Iran (Persian: ایران) is a country in southwest Asia with an area of 1,648,195 km2 (about one-fifth the size of the contiguous United States) and a population of 75 million (about one-fourth that of the United States). Farsi (Persian) is spoken by the majority of the population in Iran, though a significant portion of the population also speaks other languages/dialects such as Azeri, Kurdish, Lori, Arabic, Baluchi, Gilaki, Mazandarani, and Turkmen. The vast majority of Iranians are muslims. There are also small populations of Zoroastrians, Christians, Jewish people, and people of other faiths living in Iran. The capital of Iran is Tehran (with a population of around 10 million), and other major cities include Mashhad, Esfahan, Tabriz, Karaj, and Shiraz. Although nearly three quarters of Iranians live in urban areas, Iran also has one of the largest nomadic populations in the world (an estimated 1.5 million).
Some of the world’s earliest urban civilizations flourished in regions that are part of present-day Iran. Of these, the Elamite civilization dates back to before the emergence of written records around 3000 BC. The Elamite city of Susa (which later served as its capital) was founded around 4000 BC in the watershed of Karoun river in southwestern Iran. Through the Elamites, achievements of the Mesopotamian civilizations were introduced to the Iranian plateau. In 646 BC, the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, ended Elamite supremacy in the region, and the rise of the Achaemenids a century later formed a nucleus that later expanded into the Persian Empire.
In 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great, regarded as the father of the Iranian nation, united the two major Iranian tribes (the Medes and the Persians) to establish a government centered in Pasargadae (situated in the Fars province of modern-day Iran) that later became the largest, and arguably most prosperous, empire in ancient history, the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550–330 BC). The Achaemenid Empire reached the height of its power during the reign of Darius the Great, who built the new capital city of Persepolis that was described by Greek historians as the richest city under the sun. At its peak, the Achaemenid Empire encompassed an area the size of the contiguous United States that spanned three continents, and was home to an estimated 44% of the world’s population at the time. The rule of the Achaemenid dynasty ended in 330 BC when Alexander the Great captured and destroyed Persepolis. After the fall of the Achaemenid Empire, the Asian territories of the Persian Empire were governed by Seleucid kings until the Parhians emerged as rulers of the Persian Empire. The Parthian Empire (248 BC-224 AD) was the most enduring of the empires in ancient history, even though it was at war with the Roman Empire for almost three centuries. The end of this loosely organized empire eventually came at the hands of Persians of the Sassanid dynasty.
The Sassanid Empire (224-651 AD) ruled a territory roughly within the frontiers achieved by the Achaemenids, with Ctesiphon (in modern-day Iraq) as their capital. In many ways, the Sassanid period witnessed the highest achievements of ancient Persian civilization, and is considered to be one of the most important and influential historical periods in Iran, with a major cultural impact on the rest of the world. The collapse of the Sassanid Empire followed the Arab invasion in the seventh century, during which many Iranian cities were ruined and most Sassanid records and literary works were destroyed.
In the thirteen centuries following the Arab invasion, many dynasties have ruled over different parts of the territory comprising modern-day Iran, with different influences on Persian culture and life style. Some of the more enduring dynasties include the Samanids (819–999), the Ghaznavids (975 – 1187), the Seljuqs (11th -13th centuries), the Safavids (1501-1722), and the Qajars (1785- 1925). Among these, the Safavid dynasty was the most significant partly because it followed the Mongol and Turkic invasions in which the conquerors (Genghis Khan, Hulagu Khan, and Tamerlane) destroyed most of Iran’s important cities and undid much of the progress made in the past. In addition, the Safavid dynasty became the first native dynasty since the Sassanid Empire to establish a unified Iranian state.
Iran is bordered by the Caspian Sea (the largest inland body of water on Earth) to the north and the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the south. It consists of a high central basin (with mountains and deserts) that is bordered by rugged mountain ranges on two sides; Alborz mountains to the north and Zagros mountains to the west. About 10% of Iran’s landscape is forested, mostly located in the north. Iran’s highest point is the summit of Mount Davamand ,with an elevation of 5610m, located in the Alborz Mountain range. Its lowest point is the Caspian Sea coastline with an elevation of -28 m. The longest, most effluent, and only navigable river in Iran is the Karoun river which is 450 miles (720 km) long and empties into the Persian Gulf. Iran has been historically considered to be the gateway between Europe and Eastern Asia.
Iran is a land of enormous geographic diversity where all four seasons can be experienced in a single day. Two long and rugged mountain ranges that separate various basins from one another, combined with two very long coastlines, lead to the creation of a diverse climate in Iran. In the northern coastal plain between the Alborz Mountains and the Caspian Sea, the climate is subtropical and temperatures rarely fall below freezing. In the Zagors Mountain basin to the west, winter temperatures can drop well below freezing (as low as -200F), and heavy snow often covers the land in the winter. In the southern coastal plains of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, winters are mild and summers are very hot and humid. The eastern and central basins are arid, with less than 7 inches of annual precipitation and summer temperatures in excess of 1000F. The Loot Desert in eastern Iran has been ranked the hottest place on earth with a record high temperature of 1600F.
Culture and traditions
Noe-rooz (Persian for “the new day”) represents the arrival of the New Year in Iranian calendar (also referred to as “the Persian New Year), and is the most cherished national festival in Iran. It marks the first day of spring, and begins at the exact time of the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere in late March). Noe-rooz is rooted in a Zoroastrian custom, and has been used to celebrate the arrival of spring at least since the Achaemenid era (5th century BC). Noe-rooz (or a close variation of it) is celebrated in many countries in south, south central, and southwest Asia, including Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. In 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized the International Day of Noe-rooz, describing it as a spring festival of Persian origin which has been celebrated for over 3,000 years.
Yalda is the Persian winter solstice celebration with an ancient historical background. Yalda Night is the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and marks the beginning of winter. It is usually celebrated on December 20 or 21 each year. Yalda has its roots in Mithraism, but it has become a social occasion when family and close friends get together and have obligatory servings of fresh fruits, especially watermelon and pomegranate.
Chahar-Shanbeh-Soori (Persian for Wednesday Feast) is an ancient Iranian festival that dates back to at least 1700 BC of the early Zoroastrian era. Also called the Festival of Fire, it is a prelude to Noe-rooz, and is celebrated on the eve of the last Wednesday of the Iranian year. The celebration usually starts in the evening, with people making bonfires in the streets and jumping over fire singing “my sickly yellow paleness be yours; your fiery red color be mine”. This means they want the fire to take away their sickness and problems, and in turn give them redness and energy.
Poem: Persian literature is considered to be one of the great literatures of mankind. Some of the renowned Persian poets are listed below.
Rudaki (9th century) was a Persian poet who is widely regarded as the father of Persian poetry. Of the 100,000 couplets attributed to him, fewer than 1000 have survived. His poems are written in a simple style, characterized by optimism and charm. Rudaki was the first poet to introduce the concept of Divan, or the complete collection of a poet’s lyrical compositions.
Ferdowsi (10th century) is a highly revered Persian poet. He was the author of the Shahnameh, an epic poem of over 50,000 rhyming couplets (about three times the size of Homer’s Iliad). Ferdowsi spent over three decades (from 977 to 1010) working on the Shahnameh, going to great lengths to avoid any words drawn from the Arabic language that had increasingly infiltrated the Persian language following the Arab invasion of Persia. The Shahnameh is a literary masterpiece that is considered by many to be the most important piece of work in Persian literature. Ferdowsi’s tomb, which has become the equivalent of a national shrine, is located in the city of Tus in northeastern Iran.
Attar (12th century) was a Persian poet, theoretician of Sufism, and one of the most famous mystic poets of Iran. His works later served as inspiration for Rumi. Attar’s tomb is located in the city of Nishapur in northeastern Iran.
Rumi (13th century) was a Persian poet and Sufi mystic. His poems have been widely translated into many of the world’s languages. In 2007, he was described as the “most popular poet in America”.
Sa’di (13th century) was a Persian lyric poet. He is recognized worldwide for the quality of his writings, and for the depth of his social and moral thoughts. Saadi’s best known works are the Bustan (Persian for Garden), composed entirely in verse, and the Gulistan (Persian for Rose Garden), in both prose and verse. His works were first translated and introduced to the west in 1634. Sa’di’s tomb is in the city of Shiraz in southern, Iran.
Hafez (14th century) was a Persian lyric poet. His collected works, called Divan, have been translated in all major languages. Themes of his poems are the beloved, faith, and exposing hypocrisy. His tomb is in the city of Shiraz in southern Iran.
Hand-knotted Persian silk/wool rug: Carpet-weaving is one of the most distinguished manifestations of Persian culture and art, and dates back to ancient Persia (e.g. 2500-year-old Pazyryk carpet). In 2008, Iran’s export of hand-woven carpets amounted to $420 million, accounting for 30% of the world market
Blue tile work: The color “Persian blue” is named after the blue color of tiles used on mosques and palaces in Iran. The best known blue tile work masterpiece in Iran is the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, dating back to the Safavid dynasty (17th century).
Miniature: The ancient Persian miniature dates back to the 3rd century when Mani (a professional artist) made considerable use of images in his sacred book. Since then, illustrated books have represented a major art form in Iran. Famous Persian miniature artists include Behzad (15th century) and Abbasi (17th century). One of the most famous illustrated books is the Shahnameh commissioned by the Safavid Shah Ismail for his son Shah Tahmasp (16th centrury), which has a collection of 250 miniatures.
Iran’s economy is based mainly on the oil and gas industry. Tourism and export of agricultural products like saffron and pistachio, as well as non-petroleum products such as carpets, are also an important part of the Iranian economy.
Wrestling (both Freestyle and Greco-Roman) is regarded as Iran’s national sport. An early version of wrestling in Iran was called “Varzesh-e Bastani” (Persian for ancient sport). The athlete with the highest rank in this sport was called Pahlavan. Some of the renowned Pahlavans are Rostam, the legendary hero of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, Babak Khorramdin (8th century), Mahmoud Khwarazmi more commonly known as Pourya-ye Vali (13th century), and Gholamreza Takhti (Olympic medalist in 1952, 1956, and 1960). Iran has had several Olympic gold medalists in wrestling, and is ranked 5th in the world in the all-time medal count at the World Wrestling Championships.
Soccer is the most popular sport in Iran. Iran has been the Asian Champion three times, and has two appearances in the world cup. The most famous Iranian soccer player is Ali Daei, who is the world’s all-time leading goal scorer in international matches.
Weight lifting is a popular sport in Iran. There are several Iranian world and Olympic champions, including Mohammad Nassiri and Hossein Rezazadeh, who is the current world record holder in the super heavyweight class.
Polo originated in Iran, and dates back to the Achaemenid Empire (5th century BC). Polo was at first a training game for cavalry units, usually the king’s guard or other elite troops.
According to the 2000 U.S. census, there were 338,000 Americans tracing their heritage to Iran. Today, the estimated number of Iranian-Americans living in the U.S. is about 1.5 million,, with the majority living in the greater Los Angeles area. Large Iranian-American communities can be found in California, New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Texas. Here are a few Iranians or Iranian-Americans you might know:
Shirin Ebadi, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
Asghar Farhadi, an Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011.
Christiane Amanpour, the Global Affairs Anchor of ABC News.
Anousheh Ansari, co-founder and chairwoman of Prodea Systems, and the first female space tourist to fly to the International Space Station.