Iran - Background information

Natural history
People and culture 


Abridged from the History section in Iran: the Bradt Guide

Archaeological excavations have revealed a Neolithic period in Iran from around 7000BCE, with early cereal and animal domestication occurring in the fertile valleys of the Zagros Mountains. Evidence of copper smelting, pottery making and textile production have been found, along with evidence of the potter’s wheel, dating from around 3500BCE. The sites of Tel-e Iblis and Tappeh Yahya, east of Kerman, have provided artefacts and clear signs of settlement dating from the so-called Proto-Elamite period, 3200–2800BCE, and the recently excavated (and sadly looted) site of Jiroft has produced exquisite and extraordinary ceramics, as well as evidence of an indigenous writing system unrelated to either cuneiform or Indus Valley script, dating to the end of the 3rd millennium BCE. A recently published archaeological survey (which was actually conducted in the 1970s) revealed that the region between Susa and Malyan is rich in surface finds from the 4th millennium BCE.

Trading contacts with the Sumerians of Mesopotamia (now Iraq) increased as the Elamite centres of Susa and Haft Tappeh were established. It is worth noting, however, that the turmoil following the 1979 Revolution and subsequent Iraq–Iran war (1980–88) made it exceptionally difficult to carry out archaeological digs and research. It would be safe to assume that a lot has yet to be revealed. For today’s visitor, the most important visual evidence of Elamite civilisation is the site of Choga Zanbil, where the remains of a stepped-pyramid temple dominate the landscape, and bear more than a passing resemblance to the great ziggurats of southern Iraq. Political interference by Mesopotamians into Elamite territory and vice versa repeatedly led to armed confrontation, and in c2006BCE an Elamite army captured the last king of Ur, exiling him to Anshan (modern Malyan, southeast of Izeh). Despite stray finds across the central plateau and the stunning material from Jiroft, it is clear that the Elamites never controlled all of Iran. village kandovan iran by m r shutterstock

In the northwest of the country below the Caucasus, archaeological finds from Haftavan and Dinkh Tappeh, near Lake Orumiyeh, reveal that people living here also traded with Mesopotamia, and there was significant technical innovation, with very fine zoomorphic ceramic vessels such as those found in the Hasanlu excavations dating from c1350BCE. Extensive and repeated military campaigns by the martial Assyrian kings throughout the 9th, 8th and 7th centuries BCE spelt the subjugation, if not the end, of most settlements specialising in horse breeding, which were clustered in the high, green valleys of the Zagros Mountains, and communities squatting on the eastern flank of the Zagros were repeatedly devastated.

(Photo: A Kandovan village © M R, Shutterstock)

Little is known of eastern Iran during this time, but by the 8th century BCE, two tribal groupings appear in the west of the country from out of the historical murk: the Medes (from the region of Media, in the north of the Zagros) and the Persians (from Pars, the region around Shiraz). We know about them from the tribute lists of vainglorious Assyrian kings. Both groups spoke an Indo-European language, alien to the dwellers of the Mesopotamian plain and Elam alike, and were linked to one another by ties of marriage, culture and a great love of horses and celebratory, drunken feasting. Initially, the Medes were most successful in pushing back against Assyria, and in alliance with Babylon and the southern Persians they successfully scorched the Assyrian capital of Ninevah in bitter house-to-house fighting in 612BCE. The political convulsions emanating from the overthrow of Assyria elevated Media to the rank of ancient superpower. However, rather than accept Median rule, a Persian aristocrat known to Western sources as Cyrus II (the Great), defeated the Median king – who also happened to be his maternal grandfather – at the site of Pasargadae, and pushed the boundaries of his fledgling kingdom to include the rich Elamite cities south of the Zagros, and out on the alluvial plains. This marked the bloody beginnings of the glorious Achaemenid dynasty.  

Natural history

mountainous landscape alamut iran by maria oleinikThe mountainous landscape of Alamut © Maria Oleinik


The best time to see the natural flora of Iran, some 6,000 recorded species, is around April and early May when the mountains and steppes are once more carpeted with new grass, fruit-tree blossom and masses of wild flowers, now that the high price of imported artificial fertilisers and pesticides has led to a decrease in extensive use. Wild irises and poppies can be seen almost everywhere, but Iris barnumae is found only in the Azerbaijan region and Iris spurgia in the Caspian wetlands. Of the 80 species of tulip, 12 are recorded in Iran, the most widespread being Tulipa biflora. Especially striking is Tulipa clusiana with its red and white petals and the yellow Tulipa urmiensis, found, as its name suggests, north of Lake Orumiyeh. The saffron crocus (crocus sativus), one of the eight Iranian species, is mainly found in eastern Iran and the so-called autumn crocus, although it has six stamens rather than the three of crocuses, is well represented, including the Colchicum persicum of central Iran, which flowers from March to April. The city of Shiraz is justly proud of its sweet-smelling roses, which are used in the local production of rose jam, syrup, and rosewater perfume. And of course most people know of the Shiraz grape. Most of Iran’s vineyards were ripped up during the early years of the Islamic Revolution but there has been extensive replanting in the last decade, albeit not for wine production. 


Serious birders should consider packing a copy of Birds of the Middle East by Christenson, Porter and Schiermacker-Hansen. The desert regions south and southeast of Tehran are home to bustards, coursers, sandgrouse and ground jays, while in the steppes the long-legged buzzard, Eurasian kestrel, various species of roller and bee-eaters can be seen. As one would expect, birds preferring colder temperatures such as the golden eagle, bearded vulture, alpine swift, wallcreeper and snow finch frequent the mountain ranges, while in the forests and woodlands of Iranian Azerbaijan there are wood pigeons, green woodpeckers, shrikes, nightingales and thrushes. Lake Orumiyeh in this region was made a bird reserve in 1967 and a breeding colony of over 20,000 pairs of wintering greater flamingos has been recorded in the past, but with the shrinking of the lake in recent years the population has plummeted. A little further south, the seasonal marsh of Talab-e Aqgul, some 90km south of Hamadan and 20km south of Malayer, is a favourite migration stage for Siberian and Scandinavian wetland birds for some four or five months. The lush wetlands of the southern Caspian shore are wintering grounds for pelicans, Siberian cranes, herons, gulls, spoonbills and cormorants. Caspian seals and otters may very rarely be seen there, but even this tiny vestigial population is under threat from urban development, overfishing and industrial pollution related to oil and gas extraction further north and out in the Caspian. As temperatures drop, so the herons and pelicans, along with plovers, ospreys and oystercatchers, make their way south towards the Gulf, where the mangroves and palm forests are home to oriental Afro-tropical birds such as the palm dove and Indian roller.


The mountains and forests of the north have many types of deer, such as red, roe and fallow deer, as well as the Mesopotamian deer, and predators like wolves and foxes, but hunting (totally unlicensed) has taken a very heavy toll. The Red Caspian deer, which inhabits the lush forests of Northern Iran, is now a protected species. It used to fall prey to shah’s hunting endeavours while now the Persian leopard is its only threat. Wild boar in northern Iran are on the increase, partially due to the cultural Islamic tradition of avoiding these animals and also because there are fewer threats for them than before. There are also a few dozen Persian brown bears remaining in the Alborz mountains area, but their numbers are decreasing due to illegal logging. Wild sheep and goats were once common in the northeast Alborz and north of Shiraz, with wild boars further east and Pazan ibexes in the Bisotun area, but few survive. It seems likely that snow leopards, which once inhabited the area east of Mashhad, and certainly the Mazandaran tigers are now extinct, as is the lion, last seen in 1942. There are few details about the cheetah population, officially estimated at fewer than 50 in number in 1991. Despite the official Asian Cheetah Conservation Project, their probable fate seems as desolate as the deserts they recently roamed. The hotter central and southern provinces of Iran are home to jackals and mongooses, who haunt the ruins of both Persepolis, where they are understandably nervy, and the Sassanid site of Firuzabad, where bolder mongooses fed from the hand on the remnants of the author’s chicken picnic lunch. Date and palm squirrels, gerbils and jerboas also scurry in these regions. Camels, signifier of any desert worthy of the name, are usually dromedary rather than the shaggy twin-humped Bactrians of eastern central Asia. Several areas are known for bat caves: Shapur’s cave near Bishapur for Rhinolophus euryale and Miniopterus schreibersi; the village of Ahmad Mahmudi, southwest of Shiraz, for R. hardwickei and Rousettus aegyptiacus; and the northern shores of Lake Parishan (formerly Famur) nearby for Pipistrellus kuhli.

People and culture

shahdad kerman province iran by maria oleinik

Caught in a Tehran traffic jam, one’s thoughts inevitably turn to Iran’s population. The 1992 census determined that it totalled just under 60 million, with a density of 35 people per square kilometre. In 2013 United Nations figures suggested the population had risen to more than 79 million. Currently, over 70% live in the major cities: Tehran, the capital, with more than 12 million residents recorded in the 2011 census, Mashhad over two million, Esfahan, Shiraz and Ahvaz over 1.5 million each, Tabriz and Hamadan perhaps slightly less, with more people each year moving from rural areas to find work. During Rafsanjani’s presidency (1989–97), 400,000 jobs were created in one year; now 800,000 new jobs are needed each year just to keep pace with the growing population. Iran has also experienced something known as the ‘Japanese curse’ in recent years: despite semi-apocalyptic predictions of the country’s population hitting 110 or 120 million by 2015, Iran has in fact experienced one of the most dramatic declines in birth rate ever recorded. Whereas in the 1970s a typical rural family had five children, now that Iranians are mostly urbanised there are rarely more than two children per family. This is undoubtedly a product of improved education for women and increased access to state-run birth control programmes. These are now being slashed, and in July 2012 the government announced financial incentives for women to have more babies, with Khamenei publicly endorsing the changes. Whether they will have the desired effect remains to be seen; economics is perhaps of greater importance. Ask any Iranian why they would not consider having more children, and the answer will be ‘it is too expensive’.

Much has been made of Iran’s nomads. Apart from anthropological studies, most publications could be classed as romantic fiction, extolling the ‘freedom’ of seasonal wanderings (which are actually finely orchestrated migrations). For decades official concern over epidemics, child education, drug and arms smuggling, national security and taxation led to village-settlement programmes, while the 1960s White Revolution caused serious problems over grazing and water rights for the nomads. It has meant that from making up 25% of the population in 1900, nomad-pastoralist numbers fell to 6% in the 1970s. However, if you happen to be travelling in the Shiraz region during late April or mid/late October, you are still very likely to see one or more extended Qashqai family groups, perhaps numbering as many as 75, accompanied by hundreds of sheep and goats, moving to fresh pastures. Traditional tents are now often fitted with televisions and the traditional horse and donkey replaced by utility vehicle or 4x4, but nomad people are still very much a part of modern Iran’s landscape, even if their political and economic influence has waned even further since Freya Stark and Robert Byron penned their elegies during the 1930s. 

(Photo: Children in Shahdad © Maria Oleinik)

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