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More about Iran Ethnic Groups in Iran1

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Ethnic Groups in Iran

kord Mens
kord Men

The numerous migrations of people who have passed through Iran, sometimes setting there, have created an ethnically diverse population. The biggest influence has come from Central Asia, first the Indo- European tribes that arrived on the plateau in the second and first millennia BC, and then the Turkish and Mongol tribes in the 12th to fourth centuries, Movement of peoples from the West (Jewish and Greek colonists, then Arabs from the seventh century onward) have only played a minor role on the national scale.
Traditionally, there has always existed a close link in Iran between the ruling dynasty and the domination of one particular tribe or ethnic group (Seljuk, Zend, Qajar). In the 20th century, some government have attempted to carry out national integration of this heterogeneous population, in the hope that tribal and cultural distinctions would disappear with the economic and political development of the country. Under Reza Shah in particular, the Persianization of the population was carried out by vigorous methods, including o policy of enforced settlement of the nomadic tribes. Today, cultural pluralism is officially admitted but the changes that have occurred since the beginning of the century are in most cases irreversible. The traditional way of life of the nomad groups has been drastically  altered by their settlement in villages and by the agricultural reforms of 1962, which were accompanied by land redistribution. Traditional pastures are shrinking under pressure from agriculturalists and large scale nomadism was reduced by the sealing of the political frontiers with the former USSR.

Turkmen Girl
Turkmen Girl

The main ethnic minorities live in the mountain regions along the edge of the central plateau (several provinces, such as Baluchestan and Kurdistan, take their names from the dominant group living in them). There are no precise or recent official figures concerning ethnic minorities; however, Iranian minorities (groups speaking Iranian languages other than Farsi) are estimated at about 30 per cent of the total population of the country and Turkish-speaking groups at 25 per cent About 1.5 million Arabic-speakers live in Khuzestan.
The main Iranian minorities are the Kurds, the Lurs, the Bakhtiari, the Baluch and a few groups along the Caspian Sea such as the Gilani, Mazandarani and Taleshi.  The Kurds are descendants of the indo-European tribes that arrived in Iran in the first millennium BC, and they regard themselves as the descendants of the Medes. Today, the Kurds are to be found mainly in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Almost nine per cent of the population of Iran is Kurdish, about 55 million, living  mostly in Azerbaijan, Bakhtran, Ilam and Kurdistan provinces. The Kurds speak. The Lurs live mainly in Bakhtaran  and Lurestan, south of Kurdistan.  They speak Luri, a language related to Pehlevi (Old Persian) and are currently estimated to number 2.5 million. Like the Kurds, the Lurs were once a sedentary nation that made only short pastoral migrations. Their way of life was radically changed with the arrival of the Turks and Mongols whose armies devastated the countryside, forcing many of the sedentary villagers to take up a nomadic lifestyle.
The Bakhtiari live in the Zagros Mountains to the west of Isfahan, around Shahr-e Kord, moving in winter to the kinder plains around Dezful, Susa and Ramhormoz. They are divided into two main groups, the Haft-Lang and the Chahar-Lang, sub-divided in tum into several tribes and sub-tribes, or taifeh. Most Bakhtiari speak Tarsi or a Luri dialect, although part of the population, concentrated in the towns and villages in the south, speaks Arabic. The total number of Bakhtiari is currently estimated today at about 900,000.
The Baluch live in the far southeast of Iran, in the Maktart Mountains of Baluchestan, but they originated much further north, in Khorassan, which they were completed to leave in the l2th and l3th centuries by the invading Turkish armies. In Baluchestan they mingled with the local population, which included several very ancient tribes. Among these are the Brahui, who speak a Dravidian language, and who have almost completely disappeared except in a few isolated pockets. In this extremely arid and inhospitable area, the Banish adopted a nomadic way of fife, spending summer in the inland mountains and descending to the coast in winter. Agricultural reforms and forced settlement have driven them to find work in urban centers such as Zahedan. The Baluch population is estimated at 1.2 million.

Talyshs of Iran
Talyshs of Iran


The origins of the Turkish-speaking minorities in Iran date back to the invasions and migrations that occurred between the tenth and fourth centuries BC These peoples are divided into several groups which five for the most part in the north and southeast of the country The Azeris are by far the most important ethno-linguistic minority in Iran, with a population of over six million living in the two Provinces of Azerbaijan and Zanjan. The settlement of this part of Iran by the Oghuzz Turks, to which the Azeris belong, dates back to the 11th century but, unlike the Turks who settled in Anatolia and who remained Sunni, the Azeris converted mostly to Shlism.  The Turkoman who live in Khorassan in northeast Iran also arrived very early on, in the 11 the century Traditionally they are nomads and extremely Proud of their warrior past until recently, they were greatly feared around Gorgan and Damghan for the ferocity with which they swept down to pillage caravans and villages. The Turkoman were traditionally divided into two groups whose lifestyle was governed by their geographic enviromnent. The Sarwa, nomad herders, lived in the steppes of Khorassan and the present Republic of Turkmenistan, moving each year with their herds across vast distances in regions unsuitable for agriculture. The Somir, on the other hand, were semi-nomadic agriculturalists who lived between the Gorgan and the forests of the Alborz, in Mande Province, where they grew mainly wheat. While the Somir would strive to better their social status and become nomadic herders, it was not uncommon for financially ruined Sarwa families to settle down and become farmers, or even to make for the Caspian coast and work as fishermen. The closure of the frontier with Soviet Russia in 1928 suddenly cut off the traditional migration routes and profoundly modified the way of life of the Sarwa. Today, the Turkoman are mostly sedentary and have become agriculturalists and fishermen. Unlike the other Turkic groups, they are Sunni.
The Shahsevan, who live in the northeast of Iran, in the province of East Azerbaijan, differ from other groups in that their` formation was the result of a political decision and not a spontaneous movement on the part of the nomads themselves. In the l7th century Shah Abbas 1 created a militia from tribes of diverse origins most of them Turkish-speaking, that would serve to put down the rebellions of other nomadic groups, After the fall of the Safavid dynasty, the Shahsevan became a tribal confederation. Like the Turkoman, their traditional territory has been divided in half by the closure of the frontier with the former USSR.

Woman Ethnic Groups
Woman Ethnic Groups

The dominant ethno-linguistic group in Fats Province are the Qashqai, Shi'ite Turkish-sPeakers organized into a confederation composed of five main tribes and a few smaller ones. Traditionally, the Qashqai wintered on pastures in the foothills of the Zagros to the south and west of Shiraz, near the Persian Guff, and moved north to the mountains in the spring. The Qashqai confederation was sufficiently Powerful in the l9th and early 20th centuries to play an important role regionally, and at times even national, as the provincial authorities frequently relied on the tribal leaders to maintain law and order in rural areas. In the 1960s, Mohammed Reza Shah attempted to reduce their power by disarming them and nationalizing their pastures. Since then, many Qashqai have been forced to settle or to become semi- nomads. In the 1950s they were estimated at about 400,000 but are thought to be considerably fewer in number now.
Fars Province also includes a rival confederation, the Khamse formed in the middle of the ninth century by a rich merchant family from Shiraz who wanted to protect their caravans on the way to the Persian Gulf.  The Khamse are a confederation of five tribes (khamse means five in Arabic), of persian, Arabic and Turkish origin.
The Afshar arrived on the Iranian plateau in two waves, first of all in the 11th century under the Seljuqs, and then in the 13th century with the Mongols. They served the Safavid rulers and were given posts all over the empire. As a result, the Afshar were split into several groups. Today the main groups are to be found in Azerbaijan, between Lake Orumieh and Qazvin and Hamedan, and in an area between Kerman and Bandar- e Abbas, in the south of Iran. Traditionally, the Afshar are pastoral nomads but many have now settled down and become farmer.

Qashqai women
Qashqai women

In addition to these various ethnic groups, there are also a number of religious minorities living in Iran. Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians are recognized as minorities by Article 13 of the constitution, which guarantees them freedom of religion. The Ba’hai are not recognized s s religious minority. The Zoroastrians still practice the ancient pre- Islamic religion, whose origins go back to the beliefs of the Indo- European immigrants of the first millennium BC and which became the state religion under the Sassanians (see page 88). After the Arab conquest and the arrival of Islam. The Zoroastrians were recognized, along with the Christians and Jews, as people of the Book, or Ahl al- dhimma. The Arab policy of religious tolerance  towards non- Muslims living in the conquered territories provides them with legal status with in the Muslin community. This status was determined by a pact, or  Dhimma, said to exist between the two communities. According to this pact, non- Muslims accepted a subordinate position with certain social restrictions and the  payment of tribute, in return for which they were guaranteed physical protection against their enemies, freedom of worship and a great autonomy in the running of their community. Despite conversions and emigration, there are currently about 30,000 Zoroastrians still living in Iran, mainly around Isfahan, Yazd and Kerman.

The history of Christianity in Iran is closely linked to that of the Armenian community there. In the first century AD, Christianity spread from Antiochus to Armenia and Upper Mesopotamia where several communities established themselves, including Nestorians, Baptists and Monophysites. Armenia converted to Christianity during the reign of its king Tiridates III (294-324). After the Arab conquest, Christians were recognized as ahl- Dhimma, and the Nestorian Church even went through a period of great expansion in Central Asia where it remained active until the Mongol conquests. An important Christian community settled in Isfahan in 1603 when Shah Abbas forcibly moved families of Armenian merchants there from Jolfa in Azerbaijan. Today, Christians form the largest religious minority in Iran with a population estimated  at around 200,000, most of whom are Armenian and live in Tehran.
The presence of a Jewish community in Iran dates back to the period of the first Achaemenian conquests and the capture of Babylon by Cyrus the Great in 539 BC. Cyrus freed the Jews who had been deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar and gave them permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. At that time, Jerusalem was placed under Persian administration, as it was again under the Seleucid dynasty, between 197 and 129 BC. During the Islamic period, the Jews were also considered ahl al- Dhimma and were thus able to continue living and working on Persian soil. The exact number of Jews now living in Iran is unclear but is thought to be around 60.000.

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