Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Wrestling in Iran: From Mysticism to Politics

Wrestling in Iran
Iran’s Mohammadali Geraei (R) competes against India’s Gurpreet Singh (L) in their men’s greco-roman 77kg quarter-final wrestling match at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on August 22, 2018. Photo AFP

Wrestling is one of the oldest sports in the world. “The first real traces of the development of wrestling date back to the times of the Sumerians, 5,000 years ago.” It is believed that “no sport is older or more widely distributed than wrestling”. Over time, different styles of wrestling were developed by ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Persians and other civilizations. As an ancient sport, traditional styles of wrestling are deeply imbedded in Iran’s history and cultural heritage.

Historically, wrestling went well beyond just being a sport. While many people are familiar with the sport, not all are aware of its religious connections and social effect in Iran. The word koshti (‘wrestling’ in Persian) is rooted in goshti in Pahlavi Persian, spoken in pre-Islamic Iran, which is a belt Zoroastrians were obliged to wear when they turned 15. Culturally, koshti gereftan (‘the act of wrestling’) is very much tied to koshti bastan (‘wearing the koshti/belt’).

Before wrestling became a global sport with known rules and regulations, wrestlers in Iran would wear the same belt for wrestling – similar to the belt Kurds in the Middle East wear today. The  belt in Zoroastrianism was an indicator and reminder of one’s religious duties, and was to be opened and fastened each time a Zoroastrian performed his prayers. It had three knots on it, a reminder of the three main concepts in the Zoroastrian religion: good deeds, good words and good thoughts. It also represented an inner spiritual wrestling between good and evil. Those who wore the belt in sports were considered heroes who maintained high moral standards, showed courage and fairness and performed good deeds such as supporting the poor and standing up to injustice.

An embodiment of this connection between wrestling and spirituality can be seen in Iran’s zurkhaneh (‘house of strength’), which is a sort of gym dedicated to the practice of varzesh-e bastani, a type of traditional wrestling combined with reading mystical and spiritual poems, songs and recitations by a murshed (‘spiritual guide’) with traditional rhythms. The architecture of zurkhanehs at that time was similar to Sufi monasteries, and the place where the murshed sat resembled a preacher’s pulpit. In general, traditional wrestling had many ritual and religious components that have resisted change to this day.

Wrestling attracted more attention during the Safavid Empire (1501-1722) and the Zand Empire (1751-1779), when Iran was reunited after centuries and Shia Islam was proclaimed as the state religion. The Safavids focused on Iran’s Shia identity to distance the empire from their rival, the Ottoman Empire. This trend continued throughout the ensuing dynasties. During the Qajar Empire (1785-1906), the growing popularity of wrestling encouraged the government to develop it.

Therefore, Sahib al-Dowleh was tasked with the job. He essentially created a league that started with all wrestlers competing in every major city and ended with the champions of each city competing in the capital Tehran. Later, this league became an annual championship. It was during this period that many well-known champions became public figures.

During the Reza Shah era (1925-1941), wrestling attracted more official attention as one of Iran’s popular traditions, and new zurkhanehs and gyms were built. The first wrestling club was opened in 1921 in Tehran. It was in this period that wrestling became a global sport and its international regulations were defined. As such, Iranian wrestling moved to the next level of adopting the new styles and customs of wrestling to boost its hight-held wrestling tradition it its society.

This shift happened at the end of the 1930s. In 1938, Masoud Pahlavan-Neshan started training wrestlers in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling in Isfahan. The first national competition in freestyle wrestling took place in 1939 in Tehran’s Amjadieh sports club. However, the Second World War brought a halt to normal life, including wrestling, when Iran was occupied by the Russian and British armies in a common military plan.

After the war, wrestling started to grow again. The first international team to compete in Iran in 1947 was Turkey. And in 1948, Iran’s wrestling team took part in the London Olympics for the first time. Iran’s first participation in the World Championships was in the first freestyle event held in 1951 in Helsinki, Finland. Although Iran failed to make much of an impression on that occasion, it would go on to make its mark in the decades to come.

In its second participation in the World Championships in 1954 in Japan, Iran’s national team came third, winning two golds and one silver medal. Towfigh Jahanbakhsh and Abbas Zandi won the gold medals. The Iranian team continued making history, coming first in five World Championships in freestyle (1959 in Yokohama, Japan; 1965 in Manchester, England; 1998 and 2002 in Tehran, Iran; and 2013 in Budapest, Hungary). Iran also won the World Championship in Greco-Roman wrestling in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

During this period, Iran introduced some of the finest wrestlers to the world, with three of them named in the top 20 wrestlers of all time announced in 2000 by the World Wrestling Federation: Abdullah Movahhed, Gholam Reza Takhti and Rasool Khadem. But it is Hamid Sourian, who won six golds in World Championships and one gold in the 2012 London Olympics, who is considered Iran’s most celebrated wrestler. In fact, Iran produced so many new wrestling champions during the 2000s and 2010s that the period was dubbed  a renaissance for the sport.

Beyond a cultural phenomenon, Iranian wrestling has long been connected to politics and political developments inside and outside the county. During the Shah’s rule, some wrestlers used their public appeal as heroes to convey people’s grievances to the government. Takhti, for instance, who has guaranteed his place as the most popular wrestler in Iran’s history, was very much appreciated by the public for opposing the Shah and speaking out against him.

His death at the age of 37, which was reported as a suicide, came as a shock to many Iranians who blamed the Shah for his ‘murder’. Iranians have never forgotten the image of Takhti refusing to bow down to allow the Shah to put a medal around his neck. After the 1979 revolution, Iranian wrestling was infused with the Islamic Republic’s ideological zeal. No wrestler was allowed to wrestle with an Israeli. In fact, wrestling in Iran remained a symbol of standing up to evil, be it the Shah’s dictatorship and oppression of the Iranian people or the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

In the post-1979 period, no reports have been published about a prominent wrestler transmitting peoples’ political grievances to authorities. It seems that the main reason has been the government’s successful engagement of athletes. The supreme leader, president and other prominent officials usually meet and listen to athletes and talk to them about important issues facing the country, giving them a sense of responsibility.

The most recent such meeting took place between the supreme leader and medal laureates of the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia. As a result, many athletes promote the establishment’s vision and policies. Still, resentment over banning athletes, including wrestlers, from facing Israeli competitors has been on the rise. Besides granting Israeli athletes easy wins, this has led to many Iranian athletes being banned from international arenas.