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Last Updated: October, 2009

The massive emigration of Iranians during the last three decades to North America has added a new force into the already mixed and rich ethnic makeup of the continent. It is estimated that close to a million live in North America and they are amongst the best educated and wealthiest of all the immigrant groups. Most have emigrated with their families and as such form coherent social units, which in turn increases their chances of achieving a healthy and prosperous life.

Like most exiled groups hit by turmoil and violence in their homeland, they came with the expectation of returning when things were settled. The hope of going back and the fear of loosing their rich and ancient heritage have created a dynamic preservation movement amongst the Iranians. As a whole, the community has not lost touch with its cultural heritage, and massive efforts are made to enhance and preserve the treasured heritage. Many magazines, weekly papers, book stores, and publishing houses are set up with local TV and radio stations in every corner of the continent. Hundreds of websites introduce Iranians and others to every aspect of Iranian history, politics, culture, cuisine and arts. Local artists, singers and actors have achieved super-stardom status in their communities.

The Iranian national holidays and celebrations are observed with zest and fervor. Thousands participate in New Year and other ancient festivals, while religiously following all the rituals with passion and dedication. Persian cookbooks are selling in the thousands and the second generation of Iranian immigrants has created a great demand for knowing all there is about their ancient heritage. These attempts are being made to define and consolidate a coherent notion of Iranian identity that is able to survive in a new alien culture.

Most of the educated and middle-class Iranians have a double vision of their country; decisively divided between the powerful pre-Islamic ancient Persia and the fragmented Islamic period from the 7th century onward. In Iran itself, it was in the first half of the 20th century that there was a redefinition of the idea of Iran: in the sense of creating a 'supra-historical continuity of the Iranian spirit and the Iranian identity'. The concepts of a powerful centralized state as existed in the pre-Islamic period and the continuity of the royalty were used by the last royal dynasty to recreate a national identity.

Those trying to strengthen the bond between the royalty and the public failed, but in the process, serious attempts were made to promote early Iranian studies. Extensive archaeological projects and availability of new translations and analysis of the ancient and forgotten texts made it clear that there indeed has been continuity in Iranian cultural traditions and rituals going back to the pre-Islamic period. Many areas of Iranian culture and social life, especially national festivals and many rituals, cannot be properly understood without their pre-Islamic roots.

For the new émigré as with their forefathers back at home earlier in the twentieth century, the realization of historical and cultural continuities is not only a matter of preserving the past, but also of creating and sustaining an Iranian Identity. This reason, though amongst others, can help explain the nostalgic attempt of the Iranians outside of Iran to rediscover and preserve all that is Iranian.

The object of this site is to provide a brief and accurate portrayal of Iranian culture. I have attempted to trace the origins and symbolism of the major Iranian celebrations, ceremonies and rituals, in addition to their present forms. Major current issues such as gender conflict, sexuality, and women's rights are also discussed, plus codes of behavior.


Ethnic Makeup

Iran is a vast country with a population of close to seventy million people made up of a number of distinct ethnic groups, languages and religions. Even Muslims are divided into Shiite, Sunni and a number of mystical and Sufi sects. Located in southwestern Asia, Iran has boundaries with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Iraq, the Persian Gulf and the former Russian Republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkmenistan. Many rituals have been and are still affected by interactions with the neighboring countries. For example, a Baluchi celebrating a festival might have more in common with the Baluchi in Pakistan than with other Iranians living in Tehran.

Iranian groups make up close to 70 % of the population and they include Persians, Kurds, Lurs, Baluchi and most of the groups in the Northern provinces of Iran near the Caspian Sea. Persians are the largest group and make up 51 per cent of the population and are mainly Shiites. The Kurds, who are mostly Sunni and speak Kurdish, are found mainly in the Zagros mountain range. Kurdish is a northwestern Iranian language and the two major dialects spoken in Iran are Kurmanji and Surani. Ethnic Lurs, live in the south of the country and are closely related to the Kurds. Baluchi live mainly in Sistan & Baluchistan close to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Azerbaijanis, who reside mainly in northwest Iran, account for 24 per cent and speak Turkish related languages mainly from Oghuz origin. Turkmen groups also belong to the Turkic speaking groups and live in Northern Iran and in border areas near Afghanistan mainly in Khorasan. Arabs are concentrated near the Persian Gulf and close to the border with Iraq with Arabic as their preferred language.

Persian (Farsi) is the official language and is spoken by about 58 per cent of the population. Other Indo-Iranian languages include Kurdish (nine per cent), Luri (two per cent) and Baluchi (one per cent), other languages include several Turkic dialects (26 per cent) as well as Arabic (one per cent), Armenian and Assyrian.

Islam of the Jafari twelve Imamat sect (Shiite) is the state religion. The country is called The Islamic Republic of Iran. The constitution of 1979 recognizes other Islamic sects plus Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians as legitimate religions. Baha’i with approximately 300,000 followers is not recognized and their followers are banned from practicing their faith.

The majority of Persians and Azerbaijanis are Shi`i Muslims (89 per cent), while other ethnic groups are largely Sunni (10 per cent). Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians make up one per cent of the population. The majority of Christians are Armenian with some Assyrians and a small group of Evangelical Christians. The latter group is not recognized as legitimate under the current constitution. It is beyond this site to represent all these ethnic groups and religions separately and to simplify the task generalizations are made.

Attempts are made to avoid categorizing based on religious priority; however, the very religious nature of the Iranian society over the last 1400 years makes this very difficult. Almost all the festivals and rituals are rooted in the religions of Iran, past and present. Zoroastrianism, the religion of the country before the Islamic conquest of the 7th century is vital for understanding the festivals and rituals. At the same time, powerful and dominant doctrines of Islam have introduced new elements that cannot be ignored.

The ethnic makeup of the country is also divided based on religion, i.e. Muslims, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Baha’i, etc. Non-Muslims, despite centuries of segregation, are as Iranian as any one else in the country and are proud of their Iranian heritage. The emphasis here is on common ceremonies and major festivals, celebrated by all the Iranians, like the New Year, as well as the most important Muslim feasts and rituals, such as Ramadan. No doubt study and comparison of the festivals and rituals by all ethnic and religious groups will shed more light on the forgotten aspects of many of these traditions; however, that task is beyond the scope of the present website.

The Zoroastrian cosmology, utilized and mentioned, is based on the works by Professor Mary Boyce. She is the most distinguished authority in the field of Zoroastrian studies. Her vast knowledge of the ancient languages and extensive fieldwork in Iran and amongst the Parsi community of India has made her work indispensible. It must be mentioned that the Zoroastrian texts do not form a homogenous bundle. They were complied at different times, sometimes centuries apart. Some of the latter texts written in the Sasanian period contradict the earlier texts such as the Gathas, the most ancient writings. Most references here are made to the later texts popular during the Sasanian era, since most of the festivals and rituals we have now were inherited from this period.

The celebrations and rituals are described in detail and an anthropological approach is used to link the rituals to the core of the Iranian belief system to make it easier. Islamic festivities and rituals are also discussed with their history and rites. Major events such as marriage and death rituals are mentioned in detail with their history and how they are performed today.


We appreciate your comments; I have done my best to use the latest credible material and research offered by academics. However, if there are mistakes, we welcome your input.

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