About Iran

Iran history

The preceding summary refl ects the way pre-Islamic Iranian history has been understood by modern and non-Iranian historians. In Iran itself after the Sasanid period, historical memory of the Achaemenids was almost totally lost, that of the Parthians largely forgotten, and only that of the Sasanids preserved in recognizable form until fairly recently. Instead, most Iranians would have been familiar with what has been called the “Iranian national…[Read More]

Iran Geography

Flanking the desert basin are two equally imposing mountain chains, the Alborz and the Zagros. The Alborz chain forms a relatively compact crescent across the north of the country approximately 300 miles in length and an average of 60 miles in width. It is dominated by the majestic snow-covered volcanic peak of Mount Damâvand, the tallest mountain in Iran at an elevation of 18,628 feet. On the north side, the Alborz Mountains fall away precipitously from elevations of around 10,000 feet to the littoral of the Caspian Sea (about 25 feet below sea level). Because of this steep drop-off and the lack of many practicable passes, the Alborz Mountains make up a virtual wall that effectively blocks off the Caspian area from the rest of the country. The more complex Zagros chain consists of a broad band of parallel ranges, about 125 miles in width, running from the northwest to the southeast of the country. The mountains of the Zagros are not quite as lofty as those of the Alborz but are still quite impressive: the highest peak, Zardeh Kuh, rises to 14,920 feet. The Zagros also has more practicable passes, but the layout and direction of the individual ranges present considerable diffi culties for crossing the mountains from east to west. In the south, the Zagros also descend fairly abruptly from about 2,000 feet to sea level at the Persian Gulf. This combination of mountains and a central plateau gives Iran a very high mean elevation. Most land is above 2,000 feet, and on the central plateau, where the most important cities are located, the average elevation is 4,000 feet. In addition to the loftiness and ruggedness of the terrain, another important characteristic of the geography of Iran is its aridity. The average precipitation for the country as a whole is only 10 inches per year—not very much considering that a desert can be defi ned as a region receiving less than 6 inches of rain per year. Moreover, this precipitation is either seasonal, falling as snow in winter, or concentrated in a few specifi c areas, notably the Caspian-facing slopes of the Alborz and parts of the Zagros. Areas along the Caspian may receive 40 inches or more per year, and certain other mountain regions perhaps half that amount. Barely half of the country receives enough annual precipitation to exceed the marginal amount typical of a desert, and only 10 percent of the country can be considered arable. [Read More]

Literature

A discussion of the role of literature in Iranian culture should begin with Several caveats. First of all, the discussion in this chapter is limited to Persian Literature. There are, of course, other languages in Iran that have a literary tradition, but it is not possible to try to deal with them here. This is not to demean or neglect their importance in any way, but it can perhaps be justified not only by necessity but on the grounds that Persian literature, unlike those other literatures, is the common heritage of all Iranians: Not many Persian speakers would be at all familiar with, say, Azeri Turkish literature, but it is a safe bet that an educated Azeri would be very knowledgeable about Persian literature and take as much pride in it as his Persian compatriot. At the same time, it has to be remembered that Persian literature is international in character and not confi ned to the nation-state of Iran. The great mystic poet Jalâl-od-Din Rumi (1207–73) was born in Balkh (nowpart of Afghanistan) and spent most of his life in Konya (in modern Turkey and then ruled by Saljuq Turks).Most of his poetry was written in Persian, and the greatest of hisworks, the long didactic poem is known as the Masnavi-e Ma‘navi (“Profound Couplets. Certainly, no comprehensive survey of Persian literature could ignore such an author, any more than one of English language literature could exclude Robert Burns or Ernest Hemingway. As a practical matter, however, such an approach would vastly expand the scope of this chapter, which will have to concentrate on authors with closer connections to Iran proper. Another great poet of English literature is Khwāja Shamsu d-Dīn Muhammad Hafez-e Shiraz, who is known by his pen name, Hafez, was a Persian poet. His collected works composed of series of Persian literature are to be found in the homes of most people in Iran who learn his poems by heart and use them as proverbs and sayings to this day. His life and poems have been the subject of much analysis, commentaries and interpretations, influencing post-fourteenth century Persian writing more than any other author. Themes of his sonnets are the beloved, faith, and exposing hypocrisy. His influence in the lives of Iranians can be found in “Hafez readings” (fāl-e hāfez, ‎), frequent use of his poems in Persian traditional music, visual art and Persian calligraphy. His tomb is often visited at any time of a year. Adaptations, imitations and translations of Hafez’ poems exist in all major languages. Finally, it should be kept in mind that mass literacy in Iran is a very recent Phenomenon. For most of its history, literature was produced by and for a small elite, and this has affected its character in many ways. Yet some of this literature definitely had a mass impact, especially poetry, which was particularly susceptible to being memorized and recited at public and private gatherings. At the same time, the country has produced a vast amount of folk literature, perhaps the best guide to key features of authentic Iranian culture. In more recent years, increased literacy rates and contact with non-Iranian literatures have dramatically altered both the genres and the nature of Persian literature.  [Read More]

Carpets

If there is one thing Iran is known for around the world, it is undoubtedly its carpets. Persian carpets (many of which are actually made by non-Persian peoples in Iran) represent one of the most distinguished and distinctive manifestations of Iranian culture and art. Hand-woven Persian carpets are among the most treasured possessions of homes, offi ces, palaces, and museums throughout the world. Because of their high market value, these carpets have also been treated as an investments—ones that can actually be enhanced by time and use. To indicate the increasing value of an object with time, Iranians often use the expression, “It is like a Persian carpet: the more it is walked on, the more it gains value.” Many motifs, patterns, and traditional colorations found in rugs that are produced in many countries today have either originated in or been infl uenced by motifs and patterns used in Persian carpets. In general, Persian carpet designs have been inspired by nature, history, religion, and myths. They may use fl owers, trees, natural scenery, historical and mythological characters, Persian poetry and calligraphy, and religious symbols and stories. For Iranians, a carpet with images of Persian kings, legendary or historical, as well as representations of verses from Shâh-nâmeh or other books represents an object of identity demonstrating their glorious past. Carpets are not just an item for export or a piece of art, but an intrinsic part of the culture. Carpets are used as fl oor coverings, prayer mats, and decorations for homes, offi ces, palaces, and shrines. They have become an indispensable part of the living environment for Iranians. [Read More]

CUISINE AND CULTURE

 

Cuisine, in terms of both the preparation of food and the social aspects of dining, is an essential part of any culture; indeed, some fundamental aspects of a culture may be more readily apparent in its culinary arts than in other traditions. Certainly, many observations that might be made about food in Iran reinforce those that can be deduced from other facets of its culture. There is a mainstream culinary tradition primarily associated with the urban, Persian-speaking population that can be taken (as it will be in this chapter) as essentially the common national cuisine, but the country also has a very rich array of local, regional, and ethnic dishes. Persian cooking has many features in common with Indian, central Asian, Turkish, and Middle Eastern cuisines, yet it has its own particular characteristics and is unmistakably different from any of its counterparts. For instance, while many ingredients of Iranian and Indian food are similar, Indian food is spicier and uses pepper very generously. Likewise, many of the ingredients used in Persian cooking would be familiar to Americans, but Americans would be surprised at the unique ways the ingredients are used and the fl avors they produce. A good Persian cook has an almost miraculous ability to turn simple ingredients into dishes of great subtlety and beauty. This Persian style of cooking is sophisticated and refi ned enough to hold its own with any of the world’s other great cuisines, but it is relatively little known and appreciated outside the region. However, that is changing as the recent emigration of Iranians and their settlement in other countries, especially Europe and the United States, has resulted in the appearance of Persian restaurants in major 150 Culture and Customs of Iran cities like Paris, London, New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Food and dining has a public face in Iran, but its fullest development and greatest glories are to be found in the private setting of the home, among relatives and friends. Especially in social gatherings, the variety and abundance of foods, as well as the conviviality and generosity of the host, are remarkable. Sharing food is an important mechanism of socialization and social bonding. A traditional proverb states that a way to win someone’s favor is to share your food with them: namakgir kardan , which means “having someone to have a taste of the salt in your food” (i.e., to become bound by hospitality). Food is not an end itself but a means of family solidarity and social exchange, especially in the traditional world of the past when families were extended and eating was a communal affair within the extended family. The culinary tradition in Iran has certainly been affected by the infl uence of modernity and Western customs, be it in the way of New World ingredients like tomatoes or potatoes, eating habits, or the appearance of fast-food shops. Indeed, the fastest growing restaurant type in Iran today would probably be pizza shops with delivery service. Yet on the whole, Iranian dining has proved remarkably resilient in preserving its essential character and distinct identity. Even pizza produced in Iran is not exactly the same as that found in the United States or Europe. Both the sauce and cheese used are closer to Persian fl avors than American or Italian ones. In general, culinary practices in Iran have been affected by several important cultural factors. The most obvious, of course, are the requirements of Islamic dietary law since the vast majority of the population are Muslims: meat should come from animals that have been ritually slaughtered; pork and certain other foods are forbidden; and wine or other alcoholic beverages, though certainly used by some people at various times, are illegal under Islamic law and have been strictly prohibited since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Prior to the 1979 revolution, alcoholic drinks and pork meat in the form of ham and hot dogs were available in modernized sectors of major cities, even though these foods were avoided by the majority of people. Secularized Iranians, especially educated ones, are not much concerned about religious dietary restrictions. There is also a kind of basic philosophy to Iranian cooking that has its sources in ancient Zoroastrian tradition and concepts perhaps derived ultimately from Galenic medical theory. Foods are regarded as being either “hot” ( garmi ) or “cold” ( sardi ) in their nature and in the effects they have on the consumer, inducing either excitement or lethargy, for example. For instance, while yogurt is regard as a cold item, red meat is classifi ed as hot. Individual dishes and meals as a whole seek to balance these two qualities; spices are used Food and Dining 151 in moderation, and ingredients often emphasize contrasting fl avors like sweet and sour. Of course, the younger generation, educated in modern sciences, tends to be neither familiar with these traditional concepts nor to fi nd them particularly relevant when it comes to modern food items like pizza. BASIC FOODS Wheat and rice are the two main cereal crops grown for human consumption in Iran, and one or both of these provide the staples found at virtually every Iranian meal. In earlier times, the national diet tended to be divided between areas where wheat or rice was produced and eaten exclusively, but today both products are grown and used throughout the country. Grain crops such as wheat or barley are well suited for cultivation in the arable areas of the Iranian plateau and have been grown there since ancient times. Some, such as barley, are used mostly to feed livestock, but wheat is of course produced to make the variety of breads that form an important part of the daily diet. In towns and cities, it is customary to buy bread freshly made from one of the many neighborhood artisanal bakeries. That is why bakeries cook their bread three times a day: in the early morning, at noon, and in the evening. Scenes of crowded bakeries during these times are very common, not only in Iran, but all over the Middle East. Since most people come to purchase bread at the same time, bakeries have long lines at rush hours, and families prefer to send a male member, especially a teenager, to buy bread. Although mass-produced breads like those now found in Europe or the United States are not appealing to Iranian tastes, the fast pace and stretched nature of social life in big cities like Tehran are forcing some families to adjust to products of a number of Westernized bakeries. Bread in general is known as nân, but there are several distinct varieties of bread produced at the bakeries. Two of the most common are tâftun and lavâsh; they are both baked in very thin, fl at sheets pressed against the wall of the oven and differ primarily in the type of wheat (whole wheat or white) used to make them. Lavâsh bread offered in bakeries is usually soft. In rural areas, many families bake their own bread on a weekly basis and produce a hard lavâsh, which is softened at the time of use by sprinkling a little water on it. Another popular fl at bread is sangak, which gets its name from the process of baking it on a bed of heated pebbles instead of the wall of the oven, which gives the bread a very crisp and irregularly surfaced texture. Finally, barbari is a special type of leavened bread that seems to have been introduced to Iran fairly recently and under the infl uence of European-style bread. It comes in a long, relatively narrow loaf about half an inch thick and 2- to 3-feet long and 8- to 12-inches wide. It is often slightly perforated before baking to give 152 Culture and Customs of Iran it added crispness and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It needs to be eaten soon after baking as it does not keep well and is often used as a breakfast bread. Each of these breads has its own typical shape: tâftun is round, sangak is oval in shape, barbari and lavâsh are rectangular. Religiously speaking, bread is treated with respect, and Muslims are taught to avoid dropping bread under the feet or dumping it in a disrespectful place. Unused bread is often used as a feed for birds. The types and quantity of bread found at Iranian meals can to some extent be understood as an artifact of traditional dining habits. In earlier times, the custom was to eat sitting on the fl oor. A large cloth, called sofreh, would be spread out, and the bowls and platters containing the various dishes put on it. In the older times, there really weren’t any individual plates or cutlery. Instead, the sheets of thin, fl at bread served both as plates and eating utensils for holding or scooping up morsels of food. (The art and etiquette of dining in this fashion is frequently described in books by early Western travelers to Iran.) More recently, under the infl uence of European habits, the use of chairs, tables, forks, spoons, and so forth has become more common, especially in urban areas. In rural areas, villages, and among the lower social classes, it is still not unusual to fi nd the traditional practices in use. It might be thought surprising that rice would be a major crop in a country as arid as Iran, but certain areas, especially the relatively warm and humid shores of the Caspian, can support rice production. It is not known exactly when or how rice came to Iran, but it was almost certainly fi rst grown in the Caspian region, and then its production and use spread to other parts of the country. In the plateau areas, rice was a fairly expensive food used mostly for luxury dishes at court and among the wealthy as late as the Safavid period. As production and transportation improved, it became an important element of the ordinary diet throughout the country, so much so in fact that the demand for rice has far outstripped the production capacity and necessitated its import. Long-grain rice is now used in a great variety of ways, from main dishes to breads and puddings and even as a breakfast food in some regions. Well-to-do families like to use an aromatic variety known as bâsmati rice, which is more expensive. The simplest type of rice dish is known as kateh. The rice is washed and cooked until the water (slightly less than twice the volume of the rice) is absorbed. A good deal of butter is then added on top of the rice, which is covered and kept over low heat until done. The result is a fairly sticky kind of rice cake, which can be further compressed and molded if desired. Kateh is used mostly for a quick or a casual meal at home; it would never be served to a guest, because it lacks delicacy. Food and Dining 153 When cooked mixed with other ingredients such as meat or vegetables as a main dish, the rice is called a polow. Such polow s include those made with lentils ( adas-polow ), fava beans ( bâqela-polow ), sour cherries ( âlbâlu-polow ), barberries ( zereshk-polow ), or orange peel ( shirin-polow ), as well as many others. Rice cooked as an accompaniment to another dish such as a stew or grilled meat is called chelow. The preparation of a chelow, however, is not a casual matter and actually requires a good deal of time and effort. The rice has to be washed and sometimes soaked overnight and then partially cooked in boiling water. It is then drained and rinsed before being returned to a pot with clarifi ed butter and water to be steamed. The rice is heaped in a cone-shaped mound in the pot, which is covered with a special fabric top to prevent the steam from condensing and dripping back down on the rice, and kept warm until time for serving. This process gives the rice a wonderful taste and fl uffy texture that is not at all sticky. It also creates a crunchy, buttery layer of rice at the bottom of the pot (called tahdig ) that can be served alongside, or broken up over, the rice and is regarded as a choice delicacy. Before serving, some rice is colored and fl avored with saffron and sprinkled on the top of the dish. This gives a beautiful look to the dish and adds a delicious taste to the rice. A chelow served with grilled meat is known as chelow-kabâb. This is virtually the national dish of Iran and is a mainstay of restaurants all over the country. The meat may be a special type of lamb fi llet ( barg ) or ground meat ( kubideh ). It is usually served with grilled tomatoes; butter, an egg yolk, red onion, and sumac can be mixed into the chelow according to one’s taste. A stack of fl at bread and a plate of fresh herbs ( sabzi ) round out this tasty, nutritious—and very fi lling—meal. Fresh herbs are used regularly and may serve the same function as a salad. Chelow served with a stew is known as a chelow-khoresh. Almost all the stews, like the grilled meats, are based on either lamb or poultry (beef is not a common ingredient in Iranian cooking; fi sh may be used in some regions). The most highly regarded khoresh is undoubtedly fesenjân, chicken or duck cooked in a sauce of pomegranate and ground walnuts. A good fesenjân is considered the hallmark of an accomplished Iranian cook. It is but one, however, of a great variety of stews that showcase the many ingredients and considerable ingenuity in Iranian cooking: different stews feature vegetables ( qormeh sabzi ), green beans ( lubiâ ), okra ( bâmyeh ), peaches ( hulu ), quince ( beh ), eggplant ( bâdemjân ), spinach and prunes ( esfenâj o âlu ), split peas ( qaymeh ), or other ingredients. A full Iranian dinner, especially on a social occasion, might include not only chelow, a number of different stews, and a copious amount of bread, but also an assortment of appetizers, soups, salads, side dishes, and desserts. 154 Culture and Customs of Iran Only a sampling of these can be mentioned here. Typical appetizers include mast o khiâr (a mixture of yogurt and grated cucumber), mâst o mosir (a mixture of yogurt and minced shallot), and varieties of pickles ( torshi ), mostly prepared with vinegar and unlike the salty ones found in the West. A popular side dish might be kuku, a thick, spongy kind of souffl é (there are numerous varieties made with ingredients such as spinach, eggplant, peas, potatoes, herbs, or meat). Special cookies, puddings, candies, or cakes might be offered for dessert, but the fi nest desserts may well be the fresh fruits for which Iran is famous, especially the indescribably sweet and succulent Persian melon. Snack foods constitute another rather important element of Iranian cuisine. These are typically called âjil (a mix of nuts and dried fruits). Iranians love to snack, so they munch on âjil not only before and after meals but also throughout the day, such as when out for a stroll. Ingredients of âjil may vary according to occasions, like âjil-e Chahârshanbeh suri , used during the celebration of the last Wednesday of the calendar year; âjil-e shab-e yaldâ , consumed on the longest night of the year; and âjil-e moshkel-goshâ , literally meaning “problem-solving mixed nuts and dry fruits” consumed during the New Year holidays in the hope of unraveling one’s problems. Some of the more popular elements of âjil include pistachios, abundantly produced in Iran and known as one of the most important Iranian exports; roasted chickpeas ( nokhod ); and roasted seeds of pumpkins, melons, or sunfl owers. Breaking the shell and retrieving the kernel of the seeds by teeth is an art Iranians demonstrate during their pastimes. Soups ( âsh ) are a fundamental part of Iranian cuisine (in fact, the generic term for cooking, âshpazi, literally means “soup making”). Like stews, soups come in a number of varieties, each named for its main ingredient (beans, barley, yogurt, etc.). One of the most common soups is âsh-reshteh, made of vegetables, kidney beans, and thinly made fl at noodles. Another widely used soup, which might also be regarded as a kind of stew, is âb-gusht (“meat broth”). Like many Iranian dishes, it is not prepared according to a fi xed recipe so much as designed to take advantage of ingredients that are in season and readily available and to use them as economically as possible. The meat broth is prepared and then cooked with beans (typically garbanzo beans) and various other vegetables, herbs, or fruits. After preparation, the solid ingredients are typically strained out and mashed to a puree; the broth and puree are served separately along with fl at bread. Âb-gusht may also be prepared and served in an individual pot, in which case it is customary to toss in some pieces of bread and mash it all to a pulp with a pestle. For poor and working class Iranians, âb-gusht is a mainstay of the daily diet. It is also a popular dish with more affl uent classes on outings or picnics; for example, shops Food and Dining 155 specializing in the dish can be found along hiking trails in the mountains north of Tehran. As for beverages, tea can be regarded as the national drink of Iran. It is served hot and plain, usually in small, clear glasses. The traditional custom is to sip the tea through a hard lump of sugar ( qand , or sugar cube) held in the front teeth. Many people now use samovars to keep a pot of brewed tea and hot water to mix with it before serving. Other traditional drinks are made from fruit juices, either freshly squeezed ( afshoreh ) or from prepared syrups ( sharbat ), and served with ice; dugh is a drink made from yogurt, mint, and either still or sparkling water. Dugh is often served with food. In recent years, of course, bottled sodas and similar drinks have also become common. [Read More]

Iran Drama and Cinema

Drama and cinema in contemporary Iran can be said to have some roots in [Read More]

IRANIAN CALENDARS

Before attempting to review the major holidays and festivals celebrated in Iran, it is necessary to explain some features of the various systems of dating in use there. The Gregorian calendar familiar to Westerners and now used in many countries around the world is known in Iran, but it has no offi – cial standing (in fact, at times its use has even been outlawed). Dates from that calendar may be given on newspapers or various documents, especially those involving non-Iranians, but this is purely for ease of reference. Instead, Iranians use two other calendar systems for offi cial purposes: the Islamic lunar calendar ( qamari ) and the Iranian solar calendar ( shamsi ). [Read More]