Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

The History and Culture of Iran

Iran is located in southwest Asia, with coastlines on the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, and the Caspian Sea. It shares borders with Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkmenistan to the north, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east, Iraq and Turkey to the west. The terrain of Iran is rugged, with high mountain ranges around its perimeter, a central basin made up of deserts and mountains, and low-lying plains along its coasts. Iran's highest peak is Qolleh-ye Damavand at 18,605 feet (5,671 meters).

The climate of Iran is arid, with subtropical regions along its coasts. It has many seasonal variations in climate, especially in the northwest, where winters are very cold with heavy snowfall, mild temperatures in the spring and fall, and summer temperatures of more than 100 degrees (40 C). Droughts, floods; dust storms, sandstorms and earthquakes are common, especially along its western border and in the northeast.

Iran's arable land totals only 10 percent, while pastureland makes up 27 percent of its geography. Its natural resources include petroleum, natural gas, coal, chromium, copper, iron ore, lead, manganese, zinc, sulfur.

Iran is divided into 28 provinces: Tehran, Qom, Markazi, Qazvin, Gilan, Ardabil, Zanjan, East Azarbaijan, West Azarbaijan, Kordestan, Hamadan, Kermanshah, Ilam, Lorestan, Khuzestan, Chahar Mahaal and Bakhtiari, Kohkiluyeh and Buyer Ahmad, Bushehr, Fars, Hormozgan, Sistan and Baluchistan, Kerman, Yazd, Esfahan, Semnan, Mazandaran, Golestan, and Khorasan.


With a population of nearly 70 million, Iran's ethnically diverse groups include Persians, Azeri-Turks, Kurds, Turkmen, Baluchi, Qashqai, Bakhtiari, Arab, Jewish, Armenian, and Assyrian. Many of these groups are assimilated into the urban areas, while others have remained tribal societies. Many have their own language, culture, religion and literature.


Most Iranians are Muslims, with 89 percent belonging to the Shi'a branch of Islam, the official state religion. Another 10 percent belong to the Sunni branch, which is predominant in neighboring Muslim countries. Iran's religious minorities, which make up less than two percent of the population, include Zoroastrians, Jews, Baha'is, and Christians.


The official language of Iran is Persian, also known as Farsi, Parsi, Tajiki or Dari, which is also spoken in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. It belongs to the Indo-Iranian (Aryan) branch of the Indo-European language family, and there are over 75 million native speakers. Other languages and dialects include Turkic, Kurdish, Luri, Balochi, Arabic, and Turkish. Modern Persian uses a modified version of the Arabic alphabet, adopted approximately 150 years after Persia converted to Islam. It should also be noted that Persian and Arabic are distinctly different languages from different linguistic families, with different phonology and grammar. There are many loanwords in the Persian language, mostly coming from Arabic, English, French, and Turkic languages.

English words that originated from the Persian language include: bazaar, caravan, caviar, checkmate, divan, jackal, khaki, kiosk, kismet, orange, pajama, pistachio, shawl, spinach, sugar, turban, and zirconium.


The Shahnama (Book of Kings), is the most famous classical epic of Iran. It is a compilation of the history of the kings and heroes of Iran from mythical times down to the reign of Khosrau II (590-628 A.D.), and includes the story of the overthrow of the Sassanids by the Arabs in the middle of the 7th century A.D. The poet Daqiqi of the Saminid court was the first to compose the Shahnama in verse form. However he died after completing only 1000 verses. The work was later continued by Ferdowsi, and in its finshed form, contains over 55,000 couplets, which have been read by the Persian people for more than a thousand years. And alhough it was composed over 1000 years ago, this work is still intelligible to the average, modern Iranian reader.

The ghazal, which literally means 'speaking with women', is another Persian poetic form consisting of couplets which share a rhyme and a refrain. Originating in the 10th century, ghazals were written by Persian poets and mystics, including Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi in the 13th century, Hafez in the 14th century, Turkish poet Fuzuli, in the 16th century, Mirza Ghalib in the 18th century and Muhammad Iqbal in the 19th century. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe popularized the ghazal in Germany in the 19th century, and the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali produced a volume called Real Ghazals in English. The ghazal is still a common form of lyrical poetry in modern day Pakistan and India.


Persian mythology is based upon The Avesta, a collection of ancient Zoroastrian sacred religious texts composed in the Avestan language, closely related to Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hinduism. The Avestas were composed over a period of several centuries, the oldest of which are the Gathas hymns, believed to have been written by Zoroaster himself. The original text of the Avesta was destroyed by the Persian invasion of Alexander the Great, and only a fraction of it has since been rewritten from memory by Zoroastrian priests.


Iranian food features a rich variety of ingredients and spices. The primary ingredients include lamb, chicken, fish, eggs, yogurt, goat cheese, lentils, beans, chickpeas, potatoes, rice, peppers, eggplants, spinach, grape leaves, tomatoes, okra, carrots, onions, lemons, limes, oranges, apples, cherries, rose water, raisins, dates, pomegranates, almonds, walnuts, and pistachios. Herbs include parsley, coriander, mint, dill, garlic stalks, black pepper, turmeric, fenugreek, saffron, sumac, cardamom, and cinnamon.

Preparation techniques include Kababs and other grilled meats, stuffed vegetables called Dolmeh, Khoresht stews served with various rice dishes called Polow, pickled vegetables called Torshi, and a tempting variety of pastries and other sweets.


Iran uses a solar calendar with a system of leap years, much like the Gregorian calendar with 365.2424 days, but much more accurate and complicated with regard to leap years. The Persian solar calendar was developed in the 11th century by a group of scientists, including Omar Khayyam, also known for his poem, The Rubiyat. The calendar year begins at midnight on the spring equinox, when the sun enters the northern hemisphere. The calendar is 12 months long, with first six months at 31 days each, the next five are 30 days, and the last month has 29 days (30 days in leap years). To compensate for temporal descrepancies, after every seven four-year leap years, the Persian solar calendar observes a five-year leap year.

The names of the Persian months are Farvardin, Ordibehesht, Khordad, Tir, Mordad, Shahrivar, Mehr, Aban, Azar, Dey, Bahman, and Esfand. The vernal equinox, the first day of the calendar year and one of the most important Iranian holidays, is called Norouz, which means New Day.

Traditional Persian Garments

Much that is known of traditional Persian garments comes from the renowned miniature paintings of the Timurid and Safavid dynasties from the 14th through 19th centuries. These delicately detailed works of art depicted the styles and textile design of the times, including brilliant colors, metallic threads, rich brocades, silks and velvets.

The traditional Persian robe for both men and women consisted of three or four layers, including a slip, an underdress, an overdress, an outer robe, and a veil or turban. The slip was rarely visible, and the underdress and overdress came in two styles. Both featured long sleeves, with buttoned keyhole neckline for the underdress, and a v-neck worn open to a gathered waistline on the overdress. The outer robe was a simple, long, loose garment with either a short, scalloped sleeve, or a near floor-length sleeve, and three necklines, including a collarless style, a short, standing collar, or a large flat embroidered collar that draped over the shoulders. Headwear included turbans for men, and for women, simple shoulder-length veils, topped with a small white cap, or a circlet draped with pearls.

To be continued...I'm still composing the history section, so check back in a few days.