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TEHRAN (AFP) – It is probably the last thing you would expect to come across in the capital of the Islamic republic of Iran: a polo club, more commonly associated with the aristocracy.
Nestling in the foothills of the Alborz mountains on the southeastern edge of heavily polluted Tehran, the Qasr-e Firouze Chowgan Club is surrounded by greenery and shielded from view by a military camp.
Qasr-e Firouze is Farsi for the Turquoise Palace and chowgan means polo -- a game the Iranians say originated in Persia more than two millennia ago.
To back the claim, they point to drawings dating from the time of Darius I (522-486 BC) in which a horseman is depicted holding a long mallet in one hand.
Today, more than three decades after the Islamic revolution toppled the shah, polo is still played in Iran.
On one sunny and clear day, ambassadors, wealthy amateurs and officials rubbed shoulders in a crowd of around 500 people who watched four teams play in a charity tournament to raise funds for a diabetes association.
"We organise matches and tournaments almost every week," the deputy head of the national Iranian Polo Federation, Mohammad Ali Bigham, told AFP.
The polo enthusiast and player boasted that his federation has 150 accredited members, both men and women -- despite the strict Islamic dress code imposed on the women.
Tradition says that the game was exported from ancient Persia first to Constantinople or modern-day Istanbul, before later drifting east to the plains of Afghanistan and then to Tibet where chowgan became known as "pulu".
And the rest is history. Chowgan-pulu spread to India where it was adopted by the Raj and the British drew up a new set of rules for the game they simply called polo.
-- Abbas the Great --
For Iranians, the historic central city of Isfahan is the cradle of modern-day polo
During the 16th century, the Safavid shah Abbas the Great, famed for the architectural marvels built in Isfahan, ordered the construction of a huge polo field in Naqsh-e Jahan Square in the city centre so he could watch players from a terrace in his palace.
Over the centuries polo in Iran was a game reserved for the military elite, royal court officials and the aristocracy.
After the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the shah, the game was banned.
But it was rehabilitated in the 1990s, and a national polo federation soon saw the light of day.
The rebirth of polo in Iran was largely due to a countrywide growth in a sense of "Iranian identity" along with the support it received from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who encourages all sports deemed to have Iranian roots.
"In the Islamic republic, it is better not to say that polo is the sport of the nobility. The authorities encourage the game because it was born in Iran," said one polo enthusiast, who asked not to be identified.
A large poster of Khamenei towers over the field at the polo club, bearing a clear message that urges Iranians to engage in "sports that are homegrown such as polo which is Iranian".
But third generation polo player Amir Ali Zolfaghari, 39, says "the game is not yet accessible to everyone".
"Like for horseback riding, you need money to buy and maintain a horse, and to purchase the equipment," said Zolfaghari, whose father and grandfather also played polo.
He regrets that polo is not accessible to more people in Iran, a country of more than 75 million people, but notes that the federation has been very active.
"The federation is doing everything it can to attract young people. It provides horses and equipment for beginners," Zolfaghari said.
"We have managed to set up four or five clubs in order to improve the standing of the national team, and I hope that in four or five years we will reach a good level," and attract more players, he said.