In Urmia, my first stop in Iran, I was taken to the “zor khaneh,” or “the house of strength” — a traditional Iranian body-building club. At first I couldn’t really understand why my companion was taking me there, but admittedly, Urmia doesn’t have much in the way of tourist sights. As it happens, zor khaneh ended up being one the most interesting things I saw in Iran.
After removing your shoes, you enter the room through a child-sized door, forcing you to bend as you walk in — this is so that you enter in a state of humility. There’s a pit in the middle of the room where the men, most of them wearing just-under-the-knee shorts with paisleys, exercise. They start with jogging and pushups, and there’s a man off to the side with a drum and a microphone providing accompaniment.
Then they bring out the clubs. I tried to lift one and can testify: They are very heavy.
Check out the elderly man on the right at 00:16 in the video below. Like I said, those clubs are heavy, and not only are his clubs bigger than anyone else’s, he’s swinging them around like it ain’t no thang. You’ll note the pictures of the Imam Ali on the walls: I was told that the zor khaneh has a special relationship with Ali, because praying to him is a source of strength. (When one hoists one’s creaking bones up off the carpet after dinner, a common thing to say is “O Ali!”)
At the end of the approximately one-hour workout the men dispersed, but one guy decided the give the big metal bow a whirl:
So I highly recommend a visit to the Urmia zor khaneh if you happen to find yourself in town. It was interesting to watch, and the men there were all very nice. I didn’t capture it on video, but one of the older guys in the pit was sort of the ringleader and would pause his ringleading to address me directly, welcoming me and explaining the philosophy of the zor khaneh’s customs. As we left, one elegant elderly man in a fedora (in photo below, on the right) wished me “good evening” in English.
Most (all?) cities in Iran have a zor khaneh club, but it seems that the one most tourists visit is the one in Yazd, because that’s the one that’s written up in the Lonely Planet. I checked that one out too when I was there but I didn’t like it as much because they charged me admission (OK, it was a pittance, but still), it wasn’t as friendly as Urmia’s, and the room was kind of small. Interesting nevertheless, as you can see below: