Polo in Isfahan used to be a big thing. The maydan at the centre of today’s city was originally an out-of-town garden. Then when Shah Abbas visited in 1590, he ordered it levelled and spread with river sand, to convert it into a polo field.
In 1595, a French steward called Pinçon saw how: “The King of Persia and his nobles take exercise by playing pall-mall on horseback, which is a game of great difficulty: their horses are so well trained at this that they run after the balls like cats.”
Manwaring gave more details: “There were twelve horsemen in all with the King; so they divided themselves six on the one side, and six on the other, having in their hands long rods of wood [with] on the end of the rods a piece of wood nailed on like unto a hammer.”
You can see something very similar before a modern game of polo in Isfahan, here below:
With a wooden ball, and goals at either end, the sport was “in the fashion of our football play here in England.” With one small difference, though, when the Shah had the ball “the drums and trumpets would play one alarum.”
I’ve included a photo of the goals which remain in the modern maydan.
Shah Abbas was a keen horseman. Cartwright, visiting in 1601, wrote of how the Shah started most days by visiting his horses in their stables. Then he viewed his Armoury, where “there are made very strong Curiasses, or Corselets, headpeeces and targets, most of them able to keep out the shot of an arquebuiser . .” [click here to see a replica 1602 arquebuisier in action] ”.
By around three o clock in the afternoon, the Shah “makes his entry into the At-Maidan, which is the greatest marketplace or high street of Hifpaan [Isfahan]”. Before 1602, the maydan had only a wall surrounding it, although there were “certain high scaffolds where the multitude do sit to behold the warlike exercises performed by the King and his courtiers”. All of these were performed on horseback, including: “running and leaping” as well as “shooting with bows and arrows, at a mark both above and beneath”. Cartwright was fascinated by the polo in Isfahan, which he described as “their playing at tennis.”
Here’s a photo of a modern game of polo in full flow in the maydan: