Facts and Statistics
Iran is a large country in the Middle East and West Asia, between the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, and the Caspian Sea. It is bordered by Iraq to the west, Turkey, Azerbaijan’s Naxcivan enclave, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to the northwest, Turkmenistan to the northeast, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the southeast.
“a traveller without knowledge is a bird without wings” — Muslih Al-Din Sa’di
Known as Persia until 1935, Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979 after the ruling Shah was forced into exile. Conservative clerical forces subsequently crushed Westernisation and also any liberal or left-wing influences. Key current issues affecting the country include the pace of accepting outside modernising influences, reconciliation between clerical control of the regime and popular participation in government, and widespread demands for reform. Inflation and unemployment (particularly among youth) are major economic challenges.
Humans have inhabited the area that makes up modern Iran since the Stone Age. The ancient Persians arrived about 1500 BC, one branch of the great movement of people that also brought northern India and most of Europe their modern populations. The name Iran is from the same root as “Aryan” which, until Hitler perverted it, was just an ancient name for those arriving peoples. Persian (natively known as Farsi) is an Indo-European language; ancient Persian was related to Sanskrit, ancient Greek, and all the others in that family. Persians are ethnically and linguistically unrelated to their neighbours on the west, the Arabs and Turks.
Iran has many people other than ethnic Persians. The northwestern region, Azerbaijan, is largely populated by Azeris, who are ethnically and linguistically related to Turkish. The province of West Azerbaijan is both Azeri and Kurd. Other regions are mostly Kurds in parts of west and northwest and Baluchis in parts of southeast. There are also Armenians, Arabs, and last but not least Jews, who have been living in Iran peacefully for years.
People wearing Iran’s flag marching in a rally.
While Shia Islam is without a doubt the dominant religion in Iran, there also exists several religious minorities as well. Sunni Islam in Iran is mainly practised by ethnic minorities such as the Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. Other non-Islamic faiths also exist in smaller numbers, the most notable being Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Judaism, all three of which are recognised as minority religions by the Iranian constitution, and each of these are guaranteed representation in parliament. As such, despite being an Islamic republic, fire temples, churches and synagogues continue to operate legally in the country. Most Iranian Christians follow Eastern Orthodoxy, and are of Armenian ethnicity. Iran also has the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel. While there are also a significant number of Baha’is in Iran, they are not recognised by the constitution and are instead branded as heretics of Islam, meaning that they continue to be persecuted to this day in spite of being Iran’s numerically largest non-Muslim religion.
There are also two substantial communities of people of Iranian descent in India and Pakistan — Parsis who have been there for over 1,000 years, and Iranis who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries — both Zoroastrians who fled religious persecution in Iran.
People It can be seen many different ethnics and religions among Iranian people. The largest ethnic group is Persian. Although this term is used loosely, it describes Iranians who mostly live in the central plateau and speak Indo-Iranian dialects. Farsi, an Indo-European language, is the official language of Iran. However as it is mentioned below, other languages that are spoken include Kurdish, Turkish dialects, and Arabic.
Central Iranian people are as diverse as the places they live. In Qom they are conservative and religious, Shirazis are laid-back and fun-loving, and the Qashghai and Bakhtiari nomads have a lifestyle which is dictated by nature.
Western Iran concludes range of linguistic and culture:
Kurds in Kordestan, Ilam, west Azarbaijan and Kermanshah provinces;
Lors in Lorestan, Fars, Kohkiloyeh-Boyerahmad;
Arabs inhabit southern Khuzestan;
Talesh and Gilaki are the traditional langueges of Iran (the southwest Caspian hinterland), and
Azaris whose language is more Turkish than Persian, predominate in the rest of the northwest.
In southwestern of Iran,
Kerman is the main city and cultural borderer of central Persians and Baluchis whose dress and customs are unique.
Throughout history, Persia has generally been an empire, one whose fortunes varied enormously. In ancient times, Persia controlled most of what we now call the Middle East, and came close to conquering Greece. A few centuries later, Alexander the Great, conquered (among other things) the entire Persian Empire. Later, Persia was conquered by the Arabs in the expansion of Islam in the centuries immediately after the time of Muhammad; Persian and other languages of the region are still written with the Arabic alphabet. About 1250, Persia was overrun by the Mongols. Marco Polo passed through just after that, learned Persian, and wrote extensively of the region.
At other times, Persia conquered many of her neighbours. Her empire often included much of what we now call Central Asia (Polo counted Bukhara and Samarkand as Persian cities), and sometimes various other areas. A few generations after the Mongols took Persia, the dynasty they founded there took all of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and most of India. The Indian term “Moghul” for some of their rulers is from “Mongol”, via Persia. Even in periods when she did not rule them, Persia has always exerted a large cultural influence on her neighbours, especially Afghanistan and Central Asia.
The Safavid dynasty re-united Persia as an independent state in 1501, established Shi’a Islam as the official religion, and ushered in a golden age of Persian culture. They were overthrown in 1736 by Nadir Shah, the last great Asian conqueror, who expanded the Empire to again include Afghanistan and much of India. His short-lived dynasty and its successor lasted until 1795. Then the Qajar dynasty ruled 1795-1925, a period of heavy pressure from foreign powers, notably Britain and Russia who jointly occupied Iran during World War I. In 1906, Qajar rule became a constitutional monarchy and the Majlis (Persian for parliament) was established.
The last dynasty
In 1925, a military coup by Reza Shah established a new “Pahlavi” dynasty, named for the most ancient Persian dynasty around 500 BC. His rule was quite nationalistic; requested that the West would call the country by its endonym Iran, rather than Persia, and built a strong military. It was also quite authoritarian; he built a powerful secret police and a propaganda apparatus, and did not hesitate to crush dissent. He also made considerable efforts toward modernization, and came into conflict with conservatives over some of it. When World War II came, he refused Allied demands for guarantees that Iran would resist if German forces got that far. Iran was then invaded by Anglo-Indian forces from the South and Russians from the North, and a railway built (largely by US Army engineers) to bring supplies from the Persian Gulf across Iran to beleaguered Russia. Reza Shah went off to exile in South Africa, abdicating on the steps of the aircraft in favour of his son.
The son, Mohammad Reza Shah, continued his father’s nationalistic, authoritarian and modernising tendencies. However, coming to power in 1941, he had a problem; he needed powerful friends, but who? Given the history, no sane Iranian ruler would choose Britain or Russia. Being pro-German had not worked out well for dad and, in 1941, France did not count for much. That left the Americans, and he became one of America’s most important allies in the region, seen as a “bulwark against Communism”, a constitutional monarch, in some ways a progressive ruler — modernising, sometimes comparing himself to Kemal Ataturk who led Turkey’s modernisation — and a protector of US and other Western interests. He was one of very few Middle Eastern rulers to extend diplomatic recognition to Israel and helped prevent Iranian nationalisation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. On the other hand, he was quite capable of putting Iranian interests before Western ones, as when he was one of the key players in creating OPEC.
While in some ways progressive, the Shah was also very much the oriental despot. When the Soviets left Northwestern Iran after the war, they left behind something that claimed to be an independent communist government of Azerbaijan. The first major conflict of the Cold War came as the Shah, advised by the CIA, brought in troops who crushed that government and the communist party (Tudeh in Persian). Throughout his reign, his Savak secret police stomped hard on any opposition. His regime was also massively corrupt, with his relatives and various others getting hugely rich while much of the country was very poor. On the other hand, he did build infrastructure and start various projects to benefit the poor, including a program that sent new university graduates into the countryside as teachers.
In theory, Iran under the Shah was still a constitutional monarchy. Mohammed Mosaddeq became Prime Minister in 1951 and instituted reforms that included nationalising the oil companies and a land reform program. He was overthrown in a 1953 coup backed by the CIA, the British (who had large oil interests at stake), and the Shah. The Shah and the new Prime Minister reversed the oil nationalisation, but continued with a land reform program. However, as well as giving land to the peasants, it worked out that the Shah’s family and others with connections got a lot. The Ayatollah Khomeni went into exile at this time, originally because of his objections to land reform taking land from the mosques.
The Islamic revolution
1979 Islamic revolution of Iran
In 1979, the Shah was overthrown and went into exile, dying a year later. The revolution involved many groups — Tudeh, Mosaddeq-style secular reformers, and various Islamic factions — but came to be led and dominated by a conservative Islamic faction under Ayatollah Khomeni. Partly in reaction to the Shah’s policies, they were also strongly anti-Western and in particular anti-American.
The main divisions of Islam are Shia’a and Sunni. The split goes back to a time just after the Prophet’s death; would the movement be controlled by some of his leading followers (Sunni), or by his family, in particular by his son-in-law Ali (Shi’a)? There was a long, complex and bloody struggle over this. Today, Iran is the only major country that is predominantly and officially Shi’a, though there are Shi’a minorities elsewhere and a Sunni minority in Iran. The Iranian government supports the Shi’a Hezbollah movement further west, and is therefore accused by America of fomenting terrorism.
One of the major events of Shi’a religious life is the Day of Ashura on the 10th of the month of Moharram; “ashura” means “10th”. It commemorates the death of Ali’s son Hussein at the Battle of Karbala in 61 AH (680 AD). This is not a joyful celebration, but a very sober day of atonement.
Ashura in Yazd
Traditional activities include parades in which people do ‘matham’ which is a way of remembering Imam Hussein who was martyred along with all his half brother, cousins, friends, and 2 young sons. Some terrorist groups also exploit the religious fervour of the day; Hezbollah’s 1983 suicide bomber attack on the US embassy in Lebanon took place on Ashura.
Iran has a diverse climate. In the northwest, winters are cold with heavy snowfall and subzero temperatures during December and January. Spring and fall are relatively mild, while summers are dry and hot. In the south, winters are mild and the summers are very hot, having average daily temperatures in July exceeding 38°C (100°F) and can hit 50°C in parts of the desert. On the Khuzestan plain, summer heat is accompanied by high humidity.
In general, Iran has an arid climate in which most of the relatively scant annual precipitation falls from October through April. In most of the country, yearly precipitation averages 25 centimetres or less. The major exceptions are the higher mountain valleys of the Zagros and the Caspian coastal plain, where precipitation averages at least 50cm annually. In the western part of the Caspian, rainfall exceeds 100cm annually and is distributed relatively evenly throughout the year.
Rugged, mountainous rim; high, central basin with deserts, mountains; small, discontinuous plains along both coasts. The highest point is Mount Damavand (5,610m)that is the highest volcano of the world. Desert: Two great deserts extend over much of central Iran: the Dasht-e Lut is covered largely with sand and rocks, and the Dasht-e Kavir is covered mainly with salt. Both deserts are inhospitable and virtually uninhabited. Mountain: The Zagros range stretches from the border with the Republic of Armenia in the north-west to the Persian Gulf, and then eastward into Baluchistan. Zagros is extremely hard, difficult to access, and populated largely by pastoral nomads. The Alborz mountain range, narrower than the Zagros, runs along the southern shore of the Caspian to meet the border ranges of Khorasan to the east. Forest: Approximately 11 percent of Iran is forested, most extensively in the Caspian region. Here one finds the broad-leafed, vigorous deciduous trees, usually oak, beech, linden, elm, walnut, ash, and hornbeam, as well as a few broad-leafed evergreens. Thorny shrubs and fern also abound.The narrow Caspian subtropical coastal plain, in contrast, is covered with rich brown forest soil.
Persian Gulf Region
Below is a list of just nine of the most notable cities:
Tehran – the vibrant capital, a beautiful city that suffers horrendous traffic and air pollution
Hamedan – one of the oldest cities in Iran and the world, it has some features remaining from the Medes
Isfahan – former capital with stunning architecture, great bazaar, and tree-lined boulevards. Most popular tourist destination in the country. There’s a Persian saying, “Isfahan is half the world”
Kermanshah – one of the oldest cities in Iran with a great anthropological heritage in Taqe bostan and Bistoun; the centre of medical care in the west of Iran
Mashhad – greatest city of Eastern Iran with an important mosque, the shrine of the martyr Imam Reza
Qom – one of the holiest cities in the Middle East, considered the Jewel of Iran
Shiraz – a former Persian capital and home of such famous poets such as Hafiz and Sa’di; known for gardens, especially roses. Very close to the famous ruins of Persepolis.
Tabriz – one of the historical capitals of Iran, and the present capital of East Azarbaijan Province with one of the oldest and largest covered bazaars( in the world.
Yazd – a remote desert city with wind-towers and where water streams run in underground rooms in houses and to keep them cool.
Persepolis has the impressive ruins of a vast city-like complex built over 2,500 years ago, near Marvdasht town and the modern city of Shiraz. It was set on fire by Alexander of Macedon and further ruined by Arabs. Called TakhteJamshid in Persian, Persepolis is the symbol of Iranian nationality.
Kish Island, a free trade zone in the Persian Gulf, it is regarded as a consumer’s ‘paradise’, with numerous malls, shopping centres, tourist attractions, and resort hotels. Kish is the home of Dariush Grand Hotel, a magnificent hotel in Iran and one of the top ten best hotels in the Middle East.
Qeshm Island, is Iran’s largest and the Persian Gulf’s largest island. Qeshm island is famous for its wide range of ecotourist attractions such as the Hara marine forests. According to environmentalists, about 1.5% of the world birds and 25% of Iran’s native birds annually migrate to Hara forests which is the first national geo park.
Na’in or Naein is a small and quiet town at the edge of desert which is famous for its carpet design and Qanats. A pattern of a desert town locates on the way from Esfahan to Yazd
Shush located 110km North of Ahvaz, was Iran’s most ancient city. The Zigurat of Chogha zanbil, Darius the Great’s palace, the Jewish prophet Daniel’s temple and Artaxerxer II ‘s palace are among the historical sites.
Dizin is one of the highest ski resorts in the world located just two hours north of Tehran. Great powder snow, cheap prices and few international visitors makes this is a great place for a ski holiday.
Varzaneh is undoubtedly the best desert town of Isfahan province. Having one of the most beautiful deserts of Iran, extremely quiet, and being close to salt lake and Gavkhooni wetland, makes Varzaneh a must-stop spot for travelers between Isfahan and Yazd. Salt lake, Gavkhooni wetland and 1000-yeaer-old Ghoortan citadel are also in Varzaneh district.
Pasargad, the first capital of the Achaemenid Empire, and home to the Tomb of Cyrus.
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The voltage in Iran, as in most of Europe, is 230V/50 Hz.
Switzerland uses type C (2-pin) and Type J (3-pin) plugs. (Type C 2-pin plugs also fit J sockets.)
Most power sockets are designed for three pin round plugs. The standard continental type plug with two round pins, applied for many electrical travel products, may be used without problemd. Adaptors are available in most hotels.
Smoking has been forbidden in Iran in enclosed areas when they are open to the public or serve as a workplace for more than one person. Hence it is forbidden to smoke in restaurants, public buildings and offices. Smoking is also forbidden on public transport. Smoking is permitted in separate smoking rooms, outdoors and in private homes.
Important telephone numbers Iran
Iran international country code +98
Dialing out of Iran +00
Directory inquiries 118
Fire Brigade 125
Police 110 (112 from mobile (cell) phones will also get you through to the local police)
Fire & Rescue 125
Tehran Mehrabad Airport 21 6693 0934
Shiraz Shahid Dastghaib International Airport 71 21948
Airlines – Tehran Offices
Aeroflot 21 880 8480
Air France 21 670 4111
Air India 21 873 9762
Austrian Airlines 21 875 8984
British Airways 21 204 4552
Emirates 21 879 6786
Gulf 21 225 3287
Iran Air 21 880 8472
KLM 21 204 4757
Turkish Airlines 21 874 8450
Hospitals in Iran
Azad Hospital 21 760 1001
Shohadaye Tajrish Hospital 21 271 8000-9
Tehran Clinic 21 872 8113
Iranian City Codes
Ali Sadr 812
Bandar-e Abbas 761
Bandar-e Anzali 181
Bandar-e Golmankhaneh 443
Bandar-e Langeh 762
Firuz Abad 712
Gonbad-e Kavus 172
Meshgin Shahr 452
Shahr-e Kord 381
Torbat-e Jam 529
Buses in + to Iran
International Bus Services To & From Iran
There are long-distance buses from Istanbul (around 42 hours), Ankara (around 38 hours) and Erzurum in Turkey to Tehran or Tabriz in Iran. There are also buses from Yerevan in Armenia to Tabriz and on to Tehran.
From Pakistan take an overnight bus from Quetta to Taftan on the Pakistan-Iran border. To and from Iraq there are regular bus services from Arbil in Iraq to Urmia in Iran. Buses also run from Sanandaj and Kermanshah in Iran to Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan.
From Tehran, there are also buses to Sulaymaniyah and Arbil. From Afganistan there are buses between Herat and Mashhad. From Turkmenistan there is also a connection between Ashgabat and Mashhad.
Domestic Bus Services
There are many competing private and cooperatively-run bus services within Iran and domestic bus travel is generally comfortable and cheap by Western standards. Bus stations tend to be on the outskirts of most major cities.
Flights to + in Iran
Air Travel To Iran
The major international airports in Iran are Mehrabad International Airport (Tehran) and Imam Khomeini International Airport (Tehran).
Other international airports are located in Ahvaz, Bandar-e Abbas, Esfahan, Hamadan, Mashhad, Qeshm, Shahr-e Kord, Shiraz and Zahedan. However, chances are you will arrive on a flight to Tehran unless you are flying from the Gulf States.
Try our flight search engine to find the cheapest flight to Iran to the various international airports in Iran.
Direct Flights To Iran
Iran Air, Air France, British Airways, Air India, Austrian Airlines, Emirates, Gulf Air, Lufthansa, Alitalia, Swiss, Turkish Airlines, Aeroflot, Iran Aseman, Mahan Air and Caspian Airlines among others operate direct flights to Tehran.
If you are looking for cheap deals online Expedia US, Expedia UK and eBookers offer some good prices on flights to Tehran from starting locations all around the world.
Iran Air (Airline of the Islamic Republic of Iran) is the official government-owned carrier and flies to many major destinations in Europe (including London, Madrid, Milan, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Geneva, Copenhagen, Paris, Rome, Stockholm, Zurich and Vienna), Asia (including Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, Karachi and Kabul) and other parts of the Middle East (including Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon).
Iran Aseman, Mahan Air and Caspian Airlines are Iran’s other major domestic carriers.
Iran Aseman flies to various destinations in the Middle East as well as many major cities within Iran.
Mahan Air has international flights to Delhi, Bangkok, Colombo (Sri Lanka), Dusseldorf, Kabul, Jeddah, Bahrain as well as domestic destinations within Iran.
Caspian Airlines flies domestically to other major cities in Iran including Ahvaz, Mashhad and Tabriz and internationally to Armenia, Dubai, Hungary, Syria (via Tabriz) and the Ukraine.
Kish Air flies mostly to the upmarket resort of Kish Island in the Persian Gulf. Kish Air has flights from Kish to domestic destinations including Tehran, Esfahan, Mashhad, Shiraz and Bandar-e Abbas. Kish Air also has flights from Tehran to Tabriz, Mashhad, Ahvaz and Hamadan as well as international departures for Dubai, Sharjah, Istanbul and Damascus.
Air Travel in Iran
Domestic air travel is a fairly economical alternative to lengthy bus or train travel. Iran Air, Iran Aseman and Caspian Airlines are the major domestic carriers along with Kish Air and Saha Air (which is owned by the Iranian Air Force).
Access to Tehran’s Airports
Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA) is about 35km south of Tehran. The Tehran metro is planned to connect to the new airport. There are taxis (90 minutes) and buses running in to central Tehran.
Plans to build IKA existed before 1979 but were put on hold after the Islamic revolution. The airport was eventually opened in 2004 and now almost all international flights have been transferred here from the old Mehrabad Airport in central Tehran.
IKA is situated about 35km south of the city on the road to Qom. With no public transport system yet in place, the only way to get there is by private taxi.
The ageing Mehrabad International Airport is much nearer to central Tehran but is due to be finally replaced by Imam Khomeini International Airport in due course.
Ancient Persian Festivals
Iranians created many feasts and celebrations to pay homage to many deities and they are mostly farming festivals.
Iranians divide the Iranian year into two equal parts or seasons. The first season was summer and the second was winter.The coming of the two seasons would be celebrated through Norooz and Mehregan. The later is the festival dedicated to Mehr Izad. It is celebrated on the 16th of the seventh month (Mehr) at the time of the harvest festivals and beginning of the winter. It has been the second most elaborate celebration after Norooz.
Norooz – New Year Festival
Norooz, in word, means “New Day”. It is the new day that starts the year, traditionally the exact astronomical beginning of the Spring. Iranians take that as the beginning of the year. This exact second is called “Saal Tahvil”. No-Rooz with its’ uniquely Iranian characteristics has been celebrated for at least 3,000 years and is deeply rooted in the rituals and traditions of the Zoroastrian (This was the religion of ancient Persia before the advent of Islam in 7th century A.D.).
Iranians consider No-Rooz as their biggest celebration of the year, before the new year, they start cleaning their houses (Khaane Tekaani), and they buy new clothes. But a major part of New Year rituals is setting the “Haft Seen” with seven specific items. In ancient times each of the items corresponded to one of the seven creations and the seven holy immortals protecting them. Today they are changed and modified but some have kept their symbolism. All the seven items start with the letter “S”; this was not the order in ancient times. These seven things usually are: Seeb (apple), Sabze (green grass), Serke (vinager), Samanoo (a meal made out of wheat), Senjed (a special kind of berry), Sekke (coin), and Seer (garlic). Sometimes instead of Serke they put Somagh (sumak, an Iranian spice). Zoroastrians today do not have the seven “S”s but they have the ritual of growing seven seeds as a reminder that this is the seventh feast of creation, while their sprouting into new growth symbolized resurrection and eternal life to come.
Wheat or lentil representing new growth is grown in a flat dish a few days before the New Year and is called Sabzeh (green shoots). Decorated with colorful ribbons, it is kept until Sizdah beh dar, the 13th day of the New Year, and then disposed outdoors. A few live gold fish (the most easily obtainable animal) are placed in a fish bowl. In the old days they would be returned to the riverbanks, but today most people will keep them. Mirrors are placed on the spread with lit candles as a symbol of fire. Most of the people used to place Qoran on their Sofreh (spread) in order to bless the New Year. But some people found another alternative to Qoran and replaced it by the Divan-e Hafez (poetry book of Hefez), and during “Saal Tahvil” reading some verses from it was popular. Nowadays, a great number of Iranians are placing Shahnameh (the Epic of Kings) of Ferdowsi on their spread as an Iranian national book. They believe that Shahnameh has more Iranian identity values and spirits, and is much suitable for this ancient celebration.
After the Saal Tahvil, people hug and kiss each other and wish each other a happy new year. Then they give presents to each other (traditionally cash, coins or gold coins), usually older ones to the younger ones. The first few days are spent visiting older members of the family, relatives and friends. Children receive presents and sweets, special meals and “Aajil” (a combination of different nuts with raisins and other sweet stuff) or fruits are consumed. Traditionally on the night before the New Year, most Iranians will have Sabzi Polo Mahi, a special dish of rice cooked with fresh herbs and served with smoked and freshly fried fish. Koukou Sabzi, a mixture of fresh herbs with eggs fried or baked, is also served. The next day rice and noodles (Reshteh Polo) is served. Regional variations exist and very colorful feasts are prepared.
The 13th day of the new year is called “Sizdah Bedar” and spent mostly outdoors. People will leave their homes to go to the parks or local plains for a festive picnic. It is a must to spend Sizdah Bedar in nature. This is called Sizdah Bedar and is the most popular day of the holidays among children because they get to play a lot! Also in this day, people throw the Sabze away, they believe Sabze should not stay in the house after “Sizdah Bedar”. Iranians regard 13th day as a bad omen and believe that by going into the fields and parks they avoid misfortunes. It is also believed that unwed girls can wish for a husband by going into the fields and tying a knot between green shoots, symbolizing a marital bond.
Chahrshanbe Souri – Festival of fire
“Give me your fiery red color/ take back my wintry shallowness yellow.” It is an annual ritual which is held on the eve of the last Wednesday of the Iranian year.
Chahrshanbe Souri is the symbol of good health, cultivation, light, and purity to the Iranian. It is believed that the ritual guarantees the dissipation of the misfortunes and evils, and of course, the materialization of people’s hopes and desires for the next year.
Before the dusk, seven, as a symbol for the seven Zoroastrian angels (Amshaaspandan), heaps of bushes (of weed) are gathered before the house-gate or on the roof of the house -some visible place for the “ghosts” to guide. After the night has fallen on, the heaps are kindled and the uproarious tumult begins.
It is time for everybody to leap over the bonfires. They dance and sing merry notes. The traditional song of the night is: “Sorkhi-e man az to/ Zardi-e to az man”, literally it means “Give me your fiery red color and take back my wintry shallowness”.
Very much like Halloween and in full disguise, usually a veil (chador) covering the entire body, longing youths go to seven different houses and make a noise by hitting a bowl with a spoon to signal the household residing in the house. Being presented, by the household, with some treat betokens a positive omen, and vice versa.
Faal-e-Gusheneshini (solitary telling of the fortune) Young women longing for a spouse make a wish, then having hidden themselves in some invisible dark corner of a passage, listen to the passers-by’s talks, according to which they decide whether their wish will or will not be fulfilled; passers-by’s positive talk signifies good omens, and unpleasant words point to some ill portent.
Kuze-Shekani (earthenware jar-shattering)
The household put some coal, as the sign of ill omen, and some salt, standing for evil eye, plus a cheap coin, signifying poverty, inside an earthenware jar. They turn the earthenware jar around their heads one by one. Then, one of them throws the jar over the roof onto the alley. Thus, ill omen, evil eye and poverty are driven out of the house.
In some parts of the country, young boys, who are engaged, drop a shawl or wraparound down from the roof of their fiance’s house and she would present him with some confection or other present. Along with these rites, there are also others such as making soup for the sick, discarding the outworn furniture, etc. In some areas, the young get their horses out and make a performance on it before the night falls on.
Mehregan – Fall Festival
This feast would be celebrated for 6 days, starting on the 16th day of Month Mehr The oldest historical record about Mehregan goes back to the Achaemenian times. The Historian, Strabon (66 – 24 BC) has mentioned that the Armenian Satrap (governor) presented the Achaemenian king with 20,000 horses at the Mehregan celebrations.
The festival prayers are performed by the Mobads (priests) and gifts such as pure oil for the sanctuary lamps, candles and incense are presented to the local shrines. Esphand a local popular incense is burnt and sweet smelling flowers and herbs are dedicated to the temples. Contrary to the ancient times, there is no rigidly prescribed pattern of behavior for approaching the shrines, but many still touch the doorsill before entering in a graceful gesture of obeisance, while uttering prayers and invocations. Iranian Muslims still follow the same procedure once approaching a mosque.
For the ancient Iranians Mehr symbolized truthfulness, bravery and courage. These attributes were re-enforced and venerated through prayers, rituals, feasts, celebrations and acts of charity. Though most modern Iranians have heard about Mehregan, but unlike Norooz it is not celebrated by all and is mainly regarded as a Zoroastrian festival. In the recent years there has been a revival of this joyful and merry occasion both in Iran and outside and more Iranians are participating in this festival. Also since, school year starts on 1st of the Persian month Mehr, on about 23 September, in Iran, Mehregan is celebrated as a time to rejoice learning and knowledge to make the festival more acceptable with the Islamic authorities.
Sadeh – Winter Festival
Sadeh meaning hundred is a mid winter festival in Iran. It is a festivity to honor fire and to defeat the forces of darkness, frost and cold. It is celebration marked the hundred day and nights (50 days and 50 nights) before the Norooz and the hundredth day after the summer. This day coincides with 10th of Bahman in present calendar.
The ceremony starts with huge bon fires. People would dance around the fires. The most elaborate report of the celebration comes from the 10th century during the reign of Mardavij Zeyari, the ruler of Isfahan. From Iranian origin the Zeyari family did their best to keep the old traditions alive. Huge bon fires were set up on both sides of the Zayandeh Roodâ, the main river dividing the city. The fires were contained in specially build metal holders to maintain control. Hundreds of birds were released while carrying little fireballs to light the sky. There were fireworks, clowns, dance and music with lavish feasts of roasted lamb, beef, chicken and other delicacies.
The wood gathered would be taken to the local shrine and on their return home if it is their first time there will be a celebration for the boys at home with friends and relatives. However this practice is becoming more difficult these days and attempts are made to preserve it. The work is hard, wood more scarce than ever, fewer boys are prepared to attempt it and safety is a major concern. In addition massive emigration into the cities or outside the country has significantly reduced the number of boys available for this occasion.
The fire is kept burning all night. The day after, first thing in the morning, women would go to the fire and each one will carry a small portion back to their homes and new glowing fires are made from the ritually blessed fire. This is to spread the blessing of the Sadeh fire to every household in the neighborhood. Whatever that is left of the fire will be taken back to the shrine to be pilled in one container and will be kept at the temple. The festivities would normally go on for three days and the wood gathering by the boys door to door and blessing of the dead happens every night and evenings are spend eating and giving away khairat(giving away as a good deed). Food prepared from slaughtered lamb and ash e khairat are distributed amongst the less fortunate.
Today, Sadeh is mainly celebrated on 10th of Bahman. The fires may or may not be lit outside and most activities take place inside the shrines. The wood gathering activities are reduced though there are efforts to preserve them. However the bulk of the Iranians are becoming more familiar with the occasion and there are gatherings and celebrations outside Iran. Fires are lit, music, dancing and merriment of all kinds will go on for the rest of the evening. The occasion for the majority of Iranians has no religious significance and no specific rituals are involved other than torching bon fires at sunset and having a merry time and therefore keeping up with the ancient traditions when merriment was venerated and practiced.
Yalda Festival or Shab e Cheleh – The Night of the Fortieth
Yalda, a Syric word imported into the Persian language by the Syriac Christians means birth (tavalud and melaad are from the same origin). It is a relatively recent arrival and it is refereed to the ‘Shab e Cheleh Festival’, a celebration of Winter Solstice on December 21st. Forty days before the next major Persian festival ‘Jashn e Sadeh’; this night has been celebrated in countless cultures for thousands of years. The ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia (God of Agriculture, Saturn) and Sol Invicta (Sun God) are amongst the best known in the Western world.
In most ancient cultures, including Persia, the start of the solar year has been marked to celebrate the victory of light over darkness and the renewal of the Sun. For instance, Egyptians, four thousand years ago celebrated the rebirth of the sun at this time of the year. They set the length of the festival at 12 days, to reflect the 12 divisions in their sun calendar. They decorated with greenery, using palms with 12 shoots as a symbol of the completed year, since a palm was thought to put forth a shoot each month.
The Persians adopted their annual renewal festival from the Babylonians and incorporated it into the rituals of their own Zoroastrian religion. The last day of the Persian month Azar is the longest night of the year, when the forces of Ahriman are assumed to be at the peak of their strength. While the next day, the first day of the month ‘Day’ known as ‘khoram rooz’ or ‘khore rooz’ (the day of sun) belongs to Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom. Since the days are getting longer and the nights shorter, this day marks the victory of Sun over the darkness. The occasion was celebrated in the festival of ‘Daygan’ dedicated to Ahura Mazda, on the first day of the month ‘Day’.
Fires would be burnt all night to ensure the defeat of the forces of Ahriman. There would be feasts, acts of charity and a number of deities were honored and prayers performed to ensure the total victory of sun that was essential for the protection of winter crops. There would be prayers to Mithra (Mehr) and feasts in his honor, since Mithra is the Eyzad responsible for protecting ‘the light of the early morning’, known as ‘Havangah’. It was also assumed that Ahura Mazda would grant people’s wishes, specially those with no offspring had the hope to be blessed with children if performed all rites on this occasion.
One of the themes of the festival was the temporary subversion of order. Masters and servants reversed roles. The king dressed in white would change place with ordinary people. A mock king was crowned and masquerades spilled
into the streets. As the old year died, rules of ordinary living were relaxed. This tradition persisted till Sassanian period, and is mentioned by Biruni and others in their recordings of pre-Islamic rituals and festivals. Its’ origin goes back to the Babylonian New Year celebration. These people believed the first creation was order that came out of chaos. To appreciate and celebrate the first creation they had a festival and all roles were reversed. Disorder and chaos ruled for a day and eventually order was restored and succeeded at the end of the festival.
The Egyptian and Persian traditions merged in ancient Rome, in a festival to the ancient god of seedtime, Saturn. The Romans exchanged gifts, partied and decorated their homes with greenery. Following the Persian tradition, the
usual order of the year was suspended. Grudges and quarrels forgotten, wars would be interrupted or postponed. Businesses, courts and schools were closed. Rich and poor became equal, masters served slaves, and children headed the family. Cross-dressing and masquerades, merriment of all kinds prevailed. A mock king, the Lord of Misrule, was crowned. Candles and lamps chased away the spirits of darkness.
Another related Roman festival celebrated at the same time was dedicated to Sol Invictus (“the invincible sun”). Originally a Syrian deity, this cult was imported by Emperor Heliogabalus into Rome and Sol was made god of the
state. With the spread of Christianity, Christmas celebration became the most important Christian festival. In the third century various dates, from December to April, were celebrated by Christians as Christmas. January 6 was the most favored day because it was thought to be Jesus’ Baptismal day (in the Greek Orthodox Church this continues to be the day to celebrate Christmas). In year 350, December 25 was adopted in Rome and gradually almost the entire Christian Church agreed to that date, which coincided, with Winter Solstice and the festivals, Sol Invicta and Saturnalia. Many of the rituals and traditions of the pagan festivals were incorporated into the Christmas celebration and are still observed today.
It is not clear when and how the world ‘Yalda’ entered the Persian language. The massive persecution of the early Christians in Rome brought many Christian refugees into the Sassanin Empire and it is very likely that these Christians introduced and popularized ‘Yalda’ in Iran. Gradually ‘Shab e Yalda’ and ‘Shab e Cheleh’ became synonymous and the two are used interchangeably.
With the conquest of Islam the religious significance of the ancient Persian festivals was lost. Today ‘Shab e Cheleh’ is merely a social occasion, when family and friends get together for fun and merriment. Different kinds of dried fruits, nuts, seeds and fresh winter fruits are consumed. The presence of dried and fresh fruits is reminiscence of the ancient feasts to celebrate and pray to the deities to ensure the protection of the winter crops.
Shopping: what to buy in Iran
Iran is a great place to buy souvenirs and you will find it hard not to indulge yourself. In fact due to its very old civilization, rich cultures and also geographical location, has an important role in the world arts and crafts.
Mass production is not common, prices are low and the quality is generally high, even at the budget end of market. Naturally, the bazaar is the best place to start looking, although much of what is on sale in places like Kerman, Kashan and Hamadan is more likely to suite local tastes.
Conversely, in places like Isfahan and Shiraz where foreign tourists are more common, the goods may be more inviting. if you are not keen on haggling and don’t have much time to look around, the government – run Iran handicrafts organizations has fixed – price shops in most provincial capitals.
Various places in Iran specialize in specific products. Often, knowing the best place to buy something is as important as getting a good price.
The dazzling beauty and excellent quality of Persian carpets is well known all over the world. They are available in many designs, sizes, colors and can be made from wool or silk or a combination of both. Designs and patterns can vary as each region of the country has its own variation and custom of weaving. The women of nomadic tribes living in the plains mainly weave Gilims. We have a guide how to buy a Persian carpet here.
Qalamzanī – is one of the traditional engraving handicrafts that dates back over hundreds of years. Engraving is done on different metals such as copper, brass, silver or gold among other alloys. To engrave, first the back side of the work is covered by tar to prevent the work from causing a lot of noise, as well as getting punctured as a result of the hammering. Then the chosen designs or patterns are engraved on the work by different chisels. After the engraving is done the tar is removed from the work and the chiseled area is covered with charcoal powder and black lubricating oil. Finally the work is wiped clean and the black lines of the engraved designs appear on the surface of the work.
Khatam – khātam kārī or inlaid work, is one of the graceful Iranian handicrafts that is utilized to coat boxes, cases and frames. The origin of the name may come from the fact that in one centimeter of ‘Khātam’ more than 200 pieces of wood, metal and bone are employed-something which demands a great deal of dexterity, precision and patience. Tiny triangles of wood, bones (camel’s and ivory), metal (gold, silver, copper and brass), glue and tools such as thin saws and files are among the typical items utilized in making of “Khātam’.
Mina – is one of the most traditional enamel handicrafts of Iran whose origin dates back to around 2000 B.C. Enameled working is done through two different methods; the first method is to turn the colors into soft powder and mix them with water and glycerin, and then solve them on a glass surface and finally drawing the desired design on the object, just like an ordinary water color painting. In the second method, however, the colors are mixed with pine tree ink and the objects are painted using oil color technique. In both methods the enameled objects are heated on an alcohol burner to burn the ink, before putting them in the kiln. Next the enameled objects are glazed and put back in the kiln again. The necessary tools for this craft are: kiln, clamp, pliers and brush. Esfehān is the chief center of this enameled work.
Termeh is a handwoven cloth of Iran, primarily produced in the Yazd province. Weaving Termeh requires a good wool with tall fibers. Weaving Termeh is a sensitive, careful, and time-consuming process; a good weaver can produce only 25 to 30 centimeters in a day. The background colors which are used in Termeh are jujube red, light red, green, orange and black.
Qalamkari is a type of hand-painted or block-printed cotton textile. The word is derived from the Persian words ghalam (pen) and kari (craftmanship), meaning drawing with a pen (Ghalamkar). The fabric is printed using patterned wooden stamps.
Rose Water Extraction in Ghamsar – The industry of rosewater extraction is associated with Ghamsar city near Kashan. This annual national ceremony is held during the months of May, June and July. The liquid essence is exported to France and Bulgaria as they are the largest producers of perfume in the world.
Pistachio – Iran’s pistachio as an exclusively Iranian fruit is one of the best pistachios in the world. Even today, with the introduction of the product from some other countries, Iranian pistachio still ranks first in international market thanks to its rich taste, unique way of processing, nutritive attributes and the eye catching appearance
Saffron – Saffron has an aroma and flavor which cannot be ignored, also it has a chemical make-up which, when understood, adds not only pungent and aromatic flavor to foods, but also a beautiful golden color. Extracts from the plant can also help with digestive problems and nervous disorders.
Saffron seeds are planted in may or August, then irrigated with care, before the bright pink or violet flowers bloom for about three weeks from mid October. The stigmas are separated and left to dry in sheds, or hung from the roof in special containers, and then crushed into powder.
It takes a staggering 2000 to 3000 flowers to make about 15g of saffron powder.