Why Should I Go to Iran?

Do you want to go somewhere with herds of other tourists or do you want to go somewhere really special and experience something different? If it's the latter, then read on.

Iran is the best kept secret in the Middle East and a bridge between Europe and Asia. It has a landmass 3 times the size of France; an incredibly diverse landscape of massive mountain ranges, prehistoric deserts and ice age forests; a unique climate that allows us to trek and cycle for 12 months of the year; one of the most hospitable and friendly populations in the Middle East; one of the oldest civilizations in the world with a fascinating history and culture. It is a modern country with modern aspirations.

Iran offers some of the finest trekking, mountain biking and skiing in the world.

Myth against Reality

1960 B-movie poster.Our perception of today's Iran is still very much shaped by the ancient Greeks who were the old enemy of Persia (Iran). Remember that stuff you were taught at school about the noble Greeks taking on the wicked Persians at Marathon, while simultaneously inventing an Olympic event? Well, not much has changed since then.

Today, the myth of a wild and hostile country is fuelled by the news media, but the reality could not be more different. Visitors are amazed by the incredible warmth and hospitality of the Iranian people towards them. What's more Iran has one of the most Western oriented populations in the Middle East who are far more open to Western trends than the cultural influences of their Arab neighbours. In some Iranian cities people held spontaneous candle lit vigils for the victims of 9/11.

What Are the Locals Like?
Jon Snow speaking about Iran Iranians are not Arabs and speak their own language Farsi (Persian). Iranians are proud of their distinct Persian identity and culture. For example, they have their own calendar which is different from the rest of the Islamic World and is based on the old Zoroastrian interpretation of the four seasons. "Norooz" or the New Year is on the first day of spring or Spring Equinox. It's the biggest and most important festival in the Iranian calendar. Iran has a young population. More than two thirds of its 70 million people are under the age of 30.

It is a highly developed country with an educated and sophisticated population. This is evident in the wide appreciation of the arts: Iranian cinema has blossomed in recent years with renowned directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, receiving international recognition; Tehran holds an annual international book fair and film festival: the city is a centre for modern art and photography and has many galleries.

Is It Safe?
Iran is one of the safest countries for travellers. The crime rate in Iran is extremely low compared to most Western countries. The anti-Westerner sentiments prevalent in some Middle Eastern countries simply do not exist in Iran. For example, a growing number of Americans play in the Iranian basketball league and are very popular with the supporters. Even the most religious conservative person you come across in Iran would never dream of harming anyone just because they happen to be a Christian or a Westerner.

What's It Like for Women?
Juliet Binoch with Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami in Tehran. Although Iran is an Islamic country, Iranian women are very assertive and actively take part in all spheres of life. Not only can they drive cars, but they race them too. More women enter universities each year than men. They have the right to vote and be elected as members of parliament. They make up a good proportion of the workforce and it is not unusual to see women doctors, engineers and lawyers in everyday life.

Women are not obliged to wear the veil or chador as it is known in Iran. It is sufficient to dress modestly and cover the hair with a scarf. Men too have to observe modesty in what they wear.

Women are highly respected in Iranian society and unlike some countries women are not subjected to constant unwanted attention when they are out and about.

The History Thing
Hilary Bradt speaking about Iran Iran (Persia) is one of the oldest known countries and dates back 2,500 years. The Persian Empire stretched west into the Balkans and eastwards as far as China's frontier. Even Egypt came under Persian rule. The seat of Empire was the magnificent city or Persepolis which was burnt down by Alexander's invading army in the 4th century BC. The remains of the city are one of the world's most treasured archaeological wonders.

Long periods of Iran's history have been dominated by other people, such as the Moguls and the Arabs, but Iran has always bounced back and preserved a strong sense of it's own identity and culture.

What Did the Persians Do For Us?
Where do we begin? According to Jason Elliot's highly acclaimed book, "The Mirrors of the Unseen", it's an "impressive and eclectic legacy" which includes:

the first bankers cheque
the postal service
the earliest electric batteries
the first modern astronomical observatory
the decimal fraction
the foundations of algebra and trigonometry
the almanac
the forerunner to the mechanical clock
the windmill and the waterwheel
chain mail
the first calculating machine
the bull fight
the architectural dome
world's finest carpets and miniature paintings
the earliest ceramic glaze
the domesticated rose
the Arabic numerals
the Arab horse
the Gypsies
the paisley motif
the Taj Mahal
the gardens of the Alhambra
Persian blinds
Persian cats
the founding motto of the United Nations
stained glass
the three Magi (said to have set out from the Iranian city of Qom)
Christmas lights and the tradition of Christmas trees
The Koh-i-nur diamond of the English crown jewels

What's the Landscape Like?
Iran is a huge country. Roughly 3 times bigger than France and 9 times the size of England. It has an incredibly diverse landscape consisting of high mountains, vast deserts and dense green forests. The land covered by Iran's natural flora is four times that of Europe's.

Ski dudes relaxing in the sun. Iran is one of the most mountainous countries in the world. Most of the country is above 450 metres, one sixth of it over 2,000 metres high.

There are two main mountain ranges in Iran, Alborz and Zagros.

The Zagros range stretches for 1,500 km from the border with Armenia in the north-west down to the Persian Gulf, and then east towards Pakistan. As it moves southward, it broadens into a 200 km wide band of parallel mountains alternating with green fertile valleys. Tradition has it that agriculture began in these valleys around 10,000 years ago.

The Alborz range, not to be confused with Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus, is narrower than Zagros but equally formidable. It runs along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea forming a barrier between the fertile coastal plains and the central plateau. Due to its snowy winters there are several ski resorts in the Alborz Mountains. These mountains have many peaks above 4,500 metres. The highest, Mount Damavand (5671m) is a dormant volcano dominating the skyline of the capital Tehran.

Iran has two huge deserts. Back to back they stretch for 650 km, from close to the capital Tehran in the north all the way down to the border with Pakistan in the south east. The Central Desert or "Dashte Kavir" is made up of salt marshes, lakes and seasonal riverbeds. It is largely uninhabited but for a series of oases which follow the route of the Silk Road. The Empty Desert or "Dashte Loot" forms part of the Afro-Asian belt of deserts that stretch from Cape Verde all the way to Mongolia. This extremely dry desert is considered to be one of the hottest places on earth. During the summer months extreme temperatures in excess of 65°C can be reached.

More than 10% of Iran is covered by forests. The most extensive of which are found on the northern slopes of the Alborz Mountains. These temperate rainforests are made up of mainly oak, ash, elm and cypress. There are also forests on the western side of the country mostly on the best watered slopes of the Zagros Mountains. These are of the more sparse type consisting of primarily scrub oak.

Is there much of a wildlife?
Asian cheetahs in Iran.There is an enormous range of wildlife which is normal for a country the size of Iran. Native species included the Asiatic Lion and the Caspian Tiger which are sadly both now extinct. Today they include bears, ibexes, gazelles, onagers (wild asses), wild boars, panthers, foxes, wolves, leopards, falcons, storks, partridges, pheasants, etc. But the most important one is the critically endangered Asian Cheetah which is only found in Iran.

How's the weather?
There are three, if not four distinct climates in Iran: most regions have the continental climate of long, hot summers and short, sharp winters. Due to the high average altitude, two-thirds of the country has winter snowfalls usually in January and February. In the northwest, the Iranian province of Azarbaijan shares a similar climate to Switzerland and further east, along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea, it is humid and warm. The central desert region is dry and warm throughout the year which makes it an ideal destination for winter trekking and mountain biking.

Is the food any good?
Iranian Caviar. Iranian cuisine is one of the world's finest yet least known. It is based on the idea of a fine balance of sweet and sour flavours. The Iranians have as many different rice dishes as the Italians do pasta dishes. These are eaten with khoresht, stews of meat and fruit such as duck or chicken in pomegranate and walnut sauce (fesenjan), lamb with quince stew, and chicken with zereshk, barberries. Iran produces some of the best caviar in the world.