The History of Iranian Martial Arts

The people of Iran are ardent practitioners of various martial arts. Like many past civilizations, they trace their lineage and culture to horseback soldiers who defended their homelands from various outside invasions and conquered new lands in the names of their kings. Around 1600 B.C. the first of these Indo-Europeans rulers conquered Mesopotamia and gained control of the region for three hundred years. During that time peace ruled the land due to their efficient system of government. The Assyrians, whose ruthless conquests lay waste to various smaller kingdoms, eventually drove them out. The Assyrians were conquered by the joint efforts of the Chaldeans and Medes (another Indo-European group related to the Persians). During the time of the Achaemenian Dynasty and the reign of Cyrus the Great (559 – 529 B.C.) the Persian/Iran Empire stretched from the borders of the Punjab in India to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Once again, due to the efficiency of their system of government, peace was prevalent throughout the empire. Only the conquests of Alexander the Great could bring an end to their rule.


The armies of Persia developed many systems of fighting on horseback and on foot; with bows and arrows, spears, club, shields, and wrestling. References to their training methods are frequently referred to as “Zoor Khane,” however the interpretation for that term, translated as “House of Strength,” refers only to the location of training. A more accurate name for native Iranian martial arts would be “Varzesh e Bastani.” According to the book Zoor Khane by D. H. Luijendijk, Varzesh e Bastani bears some resemblance to, and maybe relationship with, Kalarippayat of India, and Turkish “oil” wrestling. It also bears some relationship with the Mevlana Sufis; or “Whirling Dervishes” as they are more commonly known. Varzesh e Bastani training consists of a ritual lead by musicians who chant the sacred poetry of Ferdowsi while keeping time with a drum and ringing bells to mark the beginning of different sets of practice. Ferdowsi was the great poet and philosopher who revived the glory of ancient Iran. Varzesh e Bastani combines both strength and agility. Within Iranian culture Varzesh e Bastani is regarded to possibly be the oldest organized martial art system in history.


Throughout his martial art career Master Ghaffari recognized various philosophical similarities between Korean culture and Iranian culture. As early as the teachings of Zoroaster (ca. 1,000 B.C. although the date is debated) Iranian people adhered to a belief in “dualism” and the complementary forces of nature described in Korea as the Um and Yang. The Prophet Zoroaster is credited with introducing concepts of monotheism, the duality of good and evil, mankind’s free choice between the two alternatives, messianic redemption, resurrection, final judgment, heaven and hell, and the notion of an almighty loving God. He believed that man’s salvation in life and in the afterlife could only be insured through Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds. This three part philosophy is similar to Tan Gun Han Bae Kum’s three part philosophy of; Cultivate your skills, Help other people, and Make the world a better place. Each philosophy stresses that a successful society/civilization is dependent upon your frame of mind and the actions you take to insure its success.


These three part philosophies could also contain three other elements; the “circle theory,” the “water theory,” and the “theory of harmony.” With regards to the “circle theory,” nature and life follow a circular pattern or flow. Life springs from nature and returns to nature. Rain is precipitated from clouds and is later evaporated back up to reform clouds. Man is the master of his fate, but also responsible for his actions. In his quests for knowledge he becomes aware of his ignorance. By acquiring new knowledge one is always amazed at how little they actually know and how much more there is to learn.


In the “water theory” it is considered that water is the most resilient elements in nature. It is also used to symbolize many things in nature. Water always flows from top to bottom. This action could symbolize the love between parents and their children. It means that parents love their children more deeply than in the opposite direction. A genuine love exists between the two, but parental love is more enduring and unconditional. Water also signifies softness and at the same time persistence. Enough water can break through granite but granite can only displace water momentarily. Hardship and burdens of life cannot breakdown the mental discipline acquired in martial art training. They can only serve to force the martial artist to work harder and to think sharper. Also, patience and endurance, like the constant drops of water on a stone will eventually wear away the stone or drill a hole through it. This type of endurance leads to mastery of self and the martial arts.


The “theory of harmony” promotes the study to understand balance in the world. In both Zoroastrianism and Taoism balance is demonstrated by dualism; opposing forces in nature that both conflict and compliment their opposite. It also requires an accord between mind, body, and the universe. This is the ultimate goal in both the physical practice of martial arts and the search for self-awareness. However, practice in theory alone results in a lack of harmony. The exercise of mind must be complimented by the exercise of the body. When techniques can be demonstrated efficiently with complete balance of power, fluidity, and control the realization of harmony between body and mind is developing. In day-to-day life, balance is recognized as a genuine positive outlook on life. Anger, fear, and anxiety exist but they are emotions that are over-shadowed by optimism. Through martial art training one can recognize the improvement of skill and the development of harmony when body and mind work efficiently to carry out various tasks. Examples could be described as a very orderly life-style or the execution of a difficult martial art technique. The goal is to search for wisdom, love, peace, and respect for all living beings.


JAN. 06. 2012. TaeKwonDoTimes.