Polo, an equestrian sport practiced all over the world, is known as « chogân » in Iran, where it has been played for more than two thousand years and still fuels the enthusiasm of the public, as well as that of level sports team.

By Anne-Salomé Daure

Originally a tribal game, polo is believed to have emerged around the fifth century A.D. in the steppes of central Asia, invented by the warriors most feared in Ancient times. Scythians or « Saka » were an Iranian people that were nomads and horse breeders, related to Persians. Known as great horse riders, Scythians got famous in Ancient times for their pillaging campaigns and their raids on the neighbouring Greek and Persian empires. For military training, Scythian practiced an equestrian sport believed to be polo’s ancestor. While the exact date it was born is unknown, sources indicate that it used to be practiced with a ball and a wooden mallet, and could bring together up to a hundred riders. The need to control one’s horse or to aim right while holding one’s equilibrium in turns and hand-to-hands, were qualities required on the battle field, making polo an efficient military training.  

Scythian mercenaries who served in the Persian army between the 5th and the 1st century A.D. are believed to have allowed the dissemination of this sport throughout the Achaemenid Empire. It quickly became a princely leisure. The king and members of his court found in these mad and dangerous games, a brilliant occasion to demonstrate their military abilities - notably in front of a feminine and aristocratic audience. Literary traditions tell that kings of Iran would practice polo from childhood, and the game in Ancient Iran reached a status similar to that of equestrian jousting in Medieval Europe.

Game of Polo, safavide miniature, Shiraz, second half of the 16th century

Its precise evolution is unknown, but it seems that the rules slowly transformed after the Islamic conquest. In the 11th century, the game only had eight participants, two goalkeepers and six players.

Medieval Persian poetry about ancient kings, frequently mentions polo practice. As shown in a legendary episode from the life of King Khosrow Parviz defeated by Princess Shirine, this game didn’t exclude women before the Islamic conquest. Indeed there were soldier women within the Persian army’s ranks and they too used polo as military training.

In the 16th century, when Shah Abbas had the capital of his empire moved to Isfahan and ordered works worthy of a princely city, it’s a polo field 560 meters long that he chose to place in the center of the new city. Many times a year, especially for New Year, the Shah used to attend polo games and horse races on the public square from how own private pavilion, the Ali Qapu palace. This square is named « Naqsh-e Jahan » (mirror of the world) . It connected for four centuries the ancient bazar and the Shah’s mosque and still remains the main city square.

From Iran, polo spread to India during the Moghols dynastie, between the 16th and the 19th century. It adopted it’s modern form in Northern India where it was discovered by the British, in the middle of the 19th century. It is the passion of the British for the sport that allowed its great success in Europe and North America.

Naqsh-eJahan square in Isfahan was used as a polo field during the celebrations organized by the Shahs Safavides. The sovereign used to observe the festivities from a pavilion at the right of the square - © Wikipedia

Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan today - © Iran Polo Federation

Today, close to 150 players still practice this sport in Iran. The country has a national team and its own federation. The seven polo fields of the regions of Tehran and the Alborz each year welcome almost a dozen competitions, of which three are reserved to women. The Iran Polo Federation, directed today by Mrs Golnar Gilani, is attempting to reawaken a passion for the sport among the Iranian youth, after a drop in practice in the last 35 years. A bet that seems to be winning: for the Iranian New Year in March, polo games were organized on the Naqsh-e Jahan square in Isfahan, which attracted a few thousand visitors and contributed to give a new dynamism to this millenary sport.

Last April, Iran submitted a proposal to UNESCO for an inclusion of Chogan in their List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

Cover picture: A game of « chogân » on Naqsh-e Jahan square in Isfahan in March 2016 - © IRNA