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The first distinct people to emerge on the Iranian plateau were probably the Elamites, who established a city at Shush in the far south-west. The Aryans came to the region in the second millennium BC, bringing with them some agricultural and domestic skills. It wasn't until the middle of the 6th century BC, when the Achaemenian king Cyrus the Great ruled the region, that Persian history was documented. The Achaemenian Dynasty is recognised as the founder of the Persian Empire, leading to the eventual creation of Iran.

In the 4th century BC Alexander the Great invaded Persia after conquering most of Greece, Egypt, Turkey and Iraq. Despite three conciliatory offers from Darius III for a negotiated peace, Alexander entered Shush. From there, he took some time to cross the mountains to the east, but eventually entered Persepolis. After Alexander's death in 323 BC, the empire was divided into three squabbling dynasties, with Persia controlled by the Macedonian Seleucids. But the Seleucids had problems controlling the numerous feisty ethnic minorities, in particular the nomadic Parthians who came to control most of Persia until the 3rd century AD. The Sassanians came from the central regions of Persia not under direct control of the Parthians. They were an industrious Zoroastrian gang who promoted urban development and encouraged trade, but who eventually set to squabbling and were overrun by the Arabs in 637.

The Arabs ruled until 1050, converting most of the population to Islam and introducing the new Persian script and Islamic culture. They were brought down by a Turkish dynasty, which captured Esfahan in 1051. Despite numerous rebellions, the Turks hung onto power until they were swept clean away by Genghis Khan's rampaging Mongols in the early 13th century. When the Mongols ran out of leaders in the late 14th century, the Timurid Dynasty filled the breach, but was then pressured by Turkmen tribes, Ottoman Turks and European colonialists such as Portugal.

The ensuing Safavid Dynasty (1502-1722) was one of the great Persian empires. The brilliant Shah Abbas I and his successors enshrined Shi'ism and rebuilt Esfahan, but the dynasty's decline was hastened by Afghan invasions in the early 18th century. The Afghans couldn't hold power and Iran was ruled by a succession of variously mad, bad and benevolent rulers until the bitter and twisted eunuch, Agha Muhammed Khan, united the Turkish Ghajars in 1779 and went on to establish a capital in Tehran. The Ghajar kings ruled a relatively peaceful Iran until 1921, managing to remain neutral during WWI, but were not able to prevent a partial occupation by British forces keen to ensure a constant supply of oil.

One of the last Ghajar kings introduced the idea of elections and a legislative assembly (called the Majlis), but it wasn't until the charismatic Persian Reza Khan came along in 1923 that the idea stuck. Reza became prime minister, and commenced the huge task of dragging the country into the 20th century. Iran (the name was officially adopted in 1934) was again neutral during WWII but Britain and Russia established spheres of influence there to shut out Germany. In 1941, Reza was forced into exile in South Africa and his son, Mohammed Reza, succeeded him. After the war, the USA helped persuade the Russians to leave, the young Shah regained absolute power and Iran became firmly aligned with the West.

Over the next 30 years, there was a build up of resistance to Reza, who had adopted the title of Shah, and his regime of repression and modernisation. As the economy went from bad to worse under the Shah's post oil-boom mismanagement, the growing opposition made its presence felt with sabotage and massive demonstrations. The Shah's responses became increasingly desperate and brutal, US support wavered, and he finally fled on 16 January 1979. A couple of weeks later, the acknowledged leader of the Shah's opponents, Ayatollah Khomeini, returned from exile to be greeted by adoring millions. The Ayatollah's fiery brand of nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism led to the efficient establishment of a clergy-dominated Islamic Republic, where the USA was styled as the 'Great Satan' and Israel fared not much better.

Not long after the Ayatollah was proclaimed Emam (leader), Iraqi President Saddam Hussein made an opportunistic land grab in Khuzestan province. It was a disastrous move, embroiling the two countries in a hideous war that killed hundreds of thousands before an unsatisfactory ceasefire was negotiated in 1988. The western powers and the USSR supported Iraq, using 'lesser of two evils' logic, and weapons were only sold to Iran at vastly inflated prices.

On 4 June 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini died, leaving an uncertain legacy. Two months later Hojjat-ol-Eslam Rafsanjani was elected president, a post which had previously been largely ceremonial, and Khomeini's position as Supreme Leader was taken by the former president, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A trade embargo was implemented against Iran by the USA, alleging Iranian sponsorship of terrorist groups throughout the region and destabilisation of the peace process in the Middle East. Following the 1997 landslide election of a moderate Iranian president, Hojjat-ol-Eslam Seyed Mohammed Khatami, many hoped that relations with the rest of the world would improve. However, Iran's relations with Germany (and most of Europe) hit rock bottom in 1997 after a German court ruled that the Iranian government had been involved in the assassination of Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Germany several years earlier.

Khatami's election also prompted the many women and young people who had elected him to hope that the Islamic Republic's strictest impositions would be relaxed. While his presidency has certainly instigated a national dialogue about relaxing government restrictions, the increasing polarization between Khatami's liberal circle and Supreme Leader Khamenei's hard-line fundamentalist supporters may have actually led to more incidents of censorship and discrimination.


Iran's religiosity is its most striking cultural feature - it pervades all aspects of life. The essence of Islam is the belief that there is only one God, and that it is the people's duty to believe in and serve Him in the manner that is laid out in the Quran. In Arabic, islam means submission and a muslim is one who submits to God's will. The most visible daily expressions of Iran's brand of fundamentalist Shi'ite Islam are the modest dress code and behaviour at mosques. The national language of Iran is Persian, also known as Farsi, an Indo-European language. The other main regional languages are Azari, Kurdish, Arabic and Lori (spoken by the Lors); and there are dozens of other tongues throughout the 26 provinces, such as Gilaki, Baluchi and Turkmen. The Arabic script was adapted to Persian after the introduction of Islam, but there is no standard method of transliterating Persian into English.

In Iran, as in all Islamic societies, art favours the non-representational, the derivative and the stylised. Many Iranian art forms predate the Arab conquest, but since nearly all of them reached their peak within the Islamic era, religious influences are rarely absent. Persian carpets are Iran's most famous cultural export, dating back to the 5th century BC, and are still an integral part of religious and cultural festivals (and the economy). The most appealing and melodious traditional music is found among the ethnic minorities, such as the Turkmen, Azaris, Kurds and Lors. Persian poetry first appeared in the 9th century AD, and slowly developed into the enduring canon of epic poems and non-rhyming couplet poems which are part of its cultural treasury today. Persian painting dates back to the Seljuq period, which then faded until the 16th century when it flourished along with calligraphy, especially in Shiraz. Other notable Persian crafts include metalwork, glassware and woodwork, while, more recently, Iranian films have been remarkably successful. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, maker of Gabbeh, is Iran's most controversial, and most lauded, filmmaker.

At its best, Iranian cuisine is very good. It's heavily based on rice, bread, fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit. Meat, usually lamb or mutton minced or cut into small chunks, is used to add flavour but is rarely the dominant ingredient, except in kebabs. Sadly for travellers, this usually translates into the same two or three standard dishes of kebabs or chicken, with rice, vegetables and bread - you need to be invited into homes or splurge on upmarket hotels to eat the best Iranian food. The national drink of Iran is undoubtedly chay (tea), always served scalding hot, black and strong. All sorts of delicious fresh fruit juices, milkshakes and yoghurt drinks are available throughout Iran. Alcohol is strictly forbidden to Islamic Iranians, though it is permitted for religious purposes, such as communion wine in churches, and to non-Muslims with special permission.

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