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Pehlevanliq culture: traditional zorkhana games, sports and wrestling

Zorkhana sport is very diverse and unlike any other sport. Zor means "power", and khana means "space". Zorkhana literally means a house of courage. The history of this sport goes back to ancient times. Zorkhanas were historical sports centres in which the main ‘pehlevanlig’ (a variety of demonstrations of courage and strength) were performed (by pehlevans – very strong men, skilled in wrestling).

It is believed that these games originated in Azerbaijan. Zorkhanas built in the 17th and 18th centuries in the cities of Baku, Nakhchivan, Ganja, Ordubad and others have survived to the present. There are currently more than 20 functioning in Tabriz. The one located in “Icheri Sheher”, near Baku’s Mugham Theatre, is protected as a historical monument.

Zorkhanas were usually situated centrally in the cities. They were constructed a little below ground level, as the installation of a heating system was essential. An arch style was usually preferred. The vaulted roof was supported by arches and the building was quadrangular in shape. The interior resembled a modern circus building. The only window was placed in the middle of the vault and the interior space was split into two. The first part was the wrestling arena, in the middle of the building (an area large enough for 15-20 sportsmen to train), and a dais surrounding the arena, where spectators sat, was the second part. There would be seating for about 200-300 spectators. The wrestler’s arena was called the ‘kud’. ‘Later this area was known as the ‘sufra’ and it was considered sacred. The sufra was situated some 2 metres below the dais. In some zorkhanas it was not so deep. The sufra was made up in a particular way. First, brushwood was spread across the floor and tamped with grass. Then ashes and soft, sieved earth were cast over the surface. The composition of the sufra, which functioned like the sports mattress used in modern sports centres, was renewed once a year. 

There was usually a succession of different games during a zorkhana session. There were seven regular games, including mil oyunu (‘game of mil’, a mil being a weight used in pairs in performances of feats of strength), guluncsindirma (a back-stretching exercise), ayagdoyme (marching) and others. Wrestling and gurshagtutma (a variety of wrestling) were the main zorkhana events.    

In the chest game, they would rise on their two hands, "walk" an inch above the ground, first to the right, then to the left, then down, approaching the ground and immediately rising again. Players' chests should not touch the ground. The biggest feat in this game was when the wrestler performed the actions by carrying a child or a stone on his back. The chest game is performed to increase flexibility, which plays an important role in wrestling.

Game of mil (spindle) consists of movements that loosen the body, develop the muscles of the upper limbs and provide strength endurance. In spindle game, the mil is played in 30 ways, regardless of weight.  

In the game of Yekba, the contestants took 2- and 3-pood weights in their hands, tossed them up and caught them with one hand. Some pahlavans (strong athletic men) raised and twisted above their heads a round iron shell called “kamada” with a hole in the middle coiled with chains with spikes. The pahlavan, who managed to put the shell on his neck without hurting himself was considered the winner. 

In the game of Kebbade, athletes use kebbade. The part of the tool called "bow" is held in the left hand, and the part called "zeh" is carried over the athlete's head in the right hand. Lifting the kebbad over the head, the athlete circles, slowly lowers it so far and, releasing it from his hands, spins it on his back. Similar to the Mil game, the game is played in the kebbade by beating the drum slowly and then fast. 

The game of “ayaqdoyme” (footwork) is held with the view of relaxation of the athletes. The players and the fielder move as if they are running and the air is played according to their footwork. The wrestling performance performed by wrestlers includes picking up certain objects from the ground with their teeth, carrying them to another place, walking on their hands, etc. numbers are included.     

After performing various acrobatic movements (turning the wheel) in the game "Charkhi" ("Tandovra"), quick steps are performed to the tune of "Gaytaghi", "Mirzeyi" and "Koroglu" dances. Finally, a wrestling competition used to be held in Zorkhana. The traditional zorkhana games were accompanied by the sounds of “Jangi” music (battle music) or by a very fast beating of the naghara (dumbak – an oriental drum) in dance rhythms.     

The place where wrestlers gathered, trained and competed with each other was called zorkhana, according to the name of the martial art. The ancient zorkhanas in Azerbaijan are the Icherisheher zorkhana of the 15th century in Baku and the Keysariyya monument in Ordubad. 

Since the 19th century, zorkhanas were built in the cities of Ganja, Shusha, Sheki, Nakhchivan and Shirvan. In Sheki-Zagatala and Barda regions zorkhana was a part of the folk wedding ceremony. Zorkhana numbers, arranged according to a certain script and sequence, were presented in the form of dance, with music and songs.   

The traditional zorkhana games were accompanied by the sounds of “Jangi” music (battle music) or by a very fast beating of the naghara (an oriental drum) in dance rhythms. Zorkhana and wrestling (pehlevan) practices were carried on and further transmitted by communities in the 20th century, and even despite the period of the Soviet Union. When Azerbaijan regained its independence in the early 1990s, the performances of wrestlers (pehlevans) became much more frequent, as communities were increasingly looking for the elements of their own culture, rediscovered and celebrated them both in urban and rural contexts. As an expression of the spirit of Azerbaijan, the image of the wrestler is presented as a unique, inexhaustible symbol of power in rich folklore examples. The wrestler was a true image born from the spirit of the nation. 

The National Museum of History of Azerbaijan stores sports equipment used in the zorkhana (zorkhana shills, topuzes, uniforms), janbaz clothes (trousers of wrestlers, etc.). The equipment kept in the museum mostly belong to zorkhana of the 17th century.  

One of the traditions repressed in Azerbaijan during the Bolshevik revolution was zorkhana. Unable to change the religious character of the zorkhana, where influential people of the city and neighborhood gathered, the Bolsheviks put an end to this unique art, and the zorkhana was banned. 

National sports, which were not so popular during the Soviet period, began to develop rapidly after gaining independence. In 1990, the Azerbaijan National Sports Association was established. The association represents 6 types of national sports (national wrestling, national equestrian sport, backgammon, dynamic games, zorkhana and serim wrestling).    

Since 1992 the national sports games were included in physical training programs. Azerbaijani national sport game zorkhana and pehlevan wrestling has been a member of the International Zorkhana Sports Federation since 2007.  International Zorkhana Sports Federation includes 52 countries. The national team of Azerbaijan participates in all championships held by the IZSF.

In 2007, Azad Jafarov and Afis Namazov won the first place in kebbade at the European Championship. In 2008, Khanlar Gurbanov was elected vice-president and chairman of the technical committee of the Federation at the reporting and election conference of the European Wrestling Sports Confederation in Busan, Republic of Korea.

In 2009, Vugar Gurbanov was awarded the title of "World Wrestler" by the International Zorkhana Sports Federation in connection with winning the 1st place in the heavyweight division at the 1st World Championship in zorkhana and pehlevan wrestling and conferred to the Gold Award Bracelet.

In 2010, the best federation of the year was Azerbaijan Zorkhana Sports Federation, the best wrestlers were Vusal Javadov and Tural Aliyev.

In the 17th session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, held in Rabat, Kingdom of Morocco, on November 28 to December 3, 2022, particularly significant decisions were made for our country. In the session of UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee held on December 1, the nomination file " Pehlevanliq culture: traditional zorkhana games, sports and wrestling" presented by Azerbaijan was included in UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.