The Definitive Iranian Sport

The Definitive Iranian Sport The Definitive Iranian Sport

Friendship between man and horse dates back to prehistory.  Among the oldest visual representations of the close tie between the two beings is the Sagittarius symbol, the ninth astrological sign, which is a mythical creature whose lower body is that of a horse and upper body human, Reza Yusefdoost writes for the Persian daily E’temad.

Persians have historically been famous for their horsemanship. The Parthian Shot is a keen example of this, referring to a military tactic made famous by the Parthians. The Parthian archers mounted on light horse, while retreating at a full gallop, would turn their bodies back to shoot at the pursuing enemy. The maneuver required superb equestrian skills, since the rider’s hands were occupied by his bow. As the stirrup had not been invented at the time of the Parthians, the rider relied solely on pressure from his legs to guide his horse. The tactic could also be used during feigned retreat, with devastating effect.

To perform such attacks, the cavalry needed regular practice to strengthen the connection between rider and steed.  Chogan (Iranian polo) was among the practices applied.

  The Game

Chogan was name of the long-handled mallet.. The objective of chogan is to score goals by driving a small ball using the mallet, which has a crescent shaped head, into the opposing team’s goal.

In the epic of Shahnameh ‘Book of Kings” by Persian poet Ferdowsi, a character called Sohrab exceeds other children and learns chogan at three. Shahnameh has numerous references to kings practicing riding, archery, and playing chogan. Chogan was a refreshing sport to show off dexterity and riding skills. The game was popular among courtiers and common people alike.


Historical and literary evidence all point to chogan as having originated in Iran.     Its invention is dated variously from the 6th century BC to the 1st century AD.  It is said that Persian Emperor Shapur II learned to play polo when he was seven years old in 316 AD.

Chogan was once popular from Japan at the eastern end to Byzantium at the southern end of the Bosporus, site of the modern city of Istanbul; Iran seems to have been the hub of all the commotion.

  Book of Kings

In Shahnameh, chogan is not for entertainment. Winning or losing a chogan game brought fatal consequences. Siavash, one of the characters flees from his father Kay Kavus and seeks refuge in Turan, a land in Central Asia. The prince, whose name literally means “the one with the black horse”, had a horse named Shabrang-Behzad ‘night-colored purebread. There in Turan, he takes part in a chogan contest between Iranians and Turanians. Eventually, he faces his Turanian rival Garsivaz and defeats him. Sohrab’s stroke is so hard that the ball disappears into the sky. Garsivaz, who feels humiliated, feels hatred against Siavash and plots his death.

  Sassanid Reference

Chogan is globally known under the name of Polo. The name is probably a Tibetan term denoting a wooden ball. Chogan, however, is derived from Pahlavi ‘cowagan/copagan’, whose oldest records are in Sassanid literary works of ‘Khosrow and Ridag’ and ‘Karnamag I Ardashir I Pabakan’ (Book of the Deeds of Ardeshir, Son of Pabak). According to the latter, Ardeshir visited the Parthian king Ardawan, also known as Artabanus, and played chogan with him and other courtiers.

In later Islamic times, Arabic prose writer Abu Otman Amr Bahr Jahez gives historical reports about Sassanid habit of playing chogan. He specifies that in games like chogan and chess, kings did not have any privilege over others, and winners were not necessarily of a high status.

In the tragic romance of ‘Khosrow and Shirin’ by the Persian poet Nezami Ganjavi (1141 – 1209), Shirin and other female riders are playing chogan versus Khosrow and his officers. This is the first record of women playing chogan, and perhaps the last.

  After Islam

After the advent of Islam, chogan became popular among Abbasid courtiers. Since the 8th Century AD, Arabs became interested in the game.

Chogan had a special place in Samanid empire which ruled Greater Iran and the Central Asia in the 9th and 10th centuries. Near Bukhara there was a large piece of land dedicated to chogan playing of aristocrats.

The Ziyarid ruler Keikavus, who was the Seljuq vassal of Tabaristan in the 11th Century, wrote Qabus-Nameh, a major work of Persian literature, and dedicated it to his son. The book narrates how Qabus ibn Voshmgirm, ruler of Gorgan and Tabaristan played chogan against his commander’s caution, and lost his sight when the ball hit his only seeing eye.

Many renowned figures lost their lives in chogan, namely Samanid king Abd-ol-Malek I Samani; and rulers of Tabaristan, Abu Ali Nasser and Abul Qasem Nanjin.

Chogan maintained its popularity during Qaznavid and Seljuq reigns between the 10th and 12 centuries. Both sultans, Mahmud and Masud of Qaznavid dynasty were enthusiasts about the game, having built many vast chogan fields.

Malek Shah I of Seljuq dynasty was a formidable chogan player. In 1086, upon arrival in Baghdad, he played chogan in one of the city’s squares. His famous vizier Nezam-ol-Molk also played the game with him.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, when Ilkhanate Mongols ruled Iran, chogan was introduced to India by Mongol noble families. The game quickly became widespread in the subcontinent, and in result, best chogan players today are from India and Pakistan.

  Safavid Era

In the early 16th century, when the Safavid dynasty came to power, chogan became known as an official royal sport. One of the largest chogan fields were built in Isfahan city by the order of Safavid king Shah Abbas I. The field is the famous square of Naqsh-Jahan. Shah Abbas was so absorbed in chogan that he granted amnesty to excommunicated Islamic philosopher and theologian Mollasadra when his favorite chogan team came out of the field victorious. Mollasadra, however, shows objection to the king’s judging method, and swaps the amnesty for exile.

Half a century before Shah Abbas, earlier king Shah Tahmasp used to hit chogan’s ball in Tabriz, the first capital city of Safavid dynasty. Thanks to the accounts of contemporary travelers, we can clearly visualize what the game was like in Safavid era, including the rules and players’ costumes.


After the Safvid era, chogan lost its prominence. In Qajar era, the game was nearly forgotten among the Iranians, until the beginning of the 20th century when diplomat and author Sir Percy Molesworth Sykes reintroduced chogan to Tehran, thus taking the title of “father of modern chogan”.

In 1935, there were five chogan fields in Tehran, namely Tarasht, Mehrabad, Jalalieh, Qasr-Qajar, and Saltanatabad. But in 1950’s, they were all replaced by urban constructions.

In 2002, Iran’s Chogan Federation restarted its activity after a 20-year hiatus. In 2006, an official chogan field was established in Qasr-Firuzeh complex, east of Tehran.

Iran organizes international chogan contests. Major Iranian chogan clubs include Kanun-Chogan, Nezaja (Ground Forces of the Iranian Army), Nowruzabad, and Qasr-Firuzeh.