If you think Iran is nothing but vast deserts, strict laws and hijab wearing women, prepare to be pleasantly surprised, because there is so much more to this diverse country. Daily life there includes the consumption of magical Persian yogurt, hobnobbing with the country’s young and rich elite and even obsessing over local soccer stars.
Iran, which was once known as Persia, is a land which developed through rich historical and cultural traditions and although many icons and ancient monuments remain, there is so much more to it. Read on for fascinating facts and extraordinary customs which are unique to this region and are not widely known.
A Youthful Population
With one of the youngest populations in the entire world, Iran is a youthful country, with 70 percent of its 80-million citizens under the age of 30. The young residents are making the most of their youth by seeking to make a political difference. Iran actually has the most politically active youth of all 57 nations that make up the Islamic world. They also have a political head start, with the right to vote at just 15 years old.
The young have made a real difference in Iran’s political agenda since 1997. Following the presidential election of 2009, they banded together and formed the country’s biggest party named “People Power.” They are a major driving force for democracy and are still going strong today.
In the 1970s, Iran was in a bad place when it came to education. The literacy rate was just 37%. Things had completely turned around by 2015, with 93% of Iranian adults knowing how to read. The literacy rate has been climbing ever since and has reached an impressive 97%.
The Iranian government has established a modern educational system since 1979, which adheres to Islamic laws. The textbooks represent an Islamic point of view and males and females are taught in separate classes.
The Middle East is practically synonymous with oil, and Iran is an energy superstar supplying about 10%, or 125 million barrels, of the oil reserves for the entire world and 15% of its gas. The country also produces roughly four million barrels of oil per day.
The country is currently the fourth-largest producer of oil in the world, with the Persian Golf holding at least 60% of the world’s oil reserves. For general information, the Persian Gulf is made up of seven Arab countries which are: Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
We have already learned that Iranians have a big sweet tooth, but did you know that they also have a highly developed sour tooth? They can be seen out and about sucking on a lemon and they don’t even make a face. They also enjoy extremely sour cherries and apricots and ripe versions of these fruits are not typically sold in supermarkets.
Two of the country’s most beloved snacks are Lavashak, a type of Persian fruit roll and Gojeh Sabzm, unripe, super sour plums. Iranians have even been known to add salt to their sour goodies, so prepare yourself to politely decline if sour is simply not your thing.
Nose Job Capital of the World
Although it is hard to believe, Iran holds the highest rate of cosmetic nose surgeries per capita in the entire world. Part of the reason actually stems from the dress restriction which requires women to wear a hijab, making the face the main physical component on display, but nose jobs are not all about beauty.
In Iran, nose jobs are considered a status symbol. Even the fact that you have had one marks you as wealthy because you could afford it. That is the reason many patients leave their recovery bandages on longer than strictly necessary. There have even been cases in which people have sported fakes!
The country of Iran was commonly known as Persia until Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran between the years 1925 to 1941, decided that the country should be renamed Iran. He made the announcement in 1935 on the day of the Iranian New Year, also known as Nowruz.
The name was changed again in 1979 and the country then became known as the Islamic Republic of Iran. That change took place after the Iranian Revolution which was led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Religious clerics overthrew the monarchy and assumed political power.
The Persian Cat
Persian cats unsurprisingly originated from the highlands of Iran. They are one of the oldest cat breeds in existence and in response to the freezing cold temperatures in the Iranian mountains, developed the ability to grow long and luxurious silky fur.
They were brought over to Europe by Italian merchants in the 17th century and quickly became an exotic status symbol. Centuries later, Persian cats are still one of the most popular cat breeds in the world due to their doll-faced good looks.
They Will Rock You
Heavy metal has become very popular all over Iran, but especially in the capital city of Tehran. It may seem hard to believe, but the genre has been steadily gathering supporters for the past three decades with the emergence of new Iranian blues and rock musicians.
Although heavy metal is banned in Iran because authorities believe it is a symbol of the underground music scene, fans have come to know it from music festivals in neighboring countries like Georgia. The Iranians have embraced the music and believe it promotes love and unity. These days, all types of music can be found in the country, including jazz, pop, and even hip hop.
A Meeting of Cultures
Although 98% of the population in Iran are practicing Muslims, not all of them share exactly the same beliefs. 89% identify as Shia Muslims and the other 9% as Sunni Muslims. In the past, Sunni Muslims were forced to convert, but currently, Iranian law allows for religious freedom in the country, as long as it does not break any laws.
The remaining 2% of the country mostly practice religions like Christianity, Baha’i Zoroastrianism and Judaism. And although there is not much diversity in religious beliefs, there are a variety of ethnicities. Iran is populated by Iranians (61%), Azeri, (16%), Kurds (10%), Lur (6%), Baloch (2%), Arabs (2%), Turkmen and Turkic tribes (2%).
Eating in Iran
Iranian food is a mix of Middle Eastern, Greek and Indian flavors. They have found a way to balance out the styles by offering more varied dishes than typical Greek food and by using fewer spices than traditional Indian cuisine. They are also on trend with the rest of the culinary world with their preference for fresh ingredients.
The people of Iran are big fans of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. The proteins they regularly use are lamb, sheep and chicken, typically served alongside rice and a variety of flatbreads. The Iranian drink of choice is black tea, and lots o
Aversion to Alcohol?
Alcoholic beverages are illegal in Iran, and the only beers that you will find on restaurant menus are of the non-alcoholic variety. However, like other illegal things, the prohibition doesn’t mean that alcohol cannot be found in the country.
Private celebrations often offer partiers plenty of booze, the most prevalent is a type of homemade wine known as aragh saghi. It is basically moonshine made out of raisins. In general, the business of illegally smuggling alcohol into Iran, is a $700 million dollar industry per year.
The Local Language
Although most people believe that the national language of Iran is Arabic, it is actually Persian, known by the locals as Farsi. The language originated from Middle Persian, which was used in the Sasanian Empire and is similar in grammar to other European languages. Persian is not only spoken in Iran, it is also used in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
The country also recognizes seven other languages which are Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Lori, Mazandarani, Gilaki, Balochi, and Arabic. The use of all these languages came about from the unique combination of ethnic groups in Iran and can cause quite a bit of confusion.
The Iranian Jewels
The Treasury of National Jewels in Tehran is the home to some of the most precious and pricey jewelry in the entire world. The Imperial crown jewels include ornate crowns, 30 tiaras, jewel-encrusted swords and shields, exquisite aigrettes, bejeweled dining sets and specialty items like an actual golden globe with seas made of emeralds.
The items kept there are so valuable that they are used to this day as emergency backing for the Iranian currency and they have not been worn in public since the days of the Pahlavi dynasty before the revolution. Although, some of the items are on display in the Central Bank of Tehran and can be viewed.
The word “Iran” in Persian actually means the “Land of the Aryans” AKA the Iranian people. The term “Aryan” was initially used by the Iranians to describe a specific ethnicity but has over time come to refer to the religious, cultural and linguistic attributes of the people who reside in Iran. The name replaced the name Persia, but many believe today that both names can be used.
The name of the capital city of Tehran also has a special meaning. Tehran literally means “warm mountain slope”. The name seems fitting when you take into account that the city is situated at the foot of a mountain and the high temperatures that often plague the capital, with the highest on record reaching a broiling 109 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius).
The Damavand Volcano
Just 43 miles (70 km) from Tehran lies Mount Damavand, an enormous and potentially active volcano. Admittedly, it has been over 7,000 years since its last eruption but there are fumaroles and hot springs at the summit crater which suggests it is not dormant.
The mountain is the highest peak in Iran and the tallest volcano in all of Asia. It is an important symbol in Persian mythology and folklore and symbolizes the country’s fight against tyranny and foreign oppression. Some ancient texts even claimed that a three-headed dragon was chained inside the mountain and would remain there until the end of the world.
Milk of Persia
The Iranian yogurt is famous for its special properties and is traditionally known around the country as “Persian Milk”. The Iranian people believe it is good for anything and everything, therefore it has many uses that do not just include putting it in your mouth.
Persian yogurt is considered by many to be a magic type of medicine which can get rid of coughs, help fight fatigue, treat ulcers, ease sunburns and even make you live longer. The Iranian beauty industry even uses this miracle cure as the ingredients in a face mask.
Fans of Aladdin may have always dreamed of taking a magic carpet ride with the pauper turned prince. Unfortunately, Iran’s famous Persian carpets won’t be able to take you for a spin, but they are known all over the world for the magic of their exquisite designs and beautiful workmanship. The Iranians are expert rug makers, with over 2,500 years of experience under their belts. No wonder rugs are the country’s second-largest export commodity only surpassed by oil.
Each Persian rug is a carefully weaved and designed work of art, but don’t be surprised if you take one home and notice that it contains a small flaw. This is actually done by the carpet weavers on purpose due to their belief that only God can reach perfection. Therefore, they make sure to sew one mistake into their rug on purpose to display their human limitations.
Parkour, a military-style obstacle course exercise regimen, has become all the rage in Iran. The discipline, which is based on acrobatic movement, began in France and become immensely popular around the world at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s. The urban sport soon reached Iran and has been a local favorite ever since.
Many Iranian teenagers spend their time in dedicated Parkour parks and clubs, flipping, jumping, climbing and generally having a great time. The sport is ideal for urban areas, doesn’t cost anything, needs no special equipment and can be performed in almost any type of clothing.
You’ve Got Mail
Ancient Persia lays claim to the very first postal service. They credit the invention to the Persian King Cyrus the Great who ruled between 550 and 529 BC. He instructed that every province in his kingdom would offer both delivery and reception of post for every citizen and even got neighboring countries to agree to do the same. He also had roads built from Post in the west to Hakha in the east.
The system included different stations where the message carrier could swap his tired horse for a fresh one, to increase delivery speed. According to Greek historian Herodotus, “...neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed", does that sound familiar?
Special Ice Cream
It is often hot in Iran, and locals have a special way of cooling down, they eat plenty of Faloodeh. It is a traditional Iranian dessert which is reminiscent of sorbet and is made with noodles. Thin vermicelli-sized noodles made from starch are used and placed in a semi-frozen syrup containing sugar and rose water. This classic dessert is frequently served with lime juice and ground pistachios.
Faloodeh is sold in coffee shops and ice cream parlors and is offered in flavors like saffron, pistachio, rosewater and honey. It may sound unusual but many who have tried it claim it is both refreshing and delicious, and it only costs the equivalent of about 15 US cents.
Almost A Record
In a bid to promote healthy eating, Iran decided to try and create the world’s largest sandwich and record it in the Guinness book of world records. They had 1,500 cooks working for two days to place 2,000 lbs. of ostrich meat into the 5,000-foot-long sandwich. They intended to display the giant sub in a park in Tehran.
Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan. When the time came to measure the sandwich, the public lost control and the whole thing was devoured within minutes, leaving the Guinness officials unable to capture a reliable measurement. Luckily pictures and videos of the massive meal remain.
In 2012, Iran launched the National Information Network, a locally controlled version of the internet, which is open to the public and works sort of like a private Intranet network. For obvious reasons, it does not offer access to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter but does have very fast traffic to 500 government-approved Iranian sites.
After the initial phase of the “Halal Net” was completed, Iran’s communications and information technology minister at the time, Mahmoud Vaezi, held an inauguration ceremony. The benefits of this national network are its high speed and relatively low cost. The Irani government are hoping that the NIN will make the regular internet less appealing and irrelevant over time.
The Good Stuff
It’s no secret that Iran is rich in oil, but did you know that they are also one of the world’s largest producers of other rare and expensive delicacies. Iran is a major exporter of luxury goods such as caviar, pistachios and saffron.
The country actually controls 50% of the Caspian Sea caviar market which is extremely lucrative. The eggs of a Beluga (sturgeon) are worth about $160 per ounce (28 grams). However, this industry may not be around for much longer because the fish, who have a life span of up to 100 years, are becoming more and more rare due to overfishing. Environmental activists are doing everything they can to get caviar fishing banned and preserve the species.
The Customs of Taarof
Taarof is a complicated social system that can be seen everywhere in the daily life of Iran. The ancient Persian word means “meeting together” and the different behaviors of Taarof are the social glue of Iranian culture and help level the playing field between people of different social positions.
The custom stems from the Persian traditions of treating guests with the highest form of respect. Taarof is basically a negotiation between two people in which one refuses to accept things and the other presses them to do so. It is important to remain polite and refuse to keep from seeming greedy. This custom is especially confusing to foreigners, who may not understand why their taxi driver is refusing payment or that they shouldn’t accept a second helping of dinner in a Persian home even if it is offered to them.
What some consider the earliest windmill design in the world can be found in Nashtifan, Iran. The windmills, made of natural clay, straw and wood, have been turning grain into flour for approximately 1,000 years. The area was originally named Nish Toofan, which means ‘storm’s sting’, an allusion to the strong winds which blow in the area.
The Persians were the first to harness the power of the wind. The vertical axis design then spread slowly throughout the world and was later modified by other countries, most famously by the Dutch.
Old Fashioned Shopping
The official currency in Iran is the Rial, but tourists who want to buy something will often be asked for payment in Tomans. It may be confusing, but there is no need to make another visit to the exchange desk, the Toman is simply what the old Iranian currency was called.
The Toman was replaced by the Rial in 1932 at a rate of 1 to ten, meaning 1 Toman is worth 10 Rials. Therefore, all you have to do if someone asks for a certain number of Tomans is to divide the number by ten and pay with your Rial notes. Explaining the math is easy, explaining why they still refer to the old currency almost 90 years later is less so.
Plenty of Neighbors
Although Russia and China have the most shared borders with other countries, Iran, which is two and a half times the size of Texas, has plenty of neighbors, sharing its borders with seven other countries. These are Iraq, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
The longest shared border is with Turkmenistan. It stretches between the two countries for an impressive 713 miles, while the Irani Armenian border is the shortest international border, at just 27 miles long. Iran also borders the Caspian Sea, Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Oman. All these land and sea borders are beneficial when it comes to the trading of goods.
The Iranian flag was changed in 1980 into the flag that we all know, which features three equal horizontal bands of green, white and red. The green is considered the color of Islam and stands for growth, the white is a symbol for honesty and peace and the red represents bravery and martyrdom.
In the middle of the flag, on the white background is a stylized depiction of the word “Allah” along with the expression ‘La ilaha illa Allah’ which means “none is worthy of worship but Allah”, shaped like a tulip flower. The inner edges of the green and red bands feature 22 repetitions of the words Allahu Akbar, which translates into “god is great”.
The Sites of UNESCO
Iran is one of the most ancient civilizations in the world and it has many beautiful and important historic sites. The country currently has 24 designated UNESCO World Heritage sites including Persepolis (Takht-e-Jamshid), which was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire.
Travel site The Culture Trip believes that the most impressive places on the list are the stunning palaces, religious sites, traditional bazaars and ancient watering systems. Their top 10 sites are Meidan Emam, Golestan Palace, Bam, Pasargadae, Sheikh Safi al-din Khanegah and Shrine Ensemble in Ardabil, Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex, Soltaniyeh, Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System, the Armenian Monastic Ensembles of Iran, and Persepolis.
The Asiatic Cheetah
The Asiatic Cheetah, also known as the Iranian or Persian Cheetah, is a subspecies of Cheetah that is critically endangered and can currently be found only in Iran. This incredible animal lives in protected areas in the eastern-central region of Iran because of the arid weather and the sparse human population.
As of December 2017, just 50 of these beautiful cheetahs were believed to remain in the world. Efforts are being made to raise awareness to this animal’s plight, including an attempt by the Iranian football team who featured a drawing of the subspecies on their jerseys while playing in the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
If you had a hard time wrapping your head around Tomans and Rials, you won’t believe this other money issue, Iranians barely have small change. There are simply not enough small coins or notes to go around. It is nearly impossible to find a 2000 Rial note, which is worth roughly 50 cents.
So, what happens if you paid for something and need some money back. Don’t worry they have a solution for this – they pay you the difference in candy. Yes, you read that right, they keep some candy bars near the register and add them to your purchase. Since Iranians are known for their sweet tooth, the system seems to be working out for them.
Time for Tea
Tea is the Iranian drink of choice and many cups of it are consumed each day. The leaves made their way to Persia on the Silk Road from India and tea was quickly adopted as the national drink. Iran’s entire northern region is suited to growing the crop and millions are employed in the Persian tea industry. The Iranian tea is reddish-brown in color and is typically very strong, although it is not unusual to dilute it with water.
The people of Iran have one of the highest per capita rates of tea consumption in the entire world, therefore it is no surprise that for decades every street has featured a Châikhâne, or Tea House. To this day, these tea houses serve an important social function for older people who go there to sip and chat. The Persian tea is quite bitter, so the custom is to place a sugar cube between your teeth before beginning to sip.
Iranians not only love watching soccer, they are also good at playing it. Their national men’s team has qualified for the World Cup tournament three times and also won three Asian Cup titles. Both men and women enjoy the game, with women storming the field in the traditional hijab.
In 2007, FIFA (the International Federation of Association Football) banned the wearing of a hijab during games. This decision prevented an Iranian women’s soccer team from participating in a qualifier game for the 2012 Olympic. Iran took part in the Olympics for the first time in 1948 and has sent athletes to every Summer games in the years since, except for 1980 and 1994. They also take part occasionally in the winter Olympics since their first appearance in 1956.
Since 2012, the government of Iran has allowed the Iranian people to practice Sigheh, a form of short-term marriage. If people are not sure they are ready for a lifelong commitment, they can try out marriage on a trial basis.
The practice is only allowed in some Shia schools under Sharia Law and can have a duration of anything between just a few hours to several years, all depending on the contract. Many young Iranian couples prefer not to engage in the custom and it is mostly used by young Muslim males who are undertaking a pilgrimage to holy shrines and are away from their families for some time.
Ties may not be illegal in Iran, but they are certainly frowned upon. For the past four decades, since the revolution of 1979, ties have become taboo. The Iranians consider the tie to be too closely associated with the West and no one would even consider wearing one to a job interview.
Typical business wear in Iran does include a suit, but it is worn tie-less. The other type of popular clothing is traditional Islamic garb. The Iranian leadership believes that simple garments promote equality because they don’t distinguish between different ethnicities or societal classes. This is also true for women of all ages, who must wear a head covering known as a hijab from the age of nine. That includes foreign women who are visiting the country.
Star of David Surprise
The Star of David- the symbol of Judaism was hidden in plain sight for over 30 years on top of the Tehran International Airport’s main terminal building. In plain sight that is, if you were a bird. In 2001, Google Earth was launched, and the secret star was discovered.
By the time the outline of the symbol was discovered, the ornamental tiling had long been removed but it had left an outline on the bare roof. The Iranian government ordered its complete removal soon after an eagle-eyed viewer spotted it.
Too Many Holidays?
There are many public holidays in Iran, and Iranians enjoy a whopping 25 days off just for them each year. It may sound nice to be the world leader in public holidays, but there has been concern over the past 30 years that the abundance of holidays may hurt the Iranian economy in its efforts to be relevant internationally. To make matters worse, different unofficial holidays are added to the list every year.
A significant portion of the Iranian holidays are religious and commemorate the birth or death of several Shi’a Imams. The country uses three different official calendar systems, the Solar Hijri calendar, the Gregorian calendar, and the Islamic lunar calendar and the holidays take place according to the lunar calendar. Therefore, the locals have a hard time figuring out exactly when the holidays take place each year and enlist the help of a Muslim cleric who helps calculate the dates for each
The Biggest Carpet in the World
Due to its affinity for rug making, it is hardly a surprise that Iran has also created the biggest hand-woven carpet in the world. This enormous rug is roughly the size of a soccer field and was created in 2007 by the Iran Carpet Company specifically to be placed in the Abu Dhabi mosque in the United Arab Emirates.
It was made up of nine separate pieces and then put together in the mosque itself. The carpet measures a massive 60,600.81 ft² (5,630 m²). The original carpet was even larger, but some pieces were removed to ensure that the final product fit the mosque floor exactly.
Some Persians may like to rock out, but the cultural elite enjoy the more traditional type of classical music the country has to offer. The music dates back to medieval times and it is not so much entertainment as a type of spiritual tool.
The musical system is made up of twelve modal units that are divided into small melodic units and ranges between improvisation and composition. Many of the pieces are connected to poetic Persian writings and they can vary widely in rhythm and intensity during the performance. The vocalist plays an important role in the tone of the composition because he or she portrays the feeling of the piece and decides what to perform and may even decide on the lyrics.
If you are lucky enough to be invited to dinner in an Iranian home, don’t assume they forgot to bring out the chairs, instead you may have to practice your squat. It is perfectly normal for a big Iranian family to share their dinner on cushions on the floor.
And don’t look around for a knife and fork either, in many instances, utensils are not used, and people eat with their hands, or more specifically only with their right hand. It is polite to wait to be told where to sit and taste all the dishes that are offered. So, our best advice is to arrive hungry.
RKOT or “The Rich Kids of Tehran” is a popular Instagram account that reveals that living it up with fancy cars, expensive jewelry and private jets, is not limited to the wealthy youth of the West. The account, which proclaims it is showing things “they” wouldn’t want you to see, is proof that young people everywhere are into pretty much the same things including shopping, skiing and pool parties.
These sons and daughters of Iran’s wealthy and powerful, are famous for their massive parties that are filled with fun and illegal alcohol. Instagram is currently the only form of social media which is still legal in Iran, although the administration has repeatedly threatened to add it to the national banned sites list. In any case, many Iranians use an overseas VPN to circumvent any temporary or permanent banning.
Skiing in Style
The word Iran brings to mind heat and deserts, but as we’ve already seen there is far more to the country than that. In addition to the plentiful mountains and even a few volcanoes, there are several ski resorts on mountain peaks just a few hours outside Tehran.
The two biggest resorts are Dizin and Shemshak. Dizin is the largest and even towers over Europe’s highest resort at 8,700 feet. Shemshak is not quite as high but features steeper and more challenging slopes, which are a favorite among seasoned skiers and snowboarders. They may not be quite as fancy and modernized as the European sites, but they are definitely less crowded.
In most places in the world, a thumbs up is a good thing. The gesture is so popular, Facebook-based their entire interface around it, but we would think twice before showing your approval in that way in Iran. Using the gesture there is in fact just like throwing up your middle finger in other places.
This can lead to a very big miscommunication which you should try and avoid. And even though there is some awareness that for tourists the meaning is different, don’t assume that your angry cab driver is trying to cheer you on if he gives you a big thumbs up. If you’re wondering what to do if you want to hitchhike, use your arms to wave down a car instead.
Even though owning and using a satellite dish is technically illegal in Iran, about 70% of the people in Tehran have Satellite TV in their homes as do about 40% of the people in the rest of the country. There are Persian language channels that are based in Europe and North America and have a large following in the country.
Iranians also enjoy watching television from all over the world. They love American sitcoms and dramas and also programs from Columbia and Korea, many of which are dubbed into Farsi.
Getting Married For Free
Due to economic hardships and the high cost of getting married, many Iranians have been deciding to simply not get hitched. Marriage is an important value in the eyes of the government, and they were getting worried by the trend, so they have worked out a solution.
If you are willing to conduct a traditional Iranian wedding, the government will pay for some or all of the ceremony out of a special annual fund they have set up of $720 million. The administration believes this will encourage more people to get married. As an added bonus, when applying for a marriage license, couples get to enjoy a mandatory hour-long lecture on contraception.
Rugs are not the only type of artwork that Iran is famous for, it is also known for its picturesque gardens, beautiful poetry, rich tapestries, and traditional music. It is no coincidence that the English word “paradise” is derived from the word Persia, which can be translated as an “enclosed garden”. Although of all the arts, it is poetry that really makes the Iranian heart sing. A typical person on the street will most likely be able to recite some famous versus, the most famous of which are from the Shahnameh or The Epic of Kings.
A few of the most beautiful poems known to man have come out of Iraq over the years, from amazing poets like Firdawsī, Hāfez, Sa’adī, among others. However, the glory of the Iranian written word is not contained to the past, present-day poets, novelists, and essayists are still admired and avidly read.