Wednesday, February 5, 2014


During my few weeks in Iran, I had the chance to make a quick 2-day getaway to a city I've wanted to see for quite some time now: Yazd. These two days not only turned out to be the highlight of my trip, but Yazd officially became my favorite Iranian city. From the sites to the people to the weather, it was just absolute perfection. One place that I was particularly keen to visit in Yazd was the the Zurkhaneh, literally House of Strength.  

Zurkhaneh is a traditional Iranian gymnasium for men. It's also called varzeshe bāstāni, ancient sport, and is often referred to as "Iranian yoga and martial arts", which sounds like a pretty good description. It also reminded me of Brazilian capoeira the way the men all stood in a circle, moved to the beat of the zarb, drumdid moves reminiscent of the ginga, and the fact that this sport is very much a discipline. 

Zurkhaneh is thousands of years old, having its roots in battle and warfare. These physical activities were supposed to make warriors out of ordinary men and not only prepare them for unarmed combat, but also develop their endurance, concentration, flexibility, and speed. 

Practitioners of the Zurkhaneh are expected to display a sense of duty for their country and community and respect the elderly. They are expected to be chivalrous, humble, and of high ethical virtue. Overall, they should be javan mard, a gentleman. 

A close-up of the jugs you see in the picture above. They are called kuzeh and keep water cold. The men of the Zurkhaneh drank water out of these throughout their workout. Talk about old-school water bottles! 

The circular shape of the Zurkhaneh is symbolic of the sun and unity. The entrance has a low doorway, forcing one to bow his head in acknowledgment of a higher power. Then there is the gowd, pit, or exercise area. Being below ground level, the gowd also reminds the practitioners of humility. In fact, when they enter the gowd, they must first kiss the ground signifying that we are from the earth, and one day we will return to it. The gowd faces the sardam, the podium where the morshed, master, sits. Historically, the morshed would have been the most fit and highest ranking of those in the Zurkhaneh. He plays his zarb and zang, bell, and sings songs from Fewdowsi's epic Shahnameh or poems from Rumi, Hafez, Sa'adi or others. 

Throughout the session, the participants use different equipment: meel (club bell), takhte shena (push-up board), sang (shield), and kabbadeh (bow and chain). They use each of these to perform their exercises along with other exercises such as stretching, squatting, aerobics, whirling, and juggling meel


Kneeling on your right knee and placing your hands on your left knee shows respect for higher authority and that one is prepared to jump into action. A takhte shena is in front of this gentleman, and hanging in front are kabbadeh.

Stretching on the takhte shena


Using the meel

using the kabbadeh


Zurkhanehs are traditionally only for men, but this one in Yazd is the only one in Iran that admits women as spectators (even though Lonely Planet says otherwise.) It has work-outs that are just over an hour at 6am, 6pm and 8pm. The Saheb A Zaman Zurkhaneh was built in the 1500s inside an āb anbār, water reservoir, so I would recommend going a little early so you have some time to check it out. It's actually quite eery to see this enormous empty pit and even eerier to think that it was once full of water. 

(Here's a little taste of my Zurkhaneh experience. Please excuse my shaky hand!)

The beat of the zarb and the melodious voice of the morshed made the Zurkhaneh a very meditative experience for me, especially once the kabbadehs made their entrance and produced an almost deafening noise. In the end, I was sad for it to be over. When we left, I noticed a speaker placed on the corner of the alley, amplifying the morshed's voice into the streets. My cousin and I talked about how much of moves were like dancing and we were both tempted to join in. It was at that point when we turned around and went back to buy the DVDs to keep a part of the experience. Perhaps it was the trance-like feel of music or the fact that the Zurkhaneh has always been such a boys club, that I was even more intrigued as to what went on inside. But if Yazd was the highlight of my Iran trip, then the Zurkhaneh was most definitely the highlight of my Yazd trip. 


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