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The Sport of Kings

How Polo conquered the world

By Zohreh Ansarirad, Photos By der Iran Polo Federation

Polo was invented and first played in Iran thousands of years ago. The first recorded game took place in 600 BC, in Ancient Persia. Polo was originally as a game for nobility with as many as one hundred players, and was a kind of miniature battle designed to measure the horseback riding and fighting skills of kings, soldiers, and guards.

The original name of polo is “Chogan”, a name by which the game is still known in Iran today. From its Iranian origins in Persia, it spread to Constantinople, then eastwards via Bactria and Afghanistan to Tibet, China, and Japan, and from Tibet to India, where it flourished during the Mughal (Mogul) dynasty. The word “polo” comes from “Pulu”, the Tibetan word for the willow root polo balls used to be made of.
In the 4th century AD, Shah Shapoor II, the Sassanid king of Persia was known to have learned to play the game at the age of seven. There are also numerous accounts of polo matches played between Khosrow Parviz, another Sassanid Iranian Shah, and the Armenian princess Shirin. During Khosrow’s reign, polo was particularly popular among the ladies of the Persian court. The most renowned mythical Iranian woman playing polo, namely Shirin, is widely mentioned in poems and illustrated in miniatures.

In the 16th century AD, a polo ground (300 yards long and with goal posts 8 yards apart) was built by Shah Abbas the Great at Esfahan, the capital of the Safavid Persian Empire. The Iranian monarch would watch polo matches from his terrace at Ali Ghapu Palace. The polo field called Meydaneh Naghsheh Jahan still exists today and its dimensions have become the standard for polo fields across the globe.

Polo has a long and colourful history in Iran. Persian poets have long been celebrating the glory of the game in their poetry. Poetic writings speak eloquently of the beauty, excitement, and thrill of the game. 12th-century Persian poet Nizami gave advice on how to live life to the full:

The horizon is the edge of your polo field, The earth is the ball in the curve of your polo stick. Until you are blotted out of existence as the dust, gallop and press on your horse for the ground is yours.

Omar Khayyam, the Iranian philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, and poet used polo as a means of making his philosophical points. Dinvari, the 9th-century Persian astronomer and historian, offered general rules for the game, which included the avoidance of strong language and the practice of patience. Even today, polo continues to be a popular theme among artists painting in the traditional Persian miniature style.

A lot of vip‘s at the Polo in Iran.

Due to its longstanding history in Iran and the fact that the game was first played in Ancient Persia, Iranians recognise polo as part of their cultural heritage. Iran submitted a proposal for the inclusion of polo in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage to UNESCO on 30 March 2016. The dossier was reviewed and shortlisted for inclusion under the 2003 Convention on 7 November 2017. The polo dossier is the second of thirteen documented Iranian intangible cultural heritages related to the country’s traditional sports and ritual games.
Over the centuries, polo in Iran was a game reserved for the military elite, royal court officials, and the aristocracy. Later, however, with its growing popularity, the number of players decreased, and the sport became available to the public. After the 1979 Islamic revolution which toppled the Shah, the game was banned and virtually forgotten, and only a limited number of pioneers continued their activity in the name of the Equestrian Federation. But polo was rehabilitated in the late 1990s and, in 2002, the independence of polo was supported and approved, and the Polo Federation was established. The rebirth of polo in Iran was largely due to the countrywide growth of a sense of “Iranian identity”, along with the support it received from the supreme leader who encourages all sports deemed to have Iranian roots.

The Iranian capital of Teheran now benefits from four polo clubs with very high-quality and beautiful grass fields where numerous national and international matches are held every year. With eight standard fields and four small ones (manege) in Teheran and Karaj, similar fields can also increasingly be found in other cities, too. Regular matches are taking place and the Polo Federation has extended its activity to different provinces.

Though not as much as in the old days, polo is still common amongst Iranian women, who boldly gallop across the fields and keep this sport alive in its country of origin. Girls mostly become acquainted with this sport through their fathers and family members who used to ride and play polo, and are now going to raise the profile of this sport not only in their home country but all over the world.