Iran is situated in south-western Asia and borders Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, as well as the Caspian Sea to the north, Turkey and Iraq to the west, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the south and Pakistan and Afghanistan to the east.
A series of massive, heavily eroded mountain ranges surround Iran’s high interior basin. Most of the country is above 1,500 feet, one-sixth of it over 6,500 high. In sharp contrast are the coastal regions outside the mountain ring. In the north, the 400-mile strip along the Caspian Sea, never more than 70 miles wide and frequently narrowing to 10, falls sharply from the 10,000-foot summit to 90 feet below sea level. In the south, the land drops away from a 2,000 foot plateau, backed by a rugged escarpment three times as high, to meet the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
The Zagros range stretches from the border with Armenia in the north-west to the Persian Gulf, and then eastward into Baluchistan. As it moves southward, it broadens into a 125-mile-wide band of parallel, alternating mountains lying between the plains of Mesopotamia and the great central plateau of Iran. It is drained on the west by streams that cut deep, narrow gorges and water fertile valleys. The land is extremely hard, difficult to access, and populated largely by pastoral nomads.
The Alborz mountain range, narrower than the Zagros but equally forbidding, runs along the Zagros but equally forbidding, runs along the southern shore of the Caspian to meet the border ranges of Khorassan to the east. The highest of its volcanic peaks is 18,600-foot, snow-covered Mt. Damavand. On the border of Afghanistan, the mountains fall away, to be replaced by barren sand dunes.
The arid interior plateau, which extends into Central Asia, is cut by two smaller mountain ranges. Parts of this desert region, known as dasht, are covered by loose stones and sand, gradually merging into fertile soil on the hillsides. Where fresh water can be held, oases have existed from time immemorial, marking the ancient caravan routes. The most remarkable feature of the plateau is a salt waste 200 miles long and half as wide, knows as the kavir (deserts). It remains unexplored, since its treacherous crust has been formed by large, sharp-edged salt masses which cover mud. Cut by deep ravines, it is virtually impenetrable.
The vast deserts of Iran stretch across the plateau from the north-west, close to Tehran and Qom, for a distance of about 400 miles to the south-east and beyond the frontier. Approximately one-sixth of the total area of Iran is barren desert.
The two largest desert areas are known as the Kavir-e-Lut and the Dasht-e-Kavir. Third in size of these deserts is the Jazmurian. It is often said that the Kavir-e-Lut and Dasht-e-Kavir are impossible to cross except by the single road which runs from Yazd to Ferdows, but in recent years, heavy trucks and other vehicles have travelled over long stretches of these deserts which contain extensive mineral deposits – chlorides, sulphates and carbonates – and it is only a matter of time before they are exploited.
Lakes & Seas :
The Caspian Sea: The Caspian Sea, which is the largest landlocked body of water in the world (424,240 sq. km.), lies some 85 feet below the sea level. It is comparatively shallow, and for some centuries has been slowly shrinking in size. Its salt content is considerably less than that of the oceans and though it abounds with fish, its shelly coasts do not offer any good natural harbours, and sudden and violent storms make it dangerous for small boats. The important ports on the Caspian coast are: Bandar Anzali, Noshahr, and Bandar Turkman.
The Persian Gulf: the shallow marginal part of the Indian Ocean that lies between the Arabian Peninsula and south-east Iran. The sea has an area of 240,000 square kilometres. Its length is 990 kilometres, and its width varies from a maximum of 338 kilometres to a minimum of 55 kilometres in the Strait of Hormuz. It is bordered on the north, north-east and east by Iran, on the north-west by Iraq and Kuwait, on the west and south-west by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, and on the south and south-east by the United Arab Emirates and partly Oman. The term Persian Gulf is often used to refer not only proper to the Persian Gulf but also to its outlets, the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman, which open into the Arabian Sea.
The most important islands of the Persian Gulf on the Iranian side are: Minoo, Kharg, Sheikh Saas, Sheikh Sho’ayb, Hendurabi, Kish, Farur, Sirri, Abu Mussa, the Greater and Lesser Tunb Qeshm, Hengam, Larak, Farsi, Hormuz, Lavan, The notable ports on the Persian Gulf coast are: Abadan, Khorramshahr, Bandar Iman Khomeini, Mahshahr, Deilam, Gonaveh, Rig, Bushehr, Bandar Lengeh, Bandar Abbas.
The Iranian shore is mountainous, and there are often cliffs, elsewhere a narrow coastal plain with beaches, intertidal flats, and small estuaries borders the gulf. The coastal plain widens north of Bushehr on the eastern shore of the gulf and passes into the broad deltaic plain of the Tigris, Euphrates and Karun rivers. It is noticeably asymmetrical in profile, with the deepest water occurring along the Iranian coast and a broad shallow area, which is usually less than 120 feet deep, along the Arabian coast.
There are some ephemeral streams on the Iranian coast south of Bushehr, but virtually no fresh water flows into the gulf on its south-west side. Large quantities of fine dust are, however, blown into the sea by predominant north-west winds from the desert areas of the surrounding lands. The deeper parts of the Persian Gulf adjacent to the Iranian coast and the are around the Tigris-Euphrates Delta are mainly floored with grey-green muds rich in calcium carbonate.
The Persian Gulf has a notoriously bad climate. Temperatures are high, though winters may be quite cool at the north-western extremities. The sparse rainfall occurs mainly as sharp down pours between November and April and is heavier in the north-east. Humidity is high. The little cloud cover is more prevalent in winter than in summer. Thunderstorms and fog are rare, but dust storms and haze occur frequently in summer.
Until the discovery of oil in Iran in 1908, the Persian Gulf area was important mainly for fishing, pearling, the building of dhows, sailcloth making, camel breeding, reed mat making, date cultivating, and the production of other minor products, such as red ochre from the islands in the south. Today these traditional industries have declined, and the economy of the region is dominated by the production of oil.
The Persian Gulf and the surrounding countries produce approximately 31 per cent of the world’s total oil production and have 63 per cent of the world’s proven reserves. The Persian Gulf area will probably remain and important source of world oil for a long period.
Other Lakes: Along the frontier between Iran and Afghanistan there are several marshy lakes which expand and contract according to the season of the year. The largest of these, the Seestan (Hamun-Sabari), in the north of the Seestan &Y Baluchistan province, is alive with wild fowl.
Real fresh water lakes are exceedingly rare in Iran. There probably are no more than 10 lakes in the whole country, most of them brackish and small in size. The largest are: Lake Urmiya (area: 3,900-6,000 sq. km. depending on season) in Western Azerbaijan, Namak (1,806 sq. km.) in the Central province, Bakhtegan (750 sq. km.) in Fars province, Tasht (442 sq. km.) in fars province, Moharloo (208 sq. km.) in Fars province, Howz Soltan (106.5 sq. km.) in Central province.
Drainage & Soil :
The few streams that empty into the desiccated central plateau dissipate themselves in saline marshes. There are several large rivers, the only navigable one of which is Karun. Others are too steep and irregular. The largest rivers are: the Karun (890 km.), Sefidrood (765), Karkheh (755), Mand (685), Qara-Chay (540), Atrak (535), Dez (515), Hendijan (488), Jovein (440), Jarahi (438), Zayandehrood (405). All streams are seasonal and variable, spring floods do enormous damage, and there is little water flow in summer when many streams disappear. Water is however stored naturally underground, finding its outlet in subterranean water canals (qanat), springs and being tapped by wells.
Dams: Dams have always played an important role in harnessing Iran’s precious water reserves. The Amir Kabir dam on the Karaj river is a multi-purpose dam that supplies Tehran with hydroelectric power and much needed water. With its sailing and water-skiing facilities, the dam is a popular weekend summer resort. Among others, the Manjil dam on the Sefidrood, the Mahabad dam on the Mahabad river (which supplies water for irrigation of 2,000 hectares of land, as well as domestic water and hydroelectric power), the Martyr Abbaspur dam on the Karun, and the Dez dam on the Dez river to the north of Dezful are noteworthy.
Soil Patterns: The abundant subtropical vegetation of the Caspian’s coastal region is supported by rich brown forest soils. Mountain soils are shallow layers over bedrock, with a high proportion of unweathered fragments. Natural erosion moves the finer textured soils into the valleys. These alluvial deposits are mostly chalky, and many are used for pottery.
The semi-aired plateaus lying above 3,000 feet are covered by brown or chestnut-coloured soil that supports grassy vegetation. The soil is slightly alkaline and contains three to four per cent of organic material. The saline and alkaline soils in the arid regions are light coloured and infertile. The sand dunes are composed of loose quartz and fragments of other minerals. Except where protect by vegetation, they are in almost constant motion, driven by high winds.
Rural settlement :
Plain villages follow an ancient rectangular pattern. High mud walls with towers from the outer face of the houses, which have flat roofs of mud and straw supported by wooden rafters. In the open centre of the village is an occasional mosque, sometimes serving as a school, too.
The cattle that used to be herded there are now usually kept outside. Mountain villages are situated on the rocky slopes above the valley floor, they are surrounded by terraced fields, usually irrigated, of grain and lucerne (alfalfa). The houses are square, mud-brick, windowless buildings with flat or domed roofs. The stable is usually under the house.
Caspian villages are completely different. Here, where there is an abundance of water, the scattered hamlets have two-story wooden houses, frequently built on pilings, with a gallery around the upper floor. Separate out-buildings (barns, hen-houses, silk worm houses) surround an open courtyard.
Urban settlement :
Urban settlement has a long precedent in Iran. At present, around 50 per cent of the population lives in the big and medium-size cities. The biggest city of all is the capital, Tehran. Other big cities are Mashhad, Shiraz, Rasht, Isfahan, Tabriz, followed by the medium-size cities like Ahvaz, Sari, Kermanshah, Hamadan, Kerman, Yazd and others. Traditional architecture and town planning have undergone notable changes in the last few decades. The European designs have largely replaced the old ones. Nevertheless, old buildings are still around in the medium-size cities, but fewer can be found in the big ones.