1814 by French painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) of Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE) currently housed at the Musée du Louvre in Paris (Image Source: Ancient Origins).

This description suggests that the Achaemenid archers were firing from a long range with a high trajectory. Despite the volume of their projectiles, these archers seemed to have had little effect on the defending Spartans. This may be due to the fact that the Spartans were heavily armored. Although modern tests have shown that arrows released from a composite bow could pierce several layers of chain-mail at ranges up to 180 m (590.6 feet), the Achaemenids were using lightweight arrows. These may not have had the force required to penetrate the shields or cuirasses of the Spartans.

Additionally, the Spartans, who were highly trained and disciplined, were able to maintain a tight stationary formation, thus allowing them to withstand the volleys of Achaemenid arrows at the Battle of Thermopylae. Furthermore, by firing their arrows from a long distance, the Achaemenids were reducing the effectiveness of their weapon. Nevertheless, the battle ended in defeat for the Greeks, who were vastly outnumbered by the invading Persians under King Xerxes.

It has been pointed out that when the Achaemenids formed up closer to the Spartan lines, their archers seemed to have been more effective. One such battle was the Battle of Plataea. According to Herodotus’ account,

“They [the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) and Tegeans] proceeded to perform sacrifices, since they were about to join battle with Mardonius and as much of his army as was there, but the omens were unfavorable, and many of their men fell, with many more wounded, while the sacrifices were taking place, because the Persians formed their wickerwork shields into a barricade and continuously rained arrows down on the Greeks.”   


An illustration from the 1854 text “History of Greece and Rome, including Judea, Egypt, and Carthage” (John Russell, page 82) depicting the Battle of Platea (479 BCE) (Image Source: Ancient Origins).

Despite their Talented Archers the Achaemenids Lost…

Despite the effectiveness of their archers, the Battle of Plataea was eventually won by the Greeks. Additionally, history has shown that in the end, the Achaemenids were unable to add the Greek mainland into their empire. Thus, the Greek playwright, Aeschylus, could have written in The Persians:

Wo, wo is me! Then has the iron storm,
That darken’d from the realms of Asia, pour’d
In vain its arrowy shower on sacred Greece.


Potter, R., & Landes, W.A (trans.), 1998. Aeschylus’ The Persians. Players Press.

Potter, R., (trans.), 1833. Aeschylus’ The Persians.

Gill, V., 2010. Oldest evidence of arrows found, BBC News.

Waterfield, R. (trans.), 1998. Herodotus’ The Histories. Oxford University Press.

Legends and Chronicles, 2015. Persian Warriors.

The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, 2015. An Introduction to the Achaemenid Military Equipments., 2015. Iranian Archer – Soldier Profile.


The article below on Atropates by M. L. Chaumont was originally published on December 15, 1987 and last updated on August 17, 2011. Chaumont’s article is also available in print (Vol. III, Fasc. 1, pp. 17-18).

Kindly note that the maps and accompanying descriptions for these do not appear in the original Encyclopedia Iranica article.


Atropates (Āturpāt, lit., “protected by the fire,” cf. Av. Atərəpāta), the satrap of Media, commander of the troops from Media, Albania, and Sacasene at the battle of Gaugamela in 331 B.C. (Arrian, Anabasis 3.8.4). He remained faithful to Darius III until the latter’s death in 330, after which he went over to the Macedonian camp. Alexander, when passing through Ecbatana (Hamadān) earlier in the same year, had already transferred the governorship of Media to Oxydates (ibid., 3.20.3; Quintus Curtius, Historiae 6.2.11); but in 328-27 B.C. Alexander dismissed Oxydates, whose loyalty he no longer trusted, and reinstated Atropates (Arrian, 4.18.3; Quintus Curtius, 8.3.17, where Atropates is erroneously named Arsaces). As satrap of Media, Atropates delivered Baryaxes, a defeated rebel from that province, to Alexander at Pasargadae in 325-324 (Arrian, 6.29.3). He rose so high in the conqueror’s esteem that his daughter was soon afterward married to Alexander’s confidant Perdiccas (Arrian, 7.4.5; Justin, Historiae 13.4.13). He had a last interview with Alexander in Media in 324-323 (Arrian, 7.13.2, 6).

1-Map-HerodotusClose –up of the Achaemenid Empire region, the Caucasus and Central Asia on Charles Muller’s reconstruction of the world according to Herodotus (484-425 BCE); Note that Media, Armenia and the Caucasus regions are shown as distinct regions (Source: Source: Galichian, R., 2010, The Invention of History: Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Showcasing of Imagination, London, England: Gomitas Institute & Yerevan, Armenia: PrintInfo Art Books, p.163). At this time Media Atropatene had not been formed as Alexander had yet to invade the Achaemenid Empire. Media, Media Atropatene and the later post-Islamic historical designation for northwest Iran “Azerbaijan” was never located in the southern Caucasus, notably modern day Republic of Azerbaijan (founded in May 1918).

Under the territorial dispensation arranged at Babylon after Alexander’s death in 323, the satrapy of Media was divided into two parts, of which only Little Media (the northwestern part) was left to Atropates while Great Media (the eastern part) was assigned to Pytho (Diodorus Siculus, 18.3.3; Justin, 13.4.13). Eventually Atropates refused allegiance to any of the Macedonian generals and made his satrapy an independent kingdom (Strabo, Geography 11.13.1).

2-Ptolemy-Geographia-Third Map-Southern CaucasusPtolemy’s (c. 90-168 CE) map of the southern Caucasus during the Parthian era; from Ptolemy’s Tabula III Asiae of the Geographia printed in Ulm in 1482 (Source: Galichian, R., 2010, The Invention of History: Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Showcasing of Imagination, London, England: Gomitas Institute & Yerevan, Armenia: PrintInfo Art Books, p.19, Figure 1). Note that the region of modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan in the southern Caucasus was known as Albania; the historical Azerbaijan. This southern Caucasian region was never known as Media in antiquity nor was it known as “Azerbaijan” in the later post-Islamic era.

Thereafter this part of Media was known to the Greeks as Media Atropatene or simply Atropatene, like Parthian and Middle Persian Āturpātakān (whence Armenian Atrpatakan), later Ādurbādagān, NPers. Āḏarbāyjān.

10-Map-Whittow-Sassanian[Click to Enlarge] Sassanian Emperor, Shapur I (r. 241-270 CE)شاپور اول ساساني ] , cited Albania and Media Atropatene as two separate provinces of the Persian Empire. Professor Mark Whittow’s map of Oxford University clearly shows the historically attested distinction between ancient Arran/Albania and the original Azarbaijan in Iran. Note how the Araxes River separates Arran from the historical Azarbaijan (in Iran). Professor Whittow has clearly noted that: The oldest outside influence in Trans-Caucasia is that of Persia…many of its populations, including Armenians and Georgians, as well as Persians and Kurds, the Transcaucasus had much closer ties with the former Sassanian world to its south and east than with the world to the west(Whittow, M., 1996, The Making of Byzantium: 600-1025. Berkley: University of California Press, pp.203-204).

Atropates founded a dynasty which was to rule in Atropatene for several centuries (cf. Strabo, 11.13.1).


Sources: Arrian, Anabasis. Diodorus Siculus, BibliothecaHistorica, bk. 18. Strabo,Geography, bk. 11. Modern authors: H. Berve, Alexanderreich II, 1926, no.180.

A. von Gutschmid, Geschichte Irans und seiner Nachbarländer, Tübingen, 1888.

Justi, Namenbuch, p. 49.

J. Kaerst, “Atropates,” in Pauly-Wissowa, II/2, col. 2150.

Th. Nöldeke, “Atropatene,” ZDMG 34, 1880, pp. 692f.

On the name see M. Mayrhofer, Iranisches Personennamenbuch I/1, Vienna, 1977, p. I/29 no. 70.

Dr. Manouchehr M. Khorasani: Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts of Iran

Dr. Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani has published a book in 2013 entitled:

Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts of Iran


  • Title: Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts of Iran
  • Author: Dr. Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani
  • Publisher: Niloufar Books, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
  • Number of pages: 392
  • Date of Publication: 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-3-00-039054-8

The book Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts of Iran is  a reference manual on the historical Iranian martial arts in application. The martial arts have influenced all aspects of the ten thousand year history, language and culture of the Iranian people, and remain to this day integral to the Iranian national identity as clearly demonstrated in the Persian epic the Book of Kings.

A unique martial culture has permeated all of the most important artifacts of ancient (bronze- and iron age Luristan and Marlik sites), classical (Achemenid, Parthian and Sassanids), medieval (Samanids) and early modern and modern Iran (Safavid, Afsharid, Zand and Qajar periods), in its art and archaeology, literature, physical culture and national outlook.


Helmets and shields (Courtesy of M. Khorasani Consulting).

It is, without doubt, a martial tradition whose lineage extends back in time to the ancient period, as evidenced by production of large numbers of copper, bronze and iron swords and other weapons made of same materials, and which subsisted in Iran through the classical period (iron and steel weapons), and culminated in the production of the magnificent crucible steel during medieval and modern periods despite all of the historical changes that Iran underwent at a political level. Accordingly, research into the martial arts of Iran has, until now, demanded an intimate familiarity with a vast range of diverse materials that deal with the subject either directly or indirectly, including direct access to rare manuscripts, manuals, arms and armor that can only be found in Iranian museums itself. With this book, that situation has now changed. The present book deals with the revival of Persian swordsmanship and the traditional martial arts of Iran. Within these pages there are no unprovenanced claims to knowledge. Everything is meticulously referenced.


Close-quarter blade combat techniques (Courtesy of M. Khorasani Consulting).

The Iranian martial arts do not depend solely on an “oral tradition” for their lineage as well as their transmission from teacher to student, although the actual instruction is imparted from teacher to student. Rather, with regard to the lineage, every technique, every tactical advice and every method of training and application presented herein is properly provenanced with reference to at least one historical documentary source. Documentary evidence of specific techniques and training methods, taken from primary sources, fully supports every photographic and textual presentation of such techniques and methods shown in a vast number of miniatures and paintings and presented in this book. Didactic literary descriptions of martial arts, which might be likened to combat manuals, have a long history in Iran, and this book continues that tradition and showcases a number of complete and annotated manuascripts on archery, spear and lance fighting, war wrestling, etc. The Iranian martial arts presented in this book therefore hold up to a standard of academic scrutiny that will serve as a basis both for their introduction to the enthusiast or novice as well as a highly credible reference source to researchers.


Miniature Persian arts and poetry depicting close-quarter cavalry combat (Courtesy of M. Khorasani Consulting).

The book Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts of Iran presents in clearly tabulated descriptions, accompanied by photographic depictions as well as depictions in antique miniature illustrations, combat techniques both on horseback and on foot, and both armed with traditional Iranian weapons and unarmed. The first chapter of this book, “code of chivalry and warrior codex” deals with the warrior codex and the principles of Persian chivalry. This chapter also analyzes the training methods of the varzeš-e pahlavāni (champion sport). This traditional martial art still harbors many legacies from the training of ancient Iranian champions by, for example, using many tools that resemble historical battlefield weapons. The function of these weapons was certainly to train and prepare warriors for the upcoming battles.


Close-quarter blade combat techniques (Courtesy of M. Khorasani Consulting).

The next chapter deals with the history, principles and techniques of archery in Iran based on different Persian manuscripts. The next part of the chapter deals with principles of archery as described in different Persian manuscripts such as the archery part in the book Nŏruznāme [The Book of Nŏruz] attributed to Omar ben Ebrāhim Xayyām-e Neyšāburi, a complete, translated and annotated translation of a Safavid period manuscript written by Šarif Mohammad the son of Ahmad Mehdi Hosseyni on archery, lance fighting, wrestling, spear fighting and sword sharpening and etching. The next archery manual presented in this book is Jāme al-Hadāyat fi Elm al-Romāyat [Complete Guide about the Science of Archery] by Nezāmeldin Ahmad ben Mohammad ben Ahmad Šojāeldin Dorudbāši Beyhaqi from the Safavid period. Another archery manuscript offered in the book is titled Resāle-ye Kamāndāri [Archery Manuscript]. The third chapter of the book discusses “mounted combat and horse classification in Persian manuscripts”.The chapter deals with the these topics presenting a number of Persian manuscripts in this respect. The next chapter deals with combat with spears and lances in Iranian history. The chapter describes spears and lances and their typologies and then expands on different attack techniques with a lance/spear such as attacking different parts of the body with a spear/lance such as the eye, the neck, the throat, the mouth, the face, the arm/forearm, the chest, the abdomen, the navel, the shoulder, the side of the body, the back, the groin, the legs, the lower part of the spear/lance and cutting the armor straps of the opponent and many other techniques.


Axe-heads for close-quarter combat (Courtesy of M. Khorasani Consulting).

The next chapter discusses the techniques of swordsmanship based on a number of Persian manuscripts. Analyzing different Persian manuscripts such as epic tales and battle accounts, one notes a certain consistency in the recurrent allusion to certain techniques through the centuries. The next chapter analyzes the history of maces and axes in Iranian martial tradition.Similar to swords, the techniques of using axes and maces from various sources are analyzed and presented starting from epics from the tenth century C.E. up until relevant sources dating back to the end of the Qājār period. Another chapter provides information on combat with short edged weapons in Iran such as kārd (knife), xanjar (dagger) and pišqabz (S-shaped dagger).


Close-quarter combat blades (Courtesy of M. Khorasani Consulting).

The following chapter informs about combat with Persian short swords named qame and qaddāre in Iranian history. Those who are interested in wrestling will find this book indispensable as a reference source, as wrestling, of various types, has an extremely long history in Iran and is perhaps the most important foundation in the training of the Persian warrior archetype. Wrestling is highly systematized and there are prescribed criteria for graduation through various ranks of a wrestling school as well as detailed descriptions of wrestling techniques and sets of counters to every wrestling technique. Wrestling itself is also the basis of many techniques that are to be executed when armed with traditional weapons both long and short, as one of the most important objectives in Iranian martial arts is to take the opponent to the ground to finish him off (often with a dagger), and another is to use wrestling techniques in conjunction with a sword, or with a sword and shield in preparation to administer a finishing stroke.


Swords and blades of the straight type (Courtesy of M. Khorasani Consulting).

The wrestling chapter deals with wrestling which was an integral part of combat in Iran and includes the following sections: wrestling in Iranian history, techniques of wrestling on the battlefield (dealing with grabbing the sword hand or weapon hand of the opponent and throwing the opponent and using wrestling techniques on the battlefield).The chapter also offers the complete translated and annotated wrestling manuscripts. One of them is a wrestling manuscript written by Šarif Mohammad the son of Ahmad Mehdi Hosseyni from the period of Šāh Esmā’il Safavid. The chapter also offers a complete translated and annotated manuscript of the Tumār-e Puryā-ye Vali (Scroll of Puryā-ye Vali). The Safavid-period manuscript offers the names of many wrestling techniques. The chapter also presents a complete translated and annotated version of the Qājār-period poem Masnavi-ye Golkošti-ye Mirnejāt that deals with the topic of wrestling. The poem mentions a wide array of wrestling techniques.

The book Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts of Iran also offers a fully colored catalog of a number of historical Persian arms and armor at the end of the book with detailed descriptions and measurements.  Additionally the book has many miniatures depicting different war scenes from a number of Persian manuscripts.



            1.1 Warrior behavior, ceremony and respect

            1.2 The principles of javānmardi and ayyārān

            1.3 Preparation and training of warriors

            1.4 Physical exercises and training tools in the zurxāne                       

            1.5 Conclusion


            2.1 Archery in Iranian history

            2.2 Composite bow

            2.3 Bow and its typologies

            2.4 Arrow

            2.5 Thumb protector

            2.6 Bowstring

            2.7 The quiver and the bow case

            2.8 Arrow guide

            2.9 Principles of archery

            2.10 Target areas for archery                     

            2.11 Persian manuscripts on archery                       

            2.12 Conclusion


            3.1 Fighting with the lance on horseback

            3.2 Fighting with the mace and axe on horseback

            3.3 Sword drawing and swordfighting on horseback

            3.4 Grabbing, grappling and wrestling techniques on horseback

            3.5 Techniques and weapons for attacking a horse or an elephant

            3.6 A manuscript on lance combat by Šarif Mohammad the son of Ahmad

            Mehdi Hosseyni from the period of Šāh Esmā’il Safavid.

            3.7 Using lasso on horseback

            3.8 Horse classification in Persian manuscripts


            4.1 Spears and lances in Iranian history

            4.2 Spear/lance and its typologies

            4.3 Attack techniques with a lance/spear                       

            4.4 Feinting techniques with a lance/spear                     

            4.5 Defense techniques with a spear/lance                  

            4.6 Combinations of lance/spear techniques

4.7 A manuscript on spear combat by Šarif Mohammad the son of Ahmad

            Mehdi Hosseyni from the period of Šāh Esmā’il Safavid                       

            4.8 Spear in combination with the shield

            4.9 Conclusion


            5.1 Carrying, sheathing, and unsheathing the sword

            5.2 Carrying the shield

            5.3  Attacking techniques

            5.4 Feinting Techniques

            5.5  Combinations

            5.6 Defensive techniques

            5.7 Possible combinations of the attack and defense techniques with a šamšir

(sword) and a separ (shield) in Persian swordsmanship                       

            5.8 A manuscript on swords by Šarif Mohammad the son of Ahmad Mehdi

            Hosseyni from the period of Šāh Esmā’il Safavid (1502-1524 C.E.)

            5.9  Conclusion


            6.1 Maces in Iranian history

            6.2  Mace and its typologies

            6.3 Weight and impact  force of the mace

            6.4 Carrying the mace

            6.5 Techniques of mace attacks           

            6.6 Defensive techniques with a mace

            6.7 Combinations of fighting techniques with the mace

6.8 General aspects about the axe

6.9 Techniques of attack with an axe

6.10 Combinations with an axe

6.11 Conclusion


            7.1 Definition of kārd (knife)

            7.2 Kārd in  Persian manuscripts

            7.3 Carrying and unsheathing a knife

            7.4 Techniques of attack using a knife

            7.5 Combination of techniques in fighting with a knife

            7.6 Definition of xanjar

            7.7 Xanjar in Persian manuscripts

            7.8 Carrying and unsheathing the dagger

            7.9 Techniques of attack with a dagger

            7.10 Combinations of fighting techniques with the dagger

            7.11 Definition of pišqabz

            7.12 Conclusion


            8.1 Attack techniques with a qaddāre

            8.2 Possible combinations with a qaddāre

            8.3 Attack techniques with a qame


            9.1 Wrestling in Iranian history

            9.2 Techniques of wrestling on the battlefield

             9.3 Wrestling manuscript by Šarif Mohammad the son of Ahmad Mehdi Hosseyni from the period of Šāh Esmā’il Safavid

             9.4 A comparative analysis of the techniques mentioned in the Safavid period wrestling manuscript

             9.5 The manuscript of the Tumār-e Puryā-ye Vali (Scroll of Puryā-ye Vali)

             9.6 A comparative analysis of the techniques mentioned in the manuscript Tumār-e Puryā-ye Vali

            9.7 The manuscript Masnavi-ye Golkošti-ye Mirnejāt

            9.8 A comparative analysis of the techniques mentioned in the Mirnejāt manuscript

            9.9 Conclusion

10. References

12. Catalog

Some facts and statistics on the book Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts of Iran

Number of pages: 392 pages

Endnotes: 2189

Weight of the book: 2400 grams

Size: 30,5 cm x 22,5 cm

Total number of pictures: 2095

1) Pictures of techniques: 1564 total

64 pictures of dagger techniques

64 pictures of knife techniques

145 pictures of qame and qaddare techniques

232 pictures of spear techniques

322 pictures of sword and shield, two swords, two handed sword techniques

149 pctures mace and axe techniques

460 pictures of wrestling techniques

128 pictures of varzesh- pahlavani techniques

2) Miniatures: 313 total

303 miniatures within the text

Full-page colored miniatures in th catalog: 10

3) Artifacts 218 total

Number of artifacts in the catalog: 40

Full-colored pictures of artifacts in the catalog: 178

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 In addition certain assertions made by Chehabi are questioned by (esp. with respect to the notion that the Zoor-khaneh is unrelated to pre-Islamic era training regimens).


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 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: 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:; 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: 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.


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.

Professor Muhammad A. Dandamayev: Achaemenid Education System

The article below by  Muhammad A. Dandamayev on the Achaemenid Education System was first published on-line on December 15, 1997 in the Encyclopedia Iranica and Last Updated: December 9, 2011.

Kindly note that a number of pictures displayed in the article below are from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006 and Farrokh’s textbook  Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-).


Little is known of the training of children during the Achaemenid period. In two Elamite documents from Persepolis drafted in the 23rd regal year of Darius the Great (499 B.C.E.) “Persian boys (who) are copying texts” are mentioned (Hallock, nos. 871, 1137); the texts in question are records of the issue of grain to twenty-nine individuals and wine to sixteen. It is possible that the boys were learning Persian cuneiform script, which was probably known only to a few scribes, as it was used mainly for royal triumphal inscriptions. Most of nobles and highly placed Persian civil servants were literate, and writing played part in standard Persian education. The Persians also used foreign scribes (writing chiefly in Aramaic) in the state chancery.

Stylus The oldest known “Pen” or Stylus (discovered in Bondul Tepe, Fars province, Iran), dated to the Middle Elamite era (c.1550-1000 BCE). This was used for inscribing mud tablets (Source: CAIS).

Greek sources provide some idea of typical Persian education. According to Herodotus, Persian boys were not allowed into the presence of their fathers until the age of five years; until then they lived among the women. From ages five to twenty years they were trained in horsemanship, swordsmanship, archery, and telling the truth (Herodotus, 1.136). Persians regarded lying as the worst of offenses, whereas prowess in arms was the mark of manliness. Xenophon wrote in Cyropaedia that until the age of sixteen or seventeen years the sons of Persian nobles were brought up at the royal court, practicing riding, archery, throwing the spear, and hunting.

cyrus-cylinder-New[Click to Enlarge] The Cyrus Cylinder (The British Museum)

The ancient Persians were also instructed in justice, obedience, endurance, and self-restraint (1.2.2-12, 7.5.86, 8.6.10; cf. idem, Anabasis 1.9.2-6; Strabo, 15.3.18). Clearly, apart from ethical guidance, the aim of Persian education was to produce efficient soldiers. This conclusion is confirmed by the tomb inscription of Darius the Great:

Trained am I both with hands and with feet. As a horseman I am a good horseman. As a bowman I am a good bowman both afoot and on horseback. As a spearman I am a good spearman both afoot and on horseback” (DNb 40-45; Kent, Old Persian, pp. 139-40).

In Alcibiades (attributed to Plato, 1.120-23) it is noted that Persian princes were assigned at the age of fourteen years to four eminent Persians, called respectively the “wisest,” “most just,” “most temperate,” and “bravest,” who tutored them in the worship of the gods, government, temperance, and courage respectively. Plutarch (Artaxerxes 3.3) mentioned a priest who taught “the wisdom of the Magi” to Cyrus the Younger (q.v. vi).

cyropaedia-thomas-jefferson-copyThomas Jefferson’s copy of the Cyropaedia (Picture Source:  Angelina Perri Birney). Like many of the founding fathers and those who wrote the US Constitution, President Jefferson regularly consulted the Cyropedia – an encyclopedia written by the ancient Greeks about Cyrus the Great. The two personal copies of Thomas Jefferson’s Cyropaedia are in the US Library of Congress in Washington DC. Thomas Jefferson’s initials “TJ” are seen clearly engraved at the bottom of each page.

There is practically no information on education in the eastern satrapies of the Achaemenid empire, but the evidence for Babylonia and Egypt, where traditional educational systems continued under Persian rule, is extensive. In both provinces formal education was restricted to boys. Reading and writing, as well as some grammar, mathematics, and astronomy, were taught in scribal schools. In Achaemenid Babylonia literacy also was widespread among the non-Iranian population; scribes were numerous and included the sons of shepherds, fishermen, weavers, and the like. Many school texts have survived from Mesopotamia. They include Sumerian-Babylonian dictionaries, tablets with cuneiform signs, and collections of examples of grammatical usage and exercises (Oppenheim, pp. 244-49). The literacy rate was even higher among the Achaemenid military colonists in Elephantine in Egypt (qq.v.), where witnesses to contracts in Aramaic usually signed their own names (Naveh, p. 22). Darius I ordered the restoration of the medical school at Sais in Egypt. It seems, however, that among the Egyptians education remained the privilege of the nobility: The Egyptian dignitary Ujahorresne declared that there were no children of “nobodies” among the students in this medical school (Posener, pp. 1-2, 22).


Boyce, Zoroastrianism II, pp. 181, 212-13, 261.

R. T. Hallock, Persepolis Fortification Tablets, Chicago, 1969.

S. W. Hirsch, The Friendship of the Barbarians. Xenophon and the Persian Empire, Hanover, N.H., 1985, pp. 85-87.

J. Naveh, The Development of the Aramaic Script, The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Proceedings 5/1, Jerusalem, 1970.

A. L. Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia. Portrait of a Dead Civilization, Chicago, 1977.

G. Posener, La premieàre domination perse en Égypte, Cairo, 1936.