The area that is Iran today is home to one of the oldest human civilizations and was the center of the Persian Empire, officially the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Dating back to the 6th century BC, they ruled a huge area that covers modern day north Africa, Turkey, parts of the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, all the way to west India. This was an important time for fostering the cultural, technological and religious growth and even today, visitors can see remnants of this incredible period in Iran's past.
Human civilization in Iran dates back to the Lower Paleolithic era (over 800,000 years ago), which is proven by archaeological finds made in the Kashafrud Basin. Some of these can be seen at the Zagros Paleolithic Museum in Kermanshah in western Iran. The Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great and ruled a vast area that stretched from southern Europe to India.
The central location of Persia means that it was subject to many invasions and much turmoil. During the 7th century, the Arabs arrived, followed by the Turks in the 11th century, the Mongols in the 13th century, and finally the Ottomans. This upheaval added to Iran’s colorful past and remnants of the various conquerors can still be seen today. The most impressive examples are Persepolis, Bam and Bisotun. If unable to travel to these regions, the National Museum in Tehran is a good place to learn about the history of the country.
During the 18th century, Iran became closely connected to Europe with Russia and Great Britain exerting pressure on the Iranian government. Oil was discovered in the 20th century, sparking a battle over natural resources – the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was established with the British, which was subsequently nationalized by the Iranian government. This sparked a major break in political relations with Britain, which remains fragile today. Oil, even with sanctions, still remains the major revenue generator for the country's economy.
In 1921, Reza Khan appointed himself Shah and the military dictatorship of Iran began, ruling with an iron fist. Although he is credited with modernizing the country, such as its infrastructure and establishing the first university, he was autocratic, crushing opposition and became known for his excesses. A good place to see how the Shah lived is Tehran’s Sa’dabad Palace, one of his residences. With the populous and religious zealots unhappy, riots ensued, leading to the Revolution. In 1979, the Shah was overthrown and exiled to Egypt and then the US.
From the Shah’s excesses and western influences, Iran’s pendulum swung completely the other way, with the conservative and extremely religious Ayatollah Khomeini taking over and establishing the Islamic Republic of Iran. Calling himself the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah became both the highest ranking government official as well as the highest religious authority. He introduced Sharia Law (Islamic Law).
The Ayatollah died in 1989 and is buried in the Mausoleum of Khomeini in Tehran. He was succeeded by a hand-picked successor, who continues his ideals based on fundamentalism. Iran has since held open presidential elections―some transparent, others not. However, the country continues to be ruled by Islamic extremists and still follows Sharia Law. The political leaders continue to butt heads with the west and the country’s economy continues to suffer under international sanctions.
Iran’s culture is deeply intertwined with its long and rich history, especially from the Persian Empire. Art, literature, architecture, and music have deep roots which are still visible today. In fact, Persian artifacts can be seen in many leading museums around the world, such as the British Museum and the Louvre. Iran’s society has also been strongly influenced by its neighboring countries, such as Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan.
Much of Iran’s culture is reflective in its handicrafts. The art of carpet-knotting dates back centuries and is an important industry. Another key art form is intricate metal and wood work, known as khatamakari or minakari. These handicrafts are still alive and well, and antique versions can be seen in museums while modern substitutes can be purchased at the bazaars.
Art and literature thrived during the Persian Empire and although they have been curtailed by rulers and religious restrictions since, Iranian contemporary art is a proud tradition. There are many talented artists whose works can be seen at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. The Tehran International Short Film Festival showcases leading movie makers in Iran every October.