Iran is one of the Middle East's most diverse countries, a crossroads of peoples in whose traditions are written the region's history, both ancient and modern. For all of these traditions that are very much a part of modern life in the country, there is a unifying Iranian identity. Forged through shared histories, centuries of constant proximity and the struggles and conflicts of recent decades, this sense of being Iranian keeps all these disparate peoples discernibly part of a bigger whole.
Persians are the descendents of the original Elamite and Aryan races who arrived in what is now Iran during the 3rd millennium BC. The Persians, or Farsis, were originally the tribes that came to establish the Achaemenid Empire and, when Gilaki and Mazandarani people are included in the number (their language is a variation on Farsi but they are still ethnically Persians), they now make up about 60% of the population. Persians are found across Iran, but Tehran, Mashhad, Esfahan, Yazd and particularly Shiraz have the highest concentrations. Farsi is the main Iranian language and Persian culture is often considered Iranian culture.
Commonly called ‘Turks’ in Iran, the Azeris make up about 16% of the population. They speak Azeri Turkish, a dialect mixing Turkish with Farsi and have strong cross-border links with neighbouring Turkey and Azerbaijan. They are concentrated in northwest Iran, in the Azerbaijan provinces around Tabriz, and are predominantly Shia Muslims.
Iran has more than seven million Kurds. The Kurds lay claim to being the oldest Iranian people in the region, descended from the Medes who ruled the region from Iran in the 7th century BC. The wider Kurdish homeland is a largely contiguous area split between southeastern Turkey (Kurds represent around 20% of Turkey's population), northeastern Syria (7% to 8%), northern Iraq (15%) and northwestern Iran. There are more than 20 million Kurds in total and they comprise the largest ethnic group without their own country. In Iran, Kurds (who are predominantly Sunni Muslims) live in the mountainous west, particularly Kordestan province near the Iraqi border.
Arabs make up about 2% of the population and are settled mostly in Khuzestan, near the Iraqi border, and on the coast and islands of the Persian Gulf. They are often called bandari (bandar means port), because of their historical links to the sea. Their differing language (a dialect of Arabic), dress, music and faith (many are Sunni Muslims) often keep them on the margins of mainstream Iranian life.
These proud people constitute about 6% of Iran’s population and are thought to be descendants of the first peoples in the region, the Kassites and Medes; they have strong historical ties to the Kurds. Many speak Lori, a mixture of Arabic and Farsi, and a significant minority remain nomadic. Whether nomadic or settled, most live in or near the mountainous western province of Lorestan.
Making up about 2% of the population, Iranian Turkmen are descended from the nomadic Turkic tribes that once ruled Iran. They live in the northeast of the country, especially around Gorgan and Gonbad-e Kavus and close to the border with Turkmenistan. They are, however, present across the north of the country and have ties to Turkmen people across the border in Iraq. They speak their own Turkic language.
The population of Iran's southeastern dry, barren Sistan va Baluchestan province is largely Baluchi. Baluchis comprise around 2% of Iran’s population and are part of a greater whole that spreads into western Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their culture, faith, language and dress are more associated with Pakistan than Iran.
About a million people still live as nomads in Iran despite repeated attempts to settle them. Most migrate between cooler mountain areas in summer and low-lying warmer regions during winter, following pasture for their goats and sheep. Their migrations are during April and May, when they head uphill, returning during October and November. The majority of nomads are Turkic Qashqa’i and Bakhtiyari, but there are also nomadic Kurds, Lurs and Baluchis, among others.
Sidebar: Iran's Youth
More than 40% of Iran's population is aged under 25 years old and about 25% is under 15. Although things have improved in recent years, Iran's economy is still unable to keep up with youth unemployment at around 27% in 2016, although real figures are thought to be much higher.
More than 97% of all children are enrolled in schools, with almost as many girls as boys.
As the largest and most influential ethnic group, Persians fill most of Iran’s senior government posts. However, people from most other ethnic groups (as opposed to religions) can still reach the top – Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, is an ethnic Azeri.
Sidebar: Iranian Film
Bahman Ghobadi’s film A Time for Drunken Horses, a co-winner of the Cannes’ Caméra d’Or prize in 2000, is the story of Kurdish orphans living in a border village. Ghobadi has since had hits with Turtles Can Fly (2004), Half Moon (2006) and Rhino Season (2012).
Gabbeh (1996), directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, is a beautiful film centred on a gabbeh, a type of Persian carpet made by Qashqa’i nomads, and the love story of a nomad girl with the same name.
Like any people in a dynamic modern society, Iranians live a multiplicity of lives that make generalisations dangerous, especially at a time when the conservative-liberal divide that runs through Iranian society is as significant as ever – there are as many ways of being Iranian as there are Iranians. Even so, there are some mainstays – the importance of religious faith, the significance of family, and a proud attachment to local culture and traditions while generally remaining warm and welcoming to outsiders.
How Iranians Live
Life is a struggle for many Iranians and often bears little resemblance to the lives lived by their parents and grandparents. The majority of Iran’s urban dwellers live in flats, and in major cities homes are rapidly being replaced with apartment blocks. Land in Tehran is as expensive as many North American and European cities, and the cost of living is increasingly prohibitive. With prices for rental properties outstripping salaries more with each passing year, the struggle to make ends meet means many Iranians work more than one job and, in the case of the middle classes, often both men and women work. Many couples live with parents for years before they can afford their own place.
Rich & Poor
The gap between rich and poor is huge. Teachers, earning not much more than US$300 a month, are the sort of middle-class state employee hardest hit by inflation rates running at more than 8% per annum (although it has hovered around 20% in recent years). On the other hand, a fortunate minority live in lavish villas or marble-and-glass apartments in the wealthy northern suburbs of Tehran. It is not uncommon to spend US$100 on a meal for two at a trendy northern Tehran restaurant, an amount most Iranians could not even dream of spending. The women of such families tend not to work but instead lead lives revolving around their children, visiting parents and friends and working out with personal trainers.
In contrast a middle-class couple may leave their modest apartment together in the morning after the typical Persian breakfast of bread, cheese, jam and tea. Their children, if small, will mostly be looked after by grandparents while the couple go to work. One or the other may make it back for lunch, unless living in Tehran where distances are greater and traffic hideous. In the evening the family meal will be taken together, often with the wider family and friends. Iranians are social creatures and many visits occur after dinner.
In poorer or more traditional families it is likely that the woman will stay at home, in which case her whole day revolves around housework, providing meals for her family and shopping (in ultraconservative families the men may do the shopping).
Iranian meals take time to prepare and though supermarkets exist and some pre-packaged ingredients are available, many women spend a decent chunk of each day just buying, cleaning and chopping the herbs served with every meal. Working women generally see to these tasks in the evenings, when they may prepare the next day’s lunch. Mostly it is safe to say that men’s role in the home is confined to appreciating the quality of the cooking. Which they do well, Iranians being true gourmets.
Family life is of supreme importance to Iranians and often a family will include children, parents, grandparents and other elderly relatives. As a result, Iranian society is more multigenerational than Western society, something that’s most obvious on holidays and weekends when you’ll see several generations walking, laughing and picnicking together.
Living alone is extremely unusual and unmarried children usually only leave home to attend university in another town or for work. Although the young people of Iran long for independence and their own space, just like their Western counterparts, there is not much cultural precedence for this. Those who do live alone – mostly men – are pitied. Women living alone are regarded with extreme suspicion. Being married and having a family is regarded as the happiest – not to mention the most natural – state of being.
For the most part, the average Iranian family is a robust unit and, despite economic and social differences, most operate in broadly the same way. They provide an essential support unit in a country with no state benefit system.
Education is highly regarded; adult literacy is well above average for the region at 86.8% (91.2% for men, 82.5% for women), according to Unesco. The average years children attend school is 15 (the same for men and women), again one of the highest in the region. Many middle-class teenagers spend up to two years studying for university entrance exams, though the sheer number of entrants, ideological screening and places reserved for war veterans and their offspring make it very hard to get in. And once out of university, there is no guarantee of work.
With the sexes segregated at school and boys and girls discouraged from socialising together, trying to get to know members of the opposite sex is a huge preoccupation for Iranian teenagers. They hang around shopping malls, in cafes and parks, parade up and down boulevards and spend lots of time cruising around in cars.
Football is a national obsession and Iran has been competing internationally since 1941, winning three Asian Cups during the ‘60s and ‘70s and qualifying for four World Cups (1978, 1998, 2006 and 2014). Many Iranians of a certain generation can tell you where they were when Iran defeated Australia in dramatic fashion to qualify for the 1998 World Cup, their first appearance in two decades. The men’s professional league has 18 teams in the top division and runs from August to May, with games played most Thursdays and Fridays.
You’ll see kids playing football in streets and squares across Iran, but you won’t see too many pitches. This is partly because religious strictures mean women should not see unrelated men in shorts, so most grounds are behind large walls. Women are barred from attending men’s sporting events even though they are, conversely, free to watch them on TV; this oft-debated issue is dealt with in Jafar Panahi’s film Offside. Wrestling, skiing, tae kwon do and archery are also popular.
Modern-day restrictions aside, Iran does have an interesting sporting history. Polo is believed to have originated in Iran and was certainly played during the reign of Darius the Great. Shah Abbas the Great also enjoyed polo, and today you can still see the burly stone goal posts at either end of Esfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Sq. Another ancient sport peculiar to Iran is the zurkhaneh (literally, ‘house of strength’).
Unique to Iran, the zurkhaneh literally means ‘house of strength’ and is a mix of sport, theatre and religion that dates back thousands of years. As it was refined through the ages, the zurkhaneh picked up different components of moral, ethical, philosophical and mystical values of Iranian civilisation. The zurkhaneh itself is a small, traditional gymnasium often decorated like a shrine, and what goes on inside incorporates the spiritual richness of Sufism, traditional rituals of Mithraism and the heroism of Iranian nationalism. Typically a group of men stand around a circular pit and perform a series of ritualised feats of strength, all to the accompaniment of a leader pounding out a frenetic drumbeat. The leader sings verses from epics such as the Shahnameh and recites poetry by Hafez. Most zurkhaneh are open to the public and it’s usually free to watch. You won’t see many local women, but Western women are welcomed as honorary men.
Women in Iran
Nowhere are the contradictions in Iranian society more apparent than in the position of women; some of the fiercest battles in Iran's ongoing liberal-conservative schism have been over the issues of women's rights. That said, the situation is far from black and white and is one that defies easy simplification.
Women Through the Ages
Historically, women have lived in a relatively progressive society and enjoyed more equality and freedom than their neighbours. In Iran women are able to sit in parliament, drive, vote, buy property and work. There is a long precedence for this. Archaeological evidence suggests that in pre-Islamic women in Iran were able to work, own, sell and lease property and that they paid taxes. Women managed work sites and held high-level military positions. But it wasn’t until the Prophet Mohammed that women’s rights were specifically addressed. Islam recognises men and women as having different rights and responsibilities. Men are expected to provide financially, therefore women are not seen as needing legal rights as men are there to protect and maintain them.
In reality, for Iranian women, the arrival of Islam after the Arab conquest saw a decline in their position at every level. Most of their rights evaporated, the Islamic dress code was imposed, polygamy was practised and family laws were exclusively to the advantage of the male.
Reza Shah started legislating for women in 1931 with a bill that gave women the right to seek divorce. In subsequent years the marriage age was raised to 15 for girls, girls gained access to an education equal to that of boys, women were encouraged to work outside the home and legislation was passed to abolish the veil, a move that polarised opinion among women. In 1962 Mohammad Reza Shah gave women the vote and in 1968 the most progressive family law in the Middle East was ratified. Divorce laws became stringent and polygamy was discouraged. The marriage age was raised to 18.
Many Iranian women were active in the revolution that overthrew the shah, but it’s safe to say that few foresaw how the Islamic Republic, and its adoption of a version of Sharia law, would affect their rights. Within a couple of years women were back in the hejab – and this time it was compulsory. The legal age of marriage for girls plummeted to nine (15 for boys), and society was strictly segregated. Women were not allowed to appear in public with a man who was not a husband or a direct relation, and they could be flogged for displaying ‘incorrect’ hejab or showing strands of hair or scraps of make-up. Travel was not possible without a husband or father’s permission and a woman could be stoned to death for adultery, which, incidentally, included being raped. Family law again fell under the jurisdiction of the religious courts and it became almost impossible for a woman to divorce her husband without his agreement. In any case of divorce she was almost certain to lose custody of her children. Women holding high positions – such as Shirin Ebadi, who became a judge in 1979 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 – lost their jobs and many gave up promising careers.
However, Iranian women had tasted emancipation, and they resisted a total return to the home. There were many rights that women did not lose – such as the right to vote and the right to hold property and financial independence in marriage – putting them at a marked advantage to some Arab neighbours. In fact, the rates of education and literacy for women have shot up since the revolution for the simple reason that many traditional families finally felt safe sending their daughters to school once Iran had adopted the veil.
In 1997 Reformist president Khatami was voted in by mostly women and young people, promising change. By 2001 there were 14 women in the majlis (Iranian Parliament) and calls to improve women’s rights became louder. Among the most prolific Islamic feminists is Faezeh Rafsanjani, the daughter of the ex-president, who herself was a member of parliament, a magazine proprietor, an academic, a mother and an Olympic horse rider.
The Khatami period brought a series of hard-fought minor victories. The Reformists managed to win the right for single women to study abroad, to raise the legal age for marriage from nine to 13 for girls (though they had proposed 15), to defeat an attempt to limit the percentage of female students entering university and to improve custody provisions for divorced mothers. Women make up almost two-thirds of all university entrants, though their subsequent employment rate is below 20%. Although women’s importance in the workforce is acknowledged – maternity leave, for example, is given for three months at 67% of salary or four months if breastfeeding – there is still widespread discrimination.
However, a woman’s testimony is still only worth half that of a man’s in court and in the case of the blood money that a murderer’s family is obliged to pay to the family of the victim, females are estimated at half the value of a male.
On the street, especially in Tehran, you will see that superficially the dress code has eased compared with the days when the black chador dominated. Despite crackdowns that ebb and flow with the political winds, women of all ages can often be seen wearing shorter, tighter, brightly coloured coats and headscarves worn far back on elaborate hairstyles. Some young women have lost their fear of being seen outside the home with unrelated men and are prepared to risk arrest to do so. Activists such as Shirin Ebadi, who works as a lawyer and champions human rights, are insistent that within Islam are enshrined all human rights and that all that is needed is more intelligent interpretation.
Any visit to an Iranian home will leave you in no doubt as to who is really in charge of family life – which is arguably the most important institution in Iran. Many Iranian women are feisty and powerful and they continue to educate themselves. Some will tell you that the hejab is the least of their worries; what is more important is to change the institutional discrimination inherent in Iranian society and the law.
After conservatives regained control of the majlis in 2004 and the presidency in 2005 (with Ahmadinejad), such change became more difficult to achieve. Since mid-2007, and more so since the Green Movement mass protests in 2009, the government has been much more aggressive in enforcing restrictive laws that had, in effect, been dormant during the Khatami years. Across the country, female university students were told to start wearing a maqna’e (nunlike head scarf or wimple) or stop coming to class. In cities, and especially in Tehran, the liberties taken for granted for a decade from 1997 are being challenged by periodic high-profile crackdowns on what is perceived as bad hejab – usually too much make up and not enough scarf. Many of the Khatami-era reforms remained, but the immediate future for women seemed less optimistic and more uncertain than it had been for almost a decade.
And then, the pendulum swung back: in 2013, Reformist-backed Hassan Rouhani won the country's presidential elections. Even so, the Reformist influence over legislative agendas and enforcement remains tenuous, and no-one dares to return to the optimism that gripped the Reformist movement during the Khatami years.
No matter how Iran’s political landscape changes, it seems certain Iranian women will continue to assert their rights and slowly chip away at the system, be it with a defiant splash of red lipstick, making visionary movies or becoming expert at interpreting the law and winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
At the end of your first taxi trip in Iran, there’s a good chance you’ll ask the driver ‘chand toman’ (how many tomans?) and he’ll reply ‘ghabeli nadari’. His words mean ‘it’s nothing’, but the taxi driver still expects to get paid. This is ta’arof, a system of formalised politeness that can seem confusing to outsiders, but is a mode of social interaction in which everyone knows their place.
Despite the apparent contradictions in the taxi, you’ll soon learn that ta’arof is more about people being sensitive to the position of others than routine politeness. So for example, an offer of food will be repeatedly turned down before being accepted. This gives the person making the offer the chance to save face if in reality they cannot provide a meal (they will stop offering after the second or third time). A good rule is to always refuse any offer three times but, if they continue to insist, do accept. When a shopkeeper, restaurateur or (less often) a hotel manager refuses payment when asked for a bill, do remember that this is just ta’arof – don’t leave without paying! If you accept an offer that is in fact ta’arof, the shocked look on the vendor’s face should soon reveal your error.
Ta’arof also involves showing consideration of others in your physical actions, so try not to sit with your back to people and expect to be delayed at doorways as Iranians insist that whoever they’re with goes through the door first with repeated ‘befarmayid’ (please). Be prepared for small talk at the beginning of any exchange, as the health of every member of your family is enquired after. Returning this courtesy will be greatly appreciated. Also be prepared for questions considered personal in the West, such as your salary, marital status, why you don’t have children and so on. This is quite normal. Steer away from politics or religion unless your Iranian host broaches the subject first.
And don’t forget to pay the taxi driver…think of it this way: it would be bad form for the driver not to offer you the trip for free, and worse form for you to accept his offer.
Iran’s Age-old Celebration of the New Year
No Ruz literally means ‘new day’ and while the celebration is for Persian New Year, much of the traditional ceremony is about renewal and hope for the future. The roots of No Ruz stretch deep into history, with the spring equinox (usually 21 March) having been celebrated since before Achaemenid times. It’s a peculiarly Persian tradition that has nothing to do with Islam – a fact many Iranians are proud of but which doesn’t sit well with the Islamic theocracy.
No Ruz festivities stretch for about three weeks. Apart from frenzied shopping, the outward sign of No Ruz is street-side stalls selling the haft seen (seven ‘s’es; seven, or sometimes more, symbolic items with Farsi names starting with the letter ‘s’). Like a Christmas tree, they are supposed to be set up at home, though you’ll see them everywhere from TV news studios to taxi dashboards. Today’s most commonly seen seen, and their symbolic meanings:
- sabzi (green grass or sprout shoots) and samanu (sweet wheat pudding) represent rebirth and fertility
- seer (garlic) and sumaq (sumac) symbolise hoped-for good health
- sib (apple) and senjed (a dried fruit) represent the sweetness of life
- sonbol (hyacinth) is for beauty
On many tables you’ll also see sekeh (a gold coin, symbolising adequate income), serkeh (vinegar to ward off bitterness), a mirror, a Quran and candles. You’ll also see sorry-looking goldfish in tiny bowls symbolising life – until they die in their millions after No Ruz.
On the Tuesday night before the last Wednesday of the year chahar shanbe-soori, (Wednesday Fire), people sing, dance (men only) and jump over fires. The jumping symbolises the burning away of ill luck or health, to be replaced by the healthy redness of the flames. Unfortunately, actually finding a fire can be tough.
Chahar shanbe-soori is viewed as a pagan festival by the government and there is sometimes open animosity between revellers and (half-hearted) police or Basij militiamen. Some towns have grudgingly ‘approved’ fire-sites, though visiting these can be deafening and rather hazardous due to the uncontrolled bursts of fireworks. In many cities, however, fires are banned altogether; ask locally for the situation.
When No Ruz finally arrives, families gather around the haft seen table to recite a prayer seeking happiness, good health and prosperity, before eating sabzi polo (rice and vegetables) and mahi (fish). Mothers are also expected to eat symbolic hard-boiled eggs – one for every child. At the moment the sun passes the celestial equator (announced on every radio station), people kiss and hug and children are given eidi (presents). For the following two weeks Iranians visit relatives and friends in their home towns.
Sizdah be Dar
No Ruz celebrations finish on the 13th day of the year, Sizdah be Dar (usually 2 April). Everyone goes picnicking out of town, taking their haft seen sabzi with them. The sabzi is either thrown into water or, in some cases, left to blow off the roof of the car. Either way, the sabzi is meant to have soaked up the bad aspects of the previous year, so this ceremony symbolises getting rid of bad luck.
The area of land that is Iran has been continuously inhabited by a single nation for longer than any other land.
Shiites were historically persecuted by the Sunni majority and so developed a doctrine (called taqiya) whereby it is fine to conceal one’s faith in order to escape persecution.
Sidebar: Land of the Nobles
The name Iran – from the Middle Persian ‘Eran’ – comes from the term for Aryan, ‘the land of the nobles’. It was first used in the 1st millennium BC.
Iran has more than one million drug addicts, even though drug dealing and drug use can be punishable by death. Iran also has enlightened policies for treating addiction, including methadone programs and clean needles for addicted prisoners.
Sidebar: Football Rivalry
Iran’s biggest football rivalry is between Tehran clubs Persepolis (pronounced ‘Perspolis’ and playing in red), known as the working-class team, and Esteghlal (blue home strip), the villainous wealthy club.
The Cypress Tree (2011), by Kamin Mohammadi, who contributed to earlier editions of Lonely Planet’s Iran guide, is the story of Mohammadi’s childhood in Iran, exile to London following the revolution and return to discover her family and the strong women among them.
Sigheh is the Islamic practice of a temporary marriage contract that allows sex outside of a normal marriage. To many Iranians, especially women, it is seen as a sort of legalised prostitution.
A Separation (2012) is Asghar Farhadi’s complex portrayal of the emotional challenges a Tehran couple face as their marriage falls apart. It won the Golden Globe and Academy Award for best foreign-language film, and was nominated for an Acadamy Award for original screenplay.
Nearly three-quarters of Iran's population live in urban areas, one of the highest rates of urbanisation in the region.
Sidebar: Adolescence on Film
Female director Samira Makhmalbaf made her first film The Apple (1998) when she was just was 18 years old. It tells the story of two adolescent girls locked away in their house by their father.
Sidebar: Birth Rate
According to Unesco, 96.4% of births in Iran are attended by a skilled attendant, and in 2016, the average number of children per woman was 1.83, down from around six during the early years of the Islamic Revolution.
Sidebar: Olympic Medal
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Kimia Alizadeh became the first Iranian woman to win an Olympic medal, taking bronze in the under-57kg tae kwon do class.
Iran's food is one of the enduring highlights of any visit to the country. Mastered over three millennia, the cuisine is a reflection of the very soul of the country and its varied terrain. Think camel kabab and dates in the desert, fish on the Gulf coast and a huge variety of vegetable dishes (with meat, of course) in the fertile Caspian provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran.
Staples & Specialties
While tastes are broadening, it remains that outside Tehran restaurant menus are dominated by kababs and fast food. To enjoy the best cooking you really need to be invited into an Iranian home. There’s a good chance that will happen and when it does, just say ‘yes’. As a guest you will be honoured as a ‘gift of God’ and the fabulous food and humbling hospitality should make for a meal you’ll remember for a lifetime.
Bread & Rice
Almost every meal in Iran is accompanied by nun (bread) and/or berenj (rice). Nun is cheap and usually fresh. There are four main varieties:
Barbari Crisp and salty and more like Turkish bread; often covered with sesame seeds.
Lavash Common for breakfast and is flat and thin; it’s mouthwatering when fresh but soon turns cardboard-like.
Sangak The elite of Iranian breads, long and thick and baked on a bed of stones to give it its characteristic dimpled appearance – check carefully for rogue chunks of gravel.
Taftun Crisp with a ribbed surface.
Chelo (boiled or steamed rice) forms the base of many an Iranian meal, and especially at lunch is served in vast helpings. Rice cooked with other ingredients, such as nuts, spices or barberry (small, red berries), is called polo and is worth asking for specifically. Za’feran (saffron) is frequently used to add flavour and colour. If rice is served with a knob of butter on top, blend this in as the Iranians do. Tahdig, the savoury crust from the bottom of the rice pan, often including slices of potato, is a national favourite.
Even in a restaurant with a long menu, most main-dish options will be kabab. These are served either on bread or as chelo kabab (on a vast mound of rice). In contrast with the greasy doner kebabs inhaled after rough nights in the West, Iranian kababs are tasty, healthy and cooked shish-style over hot charcoals. They are usually sprinkled with spicy sumaq (sumac) and accompanied by raw onion, grilled tomatoes and, for an extra fee, a bowl of mast (yoghurt).
Common kabab incarnations include:
Bakhtiyari kabab Lamb chops and chicken, the king of kababs.
Chelo kabab Any kind of kabab in this list served with chelo (boiled or steamed rice); the default option will be kubide if you don’t specify.
Juje kabab Grilled chicken pieces marinated in sumaq.
Kubide kabab The cheapest, most common version made of minced mutton, breadcrumbs and onion ground together.
For a change from kabab it’s worth asking for common stand-bys zereshk polo ba morgh (chicken on rice made tangy with barberries), ghorme sabzi (a green mix of diced meat, beans and vegetables, served with rice) or various mouthwatering vegetarian dishes made from bademjan (eggplant).
But it doesn’t end there. Certain (usually downmarket) eateries and many chaykhanehs (teahouses) specialise in underrated dizi (a cheap soup-stew meal). Most restaurants will also serve one or another variety of khoresht (thick, usually meaty stew made with vegetables and chopped nuts, then served with rice and/or French fries). However, in some less popular restaurants khoresht can live in big pots for days before reaching the plate, so if you have a suspect stomach think twice.
Dolme (vegetables, fruit or vine leaves stuffed with a meat-and-rice mixture) make a tasty change. Dolme bademjan (stuffed eggplant) is especially delectable. The Persian classic fesenjun (sauce of pomegranate juice, walnuts, eggplant and cardamom served over roast chicken and rice) is increasingly found in restaurants, but it's rare enough to feel like a prize when you find it. Or you might get lucky and be served fesenjun in an Iranian home, which is quite an honour.
In western Iran, along the Persian Gulf coast and elsewhere, chelo mahi (fried fish on rice) is quite common in season, while on the Caspian coast (and sometimes elsewhere) it’s relatively easy to find mirza ghasemi (mashed eggplant, squash, garlic, tomato and egg, served with bread or rice).
Dessert & Sweets
While after-meal dessert is often a bowl of fruit, Iran produces such a head-spinning array of freshly made shirini (sweets) that sweet-toothed travellers might remember the country by its regional specialities:
Esfahan Gaz, rose water–flavoured nougat, often with pistachio; prices vary greatly according to the percentage of pistachio, whether honey or sugar is used, and to what extent angevin (extract from the tree called gaz, hence the name) is used.
Kerman Kolompe, a soft, date-filled biscuit.
Orumiyeh Noghl, sugar-coated nuts.
Qom Sohan, a brittle, toffee-like concoction of pistachio and ginger.
Yazd Baghlava, like Turkish baklava but thicker, and pashmak, candyfloss made of sugar and sesame.
Other widely available sweets worth trying include refreshing paludeh or falude (a sorbet made of rice flour, grated fresh fruit and rose water) and bastani (Iranian ice cream).
Persian Food Philosophy It’s ‘Hot’ & ‘Cold’
Ancient Persians believed good diet was light on fat, red meat, starch and alcohol – these transformed men into selfish brutes. Instead, fruit, vegetables, chicken and fish were encouraged as the food of gentler, more respectable people. In practice, this philosophy was governed by a classification of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ foods, which is still widely used today.
Similar to China’s Yin and Yang, the belief is that ‘hot’ foods ‘thicken the blood’ and speed metabolism, while ‘cold’ foods ‘dilute the blood’ and slow the metabolism. The philosophy extends to personalities and weather, too. Like foods, people are believed to have ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ natures. People with ‘hot’ natures should eat more ‘cold’ foods, and vice versa. And on cold days it’s best to eat ‘hot’ foods, and vice versa.
So what’s ‘hot’ and what’s not? The classification has nothing to do with temperature, and regional variations exist, but it’s generally agreed that animal fat, wheat, sugar, sweets, wine, most dried fruits and nuts, fresh herbs including mint and saffron, and most meats are ‘hot’ (but not beef). ‘Cold’ foods include fish, yoghurt and watermelon (all ‘very cold’), rice, many fresh vegetables (particularly radishes) and fruits, beef, beer and other nonwine alcohol. Some foods are hotter or colder than others, and some, such as pears, feta and tea, are neutral.
As you travel, you’ll see the balance in dishes such as fesenjun (sauce of pomegranate juice, walnuts, eggplant and cardamom served over roast chicken and rice), where the pomegranate (cold) is balanced by the walnuts (hot). On the table, mast (yoghurt), cheese, radishes and greens – all cold – are balanced with ‘hot’ kababs, chicken and sweets. Getting the balance right is what is most important. Too much ‘cold’ food is thought to be particularly unhealthy, so be careful of eating watermelon and dugh (churned sour milk or yoghurt mixed with water) with your fish meal, unless the dugh comes with chopped herbs to balance it out. ‘Hot’ foods are apparently not so dangerous: too much ‘hot’ and you might end up with a cold sore, if you’re prone to them.
Known alternatively as abgusht (or as piti in Azerbaijan), dizi is a cheap soup-stew meal named for the earthenware pot in which it is served. It’s considered by many Iranians as the food of the poor, but assuming you’re neither a vegetarian nor obsessive about cholesterol, it’s actually a delicious and filling dish. There is, however, an art to eating it.
First, tear some bread into bite-sized morsels, put it into your bowl and drain the soupy broth from the dizi over the top of the bread. Eat this then turn to the main ingredients left in the dizi: chickpeas, potatoes, tomatoes and soft-boiled mutton. Grind these together using the provided metal pestle; do include the inevitable chunk of fat, which while looking unappetising does add taste and texture. Eat the resulting mush with a spoon or bread.
If it gets too hard, fear not, the waiter will show the way.
Vegetarians & Vegans
Vegetarianism is growing in popularity among educated urbanites, particularly in Tehran. But for most Iranians, it remains a foreign concept. Sure, there are a lot of good vegetarian dishes in Iranian cuisine, but most restaurants don’t make them.
Solace can be found, however, in the felafels, samosas and potatoes sold in street stalls, and in the Persian mastery of all things bademjan (eggplant), especially the meatless Caspian dish mirza ghasemi. The various kuku (thick omelette dishes) make great snacks, served hot or cold. Varieties include kuku-ye sabzi (with mixed herbs), kuku-e-ye bademjan (with eggplant) and kuku-e-ye gol-e kalam (with cauliflower). In cheaper restaurants, watch for adas-polo (yellow rice with lentils, sometimes cumin flavoured).
Vegans will struggle to find anything completely free from animal products; even rice is often served with butter. Fortunately, fresh and dried fruit and varieties of nut and vegetables are widely available. Cheaper hotels might let you use the kitchen.
Habits & Customs
For Iranians, breakfast is a simple affair, consisting of endless tea served with leftover (ie rather crisp) lavash, feta-style cheese and jam – often carrot-flavoured. Most hotels usually throw in an egg. Lunch is the main meal of the day and is eaten with mountains of rice between noon and 2pm. Dinner is usually a bit lighter and eaten from about 7pm onwards. Many restaurants close earlier on Friday. On religious holidays, almost everywhere selling food will shut for the morning at least.
Sidebar: Persian Recipes
Aashpazi (www.aashpazi.com) has dozens of recipes for Persian dishes. There's little overarching context on the role of food in Iranian life, but the recipes are reliably outstanding. My Persian Kitchen (www.mypersiankitchen.com) is also good for recipes.
New Persian Cooking: A Fresh Approach to the Classic Cuisine of Iran (2011), by Dana-Haeri and Shahrzad Ghorashian, does what its title says, adding some fresh takes on Iranian staples. Pomegranates and Roses: My Persian Family Recipes (2012), by Ariana Bundy, is also excellent, with an emphasis on home cooking.
The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran (2017), by Jennifer Klinec, is at once a love story and food journey, with the contradictions of modern Iran as a backdrop.
Faith in Iran
Official statistics suggest 99.4% of Iran’s population are Muslim, made up of between 90% to 95% Shiite and 5% to 10% Sunni. Small communities of Baha’is, Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews make up the numbers. Aside from the Baha’i religion, the practise of which is outlawed, freedom of worship is guaranteed in the constitution. Iranians will happily accept that visitors are Christians and, in most circumstances, Jewish. But admitting to being atheist or agnostic can result in incomprehension, even among better-educated Iranians.
Muslims believe there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed was his final prophet.
In order to live a devout life, Muslims are expected to observe, as a minimum, the five pillars of Islam.
Shahada This is the profession of faith, Islam’s basic tenet: ‘There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the Prophet of Allah.’ This phrase forms an integral part of the call to prayer and is used at all important events in a Muslim’s life.
Salat (Namaz) This is the obligation of prayer, ideally five times a day for Sunnis, though Shiites only pray three times: at sunrise, noon, midafternoon, sunset and night. It’s acceptable to pray at home or elsewhere, except for Friday noon prayers, which are performed at a mosque.
Zakat Muslims must give alms to the poor to the value of one-fortieth of a believer’s annual income.
Sawm (Ruzeh) Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, commemorates the revelation of the Quran to Mohammed. As Ramadan represents a Muslim’s renewal of faith, nothing may pass their lips (food, cigarettes, drinks) and they must refrain from sex from dawn until dusk.
Hajj Every physically and financially able Muslim should perform the hajj to the holiest of cities, Mecca, at least once in their lifetime. The reward is considerable: the forgiving of all past sins.
Almost every town has a Masjed-e Jameh (Jameh Mosque), which literally means Congregational Mosque, that serves as the local centre of worship and Islamic discussion.
The Birth of Islam
Abdul Qasim Mohammed ibn Abdullah ibn Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim (the Prophet Mohammed) was born in 570. Mohammed’s family belonged to the Quraysh tribe, a trading family with links to Syria and Yemen. By the age of six, Mohammed’s parents had both died and he came into the care of his grandfather, the custodian of the Kaaba in Mecca.
At the age of 40, in 610, Mohammed retreated into the desert and began to receive divine revelations from Allah via the voice of the archangel Gabriel; the revelations would continue throughout Mohammed’s life. Three years later, Mohammed began imparting Allah’s message to Meccans, gathering a significant following in his campaign against idolaters. His movement appealed especially to the poorer, disenfranchised sections of society.
Islam provided a simpler alternative to the established faiths, which had become complicated by hierarchical orders, sects and complex rituals, offering instead a direct relationship with God based only on the believer’s submission to God (Islam means ‘submission’).
By 622, Mecca’s powerful ruling families had forced Mohammed and his followers to flee north to Medina where Mohammed’s supporters rapidly grew. In 630 Mohammed returned triumphantly to Mecca at the head of a 10,000-strong army to seize control of the city. Many of the surrounding tribes quickly swore allegiance to him and the new faith.
Shiism & Sunnism
Despite the Prophet Mohammed’s original intentions, Islam did not remain simple. When the Prophet Mohammed died in AD 632, he left no sons and no instructions as to who should succeed him. Competing for power were Abu Bakr, the father of Mohammed’s second wife Aisha, and Ali, Mohammed’s cousin and the husband of his daughter Fatima. Initially, the power was transferred to Abu Bakr, who became the first caliph, or ruler, with Ali reluctantly agreeing.
Ali was passed over three times before becoming the fourth caliph in 656, only to be assassinated five years later. The Muslim community was by now divided into two factions: the Sunnis, who followed the Umayyad Caliphate, and the Shiite (from ‘Shiat Ali’, meaning ‘followers of Ali’).
The episode that ensured Sunni and Shiites would be antagonistic to one another was the massacre of the third imam, Hossein, and his 72 followers in 680. Having set up camp at Karbala, in present-day Iraq, the group was besieged for nine days by the Umayyad caliph's troops, and on the 10th day Hossein was killed. Hossein’s martyrdom is commemorated in a 10-day anniversary that culminates on Ashura. It’s during Ashura that the Iranian culture of martyrdom is most evident. It’s not unusual to see men flailing themselves with chains or crying genuine tears for their lost hero.
When Hossein and his supporters were slaughtered by the caliph’s troops, the division became permanent and bitter. Today the representation of its imams (‘leaders’ or more loosely, ‘saints’) is one of the most visible aspects of Shiism and you’ll see pictures of Imam Hossein, in particular, everywhere.
Shiism reached its greatest influence in Iran. Iranian converts to Islam were attracted by the idea of the imam as a divinely appointed leader possibly because the Iranians possessed a long heritage of government by a divinely appointed monarch.
Sunni comes from the word sonnat, which means tradition and refers to the fact that the Sunnis follow the traditional line of succession after the Prophet Mohammed. Sunnism has developed into the orthodox branch of Islam.
Beyond this early dynastic rivalry, there’s little doctrinal difference between Shiite Islam and Sunni Islam, but the division remains to this day. In recent years, the division has sharpened with the targeting of Shiites as apostates by fundamentalist Sunni groups such as so-called Islamic State.
Sunnis comprise some 90% of the world’s Muslims, but Shiites are believed to form a majority of the population in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran. There are also Shiite minorities in almost all Arab countries.
A mystical aspect of Islam that is particularly close to Iranian hearts, tassawof (mysticism) is ultimately discovered in and derived from the Quranic verses. According to Sufis, God must be felt as a light that shines in the believer’s heart and the heart must be pure enough to receive the light. The two are separated: man’s soul is in exile from the Creator and longs to return ‘home’ to lose himself again in Him. Sufism has various orders and throughout Iran you can find khanqas (prayer and meditation houses) where people go to worship. Sufism does not conflict with Shiism or Sunnism, yet is treated with suspicion by the authorities.
Some of Iran’s greatest thinkers, poets and scholars have had Sufi mystic tendencies, including Sohrevardi, Ghazali, Rumi, Hafez and Sa’di.
The 12 Imams
Shiism has several sub-branches but the Twelvers are by far the largest group, and make up the vast majority in Iran. Twelvers believe that following the death of Mohammed the rightful spiritual leadership of the Islamic faith passed to 12 successive descendants of the prophet. These were known as imams (‘leaders’ or more loosely, ‘saints’) and apart from Ali, the first imam, they weren’t recognised by the caliphate (the dynasty of the successors of the Prophet Mohammed as rulers of the Islamic world).
Devout Shia Muslims might celebrate the death days of all 12 imams, but most concentrate on the first, Ali, the third, Hossein, and the eighth, Reza – the only one buried in Iran, in the lavish Haram-e Razavi in Mashhad.
Almost as important is the 12th imam, known as the Mahdi or Valiasr (Leader of Our Time). Mahdi is the Hidden Imam, believed to have disappeared into a cave under a mosque at Samarra in AD 874. Most Shiites believe he lives on in occultation as their divine leader. It is believed Mahdi will eventually return when, with the prophet Jesus, he will guide the world to peace and righteousness.
Shias believe only the imams can truly interpret the Quran and the clergy act as their representatives until the Hidden Imam returns. Ayatollah Khomeini was given the honorary title imam after his death, and when you hear people talking about ‘the Imam’ today it’s usually a reference to him.
It’s impossible to say how much the martyrdom of the 12 imams feeds into modern Iranian cultural traits, but martyrdom remains a powerful motivator. During the Iran–Iraq War thousands of men and boys quite literally sacrificed their lives (some cleared mine fields by walking through them) in the name of country and/or religion.
The commonly understood names of the 12 imams in Iran, their birth and death years, and where they are buried:
- 1 Imam Ali (600–661) Najaf, Iraq
- 2 Imam Hasan (625–669) Medina, Saudi Arabia
- 3 Imam Hossein (626–680) Karbala, Iraq
- 4 Imam Sajjad (658–713) Medina, Saudi Arabia
- 5 Imam Mohammad Bagher (676–743) Medina, Saudi Arabia
- 6 Imam Jafar Sadegh (703–765) Medina, Saudi Arabia
- 7 Imam Musaye Kazem (745–799) Baghdad, Iraq
- 8 Imam Reza (765–818) Mashhad, Iran
- 9 Imam Javad (810–835) Baghdad, Iraq
- 10 Imam Hadi (827–868) Samarra, Iraq
- 11 Imam Hasan Askari (846–874) Samarra, Iraq
- 12 Imam Mahdi (868–?) In occultation
Traditionally, the most important mosque in each city was the Masjed-e Jameh, to be found at the centre of any old town, typically with a string of chains dangling from the doorway to denote a place of sanctuary for all. These days the congregations have often outgrown the capacity of old Jame mosques and moved to much larger Mosallah mosques so, while Jameh means Friday, the name doesn't always imply that this is where Friday prayers are actually held.
Throughout history Iranians have shown tolerance towards other people’s religious beliefs (with the exception of Baha’is), and since the adoption of Islam they have been particularly tolerant of Christians and Jews, who are ‘People of the Book’. Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians are all officially recognised, are exempt from military service and have guaranteed seats in the Majlis (parliament). However, they are not encouraged; conversion from Islam is punishable by death.
Baha’ism originated in Iran during the 1840s as a Shiite reform movement. Baha’i doctrines are egalitarian, teaching the complete equality of men and women and the unity of all humanity. They didn’t, however, impress Iran’s authorities, who tried to suppress the movement by massacring followers and executing the founding prophet, The Bab, in Tabriz in 1850.
Today they remain the most persecuted religious minority in Iran. It is illegal to practise the religion in public and followers are routinely discriminated against when it comes to jobs and education. Of the world’s five million Baha’is, around 300,000 remain in Iran – the country’s largest religious minority. Most are urban, but there are some Baha’i villages, especially in Fars and Mazandaran provinces.
Zoroastrians, the followers of Iran’s pre-Islamic religion, are based mainly around Yazd, with its fire temple and nearby desert pilgrimage site at Chak Chak. Sizeable communities also live in Tehran. Estimates of Iran’s Zoroastrian population vary between 30,000 and 100,000. Several traditions and ceremonies dating from Zoroastrian times are important in modern Iranian culture, including No Ruz (the Iranian New Year), Chaharshanbe-soori on the Wednesday before No Ruz, and Shab-e yalda, celebrated on the winter solstice.
The Christian community in Iran consists mainly of Armenians who settled at Jolfa, in the north of Iran, and were then moved to New Jolfa in Esfahan in Safavid times. Others live around Orumiyeh. Today Iran’s 250,000 Christians also include Roman Catholics, Adventists, Protestants, Chaldeans and about 20,000 Assyrians. Christians are allowed to consume alcohol and hold mixed-sex parties with dancing, just as long as no Muslims can see the revelry, let alone partake.
Iran has been home to Jews since about the 8th century BC – even before Cyrus the Great famously liberated Jews enslaved at Babylon. Today about 25,000 Jews live in Iran, primarily in Tehran, Esfahan and Shiraz. More than 50,000 left Iran when life became more difficult following the revolution – most migrating to the USA. In 2007 Israel offered up to US$60,000 a family to all remaining Iranian Jews to migrate to Israel. However, the Society of Iranian Jews snubbed the offer, saying the ‘identity of Iranian Jews is not tradable for any amount of money’.
Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet second only to Mohammed. The concept that he is the son of God is considered heretical.
Sidebar: Religious Restrictions
All Muslims, regardless of whether Sunni or Shiite, are forbidden to drink alcohol or eat anything containing pork, blood or any meat that died in any way other than being slaughtered in the prescribed manner (halal).
The website www.bahai.org is a comprehensive site for and about the Baha’i religion and community with a good overview of beliefs, traditions etc.
About 10,000 Aramaic-speaking Mandaeans live around the Shatt al Arab in Khuzestan. Mandaeism is a gnostic religion some believe descends from John the Baptist.
Sidebar: Iranian Jews
Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews (2002), by Houman Sarshar, is a comprehensive history of Iran’s Jews from the Achaemenid Empire to the community that remains following the revolution of 1979.
Architecture is one of Persia's greatest gifts, among many, to world culture. For the visitor, it can seem as if every town and village has some historic signpost to the varied peoples and dynasties that have ruled the nation during the past 3000 years. Most of the greatest buildings were built for religious purposes, with first Zoroastrianism and Islam (after AD 637) most prevalent. As such, most of what is known as Persian architecture is also called Islamic architecture.
Persian Architecture - An Overview
The defining aspects of Persian architecture are its monumental simplicity and its lavish use of surface ornamentation and colour. The ground plans of ordinary Persian buildings mix only a few standard elements: a courtyard and arcades, lofty entrance porticoes and four iwan (barrel-vaulted halls opening onto the courtyard).
Typical Persian mosque design consists of a dome above an entrance iwan that leads into a large courtyard surrounded by arched cloisters. Behind these are four inner iwan, one of them featuring a decorated niche indicating the direction of Mecca. In the Islamic world in general this is usually called a mihrab although in Iran this term is also used to refer to the cut-out space in the ground in front of it. Many commentators believe the four-iwan design can be traced to old Zoroastrian ideas about the four elements and the circulation of life.
These basic features are often so densely covered with decoration that observers are led to imagine the architecture is far more complex than it actually is. The decorations are normally geometric, floral or calligraphic. A wall’s decoration sometimes consists of nothing but mosaics forming the names of Allah, Mohammed and Ali, repeated countless times in highly stylised script.
The tiled domes of Iranian mosques, reminiscent of Fabergé eggs in the vividness of their colouring, are likely to remain one of your abiding memories of Iran.
The art of Persian tile production dates back to the Elamite period, but it peaked during the Safavid era (1502–1736). Safavid-era tiles come in two main forms. The best are moarraq kashi (mosaics) – patterns are picked out in tiny pieces of tile rather than created in one piece. Less fine and more common are the haft rangi (seven-coloured) tiles, which are square with a painted surface and first appeared in the early 17th century.
In terms of colourful tiles, Qajar buildings may lack in quality, but they often make up in quantity. Standout examples include the Golestan Palace in Tehran and the walls of the wonderful Takieh Mo’aven ol-Molk in Kermanshah.
Quirks of Persian Architecture
All along the great trade routes from east to west, caravanserais (an inn or way-station for camel trains, usually consisting of rooms arranged around a courtyard) were set up to facilitate trade. Although the earliest caravanserais date to Seljuk times, many of those surviving date from the reign of Shah Abbas I who was credited with establishing a network of 999 such structures; Caravanserai Zein-o-din is a fine restored example. Caravanserais were built either at regular points along trading routes (roughly every 30km, a day’s camel ride), or beside the bazaar in towns and cities. It’s easy to see this arrangement in Esfahan and Kerman, in particular.
In the hot southern deserts you will see the remains of yakh dans (mud-brick ice houses) built to store ice through the summer. Water, often from a qanat (underground water channel or canal), was left outside to freeze during winter – the ice that formed was scraped off and then moved to an adjoining building, often a stepped dome. The yakh dan at Meybod near Yazd resembles a circular ziggurat outside and a vast hollow egg inside. Yazd is also famous for its badgirs (windrowers), while Esfahan still has many curious-looking circular towers that were once used to rear pigeons for meat and manure.
The only substantial remains left from before the 7th century BC are those of the remarkable Elamite ziggurat at Choqa Zanbil. The ancient inhabitants of Persia imbued their mountains with great religious symbolism and built characteristic pyramidal ziggurats to imitate them. The earliest builders used sun-dried mud bricks, but baked brick was already being used for outer surfaces by the time Choqa Zanbil was built in the 13th century BC – the bricks there look like they came out of the kiln last week.
The surviving sites from the Achaemenid era (550–330 BC) include the magnificent ceremonial palace complexes and royal tombs at Pasargadae, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shush and the awesome Persepolis. These are decorated with bas-reliefs of kings, soldiers, supplicants, animals and the winged figure of the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda.
The Achaemenids typically built with sun-dried brick and stone and there are links with the old ziggurats in both shape and decoration. The Achaemenid style also incorporated features taken from Egyptian and Greek architecture. They built colossal halls supported by stone and wooden columns with typically Persian bull’s-head capitals.
Alexander the Great’s arrival in 331 BC brought Greek and Macedonian architectural styles. The ruined Anahita Temple at Kangavar, built with Greek capitals to honour a Greek goddess, is probably the best remaining example. Under the Parthians (from 247 BC to AD 224) a few characteristically Persian features, including the iwan, began to appear, though little remains.
In the Sassanian period (AD 224–642), buildings became larger, heavier and more complex even while stone was used less. Ardashir’s Palace at Firuz Abad is one monumental example. The four-iwan plan with domed, square chambers became increasingly common, with the distinctive Persian dome seen for the first time. The Sassanians built fire temples throughout their empire and the simple plan of the earliest examples was retained throughout the pre-Islamic era, even in the design of churches.
The Arab Conquest & Early Persian Islamic Style
The Arab conquest didn’t supplant the well-developed Sassanian style but it did introduce the Islamic element that was to have such a pervasive impact on Persian arts. Not only did the Arab period (AD 642–1051) shape the nature and basic architectural plan of religious buildings, but it also defined the type of decoration – no human representation was to be permitted, and ceremonial tombs or monuments also fell from favour. In place of palace complexes built as symbols of royal majesty came mosques designed as centres of daily life for ordinary people.
As Sassanian and Arab ingredients merged, a distinctly Persian style of Islamic architecture evolved. From the mid-9th century, under the patronage of a succession of enlightened rulers, there was a resurgence of Persian nationalism and values. Architectural innovations included the high, pointed arch, stalactites (elaborate stepped mouldings used to decorate recesses) and an emphasis on balance and scale. Calligraphy became the principal form of architectural decoration. A good example is the Masjed-e Jameh in Na’in.
The period also marks the emergence of a series of remarkable towers, more secular than religious in purpose. Built of brick and usually round, the towers show a development of ornamentation starting with little more than a single garter of calligraphy and graduating to elaborate basket-weave brickwork designed to deflect the harsh sunlight. Today these are commonly referred to as tombs, but some, such as Radkan Tower, were important early astronomical observatories.
The Seljuks, Mongols & Timurids
Many of the Seljuk rulers (1051–1220) took a great personal interest in patronage of the arts. Architectural developments included the double dome, a widening of vaults, improvement of the squinch and refinement of glazed tilework. A unity of structure and decoration was attempted for the first time, based on rigorous mathematical principles. Stucco, incorporating arabesques and Persian styles of calligraphy, was increasingly used to enhance brick surfaces.
Although often seen as a dark age in Iranian history, the Mongol period (1220–1335) saw new developments in Persian architecture. The conquest by Genghis Khan’s rampaging hordes was initially purely destructive, and many architects fled the country, but later the Mongols, too, became patrons of the arts. The Mongol style, designed to overawe the viewer, was marked by towering entrance portals, colossal domes, and vaults reaching up into the skies. It also saw a refinement of tiling, and calligraphy, often in the formal angular Kufic script imported from Arabia. Increasing attention was paid to the interior decoration of domes.
The Timurids (1380–1502) went on to refine the Seljuk and Mongol styles. Their architecture featured exuberant colour and great harmony of structure and decoration. Even in buildings of colossal scale, they avoided the monotony of large empty surfaces by using translucent tiling. Arcaded cloisters around inner courtyards, open galleries and arches within arches were notable developments.
Under a succession of enlightened and cultivated rulers, most notably Shah Abbas I, came the final refinement of styles that marked the culmination of the Persian Islamic school of architecture. Its greatest expression was Abbas’ royal capital of Esfahan, a supreme example of town planning with one of the most magnificent collections of buildings from one period anywhere in the world – the vast and unforgettable Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square.
The Qajar period (1795–1925) marks the rather unhappy transition between the golden age of Persian Safavid architecture and the creeping introduction of Western-inspired uniformity from the mid-19th century. Now widely regarded as tasteless, flimsy and uninspired, the often colourful Qajar style did produce some fine buildings, including the Golestan Palace in Tehran and the stately mansions in Kashan.
World Heritage Sites
Most of Iran’s 21 Unesco World Heritage sites are significant architectural landmarks, listed here chronologically. For details and the full list of Iran's Unesco sites, see http://whc.unesco.org.
- Choqa Zanbil, 13th century BC
- Pasargadae, 6th century BC
- Susa, 5th century BC
- Persepolis, 5th century BC
- Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System, primarily 3rd century BC
- Armenian Monastic Ensembles, 7th to 14th centuries
- Masjed-e Jameh, Esfahan, from 9th century
- Takht-e Soleiman, primarily 13th century
- Oljeitu Mausoleum, Soltaniyeh, 14th century
- Sheikh Safi-od-Din Mausoleum, Ardabil, 16th to 18th centuries
- Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square, Esfahan, 17th century
- Tabriz Bazaar, primarily 18th century
- Golestan Palace, Tehran, 18th century
Domes & Minarets
The development of the dome was one of the greatest achievements of Persian architecture. The Sassanians (AD 224–642) were the first to discover a satisfactory way of building a dome on top of a square chamber by using two intermediate levels, or squinches – the lower octagonal and the higher 16-sided – on which the dome could rest. Later domes became progressively more sophisticated, incorporating an inner semicircular dome sheathed by an outer conical or even onion-shaped dome. Externally the domes were often encased in tiles, with patterns so elaborate they had to be worked out on models at ground level first.
The minaret started life as an entirely functional tower, from the top of which the muezzin called the faithful to prayer. However, during the Seljuk period (AD 1051–1220) minarets became tall, tapering spires, which were far more decorative than practical. Since it is feared that someone standing atop a minaret can look into the private family areas of nearby houses, Shiite mosques often have a separate hutlike structure on the roof from where the muezzin makes the call to prayer (azan; though these days it’s more likely to be a tape recording). Most minarets still have a light, often green (the colour of Islam), in the uppermost gallery. Traditionally these lights and indeed the minarets themselves acted as a beacon to direct people coming to town to pray.
Sidebar: Architectural Influences
Persian architecture has strongly influenced building throughout the Islamic world, especially in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Probably the most famous building of Persian origin is India’s iconic Taj Mahal, designed by Safavid-era architect Ustad Ahmad Lahouri.
Sidebar: Places of Worship
Many mosques occupy sites that were once home to Zoroastrian fire temples. When Islam arrived and religious preferences changed, so too did the use and decor of the local place of worship.
In desert cities, such as Yazd and Esfahan, minarets are quite tall because they traditionally acted as a landmark for caravans crossing the desert. In mountainous areas or places surrounded by hills, such as Shiraz, where this function was impossible, most minarets are short.
During the Safavid period Shah Abbas the Great ordered 999 caravanserais to be built. Of them, only two were circular, one near Esfahan and the other at Zein-o-din, south of Yazd. The latter has been restored and turned into a wonderful hotel.
Sidebar: Persian Architecture
Persian Art & Architecture (2012), by Henri and Anne Stierlin, is a fabulous overview of Persian architecture.
Carpets, Art & Crafts
If you've never travelled in an Islamic country before, you may need to reset your artistic eye. In Iran, Islamic art (there is rarely any other kind) favours the non-representational, the derivative and the stylised over the figurative and the true to life, primarily because Islam forbids the representation of sentient beings. That doesn't mean Iran's art is not beautiful – very often it's exquisite and intricate and glorious all at once with geometric shapes and complex floral patterns especially popular.
The best-known Iranian cultural export, the Persian carpet, is far more than just a floor covering to an Iranian. A Persian carpet is a display of wealth, an investment, an integral aspect of religious and cultural festivals, and part of everyday life.
The oldest surviving carpet is the ‘Pazyryk’ rug, believed to date from the 5th century BC and discovered in the frozen tomb of a Scythian prince in Siberia in 1948. Its exact origins are unknown, but some scholars believe it is in the style of carpets found in the Achaemenid court. Today it is in the Hermitage Museum (www.hermitagemuseum.org) in St Petersburg.
Early patterns were usually symmetrical, with geometric and floral motifs designed to evoke the beauty of the classical Persian garden. Stylised animal figures were also woven into carpets, and along with human figures (often royalty), became more popular in the later pre-Islamic period. After the Arab conquest, Quranic verses were incorporated into some carpet designs, and prayer mats began to be produced on a grand scale; secular carpets also became a major industry and were prized in European courts. However, little remains from before the 16th century.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, carpet-making was patronised by the shahs and a favoured designer or weaver could expect great privileges. Carpet designs were inspired by book illumination and the whole process reached a peak during the reign of Shah Abbas I (Abbas the Great; r 1587–1629). As demand for Persian carpets grew, so standards of production fell and designs became less inspired, though they still led the world in quality and design.
According to the National Iranian Carpet Center, today more than five million Iranians work in the industry and carpets are the country’s largest non-fossil-fuel export by value. The trade relies on the prestige evoked by the term ‘Persian carpet’, but maintaining the brand is increasingly difficult with cheaper ‘Persian carpets’ being produced in India and Pakistan, and fewer young Iranians interested in learning to weave.
Types of Carpets & Rugs
To most people (including us in this section), the words ‘carpet’ and ‘rug’ are used interchangeably. But there is a difference – a carpet is bigger than a rug. Anything longer than about 2m is considered a carpet, while anything shorter is a rug. As well as carpets, which are made using thousands or even millions of knots, you will also find kilims, which are thinner, flat-woven mats without knots and thus, no pile.
Carpets come in a huge variety of designs. Some are inspired by religion, such as those on prayer rugs, usually displaying an arch representing the main arch of the Al Haram Mosque in Mecca and perhaps a lamp symbolic of the statement in the Quran that ‘Allah is the light of Heaven’. Other common motifs include amulets to avert the evil eye and other, pre-Islamic motifs, such as stylised Trees of Life. They may also be inspired by whatever surrounds the weaver, eg trees, animals and flowers, particularly the lotus, rose and chrysanthemum. Gardens are commonly depicted and, in the case of a tribal nomad, such a carpet will be the only garden the weaver will ever own.
In general, these designs are classified as either ‘tribal’ or ‘city’ carpets. Tribal designs vary greatly depending on their origin, but are typically less ornate. City carpets are the classic Persian rugs, usually highly ornate floral designs around one or more medallions.
Most Iranians aspire to own fine, formal city rugs of Tabriz, Esfahan, Kashan, Qom or Kerman. They consider tribal carpets the work of peasants, and those who cannot afford hand-woven city carpets would buy a carpet made on a machine using chemical dyes and inferior wool (or even synthetic fibres) before they’d buy a tribal carpet.
Most handmade carpets are woven from hand-spun wool. Each rug is woven around a vertical (warp) and horizontal (weft) foundation, usually made of cotton – the skeleton of the rug. The best are made from sheep wool though occasionally goat or camel hair is used, usually by tribal weavers in the warps or selvedges (edge bindings) of rugs, kilims or saddle bags to give them strength. Silk carpets are magnificent but they’re largely decorative, while wool and silk mixtures are more practical and look beautiful. Weavers are often, but not always, women.
Dyeing is often done in large vats in small, old-style buildings in the older parts of towns; walk the old town streets of Kashan, in particular, to see it in action. The dyes themselves are the product of centuries of innovation and experimentation. Colours are extracted from natural, locally available sources, including plants (such as herbs, vegetables and fruit skins), insects and even shellfish.
In 1859 chemical dyes such as aniline and chrome were introduced. They caught on quickly because they were cheap and easy to use. Not everyone abandoned the old ways, however, and some weavers, notably those in the Chahar Mahal va Bakhtyari region west of Esfahan, have continued using natural dyes almost uninterrupted to the present day. Today Iranian rug producers big and small are turning back to natural dyes.
Traditionally, nomadic carpet-weavers used horizontal looms, which are lightweight and transportable. Designs were either conjured up from memory, or made up as the weaver worked. These carpets and rugs were woven for domestic use or occasional trade and were small because they had to be portable. In villages, many homes or small workshops have simple upright looms where weavers can create better designs, with more variety.
Over the last 150 years larger village workshops and city factories have begun using bigger, modern looms. Some still require people to do the weaving, while others are fully mechanised – producing ‘machine carpets’ that cost about half as much as their hand-woven equivalents.
You may come across the terms ‘Persian (or senneh) knot’ (known in Farsi as a farsi-baf) and ‘Turkish (or ghiordes) knot’ (turki-baf). Despite the names, both are used in Iran: the Turkish knot is common in the Azerbaijan provinces and western Iran.
As a rough guide, an everyday carpet or rug will have up to 30 knots per sq cm, a medium-grade piece 30 to 50 knots per sq cm, and a fine one 50 knots or more per sq cm. A prize piece might have 500 or more knots per sq cm. The higher the number of knots, the better the quality. Nomad weavers tie around 8000 knots a day; factory weavers about 12,000 knots a day.
Buying Carpets & Rugs
Iranians have had more than 2500 years to perfect the art of carpet making – and just as long to master the art of carpet selling. If you don’t know your warp from your weft, it might be worth reading up before visiting Iran, or taking an Iranian friend when you go shopping (bearing in mind that professional ‘friends’ who make a living from commission are a fact of life).
If you know what you’re doing you might pick up a bargain, but unless you’re an expert, don’t buy a carpet or rug as an investment – buy it because you like it. Before buying, lie the carpet flat to check for bumps or other imperfections. Small bumps will usually flatten out with wear but big ones are probably there to stay. To check if a carpet is handmade, turn it over; on most handmade pieces the pattern will be distinct on the underside (the more distinct, the better the quality).
Taking Them Home
Export regulations for carpets are notoriously changeable; ask a reputable dealer for the latest. At the time of writing there was no limit to the number of carpets you could take home. However, some larger, older and more valuable carpets cannot be exported without special permission.
Sanctions mean the customs guys in your home country might frown upon purchases from Iran. One reader reported US customs are ‘quite strict’ about anything bought in Iran for more than US$100 – meaning most carpets. Carpet sellers know this and will offer to give you a receipt for less than you paid, or even to indicate you bought it in Dubai.
Carrying carpets is usually cheaper than posting because you’re less likely to have to pay duty if you can get them through airport customs at home. Alternatively, most carpet dealers can arrange postage and costs are not outrageous. If there are no sanctions, most countries allow you to import up to 25 sq metres of Persian carpets before they start charging you as a merchant; though you will probably still have to pay some duty.
Where to buy your Persian rug
Persian carpets come in almost as many different designs as there are ethnic groups and major urban centres. Usually the name of a carpet indicates where it was made or where the design originated. The bazaars are the best places to buy and the experience of shopping, haggling and eventually buying is a memorable part of travelling in Iran.
- Tehran With more than 3000 carpet merchants, this labyrinthine bazaar has the biggest range, most competition and lowest prices.
- Esfahan Many travellers buy here because shopping around Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Sq is so enjoyable. Prices are a bit higher. Plenty of Esfahani city carpets are available, and the widest selection of Bakhtiyari rugs from the nearby Zagros Mountains.
- Shiraz Another pleasant place to shop, with evenings in the bazaar particularly atmospheric. Shiraz has the best range of Qashqa’i rugs, runners, kilims and saddle bags, with their distinct geometric patterns, including stylised animals and birds and floral designs in the borders, and fine gabbeh, small, thick flat-woven rugs with loose pile.
- Tabriz Huge range of carpets, from fine works in silk or with silk highlights, to simpler weaves from regional villages and tribal groups.
The earliest known distinctively Persian style of painting dates back to the Seljuk period (1051–1220) and is often referred to as the Baghdad School. Early painting was mainly used to decorate Qurans and pottery, and during the Mongol period (1220–1335) all sorts of manuscripts, especially poetry books.
In the 16th century an important school of Persian art developed in Tabriz, under the guidance of Sultan Mohammed, and its distinctive designs and patterns also influenced carpet design. Persian painting reached its apex under the Safavids, when Shah Abbas I turned Esfahan into a centre for the arts. The demise of the Safavids deprived artists of their patrons, and coincided with growing influences from India and Europe. Persian artists rarely signed their works so little is known about most artists.
With the arrival of Islam, several distinctly Persian calligraphic styles emerged, some of them so elaborate that they are almost illegible, eg nashki and later, thulth. The Quran was faithfully reproduced as a whole in calligraphic form, but you’re more likely to see Quranic verses, and the names of Allah and Mohammed, in tiles and deep relief stucco in mosques across the country.
By the 16th century, Shiraz and Esfahan were producing some of the finest calligraphy in the Islamic world. Some of the best examples can be seen at Tehran’s Reza Abbasi Museum, named for the renowned 16th-century calligrapher and painter.
The Persian miniature-painting (minyaturha) tradition began after the Mongol invasion, influenced by artisans brought to the royal court from China. It reached its peak during the 15th and 16th centuries. Later, artists from eastern Iran, who had studied under the great Mohammadi in Herat (now in Afghanistan), also influenced this art form.
Persian miniatures are now famous throughout the world. Favourite subjects include courting couples in traditional dress (usually figures from popular poetry), polo matches and hunting scenes. Esfahan has dozens of miniaturists and is the best place to buy.
Iran has a thriving contemporary art scene, with most of the action centred in Tehran, where a small but sophisticated community of artists produce and exhibit work in a variety of media. Their work is not always appreciated by the authorities, and several, including Tehrani artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh, have found greater acclaim internationally than at home.
Photorealist painter Afshin Pirhashemi is another name to look out for, with his paintings casting sometimes uncomfortable light upon the contradictions of modern Iranian life, particularly when it comes to women and their role in society. Farhad Moshiri somehow manages to blend pop-art and advertising influences with religious iconography and paintings of antique urns.
Of Iran's contemporary women painters, Golnaz Fathi is a renowned calligraphist who uses performance-art installations in her work. Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian is a veteran of Iran's artistic scene and her style reflects Iran's journey through the 20th century – she uses deeply traditional forms such as geometric patterns and cut-glass mosaics but her work has also been deeply influenced by everything from Western expressionism to Sufi imagery; she went into exile in the US in 1979 but returned to Iran in 2004.
Despite the limited resources available to Iranian artists – there are few professional galleries and institutions capable of launching an artist’s career – the restrictions themselves seem to inform their aesthetic. The art has a distinctive Iranian flavour that several experts argue is impossible to classify in terms of Western contemporary art.
Tehran Contemporary Art Galleries
Small, translucent glass vessels dating back to the 2nd millennium BC have been found at Choqa Zanbil and by the Sassanian era Persian shisheh alat (glassware) had become a sought-after luxury traded as far away as Japan. By early Islamic times, two principle techniques were used: mould-blown to produce thicker items, and free-blown for more delicate articles. Glassware was usually green, lapis lazuli, light blue or clear with a tinge of yellow, and decorations were cut into the glass. The art reached its peak during the Seljuk era when the manufacture of enamelled and gilded glassware flourished.
Under the Safavids, Shiraz became an important centre of glass production, with rose-water sprinklers, long-necked wine bottles, flower vases and bowls particularly popular. By the reign of Karim Khan Zand, the famous wine from Shiraz was exported in locally crafted jugs and bottles.
Some consider this the most interesting of Iran’s decorative arts; it can be traced back to early Islamic times as an independent art form. Wooden or papier-mâché objects are painted, then a transparent sandarac-based varnish is applied in successive layers from three to more than 20 coats. The result gives an impression of depth and provides great durability. Common designs are the popular Persian motif of the nightingale and the rose, flowers and classic love stories. Pen boxes are the most common form of lacquer work.
One of the most intricate styles of woodwork is a form of marquetry (moarraq) called khatam. A Persian style of marquetry slowly developed through the centuries and by the 17th century khatam was so prestigious that several Safavid princes learned the technique.
Several different woods, including betel, walnut, cypress and pine, are used, with the inlaid pieces made from animal bones, shells, ivory, bronze, silver and gold. The final product is coated with varnish. Genuine Persian khatam contains no paint; the colours come from the inlaid pieces. Khatam can be used for furniture but visitors usually buy it in the form of ornamental boxes or picture frames. Most of what you’ll see for sale in souvenir shops is not genuine, as they are often made with the use of machines.
Sidebar: Persian Carpets
Arguably the most famous Persian carpets are the twin ‘Ardabil carpets’, vast rugs (10.7m x 5.34m) woven with 30 million knots in the 16th century for the Sheikh Safi-od-Din Mausoleum. They are now kept in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (www.vam.ac.uk) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (www.lacma.org).
Sidebar: Carpet Tomes
The pocket-sized Oriental Rugs in Colour (1963), by Preben Liebetrau, includes an explanation of the carpets and rugs of Iran and Turkey and remains a classic. The Persian Carpet by A Cecil Edwards was re-released in lavish colour in 2017 after being out of print for decades – if you like carpets, you'll love this book.
Sidebar: Natural Materials
During the Safavid period sheep were bred specifically to produce the finest wool, and vegetable plantations were tended with scientific precision to provide dyes of just the right shade.
Sidebar: Carpet Museum
Tehran’s Carpet Museum of Iran has a priceless collection from around the country and is the best place to see rugs without going to a bazaar.
Sidebar: World Record
In 2006–07 some 1200 Iranians produced the world’s largest hand-woven carpet for the vast Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan mosque in Abu Dhabi. It measures 5627 sq metres, weighs 35 tons and includes 2,268,000,000 knots.
Sidebar: World of Carpets
The Root of Wild Madder: Chasing the History, Mystery, and Lore of the Persian Carpet (2006), by Brian Murphy, is a fascinating and informative journey through the world of carpets in Afghanistan and Iran.
Sidebar: Online Resources
For a more complete description of which carpets come from where, see www.oldcarpet.com and click through to Carpets By Zone.
Bihzad, Master of Persian Painting (1995), by Ebadollah Bahari, is the lavishly illustrated life of Kamal al-Din Bihzad, the great 15th-century Persian artist and manuscript illustrator.
Sidebar: Modern Artist
One of the best-loved modern Iranian artists is Sayyed Ali Akhbar Sanati, whose sculpture and paintings are on display in the Sanati Museum of Contemporary Art in Kerman.
Sidebar: Khosrow Hassanzadeh
Tehran Studio Works, The Art of Khosrow Hassanzadeh (2007) details some of the Tehrani painter’s acclaimed work, which now hangs in galleries around the world.
Sidebar: Iran Chamber
Iran Chamber (www.iranchamber.com) is a terrific resource covering Iran's peoples, as well as architecture, music, religion, literature, cinema and more.
Literature, Music & Cinema
Drawing in equal measure on the many sophistications of Ancient Persia and the dynamic cultural space that is modern Iran, the country's writers, musicians and, perhaps above all, film-makers have created bodies of work that are as popular at home as they are acclaimed by critics around the world. Wherever you get started, whether with the great poets whose works seemingly every Iranian can recite or the latest release film by a director whose films sell out for weeks, you're in for a real treat.
Iran is a nation of poets and overwhelmingly the most important form of writing is poetry. Familiarity with famous poets and their works is universal: ask and almost anyone on the street can quote you lines from Hafez or Rumi.
While writers have long been persecuted in Iran, their numbers increased dramatically during the Khatami years, particularly women novelists who regularly topped best-seller lists. Things have quietened down a lot since then, due in no small measure to the eight-year rule of the conservative Ahmadinejad government to 2013. But whichever direction the political winds are blowing, all books must be approved by government censors before publication; thousands of new and old works have been banned.
The 9th century AD saw several poetic styles born in Persia. These include the masnavi, with its unique rhyming couplets, and the ruba’i, similar to the quatrain (a poem of four lines). Poems of more than 100 nonrhyming couplets, known as qasideh, were first popularised by Rudaki during the 10th century. These styles later developed into long and detailed ‘epic poems’, the first of which was Ferdosi’s Shahnamah.
Moral and religious poetry became popular following the success of Sa’di’s most famous poems, the Bustan and Golestan. By the 14th century, smaller qazal poems, which ran to about 10 nonrhyming couplets, were still being used for love stories; the most famous qazal poet is Hafez.
Early in the last century modernist Persian poetry changed the poetic landscape. This style is exemplified by the work of Nima Yushij. Ahmad Shamloo’s Fresh Air, a book of poems published in 1957, marked the introduction of a lyrical style that was also political and metaphoric.
The Great Iranian Poets
Iranians venerate their great poets, who are often credited with preserving the Persian language and culture during times of occupation. Streets, squares, hotels and chaykhanehs (teahouses) are named after famous poets, several of whom have large mausoleums that are popular pilgrimage sites.
Hakim Abulqasim Ferdosi, first and foremost of all Iranian poets, was born near Tus outside Mashhad. He developed the ruba’i (quatrain) style of ‘epic’ historic poems and is remembered primarily for the Shahnamah (Book of Kings), which took 33 years to write and included almost 60,000 couplets. Ferdosi is seen as the saviour of Farsi, which he wrote in at a time when the language was under threat from Arabic. Without his writings many details of Persian history and culture might also have been lost and Ferdosi is credited with having done much to help shape the Iranian self-image.
Khajeh Shams-ed-Din Mohammed, or Hafez (meaning ‘One Who Can Recite the Quran from Memory’) as he became known, was born in Shiraz. His poetry has a strong mystical quality and regular references to wine, courtship and nightingales have been interpreted in different ways (is wine literal or a metaphor for God?). A copy of his collected works, known as the Divan-e Hafez, can be found in almost every home in Iran, and many of his verses are used as proverbs to this day.
Omar Khayyam 1047–1123
Omar Khayyam (Omar the Tentmaker) was born in Neishabur and is probably the best-known Iranian poet in the West because many of his poems, including the famous Rubaiyat, were translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald. In Iran he is more famous as a mathematician, historian and astronomer.
Born Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi in Balkh (in present-day Afghanistan), Rumi’s family fled west before the Mongol invasions and eventually settled in Konya in present-day Turkey. There his father (and then he) retreated into meditation and a study of the divine. Rumi was inspired by a great dervish, Shams-e Tabrizi, and many of his poems of divine love are addressed to him. He is credited with founding the Maulavi Sufi order – the whirling dervishes – and is also known as Maulana (‘the Master’).
Like Hafez, Sheikh Mohammed Shams-ed-Din (known as Sa’di), lost his father at an early age and was educated by some of the leading teachers of Shiraz. Many of his elegantly phrased verses are still commonly used in conversation. His most famous works, the Golestan (Rose Garden) and Bustan (Garden of Trees), have been translated into many languages.
Literary fiction is a young but fast-growing art in Iran, with beginnings in the 19th century evolving with political upheavals in the 20th and 21st centuries. While writing styles have changed, the spectre of censorship has been ever-present and continues today. As such, few of the hundreds of published novelists (about half of whom are women) write completely freely, and fewer are translated into English.
Sadeq Hedayat is the best-known Iranian novelist outside Iran, and one whose influence has been most pervasive in shaping modern Persian fiction. The Blind Owl, published in 1937, is a dark and powerful portrayal of the decadence of a society failing to achieve its own modernity. Hedayat’s uncensored works have been banned in Iran since 2005. Contemporary author Shahriar Mandanipour was also banned from publishing between 1992 and 1997 and, after years of struggle against the censor’s pen, eventually moved to the USA in 2006. In 2009 he published the critically acclaimed Censoring an Iranian Love Story.
A Curious Incident
During a government-orchestrated campaign in the late 1990s, it is widely believed that more than 80 writers, poets, translators and political dissidents were murdered. In 1995 Mandanipour, along with 20 other writers, travelled to address poets in Armenia. While en route by bus through the Zagros Mountains, their driver tried to drive the bus off a 300m-high cliff, jumping to save himself at the last second. The bus hit a boulder and stopped, teetering on the edge. The driver fled and the writers were promptly arrested. They were later released with instructions not to talk about the event.
Top Ten Iranian Reads
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám (1120) Classic epic poem and arguably Iran's best-selling work ever on the international stage.
The Blind Owl (Sadeq Hedayat; 1937) An affecting tale built around a beautiful woman, an old man and a cypress tree.
Censoring an Iranian Love Story (Shahriar Mandanipour; 2009) Story of an author who struggles to write a love story that will get past the censors.
City of Lies (Ramita Navai; 2014) Gripping account of contemporary Iran told through a cast of characters whose lives revolve around the city’s longest street, Valiasr.
Land of the Turquoise Mountains: Journeys Across Iran (Cyrus Massoudi; 2014) Modern Iran seen through the sympathetic, enquiring eyes of a British-born Iranian writer.
Mirrors of the Unseen (Jason Elliot; 2006) Perceptive and entertaining travelogue-history of Iran.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Marjane Satrapi; 2000) Autobiographical graphic novel about growing up through the Islamic Revolution.
Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution (Shirin Ebadi; 2007) Enlightening and sobering self-portrait by Iran's first winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Tehran, Lipstick & Loopholes (Nahal Tajadod; 2009) Kafkaesque true story of the author's journey through Iranian bureaucracy as she tries to renew her passport.
Shah of Shahs (Ryszard Kapuściński; 1982) Classic study of the Shah's hold over Iran and his ultimate demise.
Aside from traditional music, which is played in teahouses across the country, it’s not easy to find musical performances in Iran. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any musicians. But government restrictions mean every public performance needs a licence, which is difficult to obtain for anything modern or remotely political. Women performers were banned for many years but now women-only concerts are commonplace.
To hear Iranian music listen to free tracks available on www.iranian.com/music.html. To buy Persian music, and make sure your money goes to the artists, check out www.cdbaby.com.
And lovers of music will love the new Isfahan Music Museum with traditional Persian instruments and live performances by folk musicians.
For Iranians there is no distinction between poetry and lyrics, and traditional Persian music is poetry set to a musical accompaniment. Like epic poems, some ‘epic songs’ are very long and masters can spend most of their lives memorising the words.
Classical Persian music is almost always downbeat and can sound decidedly mournful or, as one young Shirazi told us, ‘depressing’. Despite this, it remains hugely popular and you’ll hear it in taxis and teahouses across the country. Two singers particularly worth listening out for are Shajarian and Shahram Naziri, both of whom have helped promote interest in classical Persian music internationally.
While the voice is usually central to this form of music, it is backed by several instruments that have deep roots in Persian culture. Among the most common:
- tar – a six-string instrument, usually plucked
- setar – similar to the tar but with four strings
- nay – generic name for various types of flute
- sorna – similar to an oboe
- kamancheh – a kind of four-stringed viola played like a cello
- santur – dulcimer played with delicate wooden mallets
- tombak – vase-shaped drum with a skin at the wide end
- dahol and zarb – large and small drums respectively
The most appealing and melodious traditional music is heard among ethnic minorities, such as the Turkmen in northern Iran. Azeris favour a unique style of music, often based around a love song, whereas Kurds have a distinctively rhythmic music based mainly around the lute and their own versions of epic songs, called bards.
Folk music employs most of the instruments mentioned above, with regional variations; along the Persian Gulf a type of bagpipe called the demam is popular. The music of Sistan va Baluchestan is understandably similar to that of Pakistan and typically uses instruments such as the tamboorak (similar to the Pakistani tambura, a type of harmonium).
Pop & Rock
Iranian pop music has re-emerged under the watchful eye of the Iranian authorities. Many of the most popular Iranian musicians fled after the Islamic Revolution, including ‘70s superstar Googosh. They now perform abroad. While their music is largely created in Los Angeles, these and more modern ‘Tehrangeles pop’ artists are widely available on bootleg copies in Iran.
Nine-piece Arian was the first mixed-gender band to get official approval after the revolution. Their debut album, Gole Aftabgardoon (The Sunflower), was released in 2000 and soon they were playing to crowds of more than 50,000. Other favourite artists include Benyamin Bahadori, Moin, Omid and current favourites Mohsen Yeganeh and Barobax.
Iran’s rock and rap scene is mainly underground but a steadily growing number of bands and musicians are finding a Persian way to rock. Groups such as O-Hum set the scene with ‘Persian rock’, a mix of familiar and Iranian instruments and the poetic lyrics of Hafez and Rumi. The result is like ‘90s grunge rock with an Iranian flavour; download free tracks at www.iranian.com. Other popular rock acts include Barad, Meera, Hypernova, Niyaz and Mohsen Namjoo.
Iranian hip-hop is heavily influenced by US artists accessible to younger Iranians through satellite television. Those with a mainstream profile include Yas, Ho3ein, Zedbazi and Arash, while underground artists include among their ranks Hichkas, Bahram Nouraei and Reza Pishro.
Electronica is another popular musical style in Iran, but most of its artists live and work beyond Iran's shores. Popular names include Deep Dish (Ali 'Dubfire' Shirazi and Shahram Tayebi; US), DJ Aligator (Denmark) and Arsi Nami (US).
Iran's best-known jazz musician is Ardeshir Farah. In 1991 he won a Grammy as part of Strunz & Farah, and he is perhaps Iran's premier crossover artist, collaborating often with Western performers.
Before the Islamic Revolution
Iran’s love affair with cinema started at the dawn of the last century and in 1900 the country’s first public cinema opened in Tabriz. Though Iranian films were made earlier, Esmail Kushan’s 1948 The Tempest of Life was the first film to be made in Iran and, since then the home-grown industry has not looked back.
It was not until the 1960s, however, that the first signs of a distinctive Iranian cinematic language emerged, with poet Forough Farrokhzad’s 1962 film of life in a leper colony, The House Is Black, and Hajir Darioush's second film Serpent's Skin (which was based on D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover) setting the scene.
In 1969, the release of Darius Mehrjui's The Cow (1969), directed by Darius Mehrjui, really set Iranian cinema on the upward trajectory along which it still travels. A dark, poignant and deceptively simple tale of a man's love for his cow and the trauma he suffers when it dies, the film is set against the backdrop of Iranian village life. In its use of the simple details of daily life in Iran to subtly tell a larger story of love and loss, to make nuanced social commentary on community life, it set the standard for Iranian cinema's central motif.
The first ‘new wave’ of Iranian cinema that followed in the 1970s captured the attention of art-house movie fans around the world: Abbas Kiarostami (who died in 2016), Dariush Mehrjui, Bahram Beiza’i, Khosrow Haritash and Bahram Farmanara.
After the Islamic Revolution
The second ‘new wave’ of Iranian cinema was made up of post-revolutionary directors such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Rakhshan Bani Etemad, Majid Majidi and Jafar Panahi. It helped develop a reputation for Iranian cinema as art house, neorealist and poetic.
The newest generation, which mostly refers to directors still working today, is known as the ‘third wave’ and its most notable exponents are Asghar Farhadi, Bahman Ghobadi and Mani Haghighi. Whatever the number, Iranian new wave is consistent in looking at everyday life through a poetic prism that is part fictional feature, part real-life documentary – an Iranian specialty.
The strict censorship of the post-revolutionary state has encouraged the use of children, nonprofessional actors and stories that are fixated on the nitty-gritty of life, and which have proved popular overseas. The highpoint of this technique is perhaps Jafar Panahi’s brilliant 2015 'docu-fiction' Taxi (or Taxi Tehran as it is sometimes known) which gives a voice to ordinary Iranians (whose identities are never revealed) in a Tehran taxi. Panahi has been banned from making films and his solution is to make a stunningly subversive work that never feels like a film. Another brilliant example is Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Salaam Cinema (1995) which tells the story of modern Iranian society through the would-be actors (ordinary Iranians) who turn up to audition for one of Makhmalbaf's films.
Iranians love their own cinema and flock to it in droves. But many internationally acclaimed ‘art-house’ films never get released at home, and are distributed on the bootleg market instead. Some Iranians feel the masters are making movies specifically for foreign markets and film festivals. Dozens of films are churned out every year for the domestic market, many of them action flicks, though the appetite for films looking at social issues is increasing.
Of these the most notable is A Separation, the 2012 winner of the Academy Award for best foreign language film and nominee for best original screenplay. Asghar Farhadi's masterfully told film looks at a Tehran couple’s dissolving marriage and how the hiring of a carer for an ill parent complicates matters further. Other Iranian films to receive recognition with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film include Majid Majidi’s film Children of Heaven (1998) and The Salesman (2016).
Top Ten Iranian Films
Taxi (Jafar Panahi; 2015) The view from a Tehran taxi – the highpoint of Iran's very own docu-fiction genre.
Salaam Cinema (Mohsen Makhmalbaf; 1995) Utterly subversive docu-drama that gives ordinary Iranians a voice.
Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud; 2007) Compelling, funny and, ultimately, heart-rendingly sad portrayal of growing up through the Islamic Revolution.
The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi; 2016) Oscar-nominated, modern Iranian fable through the prism of a troubled relationship.
Children of Heaven (Majid Majidi; 1997) Oscar-nominated tale focusing on two poor children losing a pair of shoes.
The White Balloon (written by Abbas Kiarostami and directed by Jafar Panahi; 1995) The story of a young girl who loses her money while on the way to buy a goldfish.
The Apple (Samira Makhmalbaf; 1998) Stunning debut about two adolescent girls locked away by their father.
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi; 2012) Oscar-winning portrayal of a Tehran marriage falling apart against the backdrop of modern Iran in troubled times.
The President (Mohsen Makhmalbaf; 2014) A story of our times, with a dictator on the run and made to look absurd and abandoned.
The Garden of Stones (1976) and The Old Man and His Stone Garden (2004) Parviz Kimiavi classics which depict a deaf-mute shepherd who devotes his life to creating a garden of withered trees and large blocks of stone.
The Makhmalbaf Family – A Cinema Dynasty
Born in 1957 in Tehran, Mohsen Makhmalbaf first gained infamy when he was imprisoned for five years after fighting with a policeman. He was released during the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and started to write books before turning to film-making in 1982. Since then he has produced more than a dozen films, including Boycott, Time for Love, Kandahar, Gabbeh and, more provocatively, Salaam Cinema. Many of his films are based on taboo subjects: Time for Love was filmed in Turkey because it broached the topic of adultery; and Marriage of the Blessed was a brutal film about the casualties of the Iran–Iraq War.
Makhmalbaf has become a virtual exile from Iran because of the country’s censorship. In 1997 Makhmalbaf’s daughter Samira produced her first film, The Apple, to critical acclaim. In 2000 her second film, Blackboards, was a smash hit at the Cannes Film Festival; she was the youngest director ever to have shown a film there.
The Makhmalbaf movie factory continues to churn out winners. Samira’s younger brother made a ‘making-of’ documentary about Blackboards; then younger sister Hana directed a feature about the shooting of Samira’s film At Five in the Afternoon. On the strength of that film, Joy of Madness, Hana beat Samira to a ‘youngest-ever’ record by being invited to the Venice Film Festival at the age of 14. Even Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s second wife (the sister of his first wife, who died tragically), Marzieh Meshkini, has directed an acclaimed film, The Day I Became a Woman, which examines what it is to be a woman in Iran.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf survived two assassination attempts while filming Kandahar in Iran, and in 2007 the whole family was attacked while on location in Afghanistan for Samira’s film The Two-Legged Horse. A man posing as an extra threw a bomb onto the set, wounding six actors and several extras and killing the horse in the film’s title.
Having moved to Paris in 2005, in 2009 Mohsen Makhmalbaf became a spokesman abroad for Green Movement leader and presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi. His outspoken criticism of the Ahmadinejad government left him, in effect, in exile. For more on the Makhmalbafs, see www.makhmalbaf.com.
Paragraphiti (www.paragraphiti.com) translates titles into English and publishes new Iranian fiction.
Sidebar: Censored Titles
Books that have been banned by Iran's censors in the past (and many remain off the bookshelves) include The Symposium (Plato), Ulysses (James Joyce), As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner), The Blind Owl (Sadeq Hedayat) and The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown).
When pioneering film director Abbas Kiarostami died in 2016, Mohsen Makhmalbaf told Britain's Guardian newspaper that 'Kiarostami gave the Iranian cinema the international credibility that it has today' and lamented that 'Kiarostami is the filmmaker of life. Death does not suit him.'
Sidebar: Iranian Cinema
For news and history of Iranian cinema, see the Farabi Cinema Foundation’s website at www.fcf.ir. In print, track down Iranian Cinema Uncensored: Contemporary Film-Makers since the Islamic Revolution (2015) by Shiva Rahbaran.
Sidebar: Taste of Cherry
Taste of Cherry, directed by Abbas Kiarostami, was co-winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, despite being very controversial inside Iran because it deals with suicide, a taboo subject in Islam. It's Kiarostami's masterpiece.
Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz (Hafez and Jahan Malek Khatun; 2013) is like a greatest hits of Hafez' work, ideal for getting a taste of what all the fuss is about.
Sidebar: Kurdish Folk
The Kâmkârs, a Kurdish family ensemble, have been celebrated for their concerts featuring traditional Iranian music and rousing Kurdish folk songs. They tour in Iran and worldwide. Living Fire (1995) is the easiest of their albums to track down.
Sidebar: Iranian Arthouse
For movie trailers from the latest releases of Iran's art-house film directors, check out the Iranian Film Society (www.irfilms.com). It also has interviews and general industry news.
Iran is a beautiful, fragile country. Its mountains and deserts are the signature landforms here, and the country has some real surprises when it comes to wildlife, which is remarkable considering how unprotected most of the country's national parks really are.
If you’re flying into Iran, be sure to ask for a window seat – you might be surprised by what you see. Iran is a diverse land where snow-capped mountains border vast desert plateaus and cliffside villages contrast with palm-filled oases.
More than half of Iran is covered by mountains, with four ranges most prominent. The smaller, volcanic Sabalan and Talesh Ranges in the northwestern Azeri provinces provide fertile pastures for nomads. Nearby, the majestic Alborz Mountains skirt the Caspian Sea from the border of Azerbaijan as far as Turkmenistan, and are home to ski fields and the snowcapped Mt Damavand (5671m), the Middle East’s tallest mountain. The northern slopes of the Alborz Mountains are densely forested to about 2500m and form the largest area of vegetation in the country. The forests will look familiar to Europeans (oak, ash, pine, poplar, willow, walnut, maple and elm), and the loveliest pockets are around Masuleh, in the Golestan National Park east of Minudasht, and, more accessibly, at Nahar Khoran, just south of Gorgan.
Sitting on the world’s second-largest known reserve of natural gas, the immense Zagros Mountains stretch about 1500km from Turkey to the Persian Gulf, rising and falling like the ridged back of a great crocodile. There are several peaks reaching more than 4000m, though heights fall to an average of 1500m in the south.
All these mountains exist because Iran sits at the junction of three major tectonic plates – the Arabian, Eurasian and Indian – making the country highly susceptible to earthquakes.
East of the Zagros Mountains is the central plateau and its two vast deserts, the Dasht-e Kavir (more than 200,000 sq km) in the north and the Dasht-e Lut (more than 166,000 sq km) in the southeast, accounting for almost 25% of the country. The deserts include occasional salt lakes and are dotted with luxuriant oases – a welcome sight for travellers down the ages. Here, where temperatures regularly top 50°C in summer, dozens of subtly different date palms thrive, often sharing space with hardy pomegranate trees and modest fields of cucumber and melon; Garmeh and the villages around are classic examples.
Surprisingly, it's in the deserts (often where they meet the mountains), that Iran's larger mammal species – such as the leopard and the Asiatic cheetah – survive.
People of the Land
Think of Iran’s mountain ranges as the foundations of a vast central plateau. Everything but the narrow coastal regions of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, and the Khuzestan plain near southern Iraq, is about 1000m above sea level or higher. This elevation, the mountains and the lack of rivers have had a direct effect on the development of Persian culture.
Unlike many ancient civilisations, such as those in Egypt and Mesopotamia, Persian settlements did not develop around major rivers. The longest and sole navigable river is the Karun (890km) in the southwest, and it’s no Nile. Rather, settled areas are almost entirely confined to the foothills of mountains, where natural springs and melting snow provide sufficient water, with melted snow often channelled through ingenious underground canals called qanats.
Without river connections, these communities lived in relative isolation. Large towns would be the focus of trade for hundreds of surrounding villages otherwise hemmed in by mountains or desert. Further trade was done by camel caravans, which linked these population basins to each other and beyond via the silk routes and the coasts.
These environs also dictated the Iranian cuisine. With fresh vegetables hard to find, people of the deserts ate a menu heavy with protein (camel and goat meat) and hardy fruits (dates, oranges and pomegranate), while those from the wet, fertile, Alborz provinces in the north ate more vegetables (hello eggplant) and a wider variety of fruit. For a taste of these contrasting lifestyles, spend a night each in Garmeh (desert) and Masuleh (mountain).
Iran’s diverse landscapes are home to a fascinating and sometimes exhilarating mix of wildlife. Seeing this fauna is not easy -– casual encounters are extremely rare. But with planning, patience and good guiding, you might get lucky.
Iran is home to 158 species of mammal, about one-fifth of which are endemic. Large cats, including the Persian leopard and Asiatic cheetah, are the most glamorous, but a range of wild sheep, deer, gazelle and bears are just as interesting.
Indeed, Iran’s seven species of wild sheep might well be the progenitors of the modern, garden variety sheep and goat. They include species such as the Transcaspian oreal, Laristan mouflon and Alborz red sheep, an ibex with a long black beard and curved horns. And, as described in Jason Elliot’s book Mirrors of the Unseen, the origins of the modern horse come from the loins of the pint-sized and now near-extinct Caspian horse.
Notable other species include the spectacular Persian wild ass, goitered and Jebeer gazelles, maral, Asian black bear and brown bear. Most larger mammals are found in the forests of the Alborz Mountains, although large cats, wild dogs and gazelle are also found around the deserts.
Camels still roam the deserts of the eastern provinces of Kerman, Sistan va Baluchestan and Khorestan, and while they might look wild they almost certainly belong to nomadic or seminomadic communities.
Sitting at the crossroads of the European, Oriental and African faunal regions, and harbouring an amazing array of habitats from alpine tops to semitropical mangroves and intertidal sand flats, Iran is an exceptional country for birds, boasting almost 500 species, many of which are listed as globally endangered. While the jewel in the crown is the Pleske’s ground jay, a bird unique to Iran and a resident of the central deserts, the country is also rich in mountain species, including Caspian snowcock, Caucasian black grouse and Radde’s accentor, as well as a large number of the expected desert birds, such as assorted sandgrouse, larks and wheatears.
A growing number of birders are coming to Iran in search of these birds, many of which are hard to find elsewhere, and to enjoy the exceptional birding along the Persian Gulf. In winter in particular, many hundreds of thousands of birds flock to the shallow waters of the Gulf, with the Bandar Abbas–Qeshm areas particularly good. Vast flocks of waders, including crab plovers and terek sandpipers, mingle with various herons, egrets and pelicans and together create one of the most important wintering areas for birds in the Middle East.
For the casual birder, some of the more prominent species include golden eagles in the northern mountains, three species of bee-eaters, the colourful pied and Smyrna kingfishers, both common in Khuzestan, plus the startling blue Indian roller in the Bandar Abbas area and its cousin, the European roller, in the north.
Habitat loss and one million hunting licenses (each with free bullets from the state) have taken their toll on the wildlife. In the mountainous northwest, the lammergeier (bearded vulture) has been shot and poisoned to the brink of extinction due to a misconception among farmers that they attack sheep. In fact, this fascinating bird usually eats only what other vultures have left behind, and often breaks bones by dropping them onto rocks from a great height. They apply the same method to the unfortunate Greek spur-thighed tortoises in the area.
The Persian fallow deer remains vulnerable but is nonetheless a rare Iranian conservation success story. Thought extinct in the 1950s, a small population was discovered in Khuzestan province, and intensive breeding efforts saw numbers rise throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. Today populations exist in Khuzestan, Mazandaran, the Arjan Protected Area and on an island in Lake Orumiyeh.
The Asiatic Cheetah
The Asiatic cheetah is one of the most endangered cats on earth. The 50 to 100 living on the edges of Iran’s Dasht-e Kavir are all that remain of a population that once ranged from India to the Mediterranean. Cheetahs were prized by ancient Persian royalty, who trained them to hunt gazelles. It is this long history, and the fact that Iran’s population of Asiatic lions and Caspian tigers has been hunted into extinction, that has made the cheetah the poster cat of the country’s conservation movement.
That the cheetah, the fastest land animal on earth, survives in Iran's deserts is a remarkable story – hunting in such conditions requires a high success rate and remarkable stealth. But in other ways, it makes sense – with hunting having driven the cheetah to extinction elsewhere, the uninhabited deserts of Iran's interior make an ideal refuge.
Even so, severe habitat loss during the 1980s and the resultant loss of cheetah prey, traditionally jebeer, goitered gazelles, wild sheep and goats, has made this harder, as it has forced the cats deeper into mountainous areas in search of more modest meals – such as hare and even lizards.
Since 2000 the Iranian government has worked with the United Nations Development Programme and peak cat-conservation NGO Panthera to designate land, mainly in Yazd and Semnan provinces, as parks and reserves, increase punishments for poaching and undertake an extensive tracking program. The aim was to identify exactly where the cheetah roam and try to link existing reserves to form a safe haven for the few remaining populations.
In 2015, monitoring of camera-trap facilities revealed that 'Pouyan', a male cheetah known to researchers from earlier camera-trap photos, made a remarkable journey: in nine months, he travelled from Dare-Anjir Wildlife Refuge to Naybandan Wildlife Refuge and back again, a distance of 415km. Despite such exciting news, the Iranian Cheetah Society announced in 2016 that just two adult female Asiatic cheetahs were known to survive in the wild.
On the positive side, education programs have significantly reduced poaching and the creation of protected areas is expected to help other native species. The project is ongoing. For more information visit the Iranian Cheetah Society (www.wildlife.ir) or Panthera (www.panthera.org).
National Parks & Reserves
National parks, and the wildlife they are designed to protect, are luxuries most Iranians don’t have the time, money or education to be concerned with. As a result, most national parks are terribly underfunded and understaffed, and the most accessible zones tend to be rubbish-strewn picnic sites. Unauthorised hunting is an ongoing problem, as is illegal cultivation. Attitudes are changing in cities such as Tehran and Shiraz but it could be decades before Iran’s nature reserves have the status of their Western counterparts.
So what does this mean for the visitor? About 5% of Iran is protected. But in the 16 officially mandated national parks and more than 140 other protected areas there are few fences, few, if any, rangers, no maps, no guides and no facilities – you may not even realise you're in a national park. Even finding certain parks can be difficult as they don’t appear on maps and there are few signs. Other parks, such as Sisingan on the Caspian, suffer the opposite problem: they are small, overused and quickly overrun by weekenders.
Hardy souls might strike out on their own, but unless time is no problem and you have some Farsi, it will be difficult. Your best bet is to employ a travel agency close to the park you want to visit. Alternatively, use a recommended specialist outdoor agency.
Relatively accessible national parks and protected areas:
- Arjan Protected Area Lake and wetland area near Shiraz. Home to masked tits, waterfowl and seasonal migratory birds, plus mammals including Persian fallow deer.
- Bakhtegan National Park Incorporating Lakes Bakhtegan and Tashk, this park is about 80km east of Shiraz. Flamingos and other migratory birds loiter here during winter.
- Bijar Protected Area About 15km north of Bijar town in Kordistan. Home to Alborz red sheep, hyenas and jackals. Best visited in spring and autumn.
- Golestan National Park Forested mountains between Gorgan and the Caspian Sea. Home to wild boars, oreal rams, brown bears, wolves, leopards, goitered gazelles and assorted bird life. Best visited in spring. Permits required.
- Lake Orumiyeh National Park An important wetland, this park is home to rare deer and a multitude of migratory birds. Relatively accessible from Tabriz, but increasingly threatened.
Iran faces several serious environmental challenges, most of which can be summed up as habitat loss and pollution. But it’s not all bad news. Public awareness of the environment has risen significantly in recent years.
A report by the United Nations Environment Programme ranked Iran at 117th place among 133 countries in terms of environmental indexes.
When environmental historians look back at Iran, the 1980s will be seen as a disastrous decade. Upheaval following the revolution and during the Iran–Iraq War prompted rapid, uncontrolled expansion of grazing lands, often into sensitive semidesert areas, leading to overgrazing and, in some areas, desertification. Massive population growth didn’t help and crops were soon being sewn in areas unsuitable for intensive agriculture.
The impacts have been dire. Official estimates suggest 80% of the forest that existed in Iran during the 1970s is now gone, resulting in flooding, erosion and desertification. Wildlife has been pushed into ever-decreasing areas and competition for prey has become critical.
These problems have been exacerbated by a land tenure act passed in the 1980s that changed millennia of land-use practice. Traditionally rangelands were grazed seasonally by nomadic tribes, but tenure over rangelands is now obtained by regular cultivation of land, regardless of its suitability. On the plus side, the government is aware of the problem and in recent years school children have planted millions of trees.
Chronic air pollution is the environmental problem you’re most likely to notice while travelling in Iran. Tehran sets the standard but growing industry and car ownership have made poisonous air a problem across the country. Iran’s pollution problem is worse for having been ignored until it reached crisis point. And that day may soon be coming: according to the World Bank, deaths caused by air pollution (mostly as a result of respiratory illnesses) cost the economy an estimated US$640 million every year.
The good news is the government has taken dramatic steps to force people into realising the impact of endlessly burning fossil fuels. The most important, and controversial, has been removing subsidies and thus raising the price of all fuels (that the motivation was more economic than environmental is by the by). Until about 2007, many Iranians believed cheap fuel was their birthright. Since then the prices of benzin (petrol), gas and electricity have gone up by between 800 and 1000 percent each. Not surprisingly, per person consumption has fallen. In theory, market forces should bring more efficient vehicles and fuel to Iran, too. In practice, sanctions are a huge barrier.
There are other problems. The Persian Gulf has been repeatedly contaminated by leaks from oil rigs and tankers, untreated sewage and overly rapid development on the islands of Kish and Qeshm. Pollution in the Caspian Sea is a problem that now threatens the internationally recognised wetlands of the Anzali Lagoon at Bandar-e Anzali.
Shaking Iran’s Confidence
To say that Iranians are anxious about earthquakes is quite the understatement. The country sits on dozens of seismic fault lines and every year scores of tremors rattle homes and gnaw away at nerves. When a major quake strikes, as it did in Bam in 2003 at a cost of more than 31,000 lives, Iranians everywhere start speculating about who will be next. Sadly, earthquakes, albeit on a smaller scale, are all too frequent, with earthquakes in Zarand (2005; 612 people killed), Borujerd (2006; 66), Tabriz (2012; 306) and Saravan (2013; 35) just a few of the quakes to strike in recent years.
Iran has had more than 20 major earthquakes (above 6 on the Richter scale) in the past century, and seismologists estimate that a large population centre will be hit every eight years. While the vast majority of seismic activity occurs along the Zagros Mountains, where the Eurasian and Arabian tectonic plates meet, it is in the desert regions of central Iran that the biggest movements are felt: Ferdows (1968; 7.3 on the Richter scale; up to 20,000 dead), Tabas (1978; 7.8; more than 1500 dead) and Bam (6.6) are all in this area.
However, the mountainous regions in the north are also susceptible, and Tehran reportedly has two major faults running directly beneath it. In the wake of the Bam disaster there was much speculation in Tehran about what kind of hell would be unleashed if a large quake rocks the capital. Building standards are poor (and poorly enforced) and a government report in 2004 stated that of the 15 million homes in Iran, 7.2 million are vulnerable to a major earthquake.
Google Earth Landscapes
- The Kaluts N 30° 38’ 34.63”, E 58° 0’ 58.48”
- Qeshm Geological Park N 26° 37’ 0.46”, E 55° 29’ 29.43”
- Zagros Mountains N 30° 15’ 4.30”, E 51° 57’ 21.35”
- Dasht-e Kavir mountains N 33° 50’ 47.00”, E 52° 34’ 53.26”
- Dasht-e Lut sand dunes N 30° 5’ 50.34”, E 59° 16’ 48.39”
Sidebar: Land Area
With an area of 1,648,195 sq km, Iran is more than three times larger than France; nearly one-fifth the size of the USA; and almost as big as Queensland, Australia. Iran shares borders with seven countries: Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Sidebar: Wind Farms
While most attention has been focused on the country’s nuclear-power program, Iran is the Middle East’s only producer of wind turbines and has several wind farms and a major solar-power plant in Yazd.
Sidebar: The Land
Only about 11% of Iran is arable land; 7% is forest, 47% is natural (ie nonarable) pastures and 35% is infertile land, including desert.
Iran harbours more than 8200 species of plants, about 2000 of them endemic.
Sidebar: Birds of the Middle East
Serious birders should bring Birds of the Middle East (2010), by Simon Aspinall, Richard Porter and Brian Small.
More than a thousand wetland sites around the world are protected under a 1971 agreement, signed in Ramsar, on Iran’s Caspian Sea coast. Known as the Ramsar Convention, birds and their wetland habitats are the greatest beneficiaries. Iran is home to 22 wetlands that are protected by Ramsar.
Ancient Greek playwright Aechylus was killed when a tortoise landed on his bald head. This story was thought to be a myth until a bearded vulture was seen dropping a tortoise onto rocks to crack it open. It now seems a bearded vulture confused poor Aechylus’ head for a stone.
Iran has 2440km of coastline, spread between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.
Sidebar: Fauna of Iran
The Complete Fauna of Iran (2005), by Eskaner Firouz, is a terrific and encyclopaedic resource on the country's wildlife. It's more for your coffee table or wildlife reference library than something you'd carry with you on your travels.
Sidebar: Online Resources
Sidebar: Pallas Cat
In 2015, the Iranian Cheetah Society released a camera-trap photo of a Pallas Cat, a small, stocky feline with an unusually flat forehead and wide face, from Salouk National Park in northeastern Iran.