Dura Europos: Its’ Archaeology & History

The article “Dura Europos: Its’ Archaeology & History” by Pierre Leriche was originally published in the CAIS venue hosted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav in London.

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Abstract

Dura Europos ruined city on the right bank of the Euphrates between Antioch and Seleucia on the Tigris, founded in 303 B.C.E. by Nicanor, a general of Seleucus I. It flourished under Parthian rule. The site is in modern Syria, on a plateau protected on the east by a citadel built on bluffs overlooking the river, on the north and south by wadis, and on the west by a strong rampart with powerful defensive towers. Its military function of the Greek period was abandoned under the Parthians, but at that time it was the administrative and economic center of the plain extending 100 km between the confluence of the Khâbûr and Euphrates rivers and the Abû Kamâl gorge to the south.

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Initial archeological exploration of the city took place in 1920-22, under the direction of Franz Cumont and the sponsorship of the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris. From 1929 to 1937 Yale University and the Acade‚mie sponsored excavations under the initiative of M. I. Rostovtzeff, who published Dura-Europos and Its Art, a synthesis of the history of the town and of its civilization, formed from Greek, Semitic, and Iranian components. This work has served as the basis for all subsequent studies of the site. In fact, however, understanding of Dura Europos depended mainly on written materials (parchments, papyri, inscriptions, and grafitti; see ii, below), paintings, tombs, and portable objects (e.g., coins, bronzes, and lamps) from the excavations, and very little attention has been paid to the architectural remains. Although nearly a third of the town has been excavated, a large number of buildings have been published only summarily or not at all. It therefore became necessary to resume the work of publication, and for this reason the Mission Franco-Syrienne de Doura-Europos was formed in 1986 under the joint direction of the author and Assad Al-Mahmoud; the major objectives are to reexamine the archeological data, to make available the entire mass of documentation from previous excavations, as well as to save the monuments from destruction.

Fresco at Dura Europos (Source: CAIS).

Dura Europos was brought into the Iranian cultural sphere after the Parthian conquest in about 113 B.C.E. (Bellinger; Welles). This domination lasted three centuries, interrupted by a Roman occupation in 115-17 C.E., during Trajan’s expedition to Ctesiphon (q.v.). In 165 Dura was conquered by Avidius Cassius and became a stronghold in the Roman defensive system along the eastern frontier of the empire. Nevertheless, despite an impressive effort to reinforce its defenses, the town was unable to withstand the great offensive launched by the Sasanian Šâpûr I (240-70) in 256; it was taken after a bitter siege, and the population was deported, thus putting an end to the town’s existence.

The Parthian period

According to recent discoveries, Dura Europos, originally a fortress, was constituted as a city only in the late Hellenistic period and had been only sparsely populated throughout the Greek period. It was under the Parthians, however, that the city assumed its essential aspect, as revealed by the excavations, a configuration only partly modified by the Roman occupation, except for transformation of the northern sector into a Roman camp. Recent work by the Mission Franco-Syrienne has permitted some refinement of this picture; certain buildings that had formerly been attributed to the Parthians can now be dated to the Hellenistic period. For example, according to Armin von Gerkan, the cut-stone fortifications of Dura Europos had been built by the Parthians, fearful that the Greek wall of unbaked bricks would be insufficient against a Roman attack. Only the northern section of the original western wall survived, which he took as proof that the project had been rendered unnecessary by the peace concluded between the Parthians and Augustus in 20 B.C.E. (pp. 4-51). This conclusion was based more on probabilities extrapolated from the reports of ancient historians than on archeological discoveries and has been contradicted by the results of recent soundings and clearing of earlier trenches. It is now clear that it was the Greeks themselves who built the stone fortifications, in the second half of the 2nd century B.C.E., and that the use of mud bricks resulted from the imminent threat from the Parthians, which forced the builders to finish the wall with more easily obtained material (Leriche and Mahmoud, l990). Similarly, the reconstruction of the palace of the strategus (the redoubt palace; Figure 30/24) and its extension to the north, as well as construction of the second palace in the citadel, which shows a number of similarities, had been attributed to the Parthian period, but recent excavations in the interior and at the base of the facade of the former building have revealed that it belongs to the 2nd century B.C.E., that is, the Greek period. In a recent study Susan Downey (1988) has also called into question the restoration of one palace with an ayvân (q.v.), which was suggested in the Yale publications and would imply a Parthian construction.

Mithraic temple at Dura Europos (Source: CAIS).

The Parthian period thus appears to have been primarily a phase of expansion at Dura Europos, an expansion favored by abandonment of the town’s military function. All the space enclosed by the walls gradually became occupied, and the installation of new inhabitants with Semitic and Iranian names alongside descendants of the original Macedonian colonists contributed to an increase in the population (Welles et al.). In his celebrated Caravan Cities Rostovtzeff had argued that this prosperity could have resulted from the town’s position as a trading center and caravan halt, but this hypothesis has been abandoned, for nothing uncovered by the excavations has confirmed it. Instead, Dura Europos owed its development to its role as a regional capital, amply illustrated by the contents of inscriptions, parchments, and papyri.

In the Parthian period Greek institutions remained in place (Arnaud), and the property-zoning scheme established in the Hellenistic period was respected in new construction; that is, buildings were kept within the limits of pre-existing blocks 35 x 70 m laid out uniformly over the entire surface of the plateau, even to a large extent in the interior wadis. The only exceptions were the quarter of the town southeast of the citadel, which had apparently already been occupied before the division into lots, and a sector of the agora that had been invaded by domestic buildings. The ramparts were neglected: Domestic trash accumulated along the periphery, finally forming a mass so thick that it prevented access to certain towers on the western wall.

The architecture of the Parthian period was characterized by a progressive evolution of Greek concepts toward new formulas in which regional traditions, particularly those derived from Babylonia, played an increasing role. These innovations affected both religious and domestic buildings. No secular public building is known to have been built during the Parthian period, with the possible exception of a bath constructed of cut stone in the northeast sector of the town. The evolved Parthian forms generally persisted into the Roman period, except for buildings in the Roman camp in the northern third of the town, for example, the palace of the Dux Ripae and the praetorium.

Depiction of Iranian god Mithras slaying the sacred bull (Source: CAIS).

The architecture of private dwellings varied in detail according to the wealth of the owner. The systematic layout of the Greek city, in which each house was supposed to cover one-eighth of a block (ca. 300 m2), was abandoned or modified through subdivision and consolidation resulting from sales or inheritance (Saliou). The smallest houses covered one quarter or even less of a Greek lot, whereas other, more luxurious examples might cover up to half a block. But the organizing principle of the house remained fundamentally the same: The street door, often situated at a corner of the house, opened onto a corridor leading into a central courtyard, which provided access and light to the various rooms of the house. The principal room, the andro‚n, was usually situated on the south side, opening to the north, and was surrounded on all four walls by a masonry bench; it served as a reception room (Allara). Some houses incorporated columns, but gabled roofs disappeared in favor of terraces, rooms became irregular in shape, and several houses had second stories.

Religious architecture underwent a comparable evolution, traceable through numerous excavated buildings: the temples of Artemis Nanaïa II and Zeus Megistos II, the necropolis temple, and the temples of Artemis Azzanathkona, Zeus Kyrios, Atargatis, Bel, Aphlad, Zeus Theos, Gad, and Adonis. This architecture diverged more and more from the hypothetical Greek model, if in fact such a model had ever been introduced at Dura Europos (Downey, 1988, p. 176). All the temples of the Parthian period have the same basic plan, with variations in detail. A generally square temenos is enclosed by a blank wall; the naos stands at the back of the interior courtyard facing the entrance. Against the interior face of the enclosure wall are a series of rooms for service or secondary cults, usually built by donors. When the naos is set against the back wall of the temenos, a narrow space is left between them to provide a separation of the cella from the exterior world. The building is small, usually square in plan, and raised on a podium of two or three steps, with one or more altars in front. The interior is divided in two: the pronaos, which occupies the full width of the building and is sometimes furnished with tiers of benches on either side of the entrance, and the cella, usually flanked by two chapels or lateral sacristies. The cult image on the wall opposite the entrance, either mounted on a pedestal or painted directly on the surface. All that remains from the Greek tradition is the occasional presence of a columned facade in front of the temple or porticoes along the sides of the courtyard, as at the temple of Bel.

The undermined defenses at Tower 19 (background), where many of the finest military artefacts were preserved (Source: CAIS).

It is thus clear that at Dura Europos entirely original architectural formulas were perfected during the Parthian period, in both religious and domestic constructions; the Babylonian element predominated, though with a certain Greek dressing, but no unequivocal Iranian influence appears. The formula for religious buildings was followed in all temples, whatever the form of worship to which they were consecrated, Greek or Semitic.

The only Iranian cult known at Dura Europos was that of Mithra, which paradoxically had been introduced into the city by Roman troops in 168. The mithraeum, located near the western wall in the Roman camp (Figure 307), belongs to the type dedicated to the cult throughout the Roman world and has no features in common with the other religious buildings at Dura Europos, except that it stands on a podium. It appears to have been a single room of modest dimensions with a bench on each of the longer sides; above the central aisle there was a raised ceiling with a clerestory. At the end of the room was a niche containing two cultic bas-reliefs with an altar before them. The entire surface of the room was covered with painted decoration: scenes from the life of Mithra, representations of magi and the zodiac around the bas-reliefs in the niche, and mounted hunting scenes on the side walls.

Although Iranian influence is difficult to find in the architecture of Dura Europos, in figurative art it is much more pronounced. In fact, owing to landfill that preserved religious buildings along the western wall (see below), Dura has provided the main evidence of a decorative art that seems to have developed in Parthian domains, reflecting a synthesis of the traditions of the ancient Near East (linear drawing, two-dimensional forms, stiff poses) and the Hellenic world (the use of architectural decoration and friezes, types of dress). Furthermore, in religious settings, those most fully represented, the principle of “Parthian frontality” prevailed. This convention, according to which all figures, human or divine, face directly forward, with eyes fixed on the spectator, made its appearance at Dura very early, in the oldest painting, of the sacrifice of Conon, in the temple of Bel (probably 1st century C.E.; Figure 30/8). It persisted until the destruction of the city, as attested in the frescoes of the synagogue, dating from 245 (Figure 30/5). It was equally apparent in sculpture and terra-cottas (except for a statue of Artemis with the tortoise, which comes from a Hellenistic center) and, for example, in two reliefs of the Gads of Dura and Palmyra. On the other hand, in frequent narrative scenes of combat and hunting on horseback, like those in the mithraeum (Figure 30/7), the horses and wild beasts are portrayed in a flying gallop, a characteristic that was to be developed in Sasanian art.

The Siege of Dura Europos

The Sasanian siege of Dura Europos in 256 brought an end to the town’s existence and immobilized Šâpûr’s army for several months. The determined resistance put up by the inhabitants forced the assailants to adopt various siege tactics, which eventually resulted in conquest of the city; the defensive system, the mines, and the assault ramp were left in place after the deportation of the population, which permits modern investigators to gain an exact idea of the military techniques of the Sasanians and the Romans in the mid-3rd century.

A Sasanian helmet from the siege mines beneath Tower 19, Dura-Europos. It is a rare find of Sasanian military archaeology, and also clearly a prototype for Roman helmets of the 3rd century CE (Source: CAIS).

It is not known where the Sasanians located their camp, but traces of their operations against the city wall still survive (du Mesnil du Buisson). To guard against the attack, which was clearly expected from the time that the Sasanian empire was established, the Romans had heightened and reinforced the external faces of the western and northern ramparts by masking them with thick layers of fill covered by a mud-brick glacis and thus burying the buildings along the inside of the wall. The Persians undermined towers 19 and 14 (Figure 30) on the western wall in order to bring them down, but, owing to the filling and the glacis, the towers were not really destroyed. At the southeast corner of the town they built an assault ramp 40 m long and 10 m high against the wall to permit troops to enter; it consisted of a mass of fill packed between two walls of brick and paved with baked bricks, which made it possible to move a siege machine close to the wall. Two tunnels, each wide enough to permit several men to advance abreast, were dug near the body of the ramp. There is no surviving textual description of the siege of Dura Europos, but Ammianus Marcellinus’ account of the siege of Amida (q.v.) a century later, in which the same techniques were used, permits reconstruction of the operations at Dura; the main siege weapons were catapults, movable towers, and even elephants. Clearly the Sasanian armies had a sophisticated knowledge of siege techniques.

The discovery of the body of a Sasanian soldier in one of the trenches has also yielded precious information. He was equipped with a coat of mail, a sword ornamented with a jade disk of Central Asian type, and an iron helmet (left figure) made in two halves with an iron crest running vertically down the center of the front, of clearly Mesopotamian and Iranian origin. This type of helmet served as a model for those adopted in the Roman empire in the 3rd century (James).

The chronology of the siege operations has given rise to a debate that is still far from having been resolved. The discovery of Pahlavi inscriptions on the frescoes of the synagogue does not prove that the town had first been occupied by the Sasanians during a campaign in 253, three years before the final siege. It is also improbable that a house near the triumphal arch on the main street, in which there was a fresco of Sasanian type showing a fight between cavalrymen, belongs to this putative first occupation. It seems now that this fresco, several ostraca in Pahlavi found in the palace of the Dux Ripae (Figure 30/13), and the tombs discovered in the town and along the river resulted from temporary installation of a small Persian detachment in the town after the victory of 256 (MacDonald; Leriche and Al Mahmoud, 1994).

Bibliography

he results of the French-Syrian campaigns have been published in P. Leriche, ed., Doura-Europos. Études I-III (DEE), published in Syria, 1986, 1988, 1992. The fourth volume is forthcoming in the series Bibliotheàque Arche‚o-logique et Historique, Beirut.

A. Allara, “Les maisons de Doura-Europos. Questions de typologie,” in DEE I, pp. 39-60.
P. Arnaud, “Doura-Europos. Microcosme grec ou rouage de l’administration arsacide?” in DEE I, pp. 135-55.

A. R. Bellinger, “The Evidence of the Coins,” Berytus 9, 1948, pp. 51-67.
A. Bounni, “Un nouveau bas-relief palmyrênien de Doura-Europos,” Comptes Rendus de l’Acade‚mie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 1994, pp. 11-18.

F. Cumont, Fouilles de Doura-Europos (1922-1926), Paris, 1926. S. B. Downey, “The Citadel Palace at Dura-Europos,” in DEE I, pp. 28-37.
Idem, Mesopotamian Religious Architecture. Alexander through the Parthians, Princeton, N.J., 1988.
A. von Gerkan, “The Fortifications,” in M. I. Rostovtzeff, ed., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Preliminary Reports VII-VIII, New Haven, Conn., 1939, pp. 4-61.

R. Ghirshman, Iran. Parthians and Sasanians, tr. S. Gilbert and J. Emmons, London, 1962 (for illustrations).
C. Hopkins, The Discovery of Dura-Europos, New Haven, Conn., 1979 (with an almost complete bibliography on the site up to that time).
S. James, “Evidence from Dura Europos for the Origins of Late Roman Helmets,” in DEE I, pp. 107-34.
P. Leriche, “Chronologie du rempart de briques crues,” in DEE I, pp. 61-82. Idem, “Techniques de guerre sassanides et romaines aà Doura-Europos,” in F. Vallet and M. Kazanski eds., L’arme‚e romaine et les Barbares du IIIe au VIIIe sieàcle, Paris, 1993, pp. 83-100.
Idem and A. Al Mahmoud, “Bilan des campagnes de 1986 et 1987 de la mission franco-syrienne aà Doura-Europos,” in DEE II, 1988, pp. 3-24.
Idem, “Bilan des campagnes de 1989 et 1990 à Doura-Europos,” in DEE III, pp. 3-28.
Idem, “Doura-Europos. Bilan des recherches re‚centes,” Comptes- Rendus de l’Acade‚mie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 1994, pp. 395-420.
D. MacDonald, “Dating the Fall of Dura-Europos,” Historia 35, 1986, pp. 45-68.
S. Matheson, Dura Europos, New Haven, Conn., 1982.
R. du Mesnil du Buisson, “Les ouvrages du sieàge de Doura- Europos,” Me‚moires de la Socie‚te‚ nationale des antiquaires de France 81, 1944, pp. 5-60.
A. Perkins, The Art of Dura-Europos. Oxford, 1973.
M. I. Rostovtzeff, ed., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Preliminary Reports, 9 vols., New Haven, Conn., 1929-52.
Idem, Caravan Cities, Oxford, 1932.
Idem, “Dura and the Problem of Parthian Art,” Yale Classical Studies 5, 1935, pp. 157-304.
Idem, Dura-Europos and Its Art, Oxford, 1938.
Idem, and A. Perkins, eds., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Reports,, 11 vols., New Haven, Conn., 1943-77.
C. Saliou, “Les quatre fils de Pole‚mocrateàs,” in DEE III, Paris, 1990, pp. 65-100.
D. Schlumberger, L’Orient helle‚nise‚, Paris, 1970.
C. B. Welles, “The Chronology of Dura-Europos,” Eos 48, 1957, pp. 467-74.
Idem, The Parchments and Papyri, The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report 5/1. New Haven, Conn., 1959.

The Third Colloquia Baltica Iranica Conference (24-27 November 2016)

Siedlce University in Poland will be hosting the Third Colloquia Baltica Iranica Conference on 24-27 November 2016. The organizers of the conference are as follows: the Institute of History and International Relations, Siedlce University of Natural Sciences and Humanities, Student Scientific Association of Historians, Siedlce University of Natural Sciences and Humanities, in cooperation with The Department of Mediterranean Archaeology, Gdańsk University, III CBI President: Katarzyna Maksymiuk and III CBI Secretary: Adam Kubik.

universty-of-siedlice-main-gateMain entrance gate of Siedlce University of Natural Sciences and Humanities (Public Domain).

The conference will host an array of international experts in the field of ancient Iranian militaria studies such as: Nicholas Sekunda (University of Gdańsk, Poland), Aleksandr Silnov (State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering, Petersburg, Russia), Dan Tudor Ionescu (Metropolitan Library of Bucharest, Romania), Ilkka Syvänne (University of Haifa, Israel), Patryk Skupniewicz (University of Siedlce, Poland), David Nicolle (University of Nottingham, Great Britain), Valerii Nikonorov (Russian Academy of Sciences, Petersburg, Russia), Svyatoslav Smirnov, (Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia), Marcin Lichota (University of Siedlce, Poland), Mariusz Mielczarek (Polish Academy of Sciences, Łódź, Poland), Marta Czerwieniec (University of Siedlce, Poland), Joanna Szklarz (University of Siedlce, Poland), Alli Kolesnikov (Russian Academy of Sciences, Petersburg, Russia) and Sergei
Nikonenko (Saint Petersburg State University, Russia).

Kaveh Farrokh, Reza Karamian of Tehran Azad University and Adam Kubik (University of Siedlce, Poland) will present a paper entitled:

An Examination of Parthian and Sassanian Military Helmets (2nd century BCE – 7th century CE)

Farrokh-Elite Sassanina CavalrySassanina Knight in 4th century AD

Sassanian knight at the time of Shapur II (309–379) engaging Roman troops invading Iran in 333 CE. Note the Spangenhelm helmet (based on the item housed at the Baghdad Museum) and suit of mail covering arms and torso. This knight resembles early Sassanian warriors in which he sports a decorative vest and a medallion strap on his chest; he also dons a Spangenhelm helmet. He has lost his lance in an earlier assault and is now thrusting his heavy broadsword using the Sassanian grip (known in the west as the ‘Italian’ grip) in the forward position for maximum penetration effect. The sword handle is based on that depicted for one of Shapur I’s swords (British Museum B.M.124091); the sheath is based on the Bishapur depictions. His sword tactic is meant for shock and short engagements; he will then retire and discharge missiles. The bow and missiles in the left hand will be deployed as the knight redeploys at least 20 meters away. The quiver is modelled on that of King Pirooz (New York Metropolitan Museum Inv.34.33) (Picture Source: Farrokh, K., Elite Sassanian Cavalry-اسواران ساسانی-, Osprey Publishing, 2005, Plate D, p.61) .

The presentation will discuss a comprehensive array of topics such as available reliefs inside Iran that provide iconographic information despite weathering over the ages (Gotarzes relief at Behiston, Tang-e Sarvak, Panj-e Ali, Firuzabad, Nagshe Rustam, Nagshe Rajab and Bishapur), helmets housed at museums (British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels, Römisches Germanisches Museum in Mainz-Germany, Baghdad Museum, Musee d’Art Classique de Mougins, and various other select helmets) and all other forms of depictions (plaques), seals/bullae, the armored horseman at Taghe Bostan as well as Classical references. The site of Dura Europos with respect to the graffiti of Iranian horseman and the excavated ridge helmet are also examined. Insignia and decorations on helmets will also be discussed. The links between the military cultures of ancient Iran and Europa are also examined by examination of Roman victory displays (i.e. Trajan’s relief) and helmets (i.e. Dacian helmets featuring parallels with ancient Iranian models.

Farrokh-Ancient Persia at War-Sassanina Spangenhelm Helmet Nineveh

Sassanian Spangenhelm Helmet recovered from Nineveh in modern-day Iraq which would have been a part of Sassanian Enpire (224-651 CE) at the time. The Spangenhelm helmet was constructed by fastening metal plates together by rivets (Picture Source: Farrokh, K., Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, Osprey Publishing, p.223).

Two of Farrokh and Karamian’s papers in 2016 have been:

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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

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  • 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

1. CODE OF CHIVALRY AND WARRIOR CODEX 

            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. THE SACRED WEAPON: ARCHERY IN IRAN

            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. MOUNTED COMBAT AND HORSE CLASSIFICATION IN PERSIAN MANUSCRIPTS 

            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. COMBAT WITH SPEARS AND LANCES IN IRANIAN HISTORY

            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. SWORDSMANSHIP

            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. MACES AND AXES IN IRANIAN MARTIAL TRADITION

            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. COMBAT WITH SHORT  EDGED WEAPONS IN IRAN

            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. THE COMBAT WITH SHORT SWORDS: QAME AND QADDĀRE

            8.1 Attack techniques with a qaddāre

            8.2 Possible combinations with a qaddāre

            8.3 Attack techniques with a qame

9. WRESTLING: AN INTEGRAL PART OF COMBAT IN IRAN

            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 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

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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.

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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.

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Sassanian Relief at Salmas (ancient Shapur)

Salmas (ancient Shapur) in Iran’s West Azerbaijan province is an ancient heritage settlement. Notable are the ties of the Sassanian rock reliefs of the Khantakhti region of Salmas: these depict Shapur I (r. 240-270 CE) and his father Ardashir I Babakan (r. 224-242 CE), the founder of the Sassanian dynasty (224-651 CE). Khantakhti is located approximately 15 kilometres from the Shapur-Urmia highway.

Scholars in general are of the opinion that the reliefs represent the military victory of Ardashir I over the Roman Empire in Armenia. This thesis is mainly based on crown depictions seen on Sassanian reliefs and coins.

1-Sass Relief-SalmasThe mounted figures of Ardashir I (to the front) facing a standing figure and Shapur I (behind Ardashir) (Source: Azariha). It is possible that this relief commemorates a Sassanian military victory in Armenia. The first captive held by Ardashir may be Armenian king Khosrov (Persian: Khosrow) with the captive to the rear held by Shapur I apparently being the Armenian Vizier.

Father and son, Ardashir I and Shapur I, fought hard against multiple powers, notably the Roman Empire, to maintain the independence and territorial integrity of the newly founded Sassanian dynasty.

2-Sass Relief-SalmasClose-up of Ardahsir I at Khantakhi (Source: Azariha). Note the monarch resting his hand over his scabbard-slide sword, like his son Shapur I behind him. This type of scabbard-sword pose is seen in several Sassanian sites, notably at Nagshe Rustam and Bishapur. 

Sassanian military parity with Rome was assured by the victories of Shapur I over the armies of Roman emperors Gordian III (r. 238-244 CE) at Misiche (modern Anbar, north of the Sassanian Ctesiphon) in 244 CE, Philip the Arab (r. 244-249 CE) at Barbalissos in c. 256 CE, and Valerian (r. 253-260 CE) who was defeated and captured in c. 260 CE.

3-Sass Relief-Salmas-Shapur_IClose up of Shapur I at Khantakhti (Source: Public Domain). Shapur was to follow up the military successes of his father Ardashir I by scoring victories over three Roman emperors. 

Interestingly after more than 1800 years, the local Iranian Azeri populace at Salmas remain cognizant of the region’s original name of “Shapur”.

4-Khantakhti PlaquePlaque for visitors and tourists at Khantakhti (Source: Azariha).