Visits to spectacular archaeological sites, Persian gardens and the classic touristic route aside, Iran has so many cultural events and festivals held in various cities and provinces throughout the year that one needs to keep on coming back to be able to see just a handful of them.
The main cultural event of the year is without a doubt Nowruz Persian New Year, which has been celebrated for thousands of years and is about praising the nature and the power of its four elements. With its roots in Zoroastrianism, Nowruz is not a typical religious celebration in the classic meaning of the word. It is rather a pan-Iranian event very closely related to what it means being Iranian. There are numerous traditions and customs associated with this cultural event, with the Nowruz table arrangement, known as haft-sin, perhaps being the most recognisable. Haft-sin refers to the seven items displayed and whose names in Persian symbolically start with an ‘s’. The table arrangement tradition is unquestionably Zoroastrian, but in addition to the original seven itemsو it often features a copy of the Quran. A visit to Markar Historical Complex, or simply Markar Museum, in Yazd, is a must, as it has the most interesting and informative display of various table arrangements introducing the visitor to Zoroastrian culture and traditions.
If in Iran during Nowruz, make sure to travel to Kurdistan. Rightfully known as perhaps the most musical people of Iran, Kurds have a special affinity to Nowruz and music generally. Here is a small and picturesque village of Howraman-e Takht, locals and visitors come annually in late January-early February for a very important cultural event – pir shaliar traditional ceremony, accompanied with traditional singing and dancing.
Between this ceremony and Nowruz, if travelling south, do find time to visit Bushehr for its annual and week-long Koocheh Music Festival. So far held only twice, it has in no time become one of Iran’s most vibrant festivals. With traditional music performances from various parts of Iran, including Khorasan, Arabic motives from Khuzestan and not only, but it also offers a fantastic glimpse into musical culture and traditions of Iran. Make sure to book a hotel in advance. Bushehr has notoriously few accommodation options for such a major event.
Those who like cinema and appreciate good acting, will definitely enjoy the atmosphere around the Fajr International Film Festival, held annually in February screening Iranian films and in April, after Nowruz, showing foreign films. It is a true cinematic feast and the quality of the movies will not leave you disappointed. In this connection, it is worth noting that due to certain dress code restrictions, such as the mandatory headscarf, Iran produces some of the world’s best cinema, especially in drama genre. The focus to date remains predominantly on acting and not on the actor’s appearance.
Religious festivals in Iran are also a must. Some are unique and cannot be witnessed anywhere else in the world. One of the most interesting are the events associated with the celebrations around the holy Muslim month of Moharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar. Over the centuries, Iran has developed a special art form – taziyeh – passion play performed during the Moharram and retelling the tragedy of Karbala. Before being banned during the first Pahlavi monarchy, passion play had been regularly held both in the privacy of one’s home (usually a wealthy man’s abode) and in special performance halls known as tekiyeh. Although not currently a very open performance, it is certainly worth attending, if and when the opportunity arises.
The final festival in the year and one of the most special and beautiful cultural events in Iran is Yalda Night, held in late December in celebration of the winter solstice. It is a magic night, when Persian poetry is read in the intimacy of family and friends and lanterns and candles are lit to brighten up the longest and darkest night of the year, in anticipation of spring.