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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 2 of 2

Nomadic life in Iran is unique 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. Many of them have continued to live in the same way their forefathers did for hundred of years ago, maybe thousand of years ago. These people are very proud and strong, but the time change and they are struggling to retain their culture and lifestyle.

This article continues from part 1:

Trekking through the lands of the Iranians nomads


Seasonal migrations

Men and their cattle are constantly on the move to make the best use of the unstable natural conditions. High up in the mountains there are pasture lands formed upon the thawing of the snow. These cold regions are known as "Sard Sir". All the mountain regions in Iran are suitable for raising cattle with the exception of a small area. When the hard winter set, the cattle-raisers have to move from the high altitudes to the lower-lands called "Garmsir" where the winters are mild. So when the summer comes these people has to move on due to the heat. In April and May the nomads are crossing the Zagros Mountains to be prepared for the summer in the altitudes.


Traditional costumes

The most distinguished about the nomads are the material and style of the costumes. The style of dress differs from tribe to tribe and this variation can be seen in the costumes of both men and women. The beauty and decoration of the women's dress is however usually more noticeable. The function and design of the different types of costumes of men and women in these tribes symbolise their socio-cultural identity.


The main reasons for wearing clothes come from the principles of modesty and for protecting themselves against the sun and cold weather. However, in some cultures, clothes bear additional functions. Amongst the tribesmen, simply wearing clothes is now sufficient. Extraordinary ornamentation such as colourful glass beads, coins and attractive purling, are used in special occasions and symbolise the tribesmen's social position and the cultural-economic status, such as age or economic prestige of the wearers. In addition to its decorative purpose, the ornamentation on the women's costumes may also include a charm or a written prayer to ward off evil, and the whole represents both the aesthetic and ideological dimensions of the nomad tribes.


Also in the nomad tribes the black chador is very much part of Iranian tradition. As I noticed at the paintings in Golestand Palace in Tehran the women didn't suddenly start wearing them when the revolution in 1979 begun. It's interesting to observe that the women still wear this traditional dress while men are allowed to drop multiple layers of garments as they used too in the past. If the women go unveiled from top to toe they will be hardly punished. They also need to cover their head.


Compared with other Islamic countries the most obvious difference is the way men and women dress. The dress code is very strict in Iran. The other thing is the absolute sexual segregation of society. Examples of this are separate queues for men and women, separate tents, separate places in the buses (men have to sit in the front and women in the back of the buses). If a man sits beside an unmarried woman in a car, he could be arrested and put in prison. It's allowed to sit in a taxi together with a woman, and there are the one of the best places for man and woman to meet for flirting, and perhaps for more.


Carpets and rugs

The Iranians have weaved carpets for more than 2500 years. The nomadic women weave beautiful carpets of high quality and big variety in design. They make beautiful kilims (a double sided flat-woven mat without knots), gagims and other types of rugs. They exchange these with the traders in villages which they pass through on their annual migrations. The patterns they use to weave their carpets and rugs are transferred from generation to generation, and they still use the old method of processing the natural dyes.


Photo. Women from a Bakhtiari tribe make wool.


Their handmade carpets have different colours, and it's made by wool from sheeps, goats and sometimes camels. The wool is spun by hand, then rinsed, washed and dried. It has natural colours, and is derived from herbs, skins of fruit and vegetables and plants. The colours on the carpets are well preserved against rain and sunlight. It's possible to wash it without losing its colours. Carpet designs decorate the tents to the nomads.


The women don't use any specification for designing the pattern when they weave. They have the pattern in their mind and make it without advanced equipment. Many of these carpets are small due to practical reasons. They need to be easy to transport during the migration, so the women use horizontal looms. The Iranian weaving speciality is taking the knot loops around one horizontal thread and under the next. As mentioned one different kind of carpet or rug which the nomad women weave is the beautiful kilims (a double sided flat-woven mat without mats). These rugs are thinner and softer than knotted carpets and rarely used as floor coverings. They are often used as prayer mats (kilim is Turkish for "prayer mat") and wall hangings.


Intertribal warfare

So far I have heard there has been no fighting between the nomad tribes in Iran, but within the tribes, clans and family groups there have been several serious clashes. The only problem I have heard about is conflicts between the Iranian government and Kurdish separatists. The neighbouring countries as Turkey and Iraq have the same problems.


After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the government has taken much over the tribe's traditional gazing land for agricultural development. This has forced many of the nomad tribes to search for pastures other places for their cattle, or fight about the less pieces of land. Based on experiences the nomads will be weak if they were forced to settle down. They have their lifestyle and wandering in their blood and genes. The government lack understanding for the nomads need. As one wise man said it: "If you give bones to a donkey and grass to a dog, they both will be sick. It's not useful for none of them". If the nomads were forced to settle down in towns and villages they will be weak. They have their lifestyle and wandering in their genes and blood, so it can not be changed easily.


The government has taken away land from the nomad tribes, the people who need it most, and given it to others. Now a days the government give land to people from cities whom are educated in agriculture. As the tribes considered it, the people from the cities have limited skills in growing crops. It's just wasted to give these people land.


I visited a group of nomads who lived high up on a hill. The surroundings were full of volcanic stones. After I have been guided around in the area I could understand that these people own a land area with incredible natural resources. They had both springs of water and salt. In addition they had several kinds of minerals. Our local guide from the group told us that he has been fighting with his uncle about the land. His uncle fired 5 shots against him. One of them hit him and injured him seriously as we could see on his leg. The tribesmen I met around maintained that they had legal weapon. It was for hunting and defending themselves, they said. 


It's sad to see so many tribe people live on an existing minimum struggling to maintain their lifestyle and culture. The government prosecute anyone hunting endangered animals without the permitted hunting period. Hunts are conducted in a strict secrecy. Now it's maybe too late for this because many species of animals, as for example the lions and tigers, are already extinguished. It's few left of others. It's said that it's still few panthers and leopards in the deep forests. Perhaps there can be some pumas around in the high mountains too, but they are difficult to spot. He went to a kind of court in the tribe, but he didn't get support from the so called jury. The men just said that his uncle was little bit confused and didn't mean to harm him.


For 20 years ago there were one family. Now it is about 50 members in his group. So when the people increase in number, land will not be sufficient for all of them, and then the problems occur. It's the same with the cattle. They need more cattle to sustain the people, and if the pasture fields are not big enough, they have to buy expensive food for the animals.


The population have grown fast the last 10 years. Earlier they had up to 10 children in a family. Now they have 3-4 children in a family. More people mean more land to share and harder exposure on the nature. One person said that the ecological system will collapse within 10 years, and he feared that it will cause a disaster for the people.


Our nice guide from this nomadic group also invited us to his wedding few days later, but unfortunately we didn't have time to go there.


Is it hope for the future?

As one person look at it: "If a man stands in a river, and the water reach up to his knees, there is possible to help him. It's also possible to save him if the water reaches up to his hip, shoulders and neck. But if his is below water, he will be taken away to ocean and then he will disappear forever".


Today many nomads gradually settle down in towns and villages to find work. It causes high pressure in the central areas. Both social and unemployment problems occur and the life it's not easy for them all. Now a days many nomads visit often the markets in towns to sell their products. For them it's a new way of surviving.

The life in general in Iran is difficult, especially for the young people, who are "babyboomers" from the Islamic revolution. Over 70 % of Iran's population is under 30 year. The unemployment is extremely high among them. Totally the rate of unemployment at the moment (July 2004) it's estimated to be 27 %.


Many nomads who have settled down in town and villages spend part of the years in pasturelands with their livestock. One person meant that the morality has been lower among tribesmen the last years. It was because of that they have been influenced by some bad persons in the towns, he said.

Iran has also one of the highest densities of nomad tribes in the world. Since many of them live in high mountains and vast landscape, they lifestyle and culture has almost been untouched, but for how long? Many fears that there will come a day where the only remain from the nomads will be the colourful hand-woven craft, each symbolizing a tribe's colour, their land and myth in the design. The future will show how many nomads are crossing the Zagros Mountains.


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


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.

Pars Tourist Agency (P.T.A.), Iran


It`s a private Persian incoming agency. It's located in Shiraz under the license number 1/47026 issued by Iran Travel & Tourism Organization (ITTO) (www.farstourism.org). They organise a wide variety of tours for individuals as well as groups such as inbound historical, cultural, anthropology, mountaineering, trekking, adventure and natural excursion tours.

Speciality - exploring nomad tribes:
For real adventurers P.T.A. arranges expeditions in to rural areas to search for nomad tribes in Iran's high mountains. Some of the tribes are Bakhtiari, Lor, Qashqai. They live in a beautiful landscape that will take your breath away. You will be able to explore the tribe's daily life and unique culture in a natural way. Sometimes you will experience a wedding, birth, fighting game, dancing, festival or other things. Take your time and see what happens. Then it will be an experience of a lifetime.

Contact info:
Phone: 0098-711-2223163 and 0098-711-2240645. Mobile Phone (around the clock) 0098-9171118514.
Fax: 0098-711-2229693
Letters: Pars Tourist Agency (P.T.A), Zand Street 71358, Next to Iran Cinema, Shiraz, Iran.
Website: www.key2persia.com
E-mail: info@key2persia.com



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