- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

KARAJ, Iran — Straddling a brown Arabian horse, Siamack Ilkhanizadeh, a member of Iran’s national polo team, trains his eyes on the ball and swings his mallet just as he converges on a trio of horsemen. Players, mallets and panting horses collide noisily.

“You don’t think about controlling your horse,” the Canadian-educated Mr. Ilkhanizadeh, 24, a player since he was 10, said later. “You think about position, strategy and tactics. It’s like chess at a very, very fast pace.”

After decades of invisibility, polo — the ancient sport of Persian kings immortalized on brightly colored miniature paintings and elaborate tapestries — has galloped back to life in its successor state, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

This month, for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the shah and swept aside the country’s royal vestiges, Iran participated in an international polo competition, a round of games in Lahore, Pakistan, that also included teams from Australia, Singapore and India.

“Polo is part of our art, culture and history,” said Siamack’s father, Hamzeh Ilkhanizadeh, a wealthy polo patron and longtime player. “All of our poets wrote about polo.”

Just as polo is entwined in Persia’s history, its rebirth is tied to contemporary troubles. Its comeback is part of the renewed fascination of Iranians with their pre-revolution past and national heritage — yearnings still sometimes suppressed but mostly just discouraged a quarter-century after the revolution that led to Iran’s present rule by clergy.

In recent years, Iran’s large, youthful and rapidly modernizing population has begun to chafe at the theocracy’s restrictions on clothes, dating and self-expression. Books by and about Iran’s deposed monarchy have become best sellers. Iran’s pre-revolution holidays draw ever-more celebrants.

“Iran’s government originally tried to destroy everything that was nationalistic and force people to go in the direction of religion,” said Ahmad Zeidabadi, a writer for Sharq, a liberal daily. “When religion failed to answer people’s needs, they began to explore their national history and identity.”

Though most historians and polo aficionados agree that Iran likely invented the game about 2,600 years ago, its team was trounced at the Lahore games. Pakistan and Australia won invitations to the World Cup finals in France next year. The sport, dominated for decades by Argentines, Australians and the British, has begun to resurface in Iran only during the past two years, and only about 50 people play nationwide.

Still, more than 2,000 spectators have attended recent matches, and the Iranian army is trying to muster a team, the elder Mr. Ilkhanizadeh said.

There’s also a move afoot to return polo to Naqsh-e-Jahan Square, the magnificent 17th-century mosque and palace complex built in the central Iranian city of Isfahan by Shah Abbas, a well-regarded king who designed the site for his beloved sport.

Polo’s rules are fairly simple: Two four-person teams on horseback use mallets to knock a ball through goal posts. Players switch horses every few minutes. Because of the cost of maintaining so many horses, polo is widely considered a sport for the idle rich. But the game goes back thousands of years to Iran and Central Asia.

As Alexander the Great was set to sack ancient Persepolis in the fourth century B.C., legend has it that Persia’s King Darius sent him a polo mallet and offered to settle their disagreements on the field of sport rather than battle. Alexander, though a fan of polo, declined. “I am the stick,” he is said to have replied, before conquering Iran, “the ball is the world.”

Persian poets’ many references to polo include one by the 11th-century mystic Omar Khayyam, who used the game to illustrate philosophical points in the Rubaiyat, his famous book of poetry.

“In the cosmic game of polo,” he wrote, “you are the ball.”

Genghis Khan and his 12th-century Mongol horsemen enthusiastically took up polo, which sharpened their skills. According to one oft-told tale, the conqueror Tamerlane, possibly a descendant of Genghis Khan, once ordered a polo match using the heads of the vanquished instead of balls.

Mongols took the game to China and especially to the Indian subcontinent, where it was adopted by 19th-century British colonial officers, who drew up formal rules and brought the game to the West. Today, about 1,000 polo clubs play worldwide.

In polo, men and women often play together. Historians have found references to Iranian queens playing against kings and courtiers as far back as the sixth century, just before Arab invaders brought Islam to Iran.

Despite Iran’s oft-cited gender-separation rules, men and women play on the same team here, though not in official games.

Qazaleh Amir-Ebrahimi, 26, a female polo player and instructor, says perhaps a half-dozen women play nationwide.

“The men play just as harshly against me as they play against other men,” said the electrical engineer, who took up the game three years ago. “When they hit me hard, I’ll hit them hard right back. On the field, it’s almost as if it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman.”


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