- Title: IRAN: Ancient Persian sporting ritual flourishes in Iran
- Date: 28th September 2007
- Summary: (MER1) TEHRAN, IRAN (AUGUST 30, 2007 ) (REUTERS) VARIOUS OF EXTERIORS OF A ZURKHANEH HALL IN NORTHERN TEHRAN
- Reuters ID: LVA40ULSZKX5KKMLU8YV1O4VXJCA
- Duration: 00:00:18
- Topics: Sports
- Story Text: An ancient Persian sporting ritual still flourishes in Iran, drawing men of all ages in a discipline to do as much with spiritual growth as physical exercise.
For the men who practice it, it's about not just fitness but a connection with God.
Zurkhaneh, an ancient Persian sporting ritual whose name means "House of Strength", is a historic breeding ground for wrestlers in Iran, and now enjoying something of a comeback.
It looks to a Western eye like an exotic mixture of body-building and aerobics. But for the men whirling like dervishes to frenetic drumbeats, juggling heavy wooden clubs and doing push-ups in the pit of a "House of Strength" in northern Tehran, the ritual is about much more.
"It's our religious and national sport. Our ancient sport, inspired by religious beliefs, builds both body and spirit," said Zurkhaneh practicer Nasir Eddin Nachaii.
Athletes, wearing traditional embroidered trousers, start a Zurkhaneh session by stepping into the octagonal pit at the centre of the hall and running around it to warm up. They then begin a series of coordinated routines.
Some say Zurkhaneh helped to inspire wrestling in Iran -- a sport where it has international standing and can put aside its differences with its arch-foe, the United States.
About 20 American athletes and their coaches came to Iran for a wrestling competition last January. In April, the State Department said Iranian wrestlers had been invited to train in the United States for the 2008 Olympics, as part of efforts to increase ties with the Iranian people.
But by comparison with Zurkhaneh, wrestling is prosaic. Images of Muslim religious leaders and pre-Islamic mythological heroes -- as well as old photographs of bare-chested champions -- adorned the walls of the "House of Strength".
At a session in one of Tehran's Zurkhaneh halls, a drummer chants poems written centuries ago.
Some children and teenagers are also present, but most men participating in the Zurkhaneh session are middle aged and older, an indication that Iran's soccer-mad young men are not easily drawn to the ancient ritual.
But Nachaii says that, although it has suffered in popularity since its heyday in 19th-century Persia, Zurkhaneh is coming back to life.
"This sport must be transferred to our children and our grandchildren. We hope it will become an international sport," he adds.
As he speaks, the athletes -- ranging from two young boys accompanying their father to burly men in their 70s -- do push-ups, whirl with outstretched arms in a seeming trance, and swing clubs weighing up to 15 kg over their shoulders or into the air.
Enthusiasts say the practice, also present in neighbouring countries, is as much about seeking purity and becoming a good person who helps those in need as about physical prowess.
Its enduring appeal nonetheless underlines Iran's passion for sports based on body strength.
Weightlifter and Olympic gold medallist Hossein Reza Zadeh, the "Iranian Hercules", is one of the country's biggest celebrities.
Last December a retired wrestler was voted onto Tehran's city council, defeating more established politicians.
Zurkhaneh also plays a social role, with men coming to the gymnasium to chat over tea before the event starts.
Women are not involved in the discipline, said to have its roots in military training long before the 7th-century Arab invasion of what is now Iran.
Iran's dominant religion, Shi'ite Islam, has since become a key element of the ritual, and the hall itself looks like a shrine.
"Here it is our second mosque. Here we pray, we pray all together," says Mostafa Tajiki, a former wrestling champion who competed in the 1960 Rome Olympics. The 77-year-old now trains twice a week at the Zurkhaneh hall.
Sayings by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late founding father of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, are on display as are depictions of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad and revered by Shi'ites.
The Zurkhaneh session lasted for about two hours and ended with prayers. On this occasion there was no physical contact, but every now and then wrestling-like competitions are held in the pit.
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