About the Tanbur
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The History of the Tanbur

The original two-stringed Kurdish/Persian tanbur (aka, tanbour, tambur) is the forefather of all stringed instruments in the world and dates back many thousands of years. The tanbur has a deep pear shaped body with a long neck. The instrument is traditionally made of Mulberry wood and is fretted with cat or cow guts. The metal strings are fastened with front and side tuning pegs. In ancient times the tanbur had strings of guts. For many centuries the pear shaped body of the instrument was carved from a single piece of wood. Ever since the 1950s the body of the instrument has been made of bent ribs of mulberry wood, instead of the traditional single piece. The great 20th century tanbur maker Nariman along with the help of Ostad Elahi shaped the modern look of the tanbur.

The tanbur and its name date back before recorded history. Historians cannot agree about the exact origins of the Kurdish/Persian tanbur, however the first documentation of its existence comes from ancient Babylon. There is also documentation in the form of Egyptian bas-relief sculptures that prove the instrument was in use in the 26th dynasty of Egypt (circa 600 B.C.). The ancient Greeks named it the pandoura.

The name tanbur has unfortunately been applied to dozens of different instruments worldwide creating a great deal of confusion. The instrument is also known to have been used by the Zoroastrians and in the Sassanian courts (AD 224–651).

Shah Khoshin, a saint of the Ahl-e Haqq helped popularize the instrument during the 12th century. The Kurdish tanbur and its melodies were used in spiritual gatherings (Zekr, Jam) of the Ahl-e Haqq (a.k.a. Ahl-e Hakk, Ahl-I Haqq) for meditation and chanting purposes ever since the 14th century. Up to the 20th century the instrument was considered so sacred that it was not to be played for people outside of the Ahl-e Haqq order. Its melodies and modes were so heavily guarded that they were only passed down from master to disciple.

As with the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium, the evolution of the tanbur, its melodies, and style of playing were also characterized by long periods of virtual standstill, “punctuated" by episodes of very fast development.

For thousands of years up to the beginning of the 20th century, the Kurdish/Persian tanbur only had two strings. In the early part of the 20th century, Nur Ali Elahi (a.k.a., Ostad Elahi, Nour Ali Elahi, Nur Ali Nemati, Hajj Nur Ali, Nur Ali Shah) a peerless master of the tanbur added a third string which is tuned to the same pitch as the bottom string. He also added a 14th fret. Nur Ali Elahi’s innovations and contributions to the tanbur were extremely important and advanced the instrument to new levels.

Beyond the physical facelift the tanbur received in the 20th century, it’s method of playing also became a lot more advanced.

The derivatives of the tanbur include the Greek buzuki, the guitar, the Romanian tamburitza, the Indian sitar and tambura.

Unfortunately in today’s computerized world very few people know about the father of all stringed instruments. We hope you will share this site and the history of the tanbur with your friends and family.