The culture of Persia
The culture of Persia (Persian: فرهنگ ایران, transit. Farhang-e Irān), also known as the culture of Persia, is one of the oldest in the world. Owing to its dominant geopolitical position and culture in the world, Iran has directly influenced cultures and peoples as far away as Italy, Macedonia, and Greece to the West, Russia to the North, the Arabian Peninsula to the South, and South and East Asia to the East. Thus an eclectic cultural elasticity has been said to be one of the key defining characteristics of the Persian spirit and a clue to its historical longevity. Furthermore, Iran’s culture has manifested itself in several facets throughout the history of Iran as well as the Caucasus, Central Asia, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia.
The article uses the words Persian and Iranian interchangeably, sometimes referring to the language and its speakers, and other times referring to the name of pre-20th century Iran, a nomenclature which survives from western explorers and orientalists. They are not the same and the cultures of the peoples of Greater Persia are the focus of this article.
Iran has one of the richest art heritages in world history and encompasses many disciplines including architecture, painting, weaving, pottery, calligraphy, metalworking and stonemasonry. There is also a very vibrant Iranian modern and contemporary art scene.
Iranian art has gone through numerous phases. The unique aesthetics of Iran is evident from the Achaemenid reliefs in Persepolis to the mosaic paintings of Bishapur. The Islamic era brought drastic changes to the styles and practice of the arts, each dynasty with its own particular foci. The Qajarid era was the last stage of classical Persian art before modernism was imported and suffused into elements of traditionalist schools of aesthetics.
Language and literature
Several languages are spoken in different regions of Iran. The predominant language and national language is Persian, which is spoken across the country. Azerbaijani is spoken primarily and widely in the northwest, Kurdish primarily in the west as well as Luri, Mazandarani and Gilaki at the Caspian Sea coastal regions, Arabic primarily in the Persian Gulf coastal regions, Balochi primarily in the desolate and remote far southeast, and Turkmen primarily in northern border regions. Smaller languages spread in other regions notably include Talysh, Georgian, Armenian, Assyrian, and Circassian, amongst others.
Persian literature inspired Goethe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many others, and it has been often dubbed as a most worthy language to serve as a conduit for poetry. Dialects of Persian are sporadically spoken throughout the region from China to Syria to Russia, though mainly in the Iranian Plateau.
Contemporary Iranian literature is influenced by classical Persian poetry, but also reflects the particularities of modern-day Iran, through writers such as Houshang Moradi-Kermani, the most translated modern Iranian author, and poet Ahmad Shamlou.
Religion in Iran
Zoroastrianism was the national faith of Iran for more than a millennium before the Arab conquest. It has had an immense influence on Iranian philosophy, culture, and art after the people of Iran converted to Islam.
Today of the 98% of Muslims living in Iran, around 89% are Shi’a and only around 9% are Sunni. This is quite the opposite trend of the percentage distribution of Shi’a to Sunni Islam followers in the rest of the Muslim population from state to state (primarily in the Middle East) and throughout the rest of the world.
Followers of the Baha’i faith comprise the largest non-Muslim minority in Iran. Followers of the Baha’i faith are scattered throughout small communities in Iran, although there seems to be a large population of people who follow the Baha’i faith in Tehran. Most of the Baha’i is of Persian descent, although there seem to be many among the Azerbaijani and Kurdish people. The Baha’i are severely persecuted.
Followers of the Christian faith comprise around 250,000 Armenians, around 32,000 Assyrians, and a small number of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant Iranians that have been converted by missionaries in earlier centuries. Thus, Christians that live in Iran are primarily descendants of indigenous Christians that were converted during the 19th and 20th centuries. Judaism is an officially recognized faith in Iran, and in spite of the hostilities between Iran and Israel over the Palestinian issue, the millennia-old Jewish community in Iran enjoys the right to practice their religion freely as well as a dedicated seat in parliament to a representative member of their faith. In addition to Christianity and Judaism, Zoroastrianism is another officially recognized religion in Iran, although followers of this faith do not hold a large population in Iran. In addition, although there have been isolated incidences of prejudice against Zoroastrians, most followers of this faith have not been persecuted for being followers of this faith.
Holidays in Iran
The Persian year begins in the vernal equinox: if the astronomical vernal equinox comes before noon, then the present day is the first day of the Persian year. If the equinox falls after noon, then the next day is the official first day of the Persian year. The Persian Calendar, which is the official calendar of Iran, is a solar calendar with a starting point that is the same as the Islamic calendar. According to the Iran Labor Code, Friday is the weekly day of rest. Government official working hours are from Saturday to Wednesday (from 8 am to 4 pm).
Although the date of certain holidays in Iran are not exact (due to the calendar system they use, most of these holidays are around the same time), some of the major public holidays in Iran include Oil Nationalization Day (20 March), Nowrooz—which is the Iranian equivalent of New Years (20 March), the Prophet’s Birthday and Imam Sadeq (4 June), and the Death of Imam Khomeini (5 June). Additional holidays include The Anniversary of the Uprising Against the Shah (30 January), Ashoura (11 February), Victory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution (2 April), Sizdah-Bedar—Public Outing Day to end Nowrooz (1 April), and Islamic Republic Day (20 January).
There are two stages in a typical wedding ritual in Iran. Usually, both phases take place in one day. The first stage is known as “Aghd”, which is basically the legal component of marriage in Iran. In this process, the Bride and Groom, as well as their respective guardians, sign a marriage contract. This phase usually takes place in the bride’s home. After this legal process is over, the second phase, “Jashn-e Aroosi” takes place. In this step, which is basically the wedding reception, where actual feasts and celebrations are held, typically lasts from about 3–7 days. The ceremony takes place in a decorated room with flowers and a beautifully decorated spread on the floor. This spread is typically passed down from mother to daughter and is composed of very nice fabric such as “Termeh” (cashmere), “Atlas” (gold embroidered satin), or “Abraham” (silk).
Items are placed on this spread: a Mirror (of fate), two Candelabras (representing the bride and groom and their bright future), a tray of seven multi-colored herbs and spices (including poppy seeds, wild rice, angelica, salt, nigella seeds, black tea, and frankincense). These herbs and spices play specific roles ranging from breaking spells and witchcraft to blinding the evil eye, to burning evil spirits. In addition to these herbs/spices, a special baked and decorated flatbread, a basket of decorated eggs, decorated almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts (in their shell to represent fertility), a basket of pomegranates/apples (for a joyous future as these fruits are considered divine), a cup of rose water (from special Persian roses)—which helps perfume the air, a bowl made out of sugar (apparently to sweeten life for the newlywed couple), and a brazier holding burning coals and sprinkled with wild rue (as a way to keep the evil eye away and to purify the wedding ritual) are placed on the spread as well. Finally, there are additional items that must be placed on the spread, including a bowl of gold coins (to represent wealth and prosperity), a scarf/shawl made of silk/fine fabric (to be held over the bride and groom’s head at certain points in the ceremony), two sugar cones—which are ground above the bride and groom’s head, thus symbolizing sweetness/happiness, a cup of honey (to sweeten life), a needle and seven strands of colored thread (the shawl that is held above the bride and groom’s head is sewn together with the string throughout the ceremony), and a copy of the couple’s Holy Book (other religions require different texts); but all of these books symbolize God’s blessing for the couple. An early age in marriage—especially for brides—is a long documented feature of marriage in Iran. While the people of Iran have been trying to legally change this practice by implementing a higher minimum in marriage, there have been countless blocks to such an attempt. Although the average age of women being married has increased by about five years in the past couple decades, young girls being married is still common feature of marriage in Iran—even though there is an article in the Iranian Civil Code that forbid the marriage of women younger than 15 years of age and males younger than 18 years of age.
In Iran, Persian rugs have always been a vital part of the Persian culture.
Iranians were some of the first people in history to weave carpets. First deriving from the notion of basic need, the Persian rug started out as a simple/pure weave of fabric that helped nomadic people living in ancient Iran stay warm from the cold, damp ground. As time progressed, the complexity and beauty of rugs increased to a point where rugs are now bought as decorative pieces. Because of the long history of fine silk and wool rug weaving in Iran, Persian rugs are world-renowned as some of the most beautiful, intricately designed rugs available. Around various places in Iran, rugs seem to be some of the most prized possessions of the local people. Iran currently produces more rugs and carpets than all other countries in the world put together. (Persian Carpet)
With 300 international awards in the past 10 years, Iranian films continue to be celebrated worldwide. The best known Persian directors are Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, Jafar Panahi and Asghar Farhadi.
There is a resurgence of interest in Iranian contemporary artists and in artists from the larger Iranian diaspora. Key notables include Shirin Aliabadi, Mohammed Ehsai, Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, Golnaz Fathi, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Parastou Forouhar, Pouran Jinchi, Farhad Moshiri, Shirin Neshat, Parviz Tanavoli, Y. Z. Kami, and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi.
The music of Persia dates to before the days of Barbod in the royal Sassanid courts. This is where many music cultures trace their distant origins.
- The game of Polo originated with Iranian tribes in ancient times and was regularly seen throughout the country until the revolution of 1979 where it became associated with the monarchy. It continues to be played, but only in rural areas and discreetly. Recently, as of 2005, it has been acquiring an increasingly higher profile. In March 2006, there was a highly publicised tournament and all significant matches are now televised.
- The Iranian Zoor Khaneh
Women in Persian culture
Since the 1979 Revolution, Iranian women have had more opportunities in some areas and more restrictions in others. One of the striking features of the Revolution was the large-scale participation of women from traditional backgrounds in demonstrations leading up to the overthrow of the monarchy. The Iranian women who had gained confidence and higher education during the Pahlavi era participated in demonstrations against the Shah to topple the monarchy. The culture of education for women was established by the time of revolution so that even after the revolution, large numbers of women entered civil service and higher education, and in 1996 fourteen women were elected to the Islamic Consultative Assembly. In 2003, Iran’s first woman judge during the Pahlavi era, Shirin Ebadi, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in promoting human rights.
According to a UNESCO world survey, at the primary level of enrollment Iran has the highest female to male ratio in the world among sovereign nations, with a female to male ratio of 1.22 : 1.00. By 1999, Iran had 140 female publishers, enough to hold an exhibition of books and magazines published by women. As of 2005, 65% of Iran’s university students and 43% of its salaried workers were women. and as of early 2007, nearly 70% of Iran’s science and engineering students are women. This has led to many female school and university graduates being under-utilized. This is beginning to have an effect on Iranian society and was a contributing factor to protests by Iranian youth.
During recent decades, Iranian women have had a significant presence in Iran’s scientific movement, art movement, literary new wave and contemporary Iranian cinema. Women account for 60% of all students in the natural sciences, including one in five PhD students.
Iranians celebrate the following days based on a solar calendar, in addition to important religious days of Islamic and Shia calendars, which are based on a lunar calendar.
- Nowruz (Iranian New Year) – Starts from 21 March
- Sizdah be dar (Nature Day)
- Jashn-e-Tirgan (Water Festival)
- Jashn-e-Sadeh (Fire Festival)
- Jashn-e-Mehregan (Autumn Festival)
- Shab-e-Yalda (Winter Feast)
- Charshanbeh Suri
Traditional cultural inheritors of the old Persia
Like the Persian carpet that exhibits numerous colors and forms in a dazzling display of warmth and creativity, Persian culture is the glue that binds the peoples of western and central Asia. The Caucasus and Central Asia “occupy an important place in the historical geography of Persian civilization. Much of the region was included in the Pre-Islamic Persian empires, and many of its ancient peoples either belonged to the Iranian branch of the Indo-European peoples (e.g. Medes and Soghdians) or were in close cultural contact with them (e.g. the Armenians). In the words of Iranologist Richard Nelson Frye:
- Many times I have emphasized that the present peoples of central Asia, whether Iranian or Turkic speaking, have one culture, one religion, one set of social values and traditions with only language separating them.
The Culture of Persia has thus developed over several thousand years. But historically, the peoples of what are now Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Georgia, are related to one another as part of the larger group of peoples of the Greater Iranian cultural and historical sphere. The Northern Caucasus is well within the sphere of influence of Persian culture as well, as can be seen from the many remaining relics, ruins, and works of literature from that region.e.g. 1) (e.g. 2)
See also (Persian)
- Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization (ICHO)
- International Rankings of Iran in Culture
- Encyclopædia Iranica (30-volume encyclopedia of Iran’s culture; edited and published by Columbia University & funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities)
- Higher education in Iran
- Cinema of Iran
- Iranian calendar
- Iranian continent
- Iranian Studies
- Qahr and Ashti
- Media of Iran
- Museums in Iran
- Persian cuisine
- Persian theatre
- Persian names
- Persian women
- Persophilia, the admiration of Iranians and their culture
- Taarof (Persian form of civility emphasizing both deference and social rank)
- Iranian Graphic Designers Network – IGDN (Graphiciran.net)
Further reading The culture of Persia
- Michael C. Hillman. Iranian Culture. 1990. University Press of America. ISBN 0-8191-7694-X
- Iran: At War with History, by John Limbert, pub. 1987, a book of socio-cultural customs of The Islamic Republic of Iran
- George Ghevarghese Joseph.The Crest of the Peacock: The Non-European Roots of Mathematics. July 2000. Princeton U Press.
- Welch, S.C. (1972). A king’s book of kings: the Shah-nameh of Shah Tahmasp. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9780870990281.