You’re familiar with Iran from the news headlines, but those stories seldom focus on anything positive about any of the countries in the Middle East. So, how much do you actually know about Iran? You might be surprised to learn that the country and its people aren’t exactly what most people in the West assume them to be.
Let’s take a deeper look at this Middle Eastern country, its culture and its incredibly rich history. From ancient facts to modern-day cultural trends, the details will add some fun new facts to your knowledge base and make you feel a little more worldly.
Iran by Any Other Name
Ever wonder who came up with the name “Iran” in the first place? Apparently, the name was first used back in the time of the Sassanids, a pre-Islamic Persian empire that was around from 226 to 651 CE. In their language, Iran literally meant the “Land of the Aryans.”
The name of Iran’s capital city of Tehran also has an interesting origin, complete with a nice side of irony. The name literally means “warm slope,” which is a tad of an understatement, considering that the city has been known to reach epic temperature highs of 109 degrees. Now, that’s a warm slope!
World Class Weaving
When you consider how seriously Iranians take weaving, it’s no surprise that magic flying carpets made their way into Middle Eastern folklore. Iranian weavers have been churning out handwoven rugs and carpets for more than 2,500 years, and they continue to keep the tradition alive today.
Second only to oil as the country’s largest export, Iranian rugs have become legendary for their superior artistry. The rugs are all exquisitely made, but each rug contains one small flaw that is purposely woven in. This is done to acknowledge that only God can achieve perfection.
If you love a good holiday, then Iranians are right there with you. The country has 25 public holidays every year and plenty of festivals to go along with them. Considering that Iran is an Islamic republic rather than a secular country, the government doesn’t hesitate to condone the celebrations.
The trickiest part, however, is figuring out exactly when each holiday takes place. Iran uses three different calendar systems, which sometimes makes it hard to figure out what’s being celebrated and when. Often Muslim clerics help out in this regard by clarifying dates and events for the community.
Shady Air Quality
Tehran is both the capital and the largest city in Iran, but it’s also an eco-warrior’s worst nightmare. Due to several reasons, the city has one of the worst air pollution problems in the world. The large number of factories and vehicles in continuous operation in the city are two of the most significant factors causing the problem.
The fact that Tehran is also home to a large airport probably doesn’t help much either. Back in 2007, the city’s infamous smoggy air was linked to the deaths of 3,600 people in one month alone.
Iran is made up of a surprisingly high number of young people, with the median age being just 32 years old. The young people of the country are among the most socially active in the Islamic world, and they consistently work to secure political change.
One aspect of the law that works in their favor is the fact that Iranian youth are allowed to start voting at just 15 years old. The current Iranian government is structured around a mixture of theocracy, in which priests rule in the name of God, and presidential democracy.
The King of All Carpets
While some small American towns boast novelties such as the world’s largest ball of yarn, Iran once set a world record that is far more impressive. Back in 2007, the country produced the largest hand-woven carpet on Earth. The giant carpet was woven specifically for the Abu Dhabi mosque and is larger than a football field.
Due to its size, the carpet had to be brought into the mosque in multiple pieces, which were then woven together. There were even extra pieces left over after it was arranged to fit the mosque’s unique dimensions.
The Artist Formerly Known as Persia
Until 1935, Iran was known to the rest of the world as Persia. According to rumor, one of the reasons for its name change was that Hitler always mistakenly referred to the German people as Aryans.
This was ironically the name Persians had already been using to refer to themselves for centuries. It was supposedly a Nazi economics minister who first recommended that Reza Shah Pahlavi, Persia’s leader at the time, embrace the country’s legitimate Aryan heritage by dubbing the country Iran. As we already discovered, the name means “land of the Aryans.”
Back in 2012, the Iranian chief of police developed some major skepticism about Google. He announced to the country that the renowned internet search engine was being used as a tool for spies to take unauthorized peeks into the country’s business.
The government took the threat so seriously that they ended up introducing an internet all their own. From 2009 to 2013, social media websites like Facebook were banned altogether by the government, due to the fear that they were being used to organize protests. That, of course, didn’t stop many citizens from accessing such sites via private VPNs.
The Art of Taarof
As many tourists have discovered, Iranians pride themselves on being incredibly polite people. Young people are taught the art of Taarof, which is sort of like the Western equivalent of etiquette. Rooted in Persian tradition, it places a high value on humility and treating guests with the utmost respect.
According to Taarof, you’re supposed to decline anything you’re offered while a guest in someone’s home, even if you would like to accept. The host will then repeat the offer, but you’re still expected to decline. It’s only after the third offer that it’s okay to graciously accept.
Soccer Is the Star Sport
If there’s one sport that Iranians love, it’s soccer. Given how skilled many of its citizens tend to be at the sport, it’s easy to see why soccer has become the sport of champions in Iran. Even Iranian women get in on the game, although they came up against a hurtle back in 2007 when FIFA banned hijabs from the field.
The Iranian men’s team has taken home three Asian Cups and qualified for three World Cup tournaments. The country has also qualified for various Olympic games in all but two years since 1948.
If you’re ever invited to dine with an Iranian family, always observe Taarof by bringing a small gift, such as flowers. Don’t forget to apologize for its inadequacy, no matter how worthy it may be. When it’s time to be seated, don’t be surprised if you’re not guided to a kitchen table.
Iranian families commonly eat on cushions on the floor and shower their guests with huge amounts of food. You may not be given utensils to eat with either. If that’s the case, you’re always expected to use your right hand to eat, as the left is considered unclean.
The Home of the Persian Cat
Given that Iran was known as Persia not so long ago, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s the original home of fluffy Persian cats. These silky, long-haired little guys developed their impressive fur coats to help ward off the freezing cold temperatures in their native Iranian mountain habitats. That’s right — these adorable fur balls were originally mountain kitties!
They were first introduced to the West in the 17th century when Italian traders brought them home to show off in Europe. Back then, they were considered super exotic and were typically only kept as pets by the most elite members of society.
When it comes to oil, the Middle East is undoubtedly where you can find it. About 60% of all the oil in the world comes straight from the Persian Gulf area, which is made up of Iran, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq.
Iran alone produced almost 2,100 barrels of oil a day in December 2019, and that was on the low side. Back in the prime of oil production in 2005, the country churned out almost 4,000 barrels each day. Regardless, Iran still sells significant oil exports to the rest of the world.
The Secret Star of David
Israel once punked the country of Iran with a prank so epic, it went undetected for 30 years. When Google Earth first started releasing aerial satellite footage, Iranian officials were furious to discover that the star of David had been hiding atop a terminal at Tehran International Airport.
It turned out that a group of Israeli engineers orchestrated the visual jab decades ago. While the tile they had originally attached to the building was no longer there, its placement for decades had left an outline on the roof that was just as clear. All evidence of it was immediately destroyed.
Great Persian Poets
While many Westerners think of Iran as a vast desert, it’s actually known for its lush gardens and rich artistic culture. Even the word “paradise” comes from the heart of Persia, where it literally meant “enclosed garden.” Given the country’s love of beauty, it has also been home to some of the world’s greatest poets.
Iranian poets such as Ferdowsi, Hafez and Saadi Shirazi have gone down in history for their beautiful lyrics, and many Iranians know lines of their favorite poems by heart. Among the most celebrated is
The Epic of Kings.
The Asiatic Cheetah
If you’ve never seen an Asiatic Cheetah before, then rest assured that you’re not alone. These days, the species is in critical danger of extinction and only exists in Iran. The few that remain in the country live in very isolated areas where they are able to remain protected.
It’s believed that only around 50 still existed as of 2017, but it’s hard to say for sure. Back in 2014, the Iranian soccer team wore drawings of the rare cheetahs on their jerseys at the FIFA World Cup in order to help raise awareness of the danger to the species.
The Rich Kids of Tehran
If you thought that a pesky national ban on social media could stop kids in Iran from surfing the internet, then the “Rich Kids of Tehran” want to set the record straight. These young Iranian kids have become Instagram celebrities by showing off all the luxuries their super-rich parents can buy.
From lavish parties with plenty of alcohol to flashy vehicles, the extravagant purchases just keep coming. Despite their Beverly Hills-type lifestyles, they do seem to care about shattering Western stereotypes of their country, and they occasionally post politically engaging posts.
Although Iran may seem like it’s a world away, there are plenty of Iranian-Americans whose work has become a staple of Western culture. Pierre Omidyar (pictured above) may not look familiar, but he founded a little online marketplace called eBay. Maybe you’ve heard of it?
Then there’s Dara Khosrowshahi, the former President and CEO of Expedia. He moved on in 2017 after being elected to become the new CEO of Uber. Many prominent Iranian-Americans can be found throughout the business world. One was even responsible for inventing the Hot Pocket, America’s favorite microwavable treat.
In It for the Short Haul
Every law has its loopholes, and according to some Shia schools, Sharia law is no different when it comes to sex. While sex outside of marriage is a crime, the practice of sigheh allows a couple to enjoy a short-term marriage and all the benefits that come along with it.
The practice was already common even before the time of the Prophet Muhammad and was mostly used in times of war, travel or pilgrimage. The couple simply agrees on how long the marriage will last and initiates a verbal contract.
The Three Mysterious Wise Men
While it remains unverified today, many scholars suspect that the three wise men who visited baby Jesus were great Zoroastrian priests from Persia or modern-day Iran. Back in the 13th-century, the explorer Marco Polo even claimed to have visited their graves in a city near modern-day Tehran.
He reported: “In Persia is the city called Saveh, from which the three Magi set out when they came to worship Jesus Christ. Here, too, they lie buried in three sepulchres of great size and beauty… One was named Beltasar (or Balthasar), the second Gaspar (or Caspar) and the third Melchior.”
An Ally to the Trans Community
While homosexuality is considered unacceptable in Iran, the country has a completely different view of transsexuals. This is largely due to a woman named Maryam Khatoon Molkara, who was born as a man. Back in 1983, she convinced former Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa that allowed sex changes under Sharia law.
Since then, the country of Iran has conducted more sex change surgeries than any other country in the world. Not only is the surgery legally acceptable, the government even provides financial assistance to trans citizens who wish to undergo it.
A Surprising Number of Ski Slopes
Skiing may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Iran, but the sport is actually incredibly popular in the country. Iran is home to around 20 functioning ski fields, with the most popular ones located in Tehran, Western Iran and the Zagros Mountains.
Iran’s slopes have become an attraction for international skiers, due to the long season and their incredibly reasonable pricing. Ski resorts are also popular destinations among Iranian young people, as social laws tend to be pretty loosely enforced for all guests.
A Haven for Refugees
Iran has traditionally been incredibly welcoming toward refugees from countries around the world. During World War II, the country took in thousands of people seeking asylum, such as this group of Polish children who were evacuated from the Soviet Union to Persia and Palestine.
In 2018, the UN Refugee Agency reported that around 3 million Afghans were living in Iran, making the country home to one of the largest refugee populations in the world at the time. In 2015, Iran decreed that, regardless of their status, all Afghan children were allowed access to primary and secondary school education.
Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims
In case you’re not familiar with the religion, there are two separate sects in Islam. The split occurred soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE and began as a dispute over who his successor should be. Sunnis believed that the choice should be left up to the Islamic community.
Shiites, however, believed the leadership should be kept in the prophet’s bloodline. While the vast majority (around 85%) of the world’s population belong to the Sunni branch, about 15% are Shiites. Iran is among the few countries with a majority Shiite population.
Probably the Original Home of Polo
Although no one knows for sure when polo was first invented, there is evidence to suggest it was already around before the reign of Darius the Great in 521 to 485 BCE. Many scholars now believe the game originated in Iran as a way to train ancient members of the Persian cavalry.
Known as the “game of kings,” polo appears in the work of the 9th-century Persian poet-historian Ferdowsi in what is believed to be one of the earliest mentions of the sport. He chronicled the tale of a legendary 4th-century Emperor who learned to play at just 7 years old.
Nose Job Nation
While Iran tends to be known for its fairly traditional society, plastic surgery has been on the rise for the past few decades. This is especially true when it comes to nose jobs, as the Western nose shape has become all the rage in Iranian society.
Dubbed the “nose job capital of the world,” Iran is the site of an estimated 200,000 nose reduction surgeries each year. Although the majority of those who go under the knife are young women, the surgery has also become a popular procedure among men.
Iranian Women Get Stealthy
Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, women have been forced by law to wear a hijab (or headscarf) and loose-fitting clothing in public. Back in 2014, however, an exiled Iranian journalist named Masih Alinejad began an online Facebook movement called “My Stealthy Freedom” to encourage national protest.
Iranian women began flooding the page with photos of themselves exposing their hair in public. It also prompted the tradition of “White hijab Wednesday,” when women wear white hijabs or appear holding them in public in order to protest the law. Supportive men even regularly join in by wearing white ribbons.
Plenty of History
The country we now call Iran is the current incarnation of one of the oldest civilizations in history. It is currently home to more than 20 UNESCO World Heritage sites, which range from a 5th-century water system to ancient palaces and gardens.
In 1979, Persepolis became one of the first three sites to join UNESCO, and, today, it remains a monument to the rich culture of ancient Persia. Built under Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great and King Xerxes I, it was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire from around 550 to 330 BC.
Yogurt to the Rescue
Iranians do not play when it comes to their collective love of yogurt. Known as “Persian Milk,” the country has enjoyed a love affair with the tasty treat ever since the days of ancient Persia. These days, yogurt is used as everything from a standalone dish to a popular ingredient in natural medicines.
They see yogurt as a sort of miracle product and use it to relieve sunburn, treat ulcers and enhance beauty. Whether you’re looking to enjoy a longer life or have more energy, you can expect an Iranian to recommend a yogurt-based solution.
While many people around the world assume that Arabic is the national language of Iran, it turns out that’s not actually the case. While some Iranians do speak Arabic, the language is mainly used for religious purposes, as it was the original language in which the Quran was written.
The predominant language in Iran is actually Persian, which is also known as Farsi. Most Iranians speak or understand the language to some extent, and it’s the one most widely used in the country’s literature and journalism.
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