As a country with over seven thousand years of civilization, Iran is famous for its eye-catching structures. Things like woodwork, tinted glasses or colorful tiles as well as hand-woven rugs, beautiful brocades and elaborate dishes. However, the treasure of this country has offered the world some spectacular and rich heritages. Particularly the worldwide sport of “Chogan” which is currently known as “polo”.
Chogan is a traditional horse-riding game accompanied by music and storytelling. Iranians first invented and played it in Iran at dates given from the 6th century BC to the first century AD. Back then, it was a training game for cavalry units, usually the king’s guards or other elite troops. To the warlike tribesmen, who played it with as many as 100 to a side, it was a miniature battle.
Over time, chogan became a Persian national sport played extensively by members of the nobility. Ferdowsi, the famous Iranian poet-historian, gives a number of accounts of royal chogan tournaments in his ninth century epic, Shahnameh. He also tells the story of Emperor Shapur II of the Sasanian dynasty in the 4th century, who learned to play polo when he was only seven years old.
From Persia, chogan spread to Arabia, then to Tibet (the English word polo is the Balti word meaning “ball”), to China and to Japan. Later on, when Muslim conquerors in the 13th century happened, Indians also started to play it. First time, Sir Anthony Sherley described the game in his travel journal after traveling to Persia in 1613. However, the first Europeans who played the game were British tea planters in Assam. They were also those who formed the first European polo club in 1859 at Silchar. Polo spread rapidly after a captain saw a match in 1866 in India and immediately formed a team of his fellow officers.
Naqsh e Jahan Square for Chogan
Naqsh e Jahan Square in Isfahan with its two story row of shops and impressive architecture was the best choice for playing Chogan. In addition, the national Persian sport of polo could be played in the space in the square, providing the Shah, residing in the Ali Qapu palace, and the busy shoppers with some entertainment. The marble goal-posts, erected by Shah Abbas, still stand at either end of the square as the reminders of those days.
Chogan as World’s Cultural Heritage
Since polo as the carbon copy of chogan endangered chogan’s two significant features, it was necessary to take actions. With the help of UNESCO, Iran could safeguard this ancient game and its features including music and storytelling. After three years, UNESCO accepted the team sport of chogan as Iran’s intangible cultural heritage. It happened during the 12th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The meeting took place from 4th to 8th of December 2017 in the South Korean capital of Seoul.
You may have watched a polo game in your lifetime. However, that experience never equals to one full game of chogan. In such a game, riders try to pass the ball through the opposing goal with wooden mallets while there is music and storytelling.