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Iran

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Travel Guide Middle East Iran

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Introduction

Palangan Mountainside Village

Palangan Mountainside Village

© All Rights Reserved askgudmundsen

Iran (Persian: ايران /irɑːn/), formerly Persia (until 1935), is an ancient nation whose past dates back well over two and a half milleniums. No number of monuments, museums or ancient mosques could truly indicate the depth of Persian history, but Iran makes a brave attempt. Tehran, the capital, would best be steered clear of if it were not for the excellent National Museum and a handful of other fascinating museums. The site of Persepolis, a palace complex built 500 years before Christ, is now a collection of ruins; while unable to regain the lustre it had in its early days, today's Persepolis is impressive nonetheless.

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Brief History

Dozens of pre-historic sites across the Iranian plateau point to the existence of ancient cultures and urban settlements in the fourth millennium BC, centuries before the earliest civilizations arose in nearby Mesopotamia. After a long and turbulent history with many rulers, in 632 AD raiders from the Arab peninsula began attacking the the ruling Sassanid Empire. Iran was defeated in the Battle of al-Qâdisiyah, paving way for the Islamic conquest of Persia.After the Islamic conquest of Persia, most of the urban lands of the Sassanid empire with the exception of Caspian provinces and Transoxiana came under Islamic rule. Many provinces in Iran defended themselves against the Arab invaders, although none in the end was able to repulse the invaders. However, when the Arabs had subdued the country, many of the cities rose in rebellions, killing Arab governors, although reinforcement by Arab armies succeeded in putting down the rebellions. 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.

In 1218, the eastern Khwarazmid provinces of Transoxiana and Khorasan suffered a devastating invasion by Genghis Khan. During this period more than half of Iran's population was killed. Between 1220 and 1260, the total population of Iran had dropped from 2,500,000 to 250,000 as a result of mass extermination and famine. He was followed by yet another conqueror, Tamerlane, who established his capital in Samarkand. The waves of devastation prevented many cities such as Neishabur from reaching their pre-invasion population levels until the 20th century, eight centuries later. In 1387, Tamerlane avenged a revolt in Isfahan by massacring 70,000 people. The mid-14th-century Black Death killed about 30% of the country's population. Iran was gradually Islamized after the collapse of the Sassanid empire; however, it was not Arabized. Iranian culture re-emerged with a separate and distinctive character and made an immense contribution to the Islamic civilization. When Islam came through Iran, there developed Iranian Islam or Persian Islam rather than the original Arab Islam, and this new Islam is sometimes referred to by scholars as Islam-i Ajam (Persian Islam).

After hundreds of years of Persian dynasties, in 1941, Britain and the USSR invaded Iran to use Iranian railroad capacity during World War II. 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 paralysed the country and its economy, the Shah fled the country in January 1979 and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to Tehran. In December 1979, the country approved a theocratic constitution, whereby Khomeini became Supreme Leader of the country.

On 22 September 1980 the Iraqi army, under Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran at Khuzestan, precipitating the Iran–Iraq War, which ended only in 1988. In the 2005 presidential elections, Iran made yet another change in political direction, when conservative populist candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected over Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The election of Ahmadinejad again in 2009 was questioned by The European Union and several western countries which expressed concern over alleged irregularities during the vote, and some analysts and journalists from the United States and United Kingdom news media voiced doubts about the authenticity of the results. Since then, it has been restless during several occasions in Iran, with major riots in Tehran, and increasingly in other cities like Tabriz and Esfahan. These pro-Mousavi (the opposition) demonstrations have been met with extreme violence by Iranian government.

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Geography

Iran borders Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia to the northwest; the Caspian Sea to the north; Turkmenistan to the northeast; Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east; Iraq to the west; and finally the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the south. Iran is the 18th largest country in the world at 1,648,000 km2 and it lies between latitudes 24° and 40° N, and longitudes 44° and 64° E. Iran consists of the Iranian plateau with the exception of the coasts of the Caspian Sea and Khuzestan and much of the country is dominated by mountain ranges, especially in the west with ranges such as the Caucasus, Zagros and Alborz Mountains. In the latter you'll find Iran's highest point, Mount Damavand at 5,610 metres above sea level. The northern part of Iran is covered by forests and in the east there are desert basins like Dasht-e Kavir, Iran's largest desert, and Dasht-e Lut. Large plains are found along the coast of the Caspian Sea and at the northern end of the Persian Gulf.

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Regions

Iran is made up of 30 provinces. Geographically, Iran can also be divided into the following regions.

  • Northwestern Iran, also known as Iranian Azerbaijan, borders Azerbaijan.
  • Northern Iran on the Caspian Sea
  • Northeastern Iran, bordering Turkmenistan, includes the holy city of Mashad
  • Western Iran, bordering Iraq
  • Central Iran, includes the cities Tehran, Isfahan and Qom
  • Eastern Iran, a desertous region bordering on Afghanistan.
  • Southwestern Iran includes a coastal region along the Persian gulf and the city of Ahvas.
  • Southern Iran, on the Persian Gulf, includes the city of Shiraz.
  • Southeastern Iran, on the Gulf of Oman, borders Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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Cities

  • Ahvas
  • Esfahan - Iran's 3rd largest city. The Naghsh-e Jahan Square in Esfahan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Karaj
  • Mashad - One of the holiest Shi'a cities in the world and home to the shrine of Imam Reza. It is Iran's second largest city.
  • Qom - A holy Shi'a city, it is home to the shrine of Fatema Mæ'sume, sister of Imam `Ali ibn Musa Rida.
  • Shiraz - A city along Alexanders path, Persepolis and the tomb of Hafez.
  • Susa - Also known as Shush or Shoush
  • Tabriz - The first or last big border city coming to or from Turkey.
  • Tehran - Iran's capital and largest city.
  • Yazd - A true ancient desert city with a wealth of things on offer.

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Sights and Activities

Esfahan

Moonlit Emam Mosque

Moonlit Emam Mosque

© All Rights Reserved ameurice

Esfahan probably is the most popular and one of the most impressive cities in Iran which is definitely worth a visit. The Meidan Emam or Naqsh-e Jahan Square is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and the site is known for the Royal Mosque, the Mosque of Sheykh Lotfollah, the magnificent Portico of Qaysariyyeh and the 15th-century Timurid palace. Meidan Emam itself dates back to the 17the century. The city is loaded with many more museums, mosques and even a cathedral and church. Spend at least 3 or 4 days here, not only to see the specific sight, but also to wander around, watch everyday local life and soak up the atmosphere.

Iranian Desert

The Iranian Desert actually contains two adjacent deserts, the Dasht-e Kavir and the Dasht-e Lut. The Dash-e Kavir ('Great Salt Desert') is the bigger one, located at the Iranian plateau in the central north of the country. This desert stretches from the Alborz mountain range in the northwest to the Dasht-e Lut desert in the southeast.

Dead Camel

Dead Camel

© All Rights Reserved Antonxiii


It covers parts of the the Iranian provinces of Khorasan, Semnan, Tehran, Isfahan and Yazd. It's almost rainless and the area contains of large salty areas and some marshes and lakes. Although it's a cold winter desert, that's mainly because nights can drop well below -10 °C. Days are actually not as cold, with still fine weather in January.
The somewhat smaller Dasht-e Lut ('Emptiness Desert') is located in the central southeastern parts of the country and is a large salt desert. In fact it's a big basin and one of the hottest and driest places of Iran, where surface temperatures of more than 70 °C have been measured, the highest anywhere in the world. Still, also here nights in winter can drop way below zero though days are still pretty warm. Surprisingly, the southeastern portion of the Dasht-e Lut has large sand seas with dunes up to 300 metres high, competing with the ones in the Namib desert.

Persepolis

Persepolis is located about an hour from Shiraz in the Fars Province and was founded by Darius I in 518 BCE. It used to be the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. An impressive palace complex was built here inspired by Mesopotamian models. The importance and quality of the monumental ruins make it a unique archaeological site and therefore is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Qom

Qom is one of the most holiest cities in Iran and the middle East and has centuries of history for travellers. Sometimes called the Jewel of Iran, the most famous sight in Qom definitely is the Fatima È Massummeh Shrine which is a highly respected shrine and can only be visited if you are accompanied by a Muslim friend or a guide.

Yazd

Yazd city view

Yazd city view

© All Rights Reserved TLWH

Yazd is an old desert city with many sights to explore, including a water reservoir with four badgirs (wind towers), mosques, ancient tombs, gardens and squares. It is a very pleasant and relatively low key city with almost no high rise buildings. It is also a very friendly city and walking around, relaxing at one of the many cafes is actually one of the highlights here. Its desert location only adds to the charm.

Others sights and activities

  • Skiing - Yes, Iran is a place where snow falls in wintertime and north of Tehran are some pistes.
  • Qeshm Island - in the Persian Gulf, famous for its eco destinations including Hara marine forests. Birds are abundant here.
Arg-e Bam

Arg-e Bam

© All Rights Reserved skatoozian

  • Bam - its cultural landscape is on the UNESCO list as well, but unfortunately it is in danger and the massive earthquake damaged a lot back in 2004.
  • Desert Oasis - it is best to rent a car and driver to explore some of the finest and remotest desert oasis in the world.
  • Susa - also called Shushu or Shoush. Located in the western side of the state of Khozestan and conected by rail to Tehran and Khoramshahr
  • Ancient capital Tomb of David
  • Zigurat Chogha Zanbil - 40 kilometres south of Susa

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Weather

Iran has a complex climate, ranging from subtropical to sub polar. In winter, a high-pressure belt, centered in Siberia, slashes west and south to the interior of the Iranian Plateau, while low pressure systems develop over the warm waters of the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean. In summer, one of the lowest pressure centers in the world prevails in the south. Iran also can have four seasons at the same time. While it is cold in the north of country like Ardebil and Tabriz, in the south the weather is spring-like in Bandar- e-Abbas and Boushehr.

Iran is divided climatically into three main regions:

  • 1. the extremely hot coast along the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman;
  • 2. the temperate but arid central highland;
  • 3. the tableland of the intensely cold Alborz Mountains.

The annual average precipitation for the country is about 305 millimeters (12 inches), but there are huge variations. The desert regions receive only about 125 millimeters (5 inches) per year, however, and the plain along the Caspian Sea gets about 1,270 millimetres (50 inches) then Iran has four Seasons in all-over year. In the summer, temperatures vary from a high of 50 °C in Khouzestan at the head of the Persian Gulf to a low of 1 °C in Azerbaijan in the north-west. Precipitation also varies greatly, ranging from less than two inches in the south-east to about 78 inches in the Caspian region.

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Getting There

By Plane

International
Iran Air is the main national airline of Iran and is based at Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA) near Tehran. It flies to a significant number of cities in Europe, the Middle East and Asia and destinations include Bangkok, Rome, Amsterdam, Beijing, Istanbul, Paris, Moscow, London and Beirut. Dozens of other airlines serve the airport, for example with budget airline Air Arabia from Sharjah, Air Asia X from Kuala Lumpur, and Air France and KLM from Paris and Amsterdam. Most airines are within the region, serving cities like Damascus, Kuwait and Dubai and several cities in Central Asia.

Domestic
Iran Air and Aseman Air among a few other airlines have an extensive network of domestic flights. The main destinations from Tehran include Tabriz, Mashad, Esfahan, Shiraz, Kish and Zahedan, but there are several more options that might come in handy. Prices are very low compared to many other countries and a one hour flight generally won't cost much more than around 40 USD.

To/from the airport

  • Car: Imam Khomeini Airport is accessible from Tehran by using the Tehran-Qom Freeway. An airport access road connects the freeway to the airport terminal.
  • Rail: An extension to the southern part of Line 1 of Tehran Metro for IKA airport is currently under construction and scheduled to reach the airport in first quarter of 2011. There is also plan to have Line 3 of the Tehran Metro to reach it's southern terminus at IKA in future.

Other international airports are located in Shiraz, Isfahan and Mashad and mostly serve neighbouring countries and countries in the region.

By Train

The Trans-Asia Express travels on a weekly schedule between the gateway to Asia, Istanbul, and the capital of Iran, Tehran. Trains leave Istanbul Wednesdays at around 11:00pm and arrives in Tehran about 70 hours later. In the opposite directions, trains leave Tehran Thurdays around 6:30pm and take about the same time. The trainride is divided into two parts, one from Istanbul to Lake Van and one from Lake Van to Tehran and only one carriage actually is moved over the lake to make the entire journey.

There is a weekly train travelling from Damascus to Tehran, stopping in Aleppo in Syria and Tabriz in Iran along the way. Like the train from Istanbul to Tehran, the journey contains two stages, one to Lake Van and one from Lake Van onwards.

By Car

It's fairly easy to cross borders to and from Iran, especially with Turkey and Pakistan along the overland route to South Asia. Have your carnet de passage (permit) and insurance, car papers and all other necessary documents (visa) in order. You can use most crossings mentioned below.

By Bus

To Azerbaijan, it's best to do the trip in stages, via the border town of Astara. Direct buses go between Tehran and Baku, but not many and it takes a long time at the border, better to walk across. Crossing into Iraq would be stupid, except maybe in the north towards Iraqi Kurdistan near Piranshahr, which more and more travellers manage to do so.
With Pakistan, the only possible crossing for foreigners is between Mirjaveh (Iran) and Taftan (Pakistan).
The main road crossing to/from Turkey is at Gürbulak (Turkey) and Bazargan (Iran). Direct buses go from a number of Turkish cities, like Istanbul, Ankara or Erzurum (east) towards Tabriz or Tehran.
Main crossing to Ashgabat in Turkmenistan is en route from Mashad.

By Boat

Several ferries and fast catamarans travel between Iran and a number of other Gulf states. Destinations include Bandar Lengeh to Dubai, Bandar Abbas to Dubai and Sharjah, Khoramshahr and Bushehr to Kuwait and Bushehr to Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Dammam in Saudi Arabia. Check the Iran Traveling Center for more details about schedules and prices.
Theoretically, there are also ferries across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, but don't hold your breath.

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Getting Around

By Plane

Iran Air and Aseman Air among a few other airlines have an extensive network of domestic flights. The main destinations include Tehran, Tabriz, Mashad, Esfahan, Shiraz, Kish and Zahedan, but there are several more options that might come in handy. Prices are very low compared to many other countries and a one hour flight generally won't cost much more than around US$40.

By Train

Raja Trains offers a number of comfortable, reliable and cheap rail links across the country, some of which are really spectactular like the Tehran to Mashad overnight train. The main routes include Tehran - Jolfa, Tehran - Gorgan, Tehran - Bandar-e-Abbas, Tehran - Mashhad and Tehran - Khorramshahr. Notable stops on the routes are Qom, Kashan, Shiraz, Esfahan and Yazd, which are all reachable by train.

By Car

Renting a car is possible but traffic in and around the bigger cities is chaotic to say the least. Roads are ok though, except for some rougher roads into the central deserts and mountains in the east and north.
Agencies are represented in the bigger cities and airports, or you can rent one with a driver for a day or even a week. A good way to cover a lot and economical when travelling with 2 or 3 persons. A national driver's licence is required and an international permit recommended. Insurance is required as well and if you bring your own car you'll need a carnet de passage and international certificate of proof of ownership of the car.

By Bus

There are many buses on most major routes and transport is generally comfortable, reliable and cheap. Note that the newer buses (usually Volvo, Scania or other Scandinavian stuff) are much better (airco actually works) than the old and rusty Mercedes buses, which are cheaper as well. On most routes, you won't have to wait much longer than a few hours before you are on your way again.

By Boat

There are some ferries operating to and from the islands in the Persian Gulf and the mainland. Islands include Kish and Hormuz and ferries leave from places like Bandar-e-Abbas.

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Red Tape

Foreign visitors require a visa to travel in Iran.
Citizens of only several countries can stay for up to 3 months withouth a visa. These include Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovenia and Turkey.

All other foreigners will need to aplly for a tourist visa. These visas are valid for a maximum stay of 30 day and can be extended in Iran.

Some foreign visitors can obtain a visa, valid for 15 days, upon arrival at certain Iranian airports, including the two airports in Tehran and the airports in Mashad, Isfahan, Shiraz and Tabriz.
Please note that this is only possible when you need a tourist visa, all other sorts like transitvisas, business visas etc. need to be obtained before arrival in Iran.
Also note that citizens from the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States and Australia can not get a visa upon arrival at one of the airport mentioned above.

Citizens of the following countries can get a tourist visa upon arrival at the airport, valid for 15 days:

Albania, Armenia, Austria. Bahrain, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, China, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Luxemburg, Malaysia, Mongolia, Montenegro, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, North Korea, Norway, Oman, Palestine, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Vietnam.

Although frequently mentioned that the 15 day visa on arrival is not extendable, it seems that many travellers actually did extend the visa, up to maximum for 30 days. Still, it is advised to apply for a visia before you leave if you want to travel for more than 2 weeks. If you want to travel for a longer period of time than 15 days, it is possible to obtain a visa at the nearest Iranian embassy or consulate. Usually it takes much shorter to obtain one at neighbouring countries than trying to get one in your home country which can take more than a month in certain occasions.

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Money

See also Money Matters

Iranian Rial (IRR; symbol Rs) = 100 dinars.
Notes are in denominations of Rs 100,000, 50,000, 20,000, 10,000, 5,000, 2,000, 1,000, 500, 200 and 100.
Coins are in denominations of Rs 1,000, 500, 250, 100 and 50.

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Health

See also Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Iran. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Iran) where that disease is widely prevalent.

It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Iran. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid. Vaccination rabies is also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Malaria is prevalent in the country, but only in rural areas of Sistan-Baluchestan, southern parts of the province of Kerman and and in the province Hormozgan. Finally, there is a higher risk from March to November in the eastern provinces north of the Zagros mountains. It is recommend to take malaria pills when going to these regions, and take other general precautions as well, including sleeping under a mosquito net and using repellant (50% DEET).

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also Travel Safety

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Keep Connected

Internet

You'll find internet cafes in most cities and even smaller towns now have access to the world wide web. Like other countries with a very strict censorship, the country has strict rules about using the internet and also has a very restricted domestic version, highly unlikely to be used by travellers. Connections are generally good and it's cheap to use as well.

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

The international country calling code of Iran is +98. Special numbers include 110 for the Police, 115 for Ambulance, 125 for the Fire Department and 112 for calls from mobile phones. Iran Telecom is the main telecommunication company in the country and provides, together with Irancell, almost all mobile services as well.
You can find a complete list of telephone codes at Farsinet.com.

Post

The I.R. Iran Post Service is the national postal service in Iran. Services are fairly reliable and cheap, but rather slow. It usually takes at least several weeks for your letter or postcard to arrive in European countries, longer for other Western areas. Post officies generally are open from around 7:30am to 3:00pm Saturday to Thursday, so the main offices in big cities tend to have somewhat longer hours. Your best bet is to visit in the morning if you need to use their services. Stamps can usually be bought at small shops and kiosks as well. Sending parcels is more expensive but also quicker and more reliable with international companies like FedEx, DHL, TNT and UPS.

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Quick Facts

Iran flag

Map of Iran

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Capital
Tehran
Government
Theocratic Republic
Nationality
Iranian
Population
76,000,000+
Languages
Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Gilak
Religions
Islam (Shi'a, Sunni), Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism
Currency
Iranian Rial (IRR)
Calling Code
+98
Time Zone
IRST (UTC+3:30)
Daylight Saving Time
IRDT (UTC+4:30)

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