Iran is a multi-ethnic and multicultural country. The northwestern region, Azerbaijan, is largely populated by Iranian Azeris, who are a Turkic people closely related to the people of Azerbaijan republic and Turkey. The province of Kurdistan is mainly inhabited by ethnic Kurds who are related to Persians. There are also Armenians, Arabs, Lurs, Turkmens, Georgians, Assyrians, and last but not least Jews, who have been living in Iran peacefully for years.
While Shia Islam is without a doubt the dominant religion in Iran, there also exists several religious minorities as well. Sunni Islam in Iran is mainly practiced by ethnic minorities such as the Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. Other non-Islamic faiths also exist in smaller numbers, the most notable being Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Judaism, all three of which are recognized as minority religions by the Iranian constitution, and each of these are guaranteed representation in the Iranian parliament (locally known as Majles). As such, despite being an Islamic republic, fire temples, churches and synagogues continue to operate legally in the country. Most Iranian Christians follow Eastern Orthodoxy, and are of Armenian or Georgian ethnicity. Iran also has the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel. While there are also a significant number of Baha'is in Iran, they are not recognized by the constitution and are instead branded as heretics of Islam, meaning that they continue to be persecuted to this day in spite of being Iran's numerically largest non-Muslim religion.
There are also two substantial communities of people of Iranian descent in India and Pakistan — Parsis who have been there for over 1,000 years, and Iranians who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries — both Zoroastrians who fled religious persecution in Iran.
Throughout history, Persia has generally been an empire, one whose fortunes varied enormously. In ancient times, Persia controlled most of what we now call the Middle East, and came close to conquering Greece. A few centuries later, Alexander the Great, conquered (among other things) the entire Persian Empire. Later, Persia was conquered by the Arabs in the expansion of Islam in the centuries immediately after the time of Muhammad; Persian and other languages of the region are still written with the Arabic alphabet. About 1250, Persia was overrun by the Mongols. Marco Polo passed through just after that, learned Persian, and wrote extensively of the region.
At other times, Persia conquered many of her neighbours. Her empire often included much of what we now call Central Asia (Polo counted Bukhara and Samarkand as Persian cities), and sometimes various other areas. A few generations after the Mongols took Persia, the dynasty they founded there took all of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and most of India. The Indian term "Moghul" for some of their rulers is from "Mongol", via Persia. Even in periods when she did not rule them, Persia has always exerted a large cultural influence on her neighbours, especially Afghanistan and Central Asia.
The Safavid dynasty re-united Persia as an independent state in 1501, established Shi'a Islam as the official religion, and ushered in a golden age of Persian culture. They were overthrown in 1736 by Nadir Shah, the last great Asian conqueror, who expanded the Empire to again include Afghanistan and much of India. His short-lived dynasty and its successor lasted until 1795. Then the Qajar dynasty ruled 1795-1925, a period of heavy pressure from foreign powers, notably Britain and Russia who jointly occupied Iran during World War I. In 1906, Qajar rule became a constitutional monarchy and the Majlis (Persian for parliament) was established.
In 1979, the Shah was overthrown and went into exile, dying a year later. The revolution involved many groups — Tudeh, Mosaddeq-style secular reformers, and various Islamic factions — but came to be led and dominated by a conservative Islamic faction under Ayatollah Khomeni. Partly in reaction to the Shah's policies, they were also strongly anti-Western and in particular anti-American.
The main divisions of Islam are Shia'a and Sunni. The split goes back to a time just after the Prophet's death; would the movement be controlled by some of his leading followers (Sunni), or by his family, in particular by his son-in-law Ali (Shi'a). There was a long, complex and bloody struggle over this. Today, Iran is the only major country that is predominantly and officially Shi'a, though there are Shi'a minorities elsewhere and a Sunni minority in Iran. The Iranian government supports the Shi'a Hezbollah movement further west, and is therefore accused by America of fomenting terrorism.
One of the major events of Shi'a religious life is the Day of Ashura on the 10th of the month of Moharram; "ashura" means "10th". It commemorates the death of Ali's son Hussein at the Battle of Karbala in 61 AH (680 AD). This is not a joyful celebration, but a very sober day of atonement.
Traditional activities include parades in which people do 'matham' which is a way of remembering Imam Hussein who was martyred along with all his half brother, cousins, friends, and 2 young sons. Some terrorist groups also exploit the religious fervour of the day; Hezbollah's 1983 suicide bomber attack on the US embassy in Lebanon took place on Ashura.
Iran has a diverse climate. In the northwest, winters are cold with heavy snowfall and subzero 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) and can hit 50°C in parts of the desert. On the Khuzestan plain, summer heat is accompanied by high humidity.
In general, Iran has an arid climate in which most of the relatively scant annual precipitation falls from October through April. In most of the country, yearly precipitation averages 25 centimetres or less. The major exceptions are the higher mountain valleys of the Zagros and the Caspian coastal plain, where precipitation averages at least 50cm annually. In the western part of the Caspian, rainfall exceeds 100cm annually and is distributed relatively evenly throughout the year.
Rugged, mountainous rim; high, central basin with deserts, mountains; small, discontinuous plains along both coasts. The highest point is Mount Damavand (5,610m)that is the highest volcano of the world. Desert: Two great deserts extend over much of central Iran: the Dasht-e Lut is covered largely with sand and rocks, and the Dasht-e Kavir is covered mainly with salt. Both deserts are inhospitable and virtually uninhabited. Mountain: The Zagros range stretches from the border with the Republic of Armenia in the north-west to the Persian Gulf, and then eastward into Baluchistan. Zagros is extremely hard, difficult to access, and populated largely by pastoral nomads. The Alborz mountain range, narrower than the Zagros, runs along the southern shore of the Caspian to meet the border ranges of Khorasan to the east. Forest: Approximately 11 percent of Iran is forested, most extensively in the Caspian region. Here one finds the broad-leafed, vigorous deciduous trees, usually oak, beech, linden, elm, walnut, ash, and hornbeam, as well as a few broad-leafed evergreens. Thorny shrubs and fern also abound.The narrow Caspian subtropical coastal plain, in contrast, is covered with rich brown forest soil.
Persian (called fārsi in Persian, فارسی), an Indo-European language, is Iran's national and official language. Although Persian alphabet looks like Arabic alphabet, the two languages are not related,Persian is a pluricentric language and its grammar is similar to that of many contemporary European languages. There are approximately 110 million Persian speakers worldwide, with the language holding official status in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. For centuries Persian has also been a prestigious cultural language in Central Asia, South Asia, and Western Asia. Persian is used as a liturgical language of Islam in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.
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 (see relevant sections below for the script).
Be aware that Kurdish and Azeri languages are also spoken in areas of large Kurdish and Azeri populations.