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Unlike many of its neighbors, Iran has a history that is not dominated by the control of other people. Throughout most of its history, Iran has been able to remain fairly independent, which is unique among the Arab nations.
The Elam people were one of the most predominate early civilizations in Iran. They settled to the east of Mesopotamia at around 3,000 BC. In the Early Bronze Age, many of these early people organized themselves into complex cities, even developing their own systems of writing. These records became more tangible in the Early Iron Age, as the Iranian Plateau showed up in several different historic records.
In 646 BC, Elamite supremacy in what is now Iran ended, as the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal sacked the city of Susa. Assyrians reigned for over 150 years, until the Median tribes were able to gain independence in the second half of the 7th century BC. This led to the unification of the land of the Medes and Persians, which was known as the Achaemenian Empire, under Cyrus the Great. Achaemenian king Darius brought many reforms to the land, improving the roads, building a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea and introducing coinage to the economy. This, combined with the conquests of his predecessors, made the Persian Empire the largest and most successful in the world at that time, with the emperor ruling over most of the known world.
In 334 to 331 BC the Persian empire fell at the hands of Alexander the Great. The Hellenic Empire did not live long after the conquest of Persia, and Seleucus I Nicator took control, creating the Seleucid Dynasty. The Parthian Empire, from 248 BC to 224 AD, followed the short-lived Seleucid Dynasty, and they prevented the fall of the region into the hands of Rome. They finally fell out of power when the last king was defeated by a vassal, and the Persian lands fell under the control of the Sassanian dynasty.
The first Shah of the Sassanid Empire, Ardashir I, brought both military and economic reforms. During this time, the country was constantly at odds with the Roman Empire. It was also during this time that much of the culture of the modern Muslim world came into being. By the end of the Sassanian Empire in 651 AD, the land had become decidedly Muslim, both religiously and culturally.
The next period of Iranian history was a period of Islamic expansion. The majority of the people converted to Islam, and began implementing Persian customs into the new Islamic government. The Ummayad Dynasty served to set Islam as the primary religion and culture of the region, adopting Arabic as the official language and pushing their beliefs on to their neighbors in a series of conquests.
This pushed the country into a period of relative unity. While a few groups tried to invade throughout the next hundred years, the Muslim empire was able to maintain control over what is now Iran. This period was known for its solidification of the religion of Islam in the region, and the Sunni people were the main Islamic group in control. The Mongols heralded the downfall of the Sunni Muslims in the 1250s, opening the door for the Shi’a Islamic group under the Safavid dynasty.
The Safavid Empire ruled Iran from 1502 to 1736, when Nader Shah had to rescue Iran from the invading Afghans and Ottomans. He put the Safavids back on the throne, and they ruled until civil war plagued the country, opening the door for the Qajar Dynasty from 1796 until 1925.
In 1908, oil was discovered in Khuzestan, which caused great European interest in colonizing Iran. At this time the Qajar rulers were quite weak, which opened the door for the Persian king Reza Shah to usher in the Pahlavia era. He ruled until 1979, bringing an authoritarian government to Iran and many laws that went against Muslim beliefs.
In the late 1970s, Iran began pushing for independence from the monarchy. By December 1979, a theocratic Constitution was in place, and Iran was named an Islamic republic. Not long after establishing the republic, Iran was launched into war with Iraq, which lasted eight years. After the war, they focused on rebuilding their economy, and were able to remain neutral in the Persian Gulf War.
- Iran was called Persia until 1935. Some people still use the term Persia to refer to the area. Today, Persians are the largest ethic group in the country.
- The majority of Iranians claim to be Shiite Muslim.
- The official language of Iran is Farsi, but many of the people also speak English.
- Iran has one of the most educated populations in the world. A full 75 percent of Iranians are literate, and the majority of the male population will attend university.
- Iran has one of the oldest continuous major civilizations in the world.
- Most of Iran may be desert, but if you head to Tehran, you can see snow similar to what you would see in Denver, Colorado.
- While Islam has dominated Iran as the major religion, the country also serves as the final resting place of several biblical people, including Queen Ester, Cyrus the Great and King Darius.
- In Iran, it is illegal to wear a mullet. It is also illegal to own a dog as a pet.
- Cheetahs, crocodile and the Caspian horse can all be found in Iran.
- While oil is the largest export from Iran, Persian rugs are the second, and their rugs are considered the best in the world.
- Tehran – Iran’s capital city is the place to discover local artists, Persian food and the culture of modern Iran.
- Yazd – See what Iran’s natural beauty is all about in this forested area, which is rich with cozy hotels.
- Kashan – This city is known for its stunning Qajar-era castles.
- Shiraz – Catch some of the architectural history of Iran in this culturally rich city, where you can see what Persian culture is all about.
- Esfahan – Some of Iran’s most beautiful mosques can be found in this thriving city.
- Persepolis – One of the greatest ancient sites in the world, Persepolis welcomes visitors who want to see the glory of the Achaemenid Empire, or at least what is left of it.
- Holy Shrine of Imam Reza – This tomb in Mashhad is considered on of the holiest sites in Iran.
- Choqa Zanbil – This stepped pyramid is a 3,000-year-old historic site that is popular among Iranian visitors.
- Kaluts – Wind-carved sand structures tower above the desert in this uniquely beautiful location.
- Alborz Mountains – Skiing in Iran? It is possible with a visit to the Alborz Mountains. Be sure to see the amazing Castles of the Assassins while you are there.
How to Get Cash
- Iran is a cash-based society, so you won't want to rely on credit cards. They will likely not be accepted.
- The same is true for traveler’s checks. The fact that the country relies heavily on cash makes these difficult to exchange.
- If you have the option to get euros before you come, they are preferred over US dollars because of the instability of US/Iranian relations. Some banks will refuse to change US dollars, so it may take you longer to find a bank you can use to exchange your money.
- ATMs are not easy to find in Iran. It is best to bring sufficient cash with you on your trip.
- In an emergency, you may be able to find a Western Union location, but these are harder to find in Iran than in other parts of the world. If possible, bring all the money you will need with you.