Iran is situated in the Middle East, sharing borders with Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Iraq and Turkey. The centre and east of the country is largely empty, undulating desert, broken by qanats (irrigation canals) and green oases, but there are mountainous regions in the west along the Turkish and Iraqi borders and in the north where the Elburz Mountains rise sharply from a fertile belt around the Caspian Sea.
Because of its size, topography and altitude, Iran experiences many climatic extremes. Winters (December to February) can be harsh and cold, especially in the north and west, and in most of the rest of the country the nights are very cold. Nevertheless, during the summer (June to August) temperatures can be as high as 50°C and humid. Avoid the Persian Gulf coast between early May and mid-October. Regular rainfall is restricted to the far north and west. In western Iran winter temperatures dip below freezing, and snow can be on the ground until early spring, making some mountain roads impassable.
Facts and Figures
78,868,711 (2012 estimate)
Persian is the official language
Predominantly Shia Islam, with $-8% Sunni Islam.
GMT + 3.30 and + 4.30 (summertime)
The Sepahsalar Mosque in Tehran has eight minarets, form which the city can be viewed, and the Golestan Palace is also worth a visit. More traditional towns such as Rey, Varamin, Qazin and Shemshak, are within easy reach of Tehran. The ancient ruins of Persepolis are often the main reason tourists visit, though the former capital Esfahan has its own unique draw. Garweh is a miniature desert oasis, fringed with date palms. Yazd is one of the country’s oldest cities. Finally, any visitor should try their hand at diving in the clear, colourful waters off Qeshm Island.
In the sixth century BC, the first Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great, and subsequently overthrown by Alexander the Great around 200 years later, giving way to a long series of invasions from the Turks, Arabs and Mongols, among other peoples. Islam was introduced in the seventh century.
It wasn’t until the peak of the Safavid dynasty – which did much to cement the Shia faith in Iran – in the late 1500s that the Persian Empire is considered to have regained its power. This era was marked by extravagant buildings, many of which are still standing, and lengthy wars with the Ottomans.
By the nineteenth century, European influence was felt strongly, and exacerbated after the discovery of oil in the early 1900s. In the 1970s, the economic mismanagement and secular lifestyle of the ruling Shah sparked a popular revolution in 1979, led by Ayatollah Khomenei. Thereafter Iran became an Islamic Republic.
In recent years traditional codes of conduct have been less and less strictly enforced, with women especially enthusiastically embracing modern dress codes, make up and hair styles wherever possible. Limited economic liberalisation has led to a growing economy and Iran remains an important power both in the region and on the global stage. Large reserves of oil and natural gas mean Iran is unlikely to be overlooked any time soon.
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