It is difficult to convey the reality of a land mass of 1,650,000km2, but Iran, with its 31 provinces, is three times the size of France, or the size of the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland combined. The Zagros Mountains in the west form a natural barrier with Iraq, and to the north are the Caucasian republics and those of central Asia, all of which were once within the territory of the former Soviet Union.
To the east are Afghanistan and Pakistan, while the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman mark Iran’s southern limits. It is a land of great contrasts, physically and climatically, as mountain ranges push up the mostly desert plateau of the centre. Apart from the green Zagros chain in the west, there are the snowy crags of the Alborz range in the north, the Makran Mountains in the south and the westernmost extension of the Hindu Kush, which force up the landscape of Iran’s eastern provinces.
This geological ‘upturned bowl’ effect means that towns on the same latitude but on either side of the same mountain range receive very different amounts of rainfall: Dezful (western Zagros, 143m altitude) gets approximately 358mm a year whereas Esfahan (eastern Zagros, 1,570m altitude) receives a mere 108mm.
Much less rain falls in the Great Desert basin, where some areas are pretty much unable to support any life at all. Generally speaking, regions south of latitude 34˚N get rain mainly during January, while those north of this receive most rainfall during the spring, especially April. An exception is the Caspian region, where the heaviest month for rain is October.
Few in the West are likely to associate snow with their mental image of Iran, yet about two-thirds of the Islamic Republic’s land mass usually endures heavy winter snowfalls (January–February) because of the average high altitude throughout the country. Tabriz (1,349m) in the northwest has about 30 days of snow a year, about ten days more than Arak (1,753m) to the east, whereas Esfahan, at a higher altitude, gets about seven days and Yazd (1,230m) about half this.
Of course, areas of very high altitude such as Mount Damavand (the so-called roof of Iran, 5,610m high) and especially its northeast face, Takht-e Soleyman in the Alborz range, and Sabalan (4,500m) near Ardabil in Iranian Azerbaijan have perennial snow as well as glaciers. Indeed, many Tehranis escape the smog and pressure of life within the overcrowded capital by flocking to the ski runs that drape the mountains, within a few hours’ drive of the city.
There are three if not four distinct climates in Iran: most regions have the continental climate of long, hot summers and short, sharp winters. In the northwest, the Iranian province of Azerbaijan shares a similar climate to that of Switzerland, and further east, along the south shore of the Caspian, it is as humid as the south, but without those gruesome higher temperatures. In the central desert region it is dry and insanely hot (NASA’s infrared satellites measured the Dasht-e Lut desert at Gandom Beryan cindering at 70.7°C during the summer of 2005). In August 2015, the town of Bandar Mahshahr in southern Iran recorded a ‘heat index’ of 74°C, the second highest ever recorded.
When to visit
Visits to the south coast of Iran (eg: Bandar-e Abbas) are best made in the winter months of December, January and February when humidity and heat levels are at their lowest, while spring (March to mid-May) and autumn (mid-September and October) are the best times to travel around central and northern Iran. The summer months of June through to early September are best avoided as the temperature can be in the high 40s (˚C), although it is a dry heat except on the south coast.
Take the numerous public holidays into account if your visit is connected with business and/or your time is limited. Try to avoid Ramadan, the first ten days of Moharram (the sacred month) and the first week of the Nou Rouz celebrations, when staffing in offices and government departments will be minimal and all forms of long-distance transport and hotels will be extremely busy and expensive. However, during the Nou Rouz and throughout the high-season summer months, most historical sites and buildings have extended opening hours (until 20.00).
Join Iranians in their mid-winter festivities
Translated as ‘100 days’ before the Iranian New Year, jashn-e sadeh celebrates the most sacred symbol of Zoroastrianism, fire. Festivities include lighting fires outdoors, as well music and dancing. Main events usually take place inside Zoroastrian shrines.
Fajr International Film Festival
Celebrated since 1982 this festival is Iran’s largest cinema happening of the year featuring Iranian as well as international cinema. It is usually followed by the Fajr International Music Festival also held in Tehran with performances from Iran and abroad. February in particular is full of cultural and music events as part of the celebrations of the 1979 Islamic Revolution anniversary.
Dare yourself to jump over a bonfire
On the last Tuesday of the Iranian calendar, this fire-jumping festival is held as a prelude to Iranian New Year (Nou Rouz) celebrations on 21 March, marking the arrival of spring and awakening of nature.
Spread your picnic blanket to celebrate sizdah bedar
On 13th day of the Iranian month of Farvardin, in the much loved Iranian tradition of sizdah bedar, families gather outdoors to enjoy spring, good food and nature.
Spot celebs along the red carpet for Hafez
In the honour of the excellent Iranian cinema tradition, the best films and actors are nominated and awarded this prestigious prize for their work.
Join Iranians in their fasting during the holy month of Ramadan
The holy Muslim month of Ramadan starts in July and lasts into August. Throughout its duration Iranians refrain from drinking, smoking or eating during the daylight hours to teach themselves self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity. Share an evening iftar meal in this atmosphere of love and friendliness.
Drop in to a Zoroastrian shrine for the autumn mehregan festival
Devoted to Zoroastrian goddess of light, Mithra, the festival celebrates light over darkness. It is believed that Romans adopted Mithra worship from Iran and become devoted followers of the goddess.
Observe a religious Moharram procession
From late October into November (depending on the Muslim calendar), Moharram is considered to be the most important Shi’a ceremony. Marking the death of Imam Hossein, the central point of the holiest month of the year are mourning rituals. Mourning processions are held across Iran to express passion and the notion of martyrdom, a characteristic feature of Shi’a Islam.
Leave the dark nights behind with the winter solstice
Also known as shab-e chelleh, this celebration, usually held on 21 December, marks the first of the 40 days before jashn-e sadeh. Of Babylonian origin, the winter solstice celebration dates back to pre-Zoroastrian times and has to date remained an important feature of Iranian cultural tradition.