Contemporary Iran is divided into more than 30 provinces, but these are mostly artificial administrative divisions that are of little real consequence and subject to frequent changes. Geographical factors, however, have created a number of quite distinct regions in Iran, and their identity is often reinforced by ethnic and cultural differences as well.
The most fundamentally different regions of the country are the lowlands facing the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. The Caspian region has three main components: Gilân, a broad plain in the west, with Rasht and the port of Anzali as major urban centers; Mâzandarân, a narrow, central strip of land between the Alborz and the Caspian, with Sâri as its major city; and Gorgân, another large plain to the east (now part of the province called Golestân, which includes the cities of Gorgân and Gonbad-e Qâbus). None of these areas are predominantly Persian speaking. Gorgân is a Turkicspeaking area inhabited by various Turkoman tribes such as the Yomut or Goklen, some of whom are still nomadic or semi-nomadic. Elsewhere in the Caspian region, people speak Gilaki or Mâzandarâni, both Iranian but non-Persian languages. Throughout much of this area, the climate is subtropical and humid, making possible the cultivation of crops such as rice and tea. Toward the mountains, the region is heavily forested. Gorgân is more arid, but cotton has become an important crop there. The sea and marshes are also important to the local economy and diet, with many popular seaside resorts and a supply of sturgeon and caviar. Traditional housing in this region is quite unique, too, with thatched-roof houses raised on stilts in Gilân and round felt tents for the Turkoman nomads in Gorgân. The areas facing the Persian Gulf include Khuzestân, an expansive plain along both sides of the Kârun River in the southwest, and the Tangsir, a narrow and sparsely populated coastal strip along the Gulf. Khuzestân has a mixed population, which includes a substantial number of Arabs. It is, of course, best known in modern times for its petroleum industry, which has made Ahvâz, Âbâdân, and Khorramshahr major industrial centers. The Tangsir, or Tangestân, consists mostly of sleepy, isolated fishing and pearling villages; people there speak their own peculiar dialect of Persian. In general, the Iranian coast of the Persian Gulf has very few good ports, the two main exceptions being Bushehr and Bandar-e ‘Abbâs. In recent years, efforts have been made to build up islands like Kish or towns like Châhbahâr as free-trade zones.
In northwest Iran, Azerbaijan gets a fair amount of rainfall and has many pasture lands and relatively fertile mountain valleys that have always been attractive to nomadic groups seeking places to graze their animals. Many Turkoman tribes thus occupied this area in the centuries before and after the Mongol conquest, and most of the population of this area still speak a Turkic language. Because of its location, Azerbaijan has also been an important avenue of trade from the Iranian plateau to Anatolia and the Caucasus. In many ways, the cultural and economic ties of Azerbaijan have been closer to areas of the Caucasus than to the plateau. The major city of Azerbaijan, and one which has played a particularly important role in Iranian history in recent centuries, is Tabriz. The region is also home to Assyrian and Armenian Christian communities, especially in the area around Urmia, the great salt lake. To the south, in the mountainous areas of western Iran, live several non-Persian speaking ethnic minorities, the most important being the Kurds and the Lurs.
At the opposite, southeastern, corner of Iran are Sistân and Baluchestân. They are lumped together in one administrative province today, but they really form quite distinct sub-regions that extend beyond Iran’s contemporary political borders into Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively. Both are generally sandy desert areas: very hot, very dry, subject to violent windstorms, and thinly populated. Sistân would be one of the most inhospitable environments on earth were it not for the waters of the Helmand River, which end in a kind of large oasis in Iranian Sistân around the town of Zâbol. In earlier times, dams and other irrigation projects made extensive agriculture possible, and the region was much more prosperous than it is today. The Helmand also provided an important artery for trade. The people of Sistân have traditionally been fiercely independent in spirit and proud of their regional identity. Baluchestân is the area south of the city of Zâhedân, running between the Jaz Muriân desert and the Pakistani border. It is peppered with small mountain villages and groups of nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists. The origins of the Baluch people are obscure, but their language is an Iranian one, close to some of the ancient languages of Iran and quite different from modern Persian. This whole region is one of the poorest in Iran, and its economy has not been helped in recent years by an influx of thousands of refugees from Afghanistan. It is also one of the most difficult areas for the central government to control and has a reputation for lawlessness, especially the smuggling of drugs and other goods, that makes it something like the “Wild, Wild East” of Iran.
Among other important regions, mention must be made of Fârs and Khorâsân. Fârs is the mountainous region of south-central Iran and is in many ways the historical and cultural heartland of Iran. One of the earliest advanced civilizations in Iran began there, two great Iranian empires originated there, several of Iran’s most famous archaeological and artistic sites are located there, and many of Iran’s greatest writers and poets lived there.The capital, Shiraz, is among the most attractive cities in Iran, a place whose reputation conjures up the images of roses, nightingales, gardens, ambrosial wine, heavenly poetry, and relaxed living that seem so quintessentially (or stereotypically ) Iranian. It is not without reason that among foreigners, since the time of the ancient Greeks, the name of this region, Persia, has been applied to the whole of Iran.
If Fârs is the heartland of Iran, Khorâsân is its shield, its main frontier province. The mountains of northeastern Iran do not pose quite the barrier to movement as do those of the north and west. While Iran has occasionally been invaded from the west, it has been under an almost constant threat of attack or invasion by the nomads of central Asia. The fortifi ed villages and garrison cities of Khorâsân have had the historical task of resisting that pressure and have suffered the most from failures to do so. Today, the Iranian province of Khorâsân is only a remnant of what was once a much larger territory and an important bastion of Iranian culture. On the other hand, now that the external threat has ebbed, the economy of the area is reviving, and its population is increasing at a faster rate than that of other parts of Iran. Its major city, Mashhad, now has over 2 million inhabitants (up from 240,000 in 1956). Mashhad is also a spiritual center of Iran, since one of the most important religious shrines is located there and is visited by about 12 million pilgrims each year.
Central Iran consists of the plateau and great desert basin, on the periphery of which are scattered the other major cities of Iran: Qazvin, Hamadân, Qom,Isfahan, Yazd, Kermân, Birjand, Semnân, and so forth. This represents the dominant, Persian-speaking core of the country and is thus, along with Fârs and Khorâsân, the area one is most likely to have in mind when trying to describe the culture and customs of Iran. In recent times, these cities have all been overshadowed by the capital, Tehran. Since the eighteenth century, it has grown from a small village at the foothills of the Alborz Mountains to a sprawling metropolis of 12 million people. It dominates every aspect of the political, economic, and cultural life of the country—even the vernacular language of Iran, which foreigners have encountered and taken to calling Fârsi is most often really just the Tehrâni dialect of Persian. Compared with other major cities, though, Tehran is an upstart in terms of its historical heritage and a rather drab, ordinary, and faceless modern city in appearance.The most glamorous city is easily Isfahan, which was the capital of Iran in the sixteenth century, when it was adorned with a multitude of beautiful and impressive mosques, parks, and palaces.