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Iran is the18th largest country in the world, at 1,648,195 km² its area roughly equals that of the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Germany combined, or slightly less than the state of Alaska. It is a country of special geostrategic significance due to its central location in Eurasia.
The country is bordered on the north by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. These borders extend for more than 2,000 kilometers, including nearly 650 kilometers of water along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. Iran's western borders are with Turkey in the north and Iraq in the south, terminating at the Shatt al Arab (which Iranians call Arvand Rood). The Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman littorals form the entire 1,770-kilometer southern border. To the east lie Afghanistan on the north and Pakistan on the south. Iran's diagonal distance from Azerbaijan in the northwest to Baluchestan and Sistan in the southeast is approximately 2,333 kilometers.
It is one of the world's most mountainous countries. Its mountains have helped to shape both the political and the economic history of the country for several centuries. The mountains enclose several broad basins, or plateaus, on which major agricultural and urban settlements are located. Until the twentieth century, when major highways and railroads were constructed through the mountains to connect the population centers, these basins tended to be relatively isolated from one another. Typically, one major town dominated each basin, and there were complex economic relationships between the town and the hundreds of villages surrounding it. In the higher elevations of the mountains rimming the basins, tribally organized groups followed a nomadic pastoralist lifestyle, moving with their herds of sheep and goats between traditionally established summer and winter pastures. There are no major river systems in the country, and historically transportation was by means of caravans that followed routes traversing gaps and passes in the mountains. The mountains also impeded easy access to the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.
The Zagros Mountains form the main mountain range, a series of parallel ridges interspersed with plains that bisect the country from northwest to southeast. Many peaks in the Zagros exceed 3,000 meters above sea level, and in the south-central region of the country there are at least five peaks that are over 4,000 meters. As the Zagros stretch into southeastern Iran, the average elevation of the peaks decline dramatically; culminating to elevations of about 1,500 meters. Rimming the Caspian Sea littoral is another chain of mountains, the narrow but high Alborz Mountains. Volcanic Mount Damavand (5,671 meters), located in the center of the Alborz, is not only the country's highest peak but also the highest mountain on the Eurasian landmass west of the Hindu Kush.
The central region consists of several closed basins that collectively are referred to as the Central Plateau. The average elevation of this plateau is about 900 meters, but several of the mountains that tower over the plateau exceed 3,000 meters. The eastern part of the plateau is covered by two salt deserts, the Dasht-e Kavir (Great Salt Desert) and the Dasht-e Lut. Except for some scattered oases, these deserts are uninhabited.
Iran has only two expanses of lowlands: the Khuzestan Plain in the southwest and the Caspian Sea coastal plain in the north. The former is a roughly triangular-shaped extension of the Mesopotamia plain and averages about 160 kilometers in width. It extends for about 120 kilometers inland, barely rising a few meters above sea level, then meets abruptly with the first foothills of the Zagros. Much of the Khuzestan plain is covered with marshes. The Caspian plain is both longer and narrower. It extends for some 640 kilometers along the Caspian shore, but its widest point is less than 50 kilometers, while at some places less than 2 kilometers separate the shore from the Alborz foothills. The Persian Gulf coast south of Khuzestan and the Gulf of Oman coast have no real plains because the Zagros in these areas come right down to the shore.
There are no major rivers in the country. Of the small rivers and streams, the only one that is navigable is the Karun, which shallow-draft boats can negotiate from Khorramshahr to Ahvaz, a distance of about 180 kilometers. Several other permanent rivers and streams also drain into the Persian Gulf, while a number of small rivers that originate in the northwestern Zagros or Alborz drain into the Caspian Sea. On the Central Plateau, numerous rivers, most of which have dry beds for the greater part of the year, form from snow melting in the mountains during the spring and flow through permanent channels, draining eventually into salt lakes that also tend to dry up during the summer months. There is a permanent salt lake situated in the northwest called Lake Urumiyeh, whose brine content is too high to support fish or most other forms of aquatic life. There are also several connected salt lakes along the Iran-Afghanistan border in the province of Baluchestan and Sistan.
The two mountain ranges mentioned above provide for a variety of climates. Most of the country however is arid or semi-arid with limited rainfall.
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Despite the general dry trend for a sizable part of the country, for the rest the climate is surprisingly varied. In the northwest, winters are cold with heavy snowfall and subfreezing 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). On the Khuzestan plain, summer heat is accompanied by high humidity.
Most of the annual precipitation falls from October through April. In most of the country, yearly precipitation averages 25 centimeters or less. The major exceptions are the higher mountain valleys of the Zagros and the Caspian coastal plain, where precipitation averages at least 50 centimeters annually. In the western part of the Caspian, rainfall exceeds 100 centimeters annually and is distributed relatively evenly throughout the year. This contrasts with some basins of the Central Plateau that receive ten centimeters or less of precipitation annually.
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Iran possesses an extremely diverse fauna and flora, partly because of its great range of habitats - from permanent snows to deep deserts and from lush deciduous forests in the north to palm groves and mangroves in the south - and partly because of its position at a crossroads between three major faunal regions. The greater part of the country is situated in the Palearctic Region, with typically Western Palearctic species predominating throughout the northwest, west and central parts of the country and some typically Eastern Palearctic species extending into northeastern Iran in the highlands of Khorasan. In southern Iran, two other faunal regions have a pronounced influence: the Indo-malayan Region in the southeast, and the Afro-tropical Region in the extreme southwest. About 125 species of mammals (Harrington, 1977; Eetemad, 1986) and 500 species of birds (Scott et al., 1975; Mansoori, 1995) have been recorded, while at least 270 species of fish (including 33 endemic species) are known from the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea. A recent check-list records over 1,000 species of fish as being known to occur or potentially occurring in Iranian fresh and salt waters.
Botanically, Iran forms a bridge between four major phyto-geological regions: the Irano-Turanian, Saharo-Arabian, Euro-Siberian and Sudanian (Zohary, 1973). It is also one of the largest speciation centers of the Holarctic desert flora, with Irano-Turanian species predominating. The total number of plant species present has been variously estimated at between seven thousand and ten thousand, about 20% of which are endemic.
According to FAO reports , the major types of forests that exist in Iran and their respective areas are:
• Caspian forests of the northern districts (3.3 million ha)
• Limestone mountainous forests in the northeastern districts (Juniperus forests, 1.3 million ha)
• Pistachio forests in the eastern, southern and southeastern districts (2.6 million ha)
• Oak forests in the central and western districts (10 million ha)
• Shrubs of the Kavir (desert) districts in the central and northeastern part of the country (1 million ha)
• Sub-tropical forests of the southern coast (500,000 ha)
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Approximately 11.5% of Iran’s land area is under cultivation, with wheat, rice and tobacco being the principal crops. Wheat is grown mostly in the uplands in the west and northwest, while rice and tobacco are grown mainly in the Caspian lowlands. Other crops include barley, sugar-beet, cotton, dates, raisins and tea. Over much of the arid interior of the country, the principal farming activity is livestock raising, pricipally sheep and goats. As most people probably know, it is one of the world’s largest oil producers, and much of the economy is based on the petroleum industry. The country has rich mineral resources, including iron ore, copper, manganese, chromites, coal and salt, and has an important textile industry. Other industries include sugar-refining, food processing and the production of petrochemicals, iron and steel, cement and building materials. Traditional handicrafts, notably carpets, also play an important role in the economy.
Recent archaeological studies indicate that as early as 10,000 BC, people lived on the southern shores of the Caspian, one of the few regions of the world which according to scientists escaped the Ice Age. They were probably the first men in the history of mankind to engage in agriculture and animal husbandry. Historical and urban settlements date back to 4000 BC.
Though the history of Iran is long and complex, its shape is determined by the rise and fall of successive dynasties - with intervals of chaos and confusion. The Persian Empire, the Medes, the Assyrian Kingdom, the Macedonians, the Huns, the Sassanians, the Arabs, the Seljuks and Mongols, the Timurids and the Safavids, all held sway here at one time or another.
The Medes unified Iran into a kingdom in 625 BC. They were succeeded by three Iranian dynasties, the Achaemenids, Parthians and Sassanids, which governed Iran for more than 1000 years. In the 6th century BC Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire, which was destroyed in 330 BC by Alexander the Great. In succeeding centuries, Persia was invaded by the Parthians, the Arabs, the Mongols and various Turkish dynasties. Persia continued to be overrun by foreign powers for another thousand years. The Seljuk Turks arrived in the 11th century, followed by the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his grandson Hulagu Khan in the 13th century and Tamerlane (Timur) in the 14th century. Another Turkish dynasty, the Safavids, took control in the 16th century, only to be ousted by yet another Turkish tribe, the Qajar, in the 18th century.
The Safavids belonged to a Sufi religious order and made Shiite Islam the official religion of Iran, (replacing Zoroastrianism), undertaking a major conversion campaign of Iranian Muslims. The Safavid dynasty reached its height during the reign of Shah Abbas 1st (1587-I629). It was during his reign that Persia once again came to be known in Europe as a superpower, because it was the greatest opponent of the Ottomans, and their wars saved Europe, the Ottomans being too occupied in the east fighting Iran to make headway in the west. .
The Above map shows the shaded areas in green as the furthest borders of the Persian Empire during the Achaemenid period. The dark shaded green is the core area of Pars which was the central administrative region.
In 18th and 19th centuries the country fell under the increasing pressure of European Colonialist powers, particularly the Russian Empire and Great Britain. The discovery of oil in early 1900s intensified this rivalry for power over the nation. After the 1st World War the country joined the League of Nations as an original member. In 1921 due to increased instability and chaos and because of the weakness of the Qajar dynasty, an army commander with the name of Reza Khan established military rule. He was subsequently elected hereditary Shah, thus ending the Qajar dynasty and founding the new Pahlavi dynasty.
The Pahlavi rule lasted through most of 20th century until 1979. Due to unrest and the subsequent people’s uprising with the eventual culmination in the revolution the system of monarchical government ended. After the tumultuous events of the revolution and various power struggles, eventually the present system of Islamic rule was established.
The Rial is the official currency of Iran; however due to an informal convention and people’s preferences, prices are often quoted in Tomans. One Toman is equal to ten Rials. As a general guide, written prices are given in Rials and prices quoted in conversation are in Tomans. To confuse you even further, shopkeepers will often omit the denomination of high prices, so you may be told a jar of coffee costs 2 Tomans (meaning 2,000 Tomans or IR 20,000) and that a fine rug will cost 3 Tomans (meaning 3,000,000 Tomans or IR 30,000,000).
Most travelers spend the first few days of their trip coming to grips with this mind-boggling system, and money changers on the border will often exploit this confusion to rip you off. Be careful, and if in doubt, always ask a shopkeeper or money changer if they are quoting a price in Rials or Tomans.
Money Issues, Shopping and Travelling Costs
Iran is still a cash economy, so bring enough hard currency for the duration of your stay. US Dollars and Euros are the most useful, and new and large (USD 100 or EUR 100 or higher) bills in good condition are preferred and usually get a better rate. Trade embargoes mean that banks will not forward cash advances on your foreign credit cards and they are only accepted by select stores for large purchases, such as Persian rugs. Most will be happy to forward you some cash on your credit card at the same time as your purchase. If you are desperate for cash, you can also try asking these shops to extend you the same favor without buying a rug or souvenir, but expect to pay dearly for the luxury.
Travelers’ Checks: Although in theory central banks in provincial capitals are able to cash them, the paperwork and time involved make them impractical for tourist use.
There is little point in risking the black market moneychangers who loiter outside of major banks and only offer marginally better rates than the banks. Central banks in most cities will change money for you, but the process can be a drawn out affair requiring signatures from countless officials and a fair deal of running around.
A better compromise is the private exchange offices (sarāfi) scattered around most large cities and major tourist centers. Although their rates are comparable to those of the banks, they are far quicker and, unlike their black market colleagues, they can be traced later on if something goes wrong.
The most widely-accepted currency is the US dollar, but Euros and UK Pound Sterling are also widely used. Other currencies are harder to change. $100 notes attract the highest prices, and you will be quoted lower rates for any old or ripped notes.
Bargain ruthlessly when buying handcrafts, rugs or big ticket items and modestly when hailing private taxis. In most other aspects of life prices are fixed. Tipping is usually accepted. Locals will generally round up the bill in taxis and add around 10% in classy restaurants. Porters and bellboys will expect $2 to $3.
If you are prepared to stay in the cheapest guesthouses, travel only by bus and eat only at fast food outlets or kebab houses, you can get by in Iran on a minimum of around $15 per day. If you want to eat a decent restaurant meal every now and then and stay in mid-range accommodations, a more realistic budget is around $40. If you want to eat and sleep in luxury and fly between major sights, you can easily chew through $100 per day.
Perhaps the most visible mark of Iran's Islamic leanings is the conservative dress expected of its citizens. Although normal, Western style clothing is acceptable in private homes. The most common uniform consists of a head scarf (roo-sari) to conceal the head and neck, a formless, knee-length coat known as a roo-poosh (roo-poosh) and a long dress or pair of pants.
The dress code can be daunting during your preparation, but roo-saris, roo-pooshes can be bought cheaply in Iran. Watch or ask friendly Iranian women for guidance and marvel at how young women are pushing the boundaries of modesty with colorful head scarves that cover only a fraction of their hair and figure-hugging roo-pooshes that reveal every curve of their bodies.
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Visiting Religious Sites
Although no trip to Iran would be complete without a glimpse at the stunning architecture and somber environments of its mosques or holy shrines, many travelers are daunted by the prospect of walking into the foreign world of a mosque. Don't let these fears stop you, Iranians are welcoming and will understand any unintended breach of protocol.
Some mosques, and most holy shrines, require women to be wearing a chādor before entering the complex. If you don't have one, there are sometimes kiosks by the door that lend or hire chādors. It is better for men to wear long-sleeved shirts inside a mosque or shrine, though this is not mandatory.
Shoes are not worn within prayer areas of a mosque or shrine. Busier mosques have free shoe repositories where you trade your shoes for a token. Also try to avoid mosques on the holy day of Friday and don't photograph a mosque while prayers are taking place.
Holy shrines, like those in Mashhad and Qom, are usually off limits to non-Muslims, although the surrounding complexes are usually OK. Always ask first before you enter a room you are unsure of.
Food and Drink
Standards of food hygiene are mostly satisfactory in all categories of eating-houses. In general t Iranian cooking is organic, healthy and nutritious, and you shouldn't have much problem in keeping to a balanced diet. However, the national dish is rice prepared in several special ways and served in vast helpings with almost every main dish, and very few of the main dishes would be considered complete without it. Iranian rice from the rainy plains of Mazandaran and Gilan is considered by many - not only Iranians - - to be one of the world's best rice.
One does not come to Iran for its famous wines or its outstanding brandy. The Islamic laws are prevalent and the consumption of Alcoholic beverages are banned. Consumption of these could get one into trouble. Not recommended. All sorts of soft drinks and the national beverage which is brewed black Tea are readily available.
Iranian New Year
No Ruz, new day or New Year as the Iranians call it, is a celebration of spring Equinox. It has been celebrated by all the major cultures of ancient Mesopotamia. Sumerians (3000BC), Babylonians (2000 BC), the ancient kingdom of Elam in Southern Persia (2000BC), Akaddians all have been celebrating it in one form or another. What we have today as No Ruz with its’ unique Iranian characteristics has been celebrated for at least 3000 years and is deeply rooted in the traditions of Zoroastrian belief system.
Persian (called Fārsi in Persian) an Indo-European language, is Iran's national and official language. Although written with a modified Arabic alphabet, the two languages are not related but Persian does have many loan words from Arabic. Many young Iranians in major cities, and almost certainly those working in international travel agents and high-end hotels will speak conversational English but basic Persian phrases will definitely come in handy, particularly in rural areas.
Road signs are often double signed in English, but few other signs are. As an extra challenge, most Persian signage uses an ornate calligraphic script that bears little resemblance to its typed form. This can make comparing typed words in phrase books--such as 'bank' and 'hotel'--to signs on buildings quite difficult. However it is still worth memorizing the Persian script for a few key words such as restaurant, guesthouse, and hotel.
Be aware that Kurdish and Azeri-Turkish languages are also spoken in areas of large Kurdish and Azeri populations.