Pahlevani and Zurkhaneh rituals is the name inscribed by UNESCO for Varzesh-e Pahlavani ,"heroic sport”, a traditional system of athletics originally used to train warriors in Iran (Persia) and adjacent lands. Outside Iran, Zurkhanehs can be found in Azerbaijan, and they were introduced into Iraq in the mid-19th century, where they seem to have existed until the 1980s. It combines martial arts, calisthenics, strength training and music. Recognized by UNESCO as the world's longest-running form of such training, it fuses elements of pre-Islamic Persian culture (particularly Zoroastrianism) with the spirituality of Shia Islam and Sufism. Practiced in a domed structure called the Zurkhaneh, training sessions consist mainly of ritual gymnastic movements and climax with the core of combat practice which is called Koshti Pahlavani.
Traditional Iranian wrestling (Koshti) dates back to ancient Persia and was said to have been practiced by Rustam, mythological Iranian hero of the Shahnameh epic. While folk styles were practiced for sport by every ethnic group in various provinces, grappling for combat was considered the particular specialty of the Zurkhaneh. The original purpose of these institutions was to train men as warriors and instill them with a sense of national pride in anticipation for the coming battles.
The traditional gymnasium in which varzesh-e bastani is practiced is known as the Zurkhaneh literally the "house of strength". These gyms are covered structures with a single opening in the ceiling, with a sunken 1m-deep octagonal or circular pit in the center (gaud. Around the gaud is a section for the audience, one for the musicians, and one for the athletes. A portrait of Imam Ali is hung on the wall of every Zurkhaneh. An aspiring member may be a male from any social class or religion, but they must first spend at least a month watching from the audience before they can join. Traditionally, the Zurkhanehs demanded no payment from their athletes, and depended instead on public donations. In return, the Zurkhaneh provided community services and protection. One example is the "casting of flowers" ceremony in which athletes held koshti matches and other displays of strength to raise funds for the needy. There are today 500 Zurkhaneh in Iran and each has strong ties to their local community. Zurkhanehs have commonly had strong political affiliations, either advocating or denouncing particular governments. This type of sports diplomacy is said to be a natural extension of the patriotic nature of Zurkhaneh training dating back to the days when pahlevans served in the king's court.
Rituals and practice
The ethics involved are also similar to Sufi ideals, emphasizing purity of heart. Every session begins with pious praise to the Prophet Muhammed and his family. The Morshed dictates the pace by beating a goblet drum (zarb) while reciting Gnostic poems and stories from Persian mythology. As the most important member of the Zurkhaneh, the Morshed leads prayer sessions and spurs the athletes on with poems in praise of Shi'ite imams and excerpts from the
(Ferdousi Masterpiece). The singing itself once served as a form of oral education, passing down social knowledge, moral codes and religious teachings to the warriors in training.