The Struggle between Modern and Old Sports in Iran

Until the first decade of the twentieth century, physical education practices in Iran were almost exclusively concentrated in the so-called Houses of Strength, Zurkhaneh, privately owned gymnasia where men congregated to exercise. This institution probably came into being under the Safavids (1501-1722) and had its heyday under the Qajars (1795-1925), when members of the imperial family, including the Shah himself, exercised in them and patronized the champion wrestlers, known as pahlavans. After the constitutional revolution of 1906, however, Court patronage ceased, dealing traditional athletics heavy blow.

It was then, also that modern Western physical education and sport was introduced to Iran. Interestingly, the early modernists paid no attention to Iran’s indigenous athletic traditions and treated it with considerable contempt. For a while, traditional physical education seemed doomed, but it was reinvented in the late 1930’s as 'ancient sport (varzesh-e bastani) that embodied "the glorious civilization and eternal genius of the noble nation of Iran." In their writings, the moderns went to great length propounding the values and benefits of modern Western physical education and sport but almost completely ignored Iran’s indigenous tradition, a rather curious omission for people who thought of themselves as patriots. As for the practitioners of traditional athletics themselves, they tended not to be wielders of the pen and there seems to be little, any written evidence in defense of their practices. The propagation of Western ideals of physical education at the expense of indigenous forms thus accompanies the growth of Iran’s modern middle class and the cultural bifurcation that led to what the author calls Iran’s "dual society."

Houshang E. Chehabi
Current Issue: 
Past Issue