Food Safari ~ Persian

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Maeve O’Meara enters the saffron-scented realm of Persian food—one of the most ancient cuisines on earth—to discover the secrets to cooking tender kebabs, how the rose water iced dessert faloodeh is made, and why the Persian rice dish zereshk polow is so adored.

Click here for the recipes featured in this episode.

About Persia


Iran, officially the Islamic Republic of Iran, is a country in Southern and Western Asia.  Iran is bordered on the north by Armenia, Azerbaijan and TurkmenistanKazakhstan and Russia are also Iran's direct neighbors to the north.  Iran is bordered on the east by Afghanistan and Pakistan, on the south by the Persian Gulf, on the west by Iraq and on the northwest by Turkey.

Tehran is the capital, the country's largest city and the political, cultural, commercial and industrial center of the nation.

Iran is home to one of the world's oldest continuous major civilizations, with historical and urban settlements dating back to 4000 BCE.  Once a major empire of superpower proportions, Persia as it had long been called, has been overrun frequently and has had its territory altered throughout the centuries. Invaded and occupied by Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and others—and often caught up in the affairs of larger powers—Persia has always reasserted its national identity and has developed as a distinct political and cultural entity.

The name "Iran" has been in use natively since the Sassanian era and came into use internationally in 1935.  Both "Persia" and "Iran" are used interchangeably in cultural contexts; however, "Iran" is the name used officially in political contexts.

Ancient Persia

There are records of numerous ancient civilizations on the Iranian plateau before the arrival of Iranian tribes from the North Caucasus during the Early Iron Age.  One of the earliest civilizations in Iranian plateau was the Jiroft Civilization in southeastern Iran, in present-day Iran's Sistan and Kerman provinces, and may have existed as far back as 3000 BCE.

Elamite Empire:

One of the main civilizations of Iran was the Elamite Empire which started from around 3000 BCE.  It is known as Elam in the Hebrew Bible, where they are called the offspring of Elam, eldest son of Shem.  Elam was centered in the far west and the southwest of modern-day Iran, stretching from the lowlands of Khuzestan and Ilam Province, as well as a small part of southern Iraq.  

Elamite states were among the leading political forces of the ancient near east.  Situated just to the east of Mesopotamia, Elam was part of the early urbanization during the Chalcolithic period (Copper Age).  In the Old Elamite period (Middle Bronze Age), Elam consisted of kingdoms on the Iranian plateau, centered in Anshan, and from the mid-2nd millennium BCE, it was centered in Susa in the Khuzestan lowlands.

As early as the 20th century BCE, Iranian tribes came to the Iranian Plateau from the North Caucasus and/or via the Caucasus.  The arrival of Iranians forced the Elamites to relinquish one area of their empire after another and to take refuge in Susiana, Khuzistan and nearby area.  By the mid 1st millennium BC, Medes, Persians, Parthians, and Bactrians populated the Iranian plateau.

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Median Empire (728 BCE–549 BCE):

In 646 BCE, the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal sacked Susa, which ended Elamite supremacy in the region.  For over 150 years Assyrian kings of nearby Northern Mesopotamia were seeking to conquer Median tribes of Western Iran.  Under pressure from the Assyrian empire, the small kingdoms of the western Iranian plateau coalesced into increasingly larger and more centralized states.  In the second half of the 7th century BCE, the Median tribes gained their independence and were united by Deioces.

In 612 BCE, an alliance with the Babylonians helped the Medes to capture Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, which resulted in the collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Medes were subsequently able to establish their Median kingdom beyond their original homeland in central-western Iran to eventually encompass a territory stretching roughly from northeastern Iran to the Halys River in Anatolia (in what is now the the eastern half of present day Turkey).

The Medes had an ancient Iranian religion (a form of pre-Zoroastrian Mazdaism or Mithra worshipping) with a priesthood named as "Magi". Later and during the reigns of last Median kings the reforms of Zarathustra spread in western Iran.  The Gospel of Matthew states that magi visited the infant Jesus shortly after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (2:1-2:12). The gospel describes how magi from the east were notified of the birth of a king in Judea by the appearance of his star.

The Medes are credited with the foundation of Iran as a nation and empire, and established the first Iranian empire, the largest of its day until Cyrus II established an unified empire of the Medes and Persians leading to the Achaemenian Empire in 650 BCE.

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Achaemenid Empire (650 BCE–330 BCE):

Cyrus II, also known as Cyrus the Great, overthrew the Medes, Lydians, and Babylonians, creating an empire far larger than Assyria.  Under his rule, the empire embraced all the previous civilized states of the ancient Near East, expanded vastly and eventually conquered most of Southwest Asia and much of Central Asia, parts of Europe and Caucasus.  From the Mediterranean sea and Hellespont in the west to the Indus River in the east, Cyrus created the largest empire the world had yet seen.

The rules and ethics emanating from Zoroaster's teachings were strictly followed by the Achaemenids who introduced and adopted policies based on human rights, equality and banning of slavery.  Zoroastrianism spread unimposed during the time of the Achaemenids and through contacts with the exiled Jewish people in Babylon freed by Cyrus, Zoroastrian concepts further propagated and influenced the Abrahamic religions.

Cyrus respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered.  The Achaemenid Empire founded by Cyrus is most noted for its very successful model for centralized administration and establishing a government working to the advantage and profit of its subjects.  Aside from his own nation, Persia (modern Iran), Cyrus also left a lasting legacy on the Jewish religion through his Edict of Restoration, whereby the Hebrew exiles in Babylon were liberated and encouraged to resettle and rebuild Jerusalem and their temple, earning him an honored place in Judaism as the only Gentile in Jewish history to be referred to as "the anointed of the Lord" or a "Messiah." Glorified by Ezra, and by Isaiah, Cyrus the Great is the one to whom "Yahweh, the God of heaven" has given "all the Kingdoms of the earth".

Cyrus is also well recognized for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy, as well as his influence on both Eastern and Western civilizations.  To date, Cyrus and his historical signature define the national identity for many Iranians.  Cyrus and, indeed, the Achaemenid influence in the ancient world also extended as far as Athens, where many Athenians adopted aspects of the Achaemenid Persian culture as their own, in a reciprocal cultural exchange.

After the death of his father, Cyrus II, Cambyses II conquered Ancient Egypt, overthrowing the Dynasty XXVI.  When he became ill and died before, or while, leaving Egypt, it resulted in a succession crisis.  The winner, Darius I, based his claim on membership in a collateral line of the Achaemenid Dynasty.

Darius I, also known as also known as Darius the Great, expanded his empire by conquering Thrace and Macedon, and invading Scythia, home of the Scythians, Iranian tribes who had invaded Media and had previously killed Cyrus the Great.  Darius also worked on construction projects throughout the empire with many massive architectural projects including magnificent palaces in Persepolis and Susa.  He also rebuilt a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea, a forerunner of the modern Suez Canal.  He improved the extensive road system, including the Royal Road, a great highway stretching all the way from Susa to Sardis with posting stations at regular intervals.  Major reforms took place under Darius.  Under Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great, the Persian Empire eventually became the largest empire in human history up until that point, ruling and administrating over most of the then known world.  The Persian Empire represented the world's first superpower, that was based on a model of tolerance and respect for other cultures and religions.

In 499 BCE, Athens lent support to the sacking of the Persian ruled Sardis.  This resulted in the Greco-Persian Wars which lasted until 449 BCE.  In 404 BCE, following the death of Darius II, Egypt rebelled under Amyrtaeus.  Later Egyptian Pharaohs successfully resisted Persian attempts to reconquer Egypt until 343 BCE when Egypt was reconquered by Artaxerxes III.

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Seleucid Empire (312 BCE–63 BCE):

Starting in 334 BCE Alexander the Great, also known as "the accursed Alexander", defeated Darius III in the battles of Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela, swiftly conquering the Persian Empire by 331 BCE.  Alexander's empire broke up shortly after his death, and Alexander's general, Seleucus I Nicator, took control of Persia, Mesopotamia, and later Syria and Asia Minor.

Seleucus I Nicator was the first ruler of the Seleucid Dynasty.  Greek became the common tongue of diplomacy and literature.

The Hellenization of the Seleucid empire was achieved by the establishment of Greek cities throughout the empire.  Historically significant towns and cities, such as Antioch, were created or renamed with more appropriate Greek names.  The creation of new Greek cities and towns was aided by the fact that the Greek mainland was overpopulated and therefore made the vast Seleucid empire ripe for colonization.  Colonization was used to further Greek interest while facilitating the assimilation of many native groups.  Socially, this led to the adoption of Greek practices and customs by the educated native classes in order to further themselves in public life and the ruling Macedonian class gradually adopted some of the local traditions.

By 313 BCE, Hellenic ideas had begun their almost 250-year expansion into the Near East, Middle East, and Central Asian cultures.  It was the empire's governmental framework to rule by establishing hundreds of cities for trade and occupational purposes.  Many of the existing cities began—or were compelled by force—to adopt Hellenized philosophic thought, religious sentiments, and politics.  Synthesizing Hellenic and indigenous cultural, religious, and philosophical ideas met with varying degrees of success— resulting in times of simultaneous peace and rebellion in various parts of the empire.

Overland trade brought about some fascinating cultural exchanges.  Buddhism came in from India, while Zoroastrianism travelled west to influence Judaism.

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Parthian Empire (248 BCE224 CE):

The Parthian Empire, also known as the Arsacid Empire, was a major Iranian political and cultural power in ancient Persia.  It was created by, Arsaces I of Parthia, when as leader of the Parni tribe, he conquered the Parthia region in Iran's northeast in rebellion against the Seleucid EmpireMithridates I of Parthia (171–138 BCE) greatly expanded the empire by seizing Media and Mesopotamia from the Seleucids.  At its height, the Parthian Empire stretched from the northern reaches of the Euphrates, in what is now south-eastern Turkey, to eastern Iran.

The empire, located on the Silk Road trade route between the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean Basin and Han Empire of China, became a center of trade and commerce.  The Parthians largely adopted the art, architecture, religious beliefs, and royal insignia of their culturally heterogeneous empire, which encompassed Persian, Hellenistic, and regional cultures.

Parthia was the Eastern arch-enemy of the Roman Empire; and it limited Rome's expansion beyond Cappadocia (central Anatolia).  The Roman–Parthian Wars (66 BCE - 217 CE) were a series of conflicts between the Parthian Empire and the Romans.  It was the first series of conflicts in what would become 719 years of Roman–Persian Wars.

However, frequent civil war between Parthian contenders to the throne proved more dangerous than foreign invasion, and Parthian power evaporated when Ardashir I, ruler of Estakhr in Fars, revolted against the Arsacids and killed their last ruler, Artabanus IV, in 224 CE, although the Arsacid dynasty lived on through the Arsacid Dynasty of Armenia.

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Sassanid Empire (224 CE–651 CE):

The first Shah of the Sassanid Empire, Ardashir I, started reforming the country both economically and militarily.  The empire's territory encompassed all of today's Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Afghanistan, eastern parts of Turkey, and parts of Syria, Pakistan, Caucasia, Central Asia, India and Arabia.  During Khosrau II's rule in 590–628, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon were also annexed to the Empire.

The Sassanid kings were enlightened patrons of letters and philosophy.  There was a major school, called the Grand School, in the capital.  In the beginning, only 50 students were allowed to study at the Grand School.  In less than 100 years, enrollment at the Grand School was over 30,000 students.

Under Khosrau I (531-579 AD), the college of Gundishapur, which had been founded in the 5th Century, became "the greatest intellectual center of the time", drawing students and teachers from every quarter of the known world.  The faculty were versed not only in the Zoroastrian and Persian traditions, but in Greek and Indian learning as well.  Khosrau I had the works of Plato and Aristotle translated into Pahlavi taught at Gundishapur, and even read them himself.  He also turned towards the east, and sent the famous physician Borzouye to invite Indian and Chinese scholars to Gondeshapur.  These visitors translated Indian texts on astronomy, astrology, mathematics and medicine and Chinese texts on herbal medicine and religion.

Gundishapur was the most important medical center throughout the ancient world during the 6th and 7th centuries.  In addition to systemizing medical treatment and knowledge, the scholars of the academy also transformed medical education; rather than apprenticing with just one physician, medical students were required to work in the hospital under the supervision of the whole medical faculty.  Graduates had to pass exams in order to practice as accredited Gondeshapur physicians.  These traditions have been universally adopted ever since.

Artistically, the Sassanid period witnessed some of the highest achievements of Persian civilization.  Much of what later became known as Muslim culture, including architecture and writing, was originally drawn from Persian culture.  It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art.

The Sassanid Empire was recognized as one of the two main powers in Western Asia and Europe, alongside the Roman Empire and its successor, the Byzantine Empire, for a period of more than 400 years.  The Sassanid period was marked by first the Roman-Persian Wars, and then the Byzantine–Sassanid Wars.  Nonetheless, in many ways, the Sassanid period witnessed the peak of ancient Persian civilization.  Not only did Persia influenced Roman civilization considerably during the Sassanid period, the Sassanids' cultural influence extended far beyond the empire's territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India.

The Sassanid era is considered to have been one of Persia's most important and influential historical periods, and constituted the last great Perisan empire before the Muslim conquest and the adoption of Islam.  The Sassanid Empire lasted until Yazdegerd III lost control of his empire in a series of invasions from the Arab Caliphate.

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Medieval Ages & Early Modern Era:

The Muslim conquest of Persia led to the end of the Sassanid Empire in 644, the fall of Sassanid dynasty in 651 and the eventual decline of the Zoroastrian religion in Persia.

Many provinces in Iran defended themselves against the Arab invaders, although none in the end were able to repulse the invaders.  However, when the Arabs had subdued the country, many of the cities rose in rebellion, killing Arab governors, although reinforcement by Arab armies succeeded in putting down the rebellions.

Umayyad Caliphate (661–750):

After the fall of Sassanian dynasty, the Arab Umayyad Caliphate, from its capital in Damascus in Syria, adopted many Persian customs especially the administrative and the court mannerisms.

Iran was gradually Islamized, however, it was not Arabized.  Occasional acts of violence did take place, with Zoroastrian scriptures being burned and Zoroastrian priests being executed.  By the 9th century, Islam became a dominant religion in Persia and the conversion of Iranians to Islam brought profound changes to their life and culture.  However, in some regions, such as the Fars province, Zoroastrianism remained strong up to the 9th century, although Sufis brought mass conversion of Zoroastrians to Islam in the 10th century.

Sufis were characterized by their attachment to dhikr (a practice of repeating the names of God) and asceticismSufism gained adherents among a number of Muslims as a reaction against the worldliness of the early Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 CE).  Among the major Persian Muslims who cultivated Sufism and helped the spread of Islam through Sufism, one can mention, among several others, Hallaj, Hasan Basri, Bayazid Bastami, Abdul-Qadir Gilani, and Jalaluddin Rumi (best known throughout the Western world simply as "Rumi").

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Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258):

With the death of the Umayyad Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik in 743 CE, the Islamic world was launched into civil war.  The Abbasid Caliphate emerged victorious.  One of the first changes the Abbasids made after taking power from the Umayyads was to move the empire's capital to Iraq, which was was influenced by Persian history and culture.  The city of Baghdad was constructed on the Tigris River, in 762 CE, to serve as the new Abbasid capital.  A new Persian bureaucracy began to replace the old Arab aristocracy, and the entire administration reflected these changes, demonstrating that the new dynasty was different in many ways to the Umayyads.

Culturally, Iranians preserved their language, while they used Arabic for scientific and philosophical discourses.  During this era, Iranians continued on a much larger scale the cultural and scientific enterprises set up by the Sassanids.  The blossoming Persian literature, philosophy, medicine, and art became major elements in the forming Muslim civilization.  The Islamic Golden Age, which is characterized by developments in science, owed to a large extent its importance to vital contributions made by Iranians.  The Islamic Golden Age reached its peak in the 10th and 11th centuries, during which Persia was the main theatre of scientific activity.  The Persian influence of this period relied heavily upon the achievements of the Sassanids.

By the 9th century, Abbasid control began to wane as a series of native Iranian dynasties, some with considerable influence and power, sprang up in different parts of Persia to challenge the central authority of the Abbasid caliphate.  Among the most important of these overlapping dynasties were the Tahirids in Khorasan (820–72); the Saffarids in Sistan (867–903); and the Samanids (875–1005), originally at Bokhara.  The Samanids eventually ruled an area from central Iran to Pakistan.

By the early 10th century, the Abbasids almost lost control to the growing Persian faction known as the Buwayhid dynasty (934–1055).  Since much of the Abbasid administration had been Persian anyway, the Buwayhid were quietly able to assume real power in Baghdad.  The Buwayhid were defeated in the mid-11th century by the Seljuq Turks.

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The Great Seljuq Empire (1037–1194):

The Seljuq Turks slowly conquered Iran over the course of the 11th century.  The dynasty had its origins in the Turcoman tribal confederations of Central Asia and marked the beginning of Turkic power in the Middle East.  They established a Sunni Muslim dynasty that ruled parts of Central Asia and the Middle East from the 11th to 14th centuries.  They set up an empire known as Great Seljuq Empire that stretched from Anatolia in the west to western Afghanistan in the east and the western borders of (modern-day) China in the northeast; and was the target of the First Crusade.  Today they are regarded as the cultural ancestors of the Western Turks, the present-day inhabitants of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan, and they are remembered as great patrons of Persian culture, art, literature, and language.

The cultural revival of the post-Abbasid period led to a resurfacing of Iranian national identity.  Iranian culture re-emerged with a separate and distinctive character and made an immense contribution to the Islamic civilization.  The most notable effect of the movement was the continuation of the Persian language, the official language of Iran to the present day.  Ferdowsi, Iran's greatest epic poet, is regarded today as the most important figure in maintaining the Persian language.

Iranian philosophy after the Islamic conquest is characterized by different interactions with Old Iranian philosophy, with Ancient Greek philosophy, and with the development of Islamic philosophyIlluminationism and transcendent theosophy are regarded as two of the main philosophical traditions of this era in Persia.  These movements continued well into the 11th century, during which the Nizamiyya University was founded.  Offering free education, it has been described as the "largest university of the Medieval world".  Hundreds of Iranian scholars and scientists contributed greatly to technology, science, and medicine, later influencing the rise of European sciences during the Renaissance.

When Islam came through Iran, what developed was an Iranian or Persian Islam rather than the original Arab Islam.  It was this Persian Islam and Sufism which was brought to new areas and new peoples such as the Turks of Central Asia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Indian subcontinent.

Under Malik Shah (1072–1092), Iran enjoyed a cultural and scientific renaissance, largely attributed to his brilliant Iranian vizier, Nizam al Mulk.  These leaders established the observatory where Omar Khayyám, a Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and poet, did much of his experimentation for a new calendar, and they built religious schools in all the major towns.  They brought the Persian-born Abu Hamid Ghazali, one of the greatest Islamic theologian, jurist, philosopher and mystic, and other eminent scholars to the Seljuq capital at Baghdad and encouraged and supported their work.

When Malik Shah I died in 1092, the empire split as his brother and four sons quarrelled over the apportioning of the empire among themselves.  As Seljuq power in Iran weakened, other dynasties began to step up in its place, including a briefly resurgent Abbasid caliphate and the Khwarezmshahs.  Although the Khwarezmid Empire only lasted for a few decades, it had gained the submission of most of Iran, by the time of the arrival of the Mongols.

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Mongol Rule (1219-1452):

Genghis Khan had unified the Mongols, and under him the Mongol Empire quickly expanded in several directions.  The Mongol invasion of Iran began in 1219 CE, after two diplomatic missions to Khwarezm sent by Genghis Khan had been massacred.

The Mongol invasion was disastrous to the Iranians.  Although the Mongol invaders were eventually converted to Islam and accepted the culture of Iran, the Mongol destruction of the Islamic heartland marked a major change of direction for the region.  Much of the six centuries of Islamic scholarship, culture, and infrastructure was destroyed as the invaders burned libraries, and replaced mosques with Buddhist temples.

Destruction of qanat irrigation systems destroyed the pattern of relatively continuous settlement, producing numerous isolated oasis cities in a land where they had previously been rare.  A large number of people, particularly males, were killed; between 1220 CE and 1258 CE, the total population of Iran may have dropped from 2.5 million to 250,000 as a result of mass extermination and famine.

After Genghis' death, Iran was ruled by several Mongol commanders.  Genghis' grandson, Hulagu Khan, was tasked with expanding the Mongol empire in Iran in 1255.  Arriving with an army, Hulagu Khan established himself in the region and founded the Ilkhanate, which would rule Iran for the next eighty years.  He seized Baghdad in 1258 and put the last Abbasid caliph to death.  The westward advance of his forces was stopped by the Mamelukes, however, at the Battle of Ain Jalut in Palestine in 1260.

The rule of Hulagu's great-grandson, Ghazan Khan (1295–1304) saw the establishment of Islam as the state religion of the Ilkhanate.  Ghazan Khan and his famous Iranian vizier, Rashid al-Din, brought Iran a partial and brief economic revival.  The Mongols lowered taxes for artisans, encouraged agriculture, rebuilt and extended irrigation works, and improved the safety of the trade routes.  As a result, commerce increased dramatically.  Items from India, China, and Iran passed easily across the Asian steppes, and these contacts culturally enriched Iran.  After Ghazan's nephew Abu Said died in 1335, however, the Ilkhanate lapsed into civil war and was divided between several petty dynasties.

The mid-14th-century Black Death killed about 30% of the country's population.  Iran remained divided until the arrival of Timur, who is variously described as of Mongol or Turkic origin.  Timur (also known as "Tamerlane") invaded Iran in 1381 and conquered it piece by piece.  Timur's campaigns were known for their brutality; many people were slaughtered and several cities were destroyed.  His regime was characterized by its inclusion of Iranians in administrative roles and its promotion of architecture and poetry.  His successors, the Timurids, maintained a hold on most of Iran until 1452, when they lost the bulk of it to Black Sheep Turkmen.  The Black Sheep Turkmen were conquered by the White Sheep Turkmen under Uzun Hasan in 1468; Uzun Hasan and his successors were the masters of Iran until the rise of the Safavids.

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Safavid Dynasty (1501–1736):

After centuries of foreign occupation and short-lived native dynasties, Iran was once again reunified as an independent state in 1501 by the Safavid dynasty.  The Safavid dynasty was one of the most significant ruling dynasties of Iran.  They ruled one of the greatest Persian empires since the Muslim conquest of Persia and established the Twelver school of Shi'a Islam as the official religion of their empire, marking one of the most important turning points in Muslim history.

The Safavids ruled from 1501 to 1722 (experiencing a brief restoration from 1729 to 1736) and at their height, they controlled all of modern Islamic Republic of Iran, Republic of Azerbaijan and Republic of Armenia, most of Iraq, Georgia, Afghanistan, and the Caucasus, as well as parts of Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Turkey.  Safavid Iran was one of the Islamic "gunpowder empires", along with its neighbors, the Ottoman and Mughal empires.

The Safavid peak was during the rule of Shah Abbas The Great.  He fought against the Ottoman Empire, recapturing Baghdad, eastern Iraq and the Caucasian provinces by 1622.  Shah Abbas was generally tolerant of Christianity.  Christian Armenia was a key province on the border between Abbas' realm and the Ottoman Empire.  From 1604, Abbas implemented a "scorched earth" policy in the region to protect his north-western frontier against any invading Ottoman forces, a policy which involved the forced resettlement of over 150,000 Armenians from their homelands.  Many were transferred to New Julfa, a town with the shah had built for the Armenians near his capital Isfahan.

He also dislodged the Portuguese from Bahrain (1602) and the English navy from Hormuz (1622), in the Persian Gulf (a vital link in Portuguese trade with India).  He expanded commercial links with the English East India Company and the Dutch East India Company.  From their base in Ardabil, the Safavids established control over all of Greater Iran and reasserted the Iranian identity of the region, thus becoming the first native dynasty since the Sassanid Empire to establish a unified Iranian state.  The Safavid dynasty soon became a major power in the world.  Under their rule Persian Architecture flowered again and saw many new monuments.

Except for Shah Abbas II, the Safavid rulers after Abbas I were ineffectual.  The end of his reign, 1666, marked the beginning of the end of the Safavid dynasty.  Despite falling revenues and military threats, later shahs had lavish lifestyles.  The country was repeatedly raided on its frontiers.  Persia's imperial rivals, the Ottomans and the Russians, took advantage of the chaos in the country to seize territory for themselves.

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Qajar Dynasty (1796–1925):

Iran's territorial integrity was restored by an Afshar warlord from Khorasan, Nader Shah. He defeated the Afghans and Ottomans, reinstalled the Safavids on the throne and negotiated Russian withdrawal.  Nader's death was followed by a period of anarchy in Iran as rival army commanders fought for power.  Qajar dynasty eventually triumphed and became shahs of Iran.

By the 17th century, European countries, including Great Britain, Imperial Russia, and France, had already started establishing colonial footholds in the region. Iran as a result lost sovereignty over many of its provinces to these countries.

A new era in the history of Persia dawned with the Constitutional Revolution of Iran in 1906, making the country a constitutional monarchy.

The discovery of oil in 1908 by the British in Khuzestan spawned intense renewed interest in Persia by the British Empire. The Russians and the British continued to fight for economic control of the area in what became known as The Great Game, and during World War I, Iran's neutrality did not stop it from becoming a battlefield for Russian and British troops. In 1919, after the Russian revolution and their withdrawal, Britain attempted to establish a protectorate in Iran, which was unsuccessful.

In 1921, a military coup lead by Reza Pahlavi, a Persian officer of the Persian Cossack Brigade, overthrew the weakening Qajar dynasty and government.  In 1925, after being prime minister for a couple of years, Reza Pahlavi became the Shah of Iran and established the Pahlavi dynasty.

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Effy Jewelers

Modern Iran

The 20th century was marked by much political and social upheavel for Iran.

Pahlavi Dynasty (1925–1979):

Reza Shah Pahlavi initiated industrialization, railroad construction, and the establishment of a national education system.  Reza Shah sought to balance Russian and British influence, but when World War II started, his nascent ties to Germany alarmed Britain and Russia.  In 1941, Britain and the USSR invaded Iran to use Iranian railroad capacity during World War II.  The Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

In 1951, after the assassination of prime minister Ali Razmara, Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh was elected prime minister by a parliamentary vote which was then ratified by the Shah.  As prime minister, Mosaddegh became enormously popular in Iran after he nationalized Iran's petroleum industry and oil reserves.  In response, the British government, headed by Winston Churchill, embargoed Iranian oil and successfully enlisted the United States to join in a plot to depose the democratically elected government of Mosaddegh.  In 1953 US President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized Operation Ajax.  The operation was successful, and Mosaddegh was arrested on 19 August 1953.  The coup was the first time the US had openly overthrown an elected, civilian government

With American support, the Shah was able to rapidly modernize Iranian infrastructure, but he simultaneously crushed all forms of political opposition with his intelligence agency, SAVAKAyatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became an active critic of the Shah's White Revolution and publicly denounced the government.

Khomeini was arrested and imprisoned for 18 months.  After his release in 1964 Khomeini publicly criticized the United States government.  The Shah was persuaded to send him into exile by General Hassan Pakravan.  Khomeini was sent first to Turkey, then to Iraq and finally to France.  While in exile, he continued to denounce the Shah.

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Iranian Revolution and the Islamic Republic:

The Iranian Revolution, also known as the Islamic Revolution, began in January 1978 with the first major demonstrations against the Shah.  After strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the country and its economy, the Shah fled the country in January 1979 and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to Tehran.  The Pahlavi Dynasty collapsed ten days later, on 11 February, when Iran's military declared itself "neutral" after guerrillas and rebel troops overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah in armed street fighting.  Iran officially became an Islamic Republic on 1 April 1979, when Iranians overwhelmingly approved a national referendum to make it so.

In December 1979, the country approved a theocratic constitution, whereby Khomeini became Supreme Leader of the country.  The speed and success of the revolution surprised many throughout the world, as it had not been precipitated by a military defeat, a financial crisis, or a peasant rebellion.  Although both nationalists and Marxists joined with Islamic traditionalists to overthrow the Shah, tens of thousands were killed and executed by the Islamic regime afterward, and the revolution ultimately resulted in an Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Iran–United States relations deteriorated rapidly during the revolution.  On 4 November 1979, a group of Iranian students seized US embassy personnel, labeling the embassy a "den of spies".  They accused its personnel of being CIA agents plotting to overthrow the revolutionary government, as the CIA had done to Mosaddegh in 1953.  While the student ringleaders had not asked for permission from Khomeini to seize the embassy, Khomeini nonetheless supported the embassy takeover after hearing of its success.

While most of the female and African American hostages were released within the first months, the remaining 52 hostages were held for 444 days.  Subsequent attempts by the Jimmy Carter administration to negotiate or rescue were unsuccessful.  In January 1981 the hostages were set free according to the Algiers Accords.

The Persian Constitutional Revolution established the nation's first parliament in 1906, within a constitutional monarchy.  Iran officially became an Islamic republic on 1 April 1979, following the Iranian Revolution.

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Economy and Geopolitics:

Iran is a founding member of the UN, NAM, OIC and OPEC.  The political system of Iran, based on the 1979 constitution, comprises several intricately connected governing bodies.  The highest state authority is the Supreme LeaderShia Islam is the official religion and Persian is the official language.

The economy of Iran is the eighteenth largest in the world by purchasing power parity (PPP) and it is predicted to become the 12th largest by 2015.  The economy of Iran is a transition economy with a large public sector and some 50% of the economy centrally planned.  It is also a diversifed economy with over 40 industries directly involved in the Tehran Stock Exchange.  Yet, most of the country's exports are oil and gas, accounting for a majority of government revenue in 2010.  

In the early 21st century the service sector contributed the largest percentage of the GDP, followed by industry (mining and manufacturing) and agriculture.  In 2006, about 45% of the government's budget came from oil and natural gas revenues, and 31% came from taxes and fees.

Iran is one of the few major economies that has maintained positive growth in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, despite sanctions imposed by the international community as a result of the country's nuclear programContraband, administrative controls, widespread corruption, and other restrictive factors undermine the potential for private sector-led growth.  High oil prices in recent years have enabled Iran to amass $100 billion in foreign exchange reserves.  Whilst this has aided self-sufficiency and domestic investment, double-digit unemployment and inflation remain problematic.  Iran's educated population, economic inefficiency, and insufficient foreign and domestic investment have prompted an increasing number of Iranians to seek employment overseas, resulting in a significant "brain drain".

Tehran is the capital, the country's largest city and the political, cultural, commercial and industrial center of the nation.  Iran is a regional power, and holds an important position in international energy security and world economy as a result of its large reserves of petroleum and natural gas.

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Iran's population increased dramatically during the later half of the 20th century, reaching about 78 million in 2011.  More than two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30, one quarter being 15 years of age or younger.  According to 2005 population estimates, approximately 67% of Iran's population lives in urban areas.  The literacy rate was 80% in 2007.

The exact ethnic breakdown of Iran is unknown as there are no official numbers, however some organizations have made estimates.  The World Factbook released the estimate:  Persians (51%), Azerbaijanis (24%), Gilaki and Mazandarani (8%), Kurds (7%), Arabs (3%), Baluchi (2%), Lurs (2%), Turkmens (2%), Laks, Qashqai, Armenians, Persian Jews, Georgians, Assyrians, Circassians, Tats, Mandaeans, Gypsies, Brahuis, Hazara, Kazakhs and others (1%).  However according to them Persian and its dialects are spoken as first language by 58% while Azeri is spoken by 26%, Kurdish by 9%, Luri by 3%, Balochi by 1%, Arabic by 1% and that some 2% have other languages as first language.

About 11,000 to 40,000 Jews remain in Iran today, still being the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel, but it stood at about 100,000 before the Islamic Revolution.

Iran hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world, with more than one million refugees, mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq.  Since 2006, Iranian officials have been working with the UNHCR and Afghan officials for their repatriation.  According to estimates, about five million Iranian citizens have emigrated to other countries, mostly since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Iran is a diverse country consisting of people of many religions and ethnic backgrounds cemented by the Persian culture.  The majority of the population speaks the Persian language, which is also the official language of the country, as well as other Iranian languages or dialects.  Turkic languages and dialects, most importantly Azeri language, are spoken in different areas in Iran.  Additionally, Arabic is spoken in the southwestern parts of the country.

Most Iranians are Muslims.  Around 90–95% belong to Shi'a branch of Islam, the official state religion, and about 4–8% belong to the Sunni branch of Islam.  The remaining 2% are non-Muslim religious minorities, including Bahá'ís, Mandeans, Yarsanis, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians.  The latter three minority religions are officially recognized and protected, and have reserved seats in the Iran parliament.

The Bahá'í Faith, Iran's largest religious minority with a population around 300 000, is not officially recognized, and has been persecuted during its existence in Iran.  Since the 1979 revolution the persecution of Bahá'ís has increased with executions, the denial of civil rights and liberties, and the denial of access to higher education and employment.

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Women in Iran:

Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution Iran became an Islamic Republic.  The Iranian women who had gained confidence and higher education under Pahlavi era participated in demonstrations against Shah to topple monarchy, not knowing that the regime to follow would strip them from their human rights.  

The culture of education for women was established by the time of revolution so that even after the revolution, large numbers of women entered the civil service and higher education, and in 1996 fourteen women were elected to the Islamic Consultative Assembly.  In 2003, Iran's first woman judge in Pahlavi era, Shirin Ebadi, won Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in promoting human rights.

Women today compose more than half of the incoming classes for universities around the country and increasingly continue to play pivotal roles in society.  As of early 2007 nearly 70% of Iran's science and engineering students are women.  Women make up almost 30% of the Iranian labor force, and the percentage of all Iranian women who are economically active has more than doubled from 6.1% in 1986 to 13.7% in 2000.  As well 27.1% of the ministers in government are women (ranks 23rd out of 125 countries) and 3.4% are parliamentarians (140th out of 157 countries).

The Iranian government requires women to wear loose-fitting coats or cloaks such as the chador in public, as well as a headscarf that covers the hair. Something loose must be worn to cover the body in order to avoid exposure to men who are not kin.

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Persian Culture:

The culture of Iran is a mix of ancient pre-Islamic culture and Islamic culture.  Iranian culture has long been a predominant culture of the Middle East and Central Asia, with Persian considered the language of intellectuals during much of the 2nd millennium, and the language of religion and the populace before that.  The Sassanid era was an important and influential historical period in Iran as Iranian culture influenced China, India and Roman civilization considerably, and so influenced as far as Western Europe and Africa.  This influence played a prominent role in the formation of both Asiatic and European medieval art.  This influence carried forward to the Islamic world.  Much of what later became known as Islamic learning, such as philology, literature, jurisprudence, philosophy, medicine, architecture and the sciences were based on some of the practises taken from the Sassanid Persians to the broader Muslim world.

The cinema of Iran (or Persian cinema) is a flourishing film industry with a long history.  Many popular commercial films are annually made in Iran, and Iranian art films win praise around the world.  Persian architecture is the architecture of Iran that has a continuous history from at least 5,000 BCE to the present, with characteristic examples distributed over a vast area from Turkey to North India and the borders of China, from the Caucasus to Zanzibar.  The Persian Garden was designed as a reflection of paradise on earth..  The special place of the garden in the Iranian heart can be seen in their architecture, in the ruins of Iran, and in their paintings.  The tradition and style in the garden design of Persian gardens has influenced the design of gardens from Spain's Andalusia to India and beyond.  The Taj Mahal is one of the largest Persian Garden interpretations in the world, from the era of the Mughal Empire in India.

Many sports are practiced in Iran, both traditional and modern.  Freestyle wrestling has been traditionally regarded as Iran's national sport, however today, the most popular sport in Iran is football (soccer).

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Tourism in Iran:

Close to 1.8% of national employment is generated in the tourism sector which is slated to increase to 10% in the next five years.  About 2.3 million foreign tourists visited Iran in 2009; most came from Asian countries, including the republics of Central Asia, while a small share came from the countries of the European Union and North America.  However, official figures do not distinguish between those travelling to Iran for business and those coming for pleasure, and they also include a large number of diaspora Iranians returning to visit their families in Iran or making pilgrimages to holy Shia sites near Mashhad and elsewhere.

Domestic tourism in Iran is one of the largest in the world.  Iran currently ranks 89th in tourist income, but is rated among the "10 most touristic countries" in the world in terms of its history.

In general, Iranians are warm, friendly and generous individuals with a strong interest in foreigners and other cultures.  But weak advertising, unstable regional conditions, a poor public image in some parts of the world, and absence of efficient planning schemes in the tourism sector have all hindered the growth of tourism.

The landscape of Iran is diverse, providing a range of activities from hiking and skiing in the Alborz mountains, to beach holidays by the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.  Over the next five years a number of tourism-friendly infrastructure projects will be undertaken on the Persian Gulf island of Kish, which at present attracts around 1million visitors per year, the majority of whom are Iranian.  Iran also boasts cultural splendors.

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Persian Cuisine

Persian cuisine is diverse, with each province featuring dishes, culinary traditions and styles distinct to their regions.  It includes a wide variety of foods ranging from chelo kabab (rice served with roasted meat:  barg, koobideh, joojeh, shishleek, soltani, chenjeh), khoresht (stew that is served with white basmati or Iranian rice:  ghormeh sabzi, gheimeh, and others), aash (a thick soup:  for example Ash-e anar), kookoo (vegetable souffle), pollo (white rice alone or with addition of meat and/or vegetables and herbs, including loobia pollo, albaloo pollo, sabzi pollo, zereshk pollo, baghali polo and others), and a diverse variety of salads, pastries, and drinks specific to different parts of Iran.  The list of Persian recipes, appetizers and desserts is extensive.

Traditional Persian cooking is done in stages, at times needing hours of preparation and attention.  The outcome is a well-balanced mixture of herbs, meat, beans, dairy products, and vegetables.  Major staples of Iranian food that are usually eaten with every meal include rice, various herbs (mint, basil, dill, parsley), cheese (feta or Persian panir, derived from goat or sheep's milk, and sometimes cow's milk), a variety of flat breads, and some type of meat (usually poultry, beef, lamb, or fish).  Stew over rice is by far the most popular dish, and the constitution of these vary by region. 

The traditional Iranian table setting firstly involves the tablecloth, called sofreh, and is spread out over a Persian rug or table.  Main dishes are concentrated in the center, surrounded by smaller dishes containing appetizers, condiments, side dishes, as well as bread, all of which are nearest to the diners.  These latter dishes are called mokhalafat (accompaniments).  When the food has been served, an invitation is made to all those seated at the sofreh to help themselves.


Typical Persian main dishes are combination of rice with meat, lamb, chicken, or fish and some onion, vegetables, nuts, and herbs.  To achieve a balanced taste, characteristic Persian flavorings such as saffron, dried limes, cinnamon, and parsley are mixed delicately and used in some special dishes.  Fresh green herbs are frequently used along with fruits such as plums, pomegranatesquince, prunes, apricots, and raisins.  

To underline both the skill and imagination of Iranian cookery, a few examples of the main ingredients in Iranian specialties would include duck, pomegranates and walnuts; lamb, prunes and cinnamon; and chicken and sliced peaches sautéed in onions and butter, seasoned with cinnamon and lemon juice.  Khoresht Beh (quince stew) is an example of using fruits in Iranian cooking:   chunks of lamb are stewed with slices or cubes of tart quince and yellow split peas; this dish is always served with rice.  Thees are only a few examples of the combination of meats and vegetables, or meats and fruits plus seasonings that may go into chelo khoresh, a favorite Iranian dish that is served at least once daily.  


It is believed that rice (berenj in Persian) was brought to Iran from the Indian subcontinent in ancient times.  Varieties of rice in Iran include champa, rasmi, anbarbu, mowlai, sadri, khanjari, shekari, doodi, and others.  Basmati rice from India is very similar to these Persian varieties and is also readily available in Iran.  Traditionally, rice was most prevalent as a major staple item in the rice growing region of northern Iran, and the homes of the wealthy, while in the rest of the country bread was the dominant staple.  The varieties of rice most valued in Persian cuisine are prized for their aroma, and grow in the north of Iran.

Second only to rice is the production and use of wheat.  There are said to be more than forty types of wheat breads from very dark to very light.  From crisp to limp, and at least one type of flat bread (nan) will be a part of every meal.  There are four major Iranian flat breads.


The climate of the Middle East is conducive to the growing of fruits, and the orchards and vineyards of Iran produce fruits of legendary flavour and size.  These are not only enjoyed fresh and ripe as desserts but are also imaginatively combined with meats and form unusual accompaniments to main dishes.  When fresh fruits are not available, a large variety of excellent dried fruits such as dates, figs, apricots and peaches are used instead.  The list of fruits includes fresh dates and fresh figs, many citrus fruits, apricots, peaches, sweet and sour cherries, apples, plums, pears, pomegranates and many varieties of grapes and melons.

While the eggplant (aubergine) is "the potato of Iran", Iranians are fond of fresh green salads dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and a little garlic.  Vegetables such as pumpkin, spinach, green beans, broad beans, courgettes, varieties of squashes and carrots are commonly used in rice and meat dishes. Tomatoes, cucumbers and spring onions often accompany a meal.  A small sweet variety of cucumber is popularly served as a fruit.

The term dolma describes any vegetable or fruit stuffed with rice or a rice-and meat mixture:  vine leaves, cabbage leaves, spinach, eggplant, sweet peppers, tomatoes, even apples and quince.  The most popular dolmas in Iran today are stuffed grape leaves, which are prepared by lightly parboiling the fresh leaves in salted water, then stuffing them with a mixture of ground meat, rice, chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, split peas, and seasoning.  The dolmas are then simmered in a sweet-and-sour mixture of vinegar or lemon juice, sugar, and water.


Dessert dishes range from Bastani-e Za'farāni (Persian ice cream, also called Bastani-e Akbar-Mashti or Gol-o Bolbol) to faludeh (a frozen sorbet made with thin starch noodles and rosewater).  Persian ice cream is flavored with saffron, rosewater, and includes chunks of heavy cream.  There are also many types of sweets, divided into two categories:  Shirini Tar (lit.  moist sweets) and Shirini Khoshk (lit. dry sweets).  

Shirini Tar consists of French-inspired pastries with heavy whole milk whipped cream, glazed fruit toppings, tarts, custard-filled éclairs, and a variety of cakes.  Some have an Iranian twist, such as the addition of saffron, pistachios, and walnuts.  The Shirini Khoshk consists of more traditional Iranian sweets:  Shirini-e Berenji (a type of rice cookie), Shirini-e Nokhodchi (clover-shaped chickpea flour cookies), Kolouche (a large cookie usually with a walnut or fig filling), Shirini-e Keshmeshi (raisin and saffron cookies), Shirini-e Yazdi (small cakes originating from the city of Yazd), Nan-e kulukhi (a kind of large thick cookie without any filling), and others.  Other popular sweets include Zulbia, Bamieh and Gush-e Fil.


Tea (chai) is the drink of choice on nearly every occasion, and is usually served with dried fruit, pastries, or sweets.  You can usually find tea brewing throughout the day in most Iranian homes.  The traditional drink accompanying Iranian dishes is doogh, a combination of yogurt, still or carbonated water, and dried mint.  Other drinks include sherbets known as Sharbat and Khak shir.  One favorite is Aab-e Havij, alternately called havij bastani, carrot juice made into an ice cream float and garnished with cinnamon, nutmeg or other spices.  There are also drinks that are not served with meals.  These include Sheer Moz (banana milk shake), Aab Talebi (cantaloupe juice), Aab Hendevaneh (watermelon juice), and Aab Anaar (pomegranate juice).



AFRICAN:  Wherever you are in Africa, no meal is complete without a starchy porridge known as fufu.

BRAZILIAN:  An exuberant, colorful mix of Portuguese, African and native foods including some from the Amazon.

CHINESE:  Two thirds of households own a wok and use it regularly, but not everyone knows how to use it properly.

EGYPTIAN:  Beans are used extensively and creatively as a source of protein, fibre, and comfort.

ENGLISH:  "Meat & three veg" originated in the UK with dishes like roast beef, steak and kidney pie, and many more.

FRENCH: The French have elevated food into an art form. Nowhere else is so much attention paid to what people are going to eat and how.

HUNGARIAN:  A fusion of simple peasant food & the elegant, highly developed cuisine from the days of the Austro Hungarian Empire.

INDIAN:  A vibrant, intensely colorful cuisine. Each region of India has its own style of cooking and distinct flavors.

INDONESIAN:  One of the most vibrant and colorful cuisines in the world, full of intense flavor and varied textures.

ITALIAN:  An long-awaited introduction to the kitchens and restaurants of Australia’s top Italian chefs and home cooks.

JAPANESE:  Refined and elegant, its preparation and presentation honed over the centuries so its flavors are pure and delicate.

JEWISH:  While flavors of the Jewish palate are influenced by geography, the constant for Jews all over the world are the Kosher laws.

KOREAN:  Some of the healthiest food on earth, with a near obsession with the fermented vegetable kimchi.

LEBANESE:  Lebanese cuisine is generous and abundant, and this is some of the most exquisite food in the world.

MALTESE:  The rocky island of Malta is home to some beautiful rustic recipes that sing of Mediterranean flavor and freshness.

MEXICAN:  Authentic Mexican food is vibrant, spicy, delicious and fun. It varies according to which region its from.

MOROCCAN:  One of the most cleverly balanced cuisines on earth; spices are used to enhance the flavor of dishes.

PAKISTANI:  Full of marvelous and diverse dishes, it incorporates elements from its neighbors India, Afghanistan and Iran.

SOUTH AMERICAN:  A fantastic fusion of culinary traditions from indigenous Indians, imported Africans, and the Spanish and Portuguese colonist.

SRI LANKAN:  This beautiful spice island is a rich melting pot of every nationality that has visited and traded with it over the years.

SYRIAN:  One of the highlights of Syrian food is mezza, a generous spread of small dishes and the prelude to even more food!

TURKISH:  Nestled between Asia and Europe, Turkish food is an unique and exotic fusion with influences from many countries.


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