When Iranians meet they inevitably ask: ‘Where are you from?’ This is because Iran has a multiplicity of distinct ethnic identities who are all, nevertheless, Iranian. It is important to understand that though the indigenous ethnicities are very much part of life, there is a unifying Iranian identity that keeps all these separate peoples part of a bigger whole.
Persians are the descendents of the original Elamite and Aryan races who arrived in what is now Iran during the 3rd millennium BC. The Persians, or Farsis, were originally the tribes that came to establish the Achaemenid Empire and now make up about 50% of the population. Persians are found across Iran, but Tehran, Mashhad, Esfahan, Yazd and particularly Shiraz have the highest concentrations. Farsi is the main Iranian language and Persian culture is often considered Iranian culture.
Commonly called ‘Turks’ in Iran, the Azaris make up about 25% of the population. They speak Azari Turkish, a dialect mixing Turkish with Farsi. They are concentrated in northwest Iran, in the Azarbayjan provinces around Tabriz.
Iran has more than six million Kurds. The Kurds lay claim to being the oldest Iranian people in the region, descended from the Medes. In Iran, Kurds live in the mountainous west, particularly Kordestan province near the Iraqi border. Kurds also live in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Arabs make up about 3% of the Iranian population and are settled mostly in Khuzestan, near the Iraq border, and on the coast and islands of the Persian Gulf. They are often called bandari (bandar means port), because of their historical links to the sea.
These proud people constitute about 2% of Iran’s population and are thought to be descendants of the first peoples in the region, the Kassites and Medes.
Making up about 2% of the population, Iranian Turkmen are descended from the nomadic Turkic tribes that once ruled Iran. They live in the northeast of the country, especially around Gorgan and Gonbad-e Kavus.
e population of dry, barren Sistan va Baluchestan province is largely Baluchi. Baluchis comprise around 2% of Iran’s population and are part of a greater whole that spreads into western Pakistan and Afghanistan.
About a million people still live as nomads in Iran despite repeated at tempts to settle them. Most migrate between cooler mountain areas in summer and low-lying warmer regions during winter, following pasture for their goats and sheep. Their migrations are during April and May, when they head uphill, returning during October and November. The majority of nomads are Turkic Qashqa’i and Bakhtiyari, but there are also nomadic Kurds, Lors and Baluchis.