A Brief History of Polo (ca. 600 AD – onward)

By: The Scribe on Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Image of a polo game being played in Persia, an illustration from a poem called ‘Guy u Chawgan’ from 1546.Although its origins and history are somewhat obscure, polo seems to have appeared in Persia around 2500 years ago, making it possibly the oldest known team sport in world history – not to mention being a sport that has typically always been restricted to the more privileged classes of society!

Owning a horse has historically been considered a bit of a status symbol, and in polo, all team members must have their own, well-trained beast, in order to participate. The sketchy historical records suggest that polo was initially developed by competing tribes in Central Asia, and was quickly adopted as a training program for Kings’ cavalry and other elite troop guards – these “training” matches could actually have up to 100 mounted men per side, creating a true sense of replica warfare.

As use of the sport progressed, it appears that the noble families began to participate, eventually adopting polo as their own Persian National sport, played only by the nobility. Both women and men participated in matches, and there is even one documented record from the 6th century AD of a Persian queen and her waiting ladies having challenged the Persian King Khosrow II Parviz and his men to a friendly, family game!

Indeed, ancient Persian art and literature give detailed accounts of polo games played in the royal courts, including many references in an epic poem, Shahnameh (The Epic of Kings), from the 9th century by the Iranian poet and historian Ferdowsi, where he discusses various matches held in tournament format. He also makes mention of another Persian prince from the early Persian empire, who apparently learned how to play polo sometime during the 4th century AD, when he was just seven years old.

It wasn’t until the 10th century that an Iranian king actually recorded some of the sport’s general and more important rules, in particular pointing out the potential dangers of playing in a match – and as the centuries progressed, a 13th century Iranian poet even used polo as a basis for one of his love stories!

As the Persian nobles continued to invite other royal families from various countries to play in their tournaments, the popularity of the sport grew and spread rapidly across the East – in fact, there was even a stone tablet next to a polo field along the famous Chinese silk road, reading: “Let other people play at other things. The King of Games is still the Game of Kings.” Coats of arms for the Chinese royal families soon included a polo stick, and it is well know that polo was an important part of royal family life during the reign of Ming-Hung, a time that is often referred to as the Golden Age of Chinese classical culture.

Chinese courtiers of the Tang Dynasty, engaged in their own polo game during the 7th century.

Naturally, not everyone was a good sport when playing these ancient polo matches. Although a 9th century Iranian historian had written instructions concerning how players should behave on the field – such as, “a player should strictly avoid using strong language and should be patient and temperate”, and “if a polo stick breaks during a game, it is a sign of inefficiency” – this apparently didn’t stop the Chinese Emperor Tai-Tsu in 910 AD from beheading all the players in a polo match that he had been watching, simply due to the fact that one of his own favorite players had been unfortunate enough to be killed during the game.

Brutality aside, the game continued to spread, with the Japanese learning the game from Chinese diplomats, and the Arab world picking up on the sport during their conquest of Iran in the 7th century. The polo stick actually became an important heraldic symbol in Islamic courts, and Polo Masters were a common addition to a ruling Caliph’s entourage!

Even with its spreading Eastern popularity, the game didn’t actually make it to the West until the Byzantine period. The ruler of Constantinople during the 12th century tried to encourage the sport’s growth, and his own successor even played until his arm and leg were crushed during a particularly rough match.

Polo continued to spread in this way, moving from royal household to royal household in various Eastern countries – and it wasn’t until sometime during the 18th century that the Western world learned of the existence of the sport, eventually refining the game into what is known today as the ‘modern’ version of polo.

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