POPULATION: 64 million
LANGUAGE: Farsi (Persian)
RELIGION: Islam (Shi'ah Muslim)
Iran, known since ancient times as Persia, has had a long and turbulent history. Its location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia has resulted in many invasions and migrations. There is evidence that Iran played a role in the emergence of civilization as far back as 10,000 years ago.
In 553 BC , Cyrus the Great established the first Persian Empire, which extended to Egypt, Greece, and Russia. In 336–330 BC the Greeks, under Alexander the Great, overthrew the Persian Empire. They became the first of several groups to control the region over the following centuries.
During the seventh through the ninth centuries AD , the region was conquered by Muslims from Arabia whose goal was the spread of the Muslim religion. The Arab rulers were followed by various Turkish Muslim rulers and, in the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries, Mongol leader Genghis Khan (c.1162–1227). Between that time and the twentieth century, Persia was ruled by a succession of dynasties, some controlled by local groups and some by foreigners.
In 1921, Reza Khan, an Iranian army officer, established the Pahlavi dynasty. He became the emperor, or shah, with the name Reza Shah Pahlavi (1878–1944). In 1935, the Shah changed the country's name to Iran. This name was based on Ariana, which means "country of the Aryan people." Following World War II (1939–45), Shah Pahlavi, who had sided with Germany, was forced from power by the Allies. His son, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, assumed rulership of the country. Under the Pahlavis, Western cultural influences grew, and Persia's oil industry was developed.
In 1978, Islamic and communist opposition to the Shah grew into what became known as the Islamic Revolution. It was organized by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900–89), a prominent religious leader who had returned from exile in Paris. On February 11, 1979, Khomeini and his supporters succeeded in replacing the secular government of the Shah with an Islamic republic. Religious standards became the guiding principles for the government and society, and religious leaders known as mullahs led Iran. Thousands of dissidents were assassinated or arrested during Khomeini's ten-year reign.
From 1980 until 1988, Iran fought a severe and costly war with its neighbor, Iraq. More than 500,000 Iraqis and Iranians died, and neither side was really able to claim victory. The war ended in the summer of 1988, with Iran and Iraq signing a cease-fire agreement arranged by the United Nations.
In June 1989, spiritual leader and head of state Ayatollah Khomeini died. Some two million Iranians attended Khomeini's funeral in Tehran. Ali Khamenei replaced him as spiritual leader, and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani became president.
Iran is located in southwest Asia. With an area of 635,932 square miles (1,647,063 square kilometers), Iran is slightly larger than the state of Alaska. A vast, dry plateau in the center of the country is encircled by a ring of snow-topped mountain ranges that cover about half of Iran's area. To the north and south are coastal lowlands. The Khorasan Mountains in the east have productive farmland and grasslands.
Iran has a total population of about 64 million people. Only Persians, the largest ethnic group, live in the developed farm areas and in the large cities of the northern and western plateau.
Iran's official language is Farsi, which is also known as Persian. Farsi is also spoken in parts of Turkey and Afghanistan. Many Iranians understand Arabic, the language of the Koran (the sacred text of Islam). The Azerbaijanis speak a Turkish dialect known as Azeri.
Many Muslims believe in jinns, spirits who can change shape and be either visible or invisible. Muslims sometimes wear amulets (charms) around their necks to protect themselves from jinns. Stories of jinns are often told at night, like ghost stories around a campfire.
The overwhelming majority of Iranians (about 98 percent) are Shi'ah Muslim. Shi'ah, one of the two schools of Islam, is the state religion.
The Islamic religion has five "pillars," or practices, that must be observed by all Muslims: (1) praying five times a day; (2) giving alms, or zakat, to the poor; (3) fasting during the month of Ramadan; (4) making the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca; and (5) reciting the shahada (ashhadu an la illah ila Allah wa ashhadu in Muhammadu rasul Allah ), which means "I witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah."
The major secular holiday is Nawruz, the ancient Persian New Year. It takes place on March 21, which is also the first day of spring. In the cities, a gong is sounded or a cannon is fired to signal the beginning of the new year. Children are given money and gifts, and dancers perform at festivals. Other national holidays include Oil Nationalization Day (March 20), Islamic Republic Day (April 1), and Revolution Day (June 5).
One major Muslim holiday, Eid al-Fitr, comes at the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. Another major Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, commemorates the willingness of the Prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son at God's command.
The Islamic month of Muharram is a month of mourning for the grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad. Some Iranians march in street processions in which they beat themselves. Those who can afford to do so give money, food, and goods to the poor. No weddings or parties can be held during the month of Muharram.
Marriage is the most important stage in a person's life, marking the official transition to adulthood. There are two ceremonies in the marital tradition: the arusi (the engagement ceremony) and the agd (the actual wedding ceremony).
Birthdays are particularly joyous occasions. Children have parties at which they eat and play traditional games. Elaborate gifts are usually given.
Loved ones gather at the home of a recently deceased person to sit and quietly pray or reflect. Mourning lasts for forty days, and special dark clothing is worn to show grief for the deceased.
Most people in Iran employ an elaborate system of courtesy, known in Farsi as taarof. Polite and complimentary phrases are used to create an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. For example, two people will insist that the other should proceed first through a door. There can be a long struggle before one person finally gives in.
Iranians, like many people of the Middle East, are very hospitable. A host will always offer a guest food or other refreshment, even on a brief visit. Hungry or not, a guest will most often take the offering in order to please the host.
Iranians are very demonstrative with their facial and hand gestures. The American "thumbs up" gesture, indicating something well done, is considered an aggressive gesture that can create ill feeling. When an Iranian finds he or she has had their back to someone, which is considered offensive body language, he or she will apologize. The other person will usually reply, "A flower has neither back nor front."
An Iranian is expected to rise to her or his feet when any person of equal or greater age or status enters the room.
Wooden houses are common along the Caspian coast. Square houses made of mud brick are found on the slopes in the mountain villages. Nomadic tribes in the Zagros Mountains live in round, black tents made of goat hair. The people of Baluchistan, in the southeast, are farmers who live in huts.
Larger cities have many high-rise apartments. Some have modern supermarket complexes that are several stories high.
Although Iran exports oil, fuel for use in homes is not always available. Appliances used for cooking include grill-like charcoal heaters, and coal stoves.
The average size of the nuclear family has been decreasing. Currently the average size is about six children per family. The father is the head of the Iranian household. However, there is an unspoken recognition of the mother's role and importance. Within the family there is a general respect for males, and for those older than oneself. The young show respect toward older siblings.
Aging parents are taken care of by their children until death. The elderly are honored for their wisdom, and for their place at the head of the family.
On Fridays, the Muslim day of rest and prayer, it is typical for families to go on outings, usually to a park. There they watch children play, talk about current events, and eat prepared food. Schools and government offices close early on Thursdays to honor this tradition.
Western clothing for both men and women was popular until the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Since then, women have been forced to cover their hair and wear the Iranian chador, a long cloak, when in public. Iranian women wear very colorful chadors in some of the rural provinces.
Most men wear slacks, shirts, and jackets. Some men, especially religious leaders, wear floor-length, jacketlike garments, and cover their heads with turbans. Mountain-dwellers continue to wear their traditional clothing. For ethnic Kurdish men in Iran, this consists of a long-sleeved cotton shirt over baggy, tapered pants.
Adapted from Copeland Marks, Sephardic Cooking, New York: Donald I. Fine, 1982, p. 161.
Iranian food has been influenced by Turkey, Greece, India, and Arab countries. These influences can be seen in such dishes as shish kabob, stuffed grape leaves, spicy curry stews, and dishes made of lamb, dates, and figs.
Bread and rice are a must at an Iranian table. Breads come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Iranians make a popular skewered kabob known as chelo kebab . Boneless cubes of lamb are marinated in spicy yogurt and arranged with vegetables on metal skewers. These are then grilled over hot coals and served on a bed of rice.
One of Iran's most popular dishes is sweet orange-peel rice, shereen polo , also known as "wedding rice." The color and taste of the rice make it an appropriate dish to serve to wedding guests. The cook prepares a sauce made of orange peel, shelled almonds and pistachios. The sauce is cooked for about five minutes and then added to partially cooked (steamed) rice. The rice is then cooked for another thirty minutes. A recipe for a version of this dish can be found on the previous page.
Yogurt is a main part of the Iranian diet. Tea, the national beverage, is made in metal urns called samovars . It is served in glasses. When Iranians drink tea, they place a cube of sugar on the tongue and sip the tea through the sugar. Pork and alcoholic beverages are forbidden in Islam.
Today, most Iranians complete elementary school. At this level, education is free, with pupils also receiving free textbooks. Students take a major examination to determine if they qualify to attend secondary school. (Secondary education is also free, except for small fees.) Secondary schools are academically demanding. Students take a major examination at the end of each school year. Failing one of the subjects could mean repeating the whole year. Universities are free.
Iran is known for its magnificent mosques and other architecture, commissioned by rulers throughout history.
One of the most fascinating items of Iranian artwork is the "Peacock Throne," on which all of Iran's kings starting from the eighteenth century sat. The throne bears more than 20,000 precious gems.
The most famous of Iranian poets was Firdawsi ( AD 940–1020), who wrote Iran's national epic, the Shahnameh (Book of Kings). Another internationally known Iranian poet was Omar Khayyam (eleventh century AD ). He became famous when Edward Fitzgerald, a British writer, translated 101 of his poems in the book The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam .
Industry employs about one-third of Iran's work force. Occupations include mining, steel and cement production, and food processing. About 40 percent of the work force is employed in agriculture. This category includes farming, raising livestock, forestry, and fishing.
The typical urban workday in Iran is eight hours long, often starting at 7:00 AM . Workers commonly take a two-hour lunch break.
Iran's most popular sports are wrestling, weight lifting and horse racing. The Zur Khaneh, or House of Strength, is a physical training and wrestling center where young men undergo vigorous training with heavy clubs and perform in wrestling matches for spectators. Tennis and squash are popular, especially among urban Iranians. Camel and horse racing are popular in rural areas.
In rural areas, people are entertained by traveling groups of actors who recite poetry and perform plays. Generally, the plays tell stories about Iran's history. They dramatize important episodes and highlight the lives of famous Iranians.
In urban areas, men enjoy spending their leisure time in teahouses, socializing and smoking the hookah, or water pipe. Women enjoy entertaining family and friends in the home. They often spend time engaged in crafts.
Iranians enjoy the game of chess, and many argue that chess was invented in their country. Many Iranians attend the mosque every Friday, both for prayer and to socialize with friends.
Persian carpets are sold in all parts of the world. Iran's handwoven carpets and rugs are made of either silk or wool, and use special knots dating from the Middle Ages. They come with many designs and patterns that vary from region to region. Geometric shapes are the most common.
The cities of Shiraz and Tabriz, known for their rugs, are also famous for their metalwork. Metals such as silver and copper are crafted into ornamental plates, cups, vases, trays, and jewelry. Picture frames and jewelry boxes are embellished with a form of art known as khatam . This involves the use of ivory, bone, and pieces of wood to create geometric patterns.
Calligraphy (decorative lettering) is also a fine art in Iran, as it is in much of the Islamic world. Verses from the Koran (sacred text of Islam) are skillfully handwritten and painted in beautifully flowing lettering.
Some of the problems facing Iran include rapid population growth, unemployment, housing shortages, an inadequate educational system, and government corruption. On August 19, 1994, thousands of people in the city of Tabriz rioted, in addition to riots elsewhere.
A woman still does not have the right to divorce her husband unless there is proof that he has done something wrong. However, in the event of divorce, women have the right to be repaid for the years they were married. The role of women in the work-place has improved since the time of the Shah.
Unemployment is a severe problem, swelling the numbers of urban and rural poor.
Human rights abuses suffered by the press and by intellectuals in Iran are a source of concern for human-rights activists both within the country and abroad.
Fox, Mary Virginia. Iran. Chicago, Ill.: Children's Press, 1991.
Iran: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1989.
Mackey, Sandra. The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Marks, Copeland. Sephardic Cooking. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1982.
Nardo, Don. The Persian Empire. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books, 1998.
Rajendra, Vijeya, and Gisela Kaplan. Cultures of the World: Iran. New York: Times Books, 1993.
Spencer, William. Iran: Land of the Peacock Throne. New York: Benchmark Books, 1997.