Iran Visa: Varzesh-e Pahlavani, widely known as Varzesh-e Bastani by mistake for the past seventy years, was originally an academy of physical training and a nursery for warriors against foreign invaders similar in purpose to Korean, Japanese and Chinese martial arts.
However, throughout the last three thousand years it acquired, and was enriched with, different components of moral, ethical, philosophical, and mystical values of the Iranian civilization. As a result, Varzesh-e Pahlavani emerged as a unique institution having incorporated the spiritual richness of Sufism, traditional rituals of Mithraism, and heroism of Iranian nationalism. The heroes of this academy are called Pahlavans.
Many of these Pahlavans were greatly responsible for revolting against Greeks, Arabs and Mongol invaders throughout the history of Iran. Yet the word Pahlavan has been misused throughout centuries, either by the scholars hired by regimes who misrepresented facts to appease the regimes they worked for, or unqualified writers who were not familiar with the institution of Varzesh-e Pahlavani, or simply the masses who did not have access to reliable and accurate sources.
The history of Varzesh-e Pahlavani can be traced back to the Parthian Empire of Iran (132 BC – 226 AD). Even the word Pahlavan comes from Parthia (according to one of the most reliable sources on history of the ancient Iran, “History of Ancient Iran” by Hasan Pirnia). According to Pirnia, there is a good chance that even Ferdowsi (935?-1026? AD), the greatest Iranian mythical poet and historian, was referring to the Parthian Period in his “Book of Kings” (in Persian Shah-nameh) when he wrote about the mythical period of the Iranian history. Mithraism reached its peak in this period and eventually spread from Iran to the Roman Empire. There are striking similarities between rituals of Mithraism and Varzesh-e Pahlavani. Even Mithraic temples are similar in structure to Zoorkhaneh’s, the place where the rituals of Varzesh-e Pahlavani are practiced. We will allocate some space to cover these similarities in detail.
Unfortunately with the invasion of western values into Iran at the turn of the century and the ignorance, as well as poorly designed policies, of the Pahlavi regime towards this tradition, Varzesh-e Pahlavani has lost some of its popularity and there exist a lot of misconceptions about this institution. The goal of this series is to present Varzesh-e Pahlavani and its history in several articles to the worldwide audience, including Iranians living in Iran and abroad, who might not have a clear idea about the subject. Hopefully, we can correct some of the misconceptions associated with Varzesh-e Pahlavani.
Also, many heroes of Varzesh-e Pahlavani such as Pahlavan-e Bozorg, Haj Seyyed Hasan Razaz, also known as Pahlavan Shoja’at (~1853-1941), are almost forgotten and instead heroes of the new generation of Iranians are superficial Hollywood characters of the kind of Arnold Schwartzenegger. In my recent trips back home, I was sad to see posters of these socalled supermen (Sylvester Stallone, Van Damm, etc.) in sport shops and newsstands in Tehran. Yet I could not find any poster or printed material about so many Pahlavans who have appeared in the Iranian plateau.
The current literature on Varzaesh-e Pahlavani is limited to a few out-of-print and outdated books and a series of articles written (mostly with incorrect information) on the subject within the last fifty years. The only authentic source I can mention that has approached a scholarly work in the area of Pahlavani tradition is a recent book titled “The History of Wrestling in Iran” by Mr. Mehdi Abassi. This book was brought to my attention by Hooshyar Naraghi from Sportestan Publishing. One out-of-print book I can also mention as a reliable source is “Tarikh-e Varzesh-e Bastani (Zoorkhaneh)” (translated as “History of Traditional Iranian Martial Arts”) by Mr. Hossein Parto Beizai.
With the technology available to us through desktop and web publishing, and the Internet itself as a medium of dissemination of information, I felt this is the right time to present my research on Varzesh-e Pahlavani which I have compiled within the last fifteen years.
A Table of Contents is provided at this time, and its topics will be presented systematically on the Pahlavani web site. This will be an ever evolving endeavor and we will update our pages regularly. We will start with a general timeline, the first timeline ever constructed, that shows the chronology of the evolution of the institution of Pahlavani. The timeline will be also updated regularly as it is going to be supplemented with pictures, audio, video and content about the past three thousand years of Varzesh-e Pahlavani.
Text: Farzad Nekoogar
Photo: Roozbeh Bamani