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Exotic Tribes
Be a responsible traveller. Show tribal people respect and meet them on their premises. Visiting people with a different lifestyle and culture could sometimes be a very rewarding adventure, but be aware of that many tribal communities are extremely vulnerable to outside influences. All tribal people need to be protected from tourists in order to preserve their unique lifestyle and cultures. Travellers should understand that some tribes would like to live undisturbed, and that visit would be an intrusion.

Trekking through the lands of the Iranians nomads – Part 1 of 2

2004-08-05
Nomadic life in Iran has an ancient history and this country boasts the largest concentration of traditional nomads in the world. Over the mountains and far away there are still living nomad tribes in Iran.

Many of them are living in the middle of nowhere. In a wild and inhospitable terrain they are out of government control, and they struggle to survive. During the last century the Iranian government has tried to control the nomads by both encouraging and forcing them to settle, but the tribes have always been hard to subjugate.

In my search for groups of nomad tribes in July 2004 I travelled hundred of kilometres through the varied landscapes of the Zagros Mountains and the Farsi region. It was fantastic to visit Bakhtyari, Lor (Lurs) and Qashqai no mads and observe their daily life and unique cultures.

Photo. A weaponed man in traditional costume from the Lor (Lurs) nomad tribe.

 

With an altitude between 2500 and 4000 metres, maybe more, I could not avoid to be affected by the thin air. It was amazing to see how the nomad tribes manage to survive in such dry and harsh nature conditions. They are a true living miracle on the earth.

 

Iran`s landscape is characterized by its large size, variety of topography and altitude. The climate is therefore extreme various.


Winters (December to February) can be unpleasantly cold in most parts of the country, while in summer (June to August) temperatures rise high as 40°C (104°F). Regular rainfall is more or less restricted to the far
north and west, which are also the coldest parts of Iran.

 

Photos (below). Eman Khomeini Square. This magnificent pace is still known as the Naghsh-è Jahan Square by many locals. Here it`s possible to admire some of the most majestic buildings in the Islamic world.

 

 

The Islamic Republic of Iran is located in central Asia, and is bordered to the north by the states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan (all formerly of the USSR) and the Caspian Sea; to the east by Afghanistan and Pakistan; to the south by the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf; and to the west by Iraq and Turkey.

 

Population of the nomads

There are over 1.5 million nomads in Iran today. Some estimates the numbers to be below 1 million. For many thousands years ago the whole population had a nomadic lifestyle. The country has been inhabited of several groups from other countries. Wandering is still in their genes and blood.

 

Already when the Iranians populated the land, they encountered people who have already been there since the 7th millennium B.C. These people were skilled in farming, cattle-raising and working with brass.

 

For 30 year ago the population of the tribes were over 3 millions, but due to the two revolutions, the "White revolution" and the Islamic revolution, their living existence has been changed. Today most of them live in a modern way. They are well educated and have high positions in the Iranian society.

 

Photo. Nomads as the Bakhtiyaris (Bactrians) have their camps high up in the mountains.

 

According to the book "Nomads of Iran" (reprinted 1995 - 2001), there is a census taken in Iran, that tribes consists of people related through tribal dependence with pastoral, migratory style of living.

 

The 1998 census reveals 94 tribes and 547 independent clans (clans not related to any tribe) with a total population of 1,152,099.

 

Only about 300,000 nomads continue to roam the plains and mountain pastures. Most of them are Sunni Muslims and non-Persian speaking, and therefore live quite detached from government control. Many of these tribes such as the Kurds, Bakhtiyaris (Bactrians), Lors, Guilaks, and the Baluchs are descendants of the original invaders who came from Central Asia to settle in the Iranian Plateau. Most of the tribes of Central Iran are pure Aryan, while others such as the Arabs of Khuzestan and Khorassan, the Qashqai, the Turkmen (descendants of Mongols), Shahsevan and Afshar tribes of Azarbaijan had ancestors who passed through Iran.

 

Fighting for independence

By 1920 nomadic pastoral tribes were over a quarter of Iran's population. Their number declined sharply as a result forced settlement in the 1920s and 1930s. The Iranian government have done everything to control the nomads. Throughout history the nomads have struggle for security and stability. At the same time they have struggle to survive in the cold mountains and dry vast lands. The nomads' way of living did not match the government's vision of a modern state, and they wanted to control them for their own use. The nomads has always been considered to be difficult to integrate and often unpopular with the settled population.

 

The nomads have also been armed by foreign forces, example the British, to fight against the government. The government tried to move some tribes, and also used them to fight against their own enemies.

 

Groups of nomads

The largest tribal groups of nomads are the Kurds, who live in the province of Kurdistan in the northern Zagros region, the Lor (Lurs) and the Bakhtiari, who live in the southern Zagros region, the Qashqai in Fars, the Turkoman in the northeast, and the Baluch in the east. There are over one hundred different nomadic tribes today, each with its own dialect, style of dress and housing. They used to have its own chief or leader (supreme head; Kahn, who own the lands).

 

The Bakhtiari tribe, which numbered more than 1 million in 1997, inhabits an area of approximately 67,000 Km (25,000 Mi) that straddles the central Zagros Mountains. They speak a dialect of Persian called Lori (Luri), are Shiite Muslims, and about one third of the tribe is nomadic.

 

The Qashqai are a Turkish-speaking tribe of pastoral nomads in southern Iran. They migrate between winter pastures near the Persian Gulf and summer pastures on the Iranian Plateau. The longest distance is over 1000 kilometres and it takes 20 - 30 days to walk with their herds. The Qashqai have shown greater cohesion than most Iranian tribes.

 

The Qashqai tribal confederation has played an important role in Iranian history. As they have done for centuries, they still use camels, horses, mules and donkeys to transport their household effects during their migrations between winter and summer pastures. The Qashqai are extremely colourful in their costumes of red, pinks and oranges; one also observes this colour on their horizontal looms with bright wools of red, navy, orange, blue, brown, khaki and pink. The rugs, kilims, gagims, and gebbehs woven by the Quashqai tribeswomen are world famous.

 

The Baluch, whose name means "wanderers", retain a semi-nomadic way of life today. They habituate the far south-east part of Iran, the Mokran region, and far west of Pakistan, which is a desert region. This is the most dangerous area in Iran today. The urban centres are few and there is a big lack of infrastructure. The tribes is said to be friendly, but there is much drug and weapon smuggling in the area. Hundreds of Iranian soldiers are killed each year by smugglers. They cut their throat to make fear. The Baluch share a common identity based on Baluchi, an Iranian language, and adherence to Sunni Islam. They are famous for camel races and rugs. Many of the Ghashgha in Fars province are still nomadic and of Turkic.

 

The Lor (Lurs) is considered to be the most intact tribes, retaining their virility, robustness and tall stature.

 

Most farmers and shepherds are living in the Luristan area. Guilaks are among the most original tribes of Iran who speak a pure Persian dialect.

 

 

Photo. A girl from the Lor nomad tribe in their beautiful traditional costumes.

 

Afshars are pastoral nomads residing in the Azerbaijan and Hamadan region in the summers and the Caspian coast in the winter. The Shahsevans live in the north-eastern Azerbaijan.

 

Tribe structure

Tribes consist of the tribal structure a patrilineal (hierarchical) organisation based on blood relations ensuring the solidarity within the group and connecting the core family to the tribe as a whole.

 

This article continues in part 2. Read more about Irianian nomads and their way of life.

 

Stein Morten Lund, 3 August 2004

 

Additional information

 

Information sources:

In addition to my own experiences, gathering of information and impressions, I have based my articles on several sources:

  • Nomads of
  • Culture shock! The guide to customs and etiquette (Maria O`Shea;2001).
  • Pars Tourist Agency (www.key2persia.com): especially thanks to my excellent guide Ali Hussein Manoochehri (from Pars Tourist Agency (P.T.A), Shiraz, Iran) who contributed with information and translation.    
  • Lonely Planet (www.LonelyPlanet.com)

Facts about Iran:

Formal country name: Islamic Republic of Iran.

Area: 1.64 million sq km.

Population: 68.27 million.

People: Persian (Farsis) (65%), Azari (25%), Arab (4%), Lors (2%), Turkmen (2%), Kurdish, Armenian, Jewish.

Language: Persian, Kurdish.

Religion: Shi'ite Muslim (89%), Sunni Muslim (10%), Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Baha'i (1%).

Government: Islamic republic.

Iran (book; reprinted 1995 - 2001) - Photos: N. Kasraian. Text: Z. Arshi.
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