Iran, land of history and beauty
In the entire history of mankind, Iran stands out as a country with an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage.
Within the Arabian world; Indian, Turkish and European, Iran is a true melting pot of peoples and traditions and yet still manages to maintain and conserve its formal independence.
“Land of Aryians”, long baptized “Persia” by western cultures; it has survived numerous invasions during its long history. These invasions have left traces of architectural, religious and literary influence. Iran is a complex civilization that has always been able to conserve its original identity; continually reviving its language, culture and an autonomous political structure.
The menu of voyages that you hold in your hands will already allow you to plunge straight to the heart of a complex and distinguished nation where the spirits of Alexander the Great, Cyrus the Great and Genghis Khan are never far away. Here, you will find history not only engraved in archeological treasures but alive and living in the eyes of a proud and gentle people.
Here is an invitation, to discover and to experience with every one of the senses; to be stirred into a unique unity with the land and people of an exceptional nation of mystery and comprehensive appeal. This is a country of a thousand facets that shimmer into a magical alchemy of nature, history, culture, art and poetry.
A smile; an out-stretched hand, held in invitation to the traveler to share in the richness of traditional festivals, to be charmed by the music of unusual accents and to taste the pleasures of refined and exotic culinary delights.
A stunning voyage into a world where one’s desire, as it must have been in the time of the Grand Tours of the last century, would be to immortalize the experience into a ‘carnet de voyages’, full of annotations, thoughts, sketches and souvenirs, carefully tucked into pages to become precious memories that will forever implore the soul, hopefully to return again one day…
Iran: country of Peace
Iran is the heart of the world’ wrote the XII century poet Nezâmi.
At the crossroads of the Orient and the Occident, it has historically been a point of migration and meetings of peoples. Three times as big as France, here lies a treasure trove of humanities, landscapes and cultures. Of course, Iran’s petrol and gas resources have endowed it with international recognition, but Iran is blessed with many other riches. From the forests in the North, near the Caspian sea, to the Lut desert, one of the most inhospitable on earth; passing through the oases of the Plateau and the majestic mountain ranges of the West; the diversity of nature, its flora and fauna, is the original crowning glory of this nation. Within this natural world, whether arid or Eden-like, and often breath-takingly beautiful, a multitude of people have chosen to settle and to prosper. Persians Lors, Turks, Bakhtyaris, Arabs, Kurds or Balochs form a complex mosaic of humanity and cultures that modern Iran is proud to inherit. Between the Semitic world and Indo-European influences, the religions of Iran are numerous and diverse even if the most ancient of them have disappeared. Iran’s religions: Zoroastrians, Muslims, Christians and Jews have been peacefully co-inhabiting for centuries.
At the same time modern and ancient, warm, alive and colourful, Iran is open to everyone. Whether for nature or history buffs, for the meditative or the sportive, or for intellectuals or poets, Iran offers up its unique perfume of poetry and history; a secret garden of inexhaustible wonderment and discovery.
Iran: Older than history
Historically, along with Anatolia and Mesopotamia, Iran was one of the first countries to be inhabited by sedentary communities. During the Neolithic period between 10,000 and 4,500 B.C, former nomadic people progressively began to settle. The cultivation of crops such as barley and wheat as well as the domestication of animals, enabled people to create villages, establish agriculture, develop ceramics and a rudimentary economic system. At the end of the 4th century, these villages had become towns, the first writing (cuneiform) had appeared, bartering and commercial structures had emerged and, little by little, these towns became the hearts of kingdoms desiring the extension of their territories. The first sedentary and urban settlements in Iran were founded in the Zagros Mountains by the Elamites. The town of Suse (Shush) that flourished in south-western Iran is among the most ancient in the world and the Ziggurat (massive ancient structure) of Chogha Zanbil, built in the 7th century B.C is the oldest and best preserved and most impressive multi-storied temple of the entire Orient.
In the second millennium before our modern era, Indo-Europeans, the Medes and the Persians, migrated in waves to western Iran, bringing with them, their culture, religions and the languages that would give the Iranian plateau the identity it knows today.
In the 7th century B.C, one of these peoples, the Medes, built a significant kingdom, which was to be absorbed, a century later, by the Achaemenes Persians, and was to become the first universal empire in history. Founded by Cyrus the Great, whose tomb can still be seen in the ancient royal city of Pasargaades, the empire was then enlarged by Darius the First, the founder of Persepolis. At the height of its splendor, it stretched from the Egean Sea to Indus and included more than 20 different cultures within its boundaries. Remarkably well administrated and organized, The Achaemenes Empire both tolerated and respected the traditions, customs and religions of each of the peoples under its rule, with the “king of kings’ ” only demand being allegiance and the paying of tributes.
In the 4th century, Alexander the Great, the king of Macedonia, was able to conquer the Achaemenes Empire due to his clever strategies and the taking advantage of observed weaknesses. His vision was to see the Orient and the Occident united under one banner, but he was to die before seeing his dream fulfilled. His immense empire was to be subsequently divided among his descendants.
From the 3rd century B.C, the Seleucids, the descendants of Alexander from Iran and Mesopotamia, would confront the Parthians, an Iranian dynasty from central Asia, who had, from the 2nd century B.C, dominated the Iranian plateau. Broken into several kingdoms, the Parthian Empire skirmished regularly with the Romans in Mesopotamia, but despite this, they were also able to manage commercial and cultural exchange with them. It was under the Parthians that the famous “Silk Road” would develop, linking the Mediterranean to China via Iran.
Originating from the Fars (today a province of modern Iran) in 224, another dynasty emerged and took power. It was that of the Sassanids (224-651). Two great kings of the III century, Ardashir the 1st and Shapur the 1st, strengthened the empire, building cities and founding Zoroastrism, an Indo-European religion reformed by Zoroastrians, that became an official religion of the Empire. The Zoroastrian clergy had considerable power and their temples of fire, where Ahura Mazda was worshipped, were built and spread over a wide area. The arts flourished: architecture, textile and metalwork but also music, dance, and literature were appreciated at court and would forever influence the Muslim world from the Umayyad era (661-750) onwards. Science, medicine, and philosophy would also develop significantly during this time.
Enemies of the Romans and then the Byzantines, the Sassanids would know its last era of power thanks to two kings of the VI and VII century, Khosrow Anushirvan and Khosrow Parviz, renowned in literature as true epitomes of wise, true and glorious kings.
With the weakening of the Sassanid kingdom came social crisis and a hardening of Zoroastrism, which could explain, in part, the rapid rise of Islam, introduced by the Arab/Muslim armies that overturned the Sassanids in the mid VII century. Slowly but surely the Iranians converted to Islam and the religion would confirm its cultural presence over the entire middle Orient starting from the era of the Abbasid caliphs of Bagdad (750-1258).
Even as royal power slipped more and more into the hands of the Arabic dynasties, ( Umayyads, Abbassids) or the Turks, (Seljuks), Persian influence in literature, music, the arts and sciences, philosophy and mysticism remained dominant. Throughout the centuries, great men were to become the pillars of Iranian culture and in turn, leave their mark on the world: The mystics, Bistâmi, Hallâdj and Rumi; the doctors, Râzi and Avicenne; the poets, Ferdowsi, Nezâmi, Sa’di, and Hafez; the mathematician, Khayyâm; the astronomer, Tusi and the philosopher, Mollâ Sadrâ Shirâzi among them.
Even if the Middle East was ravaged by the Mongolian invasion in the XIII century, the Persian alphabet would emerge unscathed and would help preserve Iranian culture. There were troubled times to come during the century of the poet Hâfez when Tamerlane and its descendants, the Timurids (IV century). However, Persian culture blossomed in Central Asia (Samarkand) and in Afghanistan (Herat).
In the XVI century, the arrival of the Safavids (1501-1722) marked the beginning of modern Iran. They imposed the Shi’ite religion with the aim of unifying spirituality against the Ottomans and the Sunnites of central Asia. Splendid and refined, Persian art, be it architecture, painting or carpet-making. etc., would flourish in a golden age during the reign of Shâh Abbâs the 1st who adorned the city of Isfahan with palaces, temples and gardens with the idea of creating a vision of paradise.
After the brief reign of Nâder Shah (1736-1747) and the Zands (1750-1794), the Qâjârs (1779-1924) conquered Iran and chose Tehran as the capital. Subsequently weakened and divided, and with the meddling in their affairs by Russia and Great Britain, Iran would lose several territories in Central Asia and in Caucasus. Row Pahlavi sovereigns (1925-1979) reformed and modernized the country but interference from America and a unilateral westernization of the country resulted in a national identity crisis and a surge of insurrection, demanding freedom and independence. This was to be the origin of the Islamic revolution in 1979. Founded by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Republic of Islam intermeshed a republican and democratic system of government with spiritual laws inspired by the Shi’ite religion.
Today, modern Iran, enriched by a thousand years of history, at once open to the world and proud of its spiritual roots, is an oasis of peace and culture within the Middle East.
Nature and the Seven Kingdoms
Imagine being on the ski slopes in the morning and diving into crystal-blue waters in the afternoon. It is not a fantasy but a reality of nature in Iran. With such diversity of climate and landscape, it’s like discovering several countries melded into one. In the centre, the Iranian plateau consists of two deserts, either rocky or sandy. The Kavir is dotted with oases and salt lakes while the other, the Lut, resembles a lunar landscape and is barely inhabited. In the north, wedged between the mountains of Alborz and the Caspian Sea, are verdant valleys and thick forests, reminiscent of European landscapes.
Spreading out diagonally from Northwest to South, the Zagros Mountains, inhabited mainly by nomadic tribes, are entwined with magnificent valleys dotted with mountain villages, shepherds and their sheep. In the Persian Gulf, where lies a treasure trove of ancient relics, the Isle of Kish is to be found, famous for its shopping. There is also the Isle of Queshm, a bastion of natural beauty.
For those that love hiking and trekking, it is difficult not to be seduced by the luxuriant forests, the other-worldly valleys, the magical deserts and salt lakes shimmering with a thousand diamonds. The traveler may discover rare flowers such as “up-side down tulips” and glorious lilies; spy gazelles, asses, deer, beer, camels and several hundred species of migrating bird-life. Journey to discover the mysterious forest of Gilan, within which can be found ancient strongholds and citadels that have managed to preserve their crafts and musical traditions. Discover and rediscover the miracle of an oasis; a majestic garden found in the middle of an arid landscape where an azure horizon gently embraces snow-capped mountains. From within the silence of a desert night, gaze at the stars that seem so luminous and almost tantalizingly close enough to touch.
For those who love canoeing, the rivers and lakes of Iran promise both beauty and adventure. For those lucky alpinists, the slopes and rock faces of more than 60 summits await exploration: - The Damâvand (5670m), notable for remaining perpetually snow-capped but not forgetting other mountains such as Sabalân, Denâ, Zard Kuh, Taftân, Shir Kuh, Binâlud and Alvand.
Where there are mountains, there are caves and Iran has them in abundance including those of Huto and Kamarband in the Mâzandrian; of Kalmakareh in the Lorestân, of Kharbas within the island of Qeshm, whose archeological gems also contain traces of early mankind. Of all of the caves of Iran, Ali Sadr must be the most desirable and is famously the most beautiful. A veritable natural cathedral, its caverns and underground lake can be explored on foot or by boat.
If one is in need of relaxation and well-being, there are many thermal springs, in Ardabil, Râmsar or Mahalât, designed to pamper you, mind, body and soul.
Iran: country of religions
Throughout its history from the Elamites to the Islamic Republic, Iran was and remains a land steeped in religion and mysticism. Embracing Islam since the VII century, Iranians have endowed mystical language and philosophical and artistic expression to the monotheism that originated in Arabia. It has become one of the most beautiful and most profound religions of the Muslim world. The mystical poetry of Rumi and Hâfez has sculpted the spiritual sensibility of Iranians and Shi’ism has gifted cultural identity and uniqueness to Iranian Islamism.
The building of mausoleums, mosques and madrasas, which are filled with masterpieces of sacred art, never erased the presence of other spiritualties, whether ancient or modern. The Elamite ziggurat of Choghâ Zanbil, the Median temple of Haft Tapeh, the Jewish mausoleum of Esther in Hamedân, the Sassanid fire temples, the Armenian churches of Azerbaijan and Isfahan remind us of the universal ideas founded at the time of Archimedes; of a contemporary inter-religious dialogue in an Iran of today; a terrain of tolerance, peace and exchange.
Going back 2000 years before our time, the Zoroaster religion (Zardosht, in Persian) is still very much alive today and pilgrimages continue to be made to the province of Yazd, where sacred sites and temples have been preserved. Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians are able to worship freely and are all represented at the National Assembly by their respective elected members.
Iran’s traditional arts
Iranians have always held beauty, in all its forms, in the highest regard and are well known for their talents in the arts, in poetry and in music. Every Iranian carries poetry in his soul and music can be heard everywhere, from domestic dwellings to concert halls, festivals and religious ceremonies. The cities of Iran have always been bastions of creation and innovation. Persian paintings (the “Miniatures”), calligraphy, carpets and textiles, lustre-wear, enameling and metalwork have given the artists and craftspeople of Iran a highly respected reputation.
Iran was the shining centre of eastern culture during the Islamic era. The Samarkand of Tamerlane, as well as the palaces of Mongolia and even the Taj Mahal owe much to the influence and savoir-faire of Persian culture.
Iranians have always known how to preserve their heritage while improving on it by absorbing outside influences, and in doing so, advancing and creating something which remains deeply profound, philosophical and mystical. Today, the arts and crafts of Iran evoke wonderment of ethnic and cultural diversity in the hearts and minds of those who experience it.
Iran: Land of significant sites and museums
Iran is one of the richest countries in the world for historical sites and monuments. From Neolithic villages to traditional period qâdjâre, over 700 years of human civilization is represented. Isfahan, Kâshan, Shirâz. Yazd, Kermân and many other towns remain a spectacular testament to Iranian culture. However Iran in its entirety with its forests, its deserts, its town centers, its verdant valleys and its lush oases offer numerous and uncountable treasures. Traditional houses pressed into a maze of streets, ancient fortresses perched atop inaccessible heights, merchant caravans traveling along secular routes, sumptuous or touchingly simple mausoleums, palaces, gardens, bridges, churches, synagogues, ancient temples, hammams, bazaars…. a myriad of life and monuments which come together collectively to form an unequalled heritage. In Tehran, the museums tell their story; the ingenuity of Iran down through the centuries, from the Neolithic – examples of certain patterns can still be seen on contemporary carpets – to the sparkling jewelry, created for Iranian royalty, that defies both time and fashions. Explored by archeologists since the XIX century, Iran shines like one of these jewels, thanks to its artifacts that have travelled the world, from Paris to New York by way of St. Petersburg, gracing the cabinets of the world’s greatest museums.
Iran: Unforgettable memories
Majestic landscapes and rich heritage, the warm smiles on the faces of the local people and the azure blue skies: all memorable images. However, other senses are not forgotten in this unique place. Each town is proud to offer up its own cakes and biscuits, sweets and desserts: in Isfahan, taste pistachios and nougats; in Yazd, baklavas. Local delicacies await in Qom, sohân; in Kermânshâh, kâk; in Shirâz, fâludeh; in Kermân, kolompeh; in Urumiyeh, so many types of sweets and bonbons… For bread-lovers, there are many different kinds of bread to be found, each unique to its region; the butter bread of Hamedân; yukkeh bread of Shirâz and many others. Whatever you choose, it comes to you fresh and warm from traditional ovens.
From the end of the XIX century, tea replaced coffee in the hearts of the people and has remained the traditionally preferred drink of Iranians to this day. Tealeaves are cultivated in Northern Iran, the wettest and greenest region of the country. Served in small glasses, tea is enjoyed everywhere; in parks as well as in the traditional châikhâneh and every Iranian is pleased to offer tea in hospitality to his guests.
Thanks to its climatic and geographical diversity, the soil in Iran grows rich in medicinal plants and flowers. Depending on the season, they grow in abundance on the central plateau or in the mountainous valleys. Since before recorded time, Eastern medicine has been centred on traditional plant and herbalist healing. Still thriving in Iran today, this knowledge has been steadily enriched over the centuries.
For centuries, towns such as Shirâz, Kâshân and Urumiyeh have been known for their delicious plant-based syrups and cordials. Without a doubt, the most famous of these distilled nectars, is rosewater, which is widely used in cooking and perfumery. One of the most enchanting and unforgettable experiences possible must be to rise before dawn to help harvest rose petals near Kâshân, at the edge of the desert.
The fruits of Iran
Iran is a Garden of Eden, a paradise of fruits of every colour, texture and flavour. From the sumptuous palm groves of Kermân and Dâmghâm, the ruby red pomegranates of Saveh, the sweet juicy oranges of Dezful, the sublime lemons of Shushtar, the sheer abundance of fruit will astound you with its intensity of flavours and often, rare subtleties. Dried fruits are also an integral part of Iranian hospitality and cuisine and are found gracing tables, in bowls mixed with hazelnuts, almonds, dates and raisins. The emerald green pistachios, along with the golden threads of saffron, are without a doubt, the most desired and best loved of souvenirs to bring home from Iran.
The two most essential and appreciated culinary ingredients of Iran are saffron and caviar. Described as red gold, saffron is principally produced in the town of Qâ’en in the province of Khorasan in Eastern Iran. It is used abundantly in cooking along with turmeric, cinnamon and various other spices, the aromas of which perfume the markets and bazaars. For the people of Iran, saffron is the spice of the sun, bringer or joy and is steeped in tradition. For visitors, it is a rare and precious souvenir to bring back and share with friends and family, and is reminiscent of the subtle flavours experienced during the voyage.
From the XIX century, Iran has been renowned for its caviar. This delicacy, well reputed and appreciated all over he world, comes from sturgeons fished from the Caspian Sea in Northern Iran, the largest interior sea on the planet. There are several varieties of caviar, the most precious of these being Beluga; Caspian gold.
Art and Crafts
For centuries, art and crafts such as paintings, calligraphy, ceramics and textiles etc. have been part of the daily life of Iranians and are ingrained in the culture and in their hearts. Benefiting from a multi-secular heritage, artists and craftsmen have always been proud of working to a high standard of quality while conserving ancient techniques, the origins of which can be traced back centuries. Numbered at around 320, the types of crafts, covering diverse techniques and materials, have been destined for religious, domestic and decorative use. Examples of art which graces Iranian homes today include the pottery and ceramics of Meybod, Hamedân and Sistan, the wood craft of Kurdistan and Azerbaijan and the marquetry and painted copper of Isfahan. For the people who live in their presence, they represent daily reminders to take time for reflection and to bask in the art of living. The incredible attention to detail bestowed upon each piece recounts a living story and they are true treasures that make sublime gifts that can be shared with the whole world.
Persian Carpets: the supreme art
Throughout history, Persian carpets have given Iranian art a highly respected reputation. Produced in towns and villages or by nomadic populations, they exhibit, depending on their provenance, an extraordinary variety of colour and pattern. Certain towns such as Kashan, Tabriz, Isfahan or Kerman have been famous for the quality of their work for centuries. Whether knotted or woven, carpets are an integral part of daily Iranian life. An essential element of any household, they are rich tapestries of culture and history and contain universes of symbolism. Like miniature paradises, rich with technique, they are signs of wealth and well-being of their owners. Each carpet reflects the ideas, inspiration and traditions of any given region or community. For the traveller, a Persian carpet (often imitated, but never equaled) is acquired as the cream of all souvenirs. For is not the carpet, a garden of woven wool or silk, an object of wonderment where the imagination may roam without ever leaving the room…..?
Heritage for all humanity
The cradle of civilization, Iran has been enriched with more than 7000 years of history. Over the centuries, men have been inspired to create and build monuments of incredible scope and majesty, expressing the very best aspirations and talents of mankind. Today these monuments are the symbols of a rich cultural heritage for all humanity to enjoy. To ensure the preservation of this heritage for future generations, UNESCO created the Convention for the Protection of World Heritage Sites, both natural and cultural. Iran joined this program in 1972, 3 years after its creation and has been adhering to it ever since. In 1979, the palatial city of Persepolis near to Shiraz, the ziggurat of Chogha Zanbil in the province of Khuzestan and Naqsh-e-Djahân Square in Isfahan were all declared UNESCO world heritage sites. Subsequently, other sites were also listed, notably Takht-e-Soleimân in 2003, Pasargades and the historic town of Bam in 2004, Soltâniyeh in 2005, Bistutun in 2006, an entire collection of Armenian monasteries of Azerbaijan in 2008, the windmills of Shushtar in 2009, the Persian Garden in 2011, the Friday Mosque in Isfahan in 2012 and the Golestan Palace in Tehran in 2013. Two works of art have also been listed: The Book of Kings
(Shâhnnâmeh), a majestic epic of story-telling, meant to be both read and recounted, by Ferdowski and Rab’-e Rashiddi’s Vaaf Nâmeh, one of the most ancient vaaf or religious contributions made in Iran. UNESCO has also listed Iranian traditional music, and the festival of Nowruz, which celebrates the New Year and the beginning of spring (March 21)
Iran: rich in festival and ritual
A fabulous tapestry of peoples, history and religion, Iran offers up an incredible variety of festivals and rituals. Both sacred and popular festivals, some of them unique to Iran, govern each period of the year and in which one can participate freely. These include the New Year’s celebration of Nowruz in March, the Zoroastrian festival of Sadeh, the rosewater festival in the village of Qamsar near Kashan, the sacred ceremony of carpet-washing in Mashhad-e Ardehâl, and the commemorations dedicated to the Iman Hossein – 3rd Iman of the Shi’ites, killed in Kerbala- during the Arab month of moharam (theatre, processions). All over the country, agricultural festivals, transcendental celebrations of the nomads of the provinces of Chahârmahâl and Kohgiluiyeh and festivals of dance and of music present opportunities for sharing and rejoicing together. This is the spirit of Iran in all its splendor and visitors are left with unparalleled memories.
Nowruz – the most venerable festival in Iran
Celebrated for centuries, the festival of Nowruz is the country’s most well known. It was included on the UNESCO listing as an important immaterial treasure, a celebration that demonstrates the continuity and antiquity of Iranian culture. Celebrated at the spring equinox, which falls on or around March 21, or on the 1st day of the Iranian solar calendar month: - favardin, the festival marks the beginning of spring and welcomes in the New Year.
According to Ferdowsi’s The Book of Kings, tradition attributes the origins of the festival to the ancient and legendary king, Djamshid. Historical studies show that that Nowruz was celebrated by the Achaemenes people and has been continued through living and written memory until today. It represents communality between all the peoples of Iran. In the 20th century, Nowruz is a true symbol of Iranian national identity.
People begin to prepare for Nowruz one to two weeks before March 21st. They spring-clean their houses, wash their carpets and purchase new clothes so that when spring finally arrives they already feel a sense of renewal and excitement.
The Nowruz tablecloth is decorated by seven traditional objects beginning with the letter “s”, including sprouted lentil or wheat seeds and live goldfish. This is called the Haft Sin. On the eve of the last Wednesday before the year’s end, there is the festival of fire, Chahârshanbeh-suri. In the evening, people gather around and leap over a fire, the symbol of joy and life, to find new strength and feel the warmth and heat.
From March 21st onwards, during the entire holiday period, tradition states that adult children visit their parents to gather around the Nowruz tablecloth and pray together as a family. Parents, friends, and colleagues exchange wishes for prosperity, health and success for the coming year. Younger people visit their closest family members and the elders offer them gifts. The period of Nowruz lasts for 13 days and the festivities end out in nature with the beauty of the sunset.
The Clay Cylinder of Cyrus the Great
This cylinder of clay was made in 539 B.C when Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenes Empire, conquered Babylon. He was one of the most notable and important kings in Iranian history. Discovered in Babylon (modern Irak) the cylinder is today conserved by the British Museum in London.
Written in the Achaemenes language in cuneiform script, the text engraved on the cylinder is believed to be one of the very first examples of human writing in existence today. It speaks of a king dedicated to peace and justice in his kingdom. Cyrus the Great states in the text that he entered Babylon in a peaceful manner; his “vast army marched on Babylon peacefully and no-one was permitted to frighten or disturb the peoples of Sumer and Akkad. I desired only the well-being of the city of Babylon and the preservation of all its sacred centers. As for the citizens of Babylon on whom Nabonide has imposed policies against the wishes of the gods and (….) the wishes (of the citizens). I will free them from their relentless yokes; their slavery”
Throughout the country, Cyrus the Great repaired and restored holy sanctuaries. He reinstated “the sacred images of their gods and their altars; where they will remain secure for all eternity. I will reassemble the scattered, former inhabitants and restore them to their homes” It was from Cyrus the Great that the Jewish people obtained permission to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their Temple.