To best understand Iran, their related societies and their people, one must first attempt to acquire an understanding of their culture. It is in the study of this area where the Iranian people’s identity optimally expresses itself. As the first sentence of prominent Iranologist Richard Nelson Frye’s latest book on Persia reads: “Iran’s prize possession has been its culture.”
Thus an eclectic cultural elasticity has been said to be one of the key defining characteristics of the Persian spirit and a clue to its historic longevity. Furthermore, Iran’s culture has manifested itself in several facets throughout the history of Iran as well as that of Central Asia.
Iran has one of the richest art heritages in world history and encompasses many disciplines including architecture, painting, weaving, pottery, calligraphy, metalworking and stonemasonry. There is also a very vibrant Iranian modern and contemporary art scene.
Iranian art has gone through numerous phases of evolution. The unique aesthetics of Iran is evident from the Achaemenid reliefs in Persepolis to the mosaic paintings of Bishapur. The Islamic era drastically brought changes to the styles and practice of the arts, each dynasty with its own particular foci. The Qajarid era was the last stage of classical Persian art, before modernism was imported and suffused into elements of traditionalist schools of aesthetics.
The music of Iran has thousands of years of history, as seen in the archeological documents of Elam, the earliest cultures, which was located in southwestern Iran. There is a distinction between the science of Music, or Musicology, which, as a branch of mathematics has always been held in high regards in Persia/Iran; as opposed to music performance (Tarab, Navakhteh, Tasneef, Taraneh or more recently Muzik), which has had an uneasy and often acrimonious relationship with the religious authorities and, in times of religious revival, with the society as a whole.
Although normal, Western style clothing is acceptable in private homes, when in public women are required to cover everything but their face, hands and feet.
The most common uniform consists of a head scarf (roo-sari, روسری) to conceal the head and neck, a formless, knee-length coat known as a roo-poosh (روپوش) and a long dress or pair of pants. In and around holy sites, you will be expected to dress even more modestly in a chādor, a full-length swathe of black cloth designed to cloak everything but your face from view.
Men have a slightly easier time of things. Short-sleeved shirts and t-shirts are acceptable for daily wear. Shorts and three-quarter length pants are only acceptable on the beach.
Situated in the Middle East, the Iranian culinary style is unique to Iran, though has historically both influenced and has been influenced by Iran’s neighbouring regions at various stages throughout its history. Specifically, these have been mutual culinary influences to and from Mesopotamian cuisine, Anatolian cuisine, and Central Asian cuisine. The cuisine of Turkey is heavily influenced by that of Iran, due to geographical proximity, ethnic relations, and shared empires such as the Seljuks. Persian cuisine also influenced that of Afghanistan, and has spread into all but the southernmost parts of India during the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire (see Mughlai cuisine). It also traveled west to influence the cuisines of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia and thence into the cuisines of Russia and the Soviet Union. Many foods famously associated with Middle Eastern, and indeed World cuisine have their origins in Iran, such as kebab and ice cream.
There are several languages spoken in different parts of Iran. The predominant language and national language is Persian, which is spoken across the country. Azeri is spoken primarily in the northwest, Kurdish primarily in the west, Arabic primarily in the Persian Gulf coastal regions, Balochi primarily in the east and Turkmen primarily in northern border regions.
Described as one of the great literatures of mankind, Persian literature has its roots in surviving works of Middle Persian and Old Persian, the latter of which date back as far as 522 BCE (the date of the earliest surviving Achaemenid inscription, the Behistun Inscription). (Persian literature was considered by Goethe one of the four main bodies of world literature). The bulk of surviving Persian literature, however, comes from the times following the Islamic conquest of Persia circa 650 CE. After the Abbasids came to power (750 CE), the Persians became the scribes and bureaucrats of the Islamic empire and, increasingly, also its writers and poets. The New Persian literature arose and flourished in Khorasan and Transoxiana because of political reasons – the early Iranian dynasties such as Tahirids and Samanids were based in Khorasan.
Iran poetry is a significant part of Iranian literature. It is characterized as being very “musical” as well as creating detailed imagery throughout. Much of this is a result of the political environment that has existed in Iran. Literature played such a major role in society and to avoid conflict, certain topics were often covered up by using such imagery to disguise it. When translated, this imagery is often reflected as showcasing wit and humor. The musicality of their literature is also evident only when read in its original Persian language; other language translations of these original pieces can lose this highly valued aspect of Iranian literature.
Iranian architecture or Persian architecture is the architecture of contemporary Iran and the Iranian Cultural Continent. It has a continuous history from at least 5000 BCE to the present, with characteristic examples distributed over a vast area from Turkey and Iraq to Northern India and Tajikistan, and from the Caucasus to Zanzibar. Persian buildings vary from peasant huts to tea houses and garden, pavilions to “some of the most majestic structures the world has ever seen”.
Iranian architecture generally displays great variety, both structural and aesthetic, developing gradually and coherently out of earlier traditions and experience. Without sudden innovations, and despite the repeated trauma of invasions and cultural shocks, it has achieved “an individuality distinct from that of other Muslim countries”. Its paramount virtues are several: “a marked feeling for form and scale; structural inventiveness, especially in vault and dome construction; a genius for decoration with a freedom and success not rivaled in any other architecture”.
Traditionally, the guiding formative motif of Iranian architecture has been its cosmic symbolism “by which man is brought into communication and participation with the powers of heaven”. This theme has not only given unity and continuity to the architecture of Persia, but has been a primary source of its emotional character as well.
Many sports are practiced in Iran, both traditional and modern. Tehran, for example, was the first city in West Asia to host the Asian Games in 1974, and continues to host and participate in major international sporting events to this day. Freestyle wrestling has been traditionally regarded as Iran’s national sport, however today, football is the most popular sport in Iran.
The Persian year begins in the vernal equinox: if the astronomical vernal equinox comes before noon, then the present day is the first day of the Persian year. If the equinox falls after noon, then the next day is the official first day of the Persian year. The Persian Calendar, which is the official calendar of Iran, is a solar calendar with a starting point that is the same as the Islamic calendar. According to the Iran Labor Code, Friday is the weekly day of rest. Government official working hours are from Saturday to Wednesday (from 8 am to 4 pm).
Although the exact date of certain holidays in Iran are not exact (due to the calendar system they use, most of these holidays are around the same time). Some of the major public holidays in Iran include Oil Nationalization Day (March 21), Nowrooz—which is the Iranian equivalent of New Years (March 31), the Prophet’s Birthday and Imam Sadeq (June 4), and the Death of Imam Khomeini (June 5). Additional holidays include The Anniversary of the Uprising Against the Shah (January 30), Ashoura (February 11), Victory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution (April 2), Sizdah-Bedar—Public Outing Day to end Nowrooz (April 1), and Islamic Republic Day (January 20).