The western part of Iran, which covers the five modern provinces of Kordestan (Kurdistan), Kermanshah, Hamadan, Ilam and Lorestan, is dominated by the Zagros mountains with its deep valleys, its high cols and some surprisingly varied mountain scenery which is among the most beautiful in the country. Winters here are very cold with heavy snow falls, but summers are much more pleasant than on the plateau or near the Persian Gulf. At the beginning of this century, these provinces were still considered wild and dangerous, and even today they are underdeveloped, particularly Kurdistan and Ilam. There is no rail link, for example, between western Iran and the rest of the country except for one line that passes through southern Lurestan without even reaching the provincial capital. Despite this, the area has been one of vital strategic importance since antiquity because of its position between the Mesopotamian Basin and the Iranian Plateau.
Standing at the frontiers with Mesopotamia and Turkey, western Iran has witnessed many of civilisation's great empires, with fortunes oscillating between trading glories and military decimation. In the III millennium ВС, the Kassites, Lullubi and Guti fought here against the Babylonian dynasties and the Akkadian Empire, causing the fall of the latter around 2200 ВС. The Kassites, who had come from Lurestan, succeeded in establishing their own dynasty in Babylon between the XVI and XII centuries BC. The Medes, who had settled in the modern province of Hamadan, fought for centuries against the Assyrian Empire, based in the Upper Tigris Basin, finally capturing its capital, Niniveh, in 612 BC. With the formation of the huge Achaemenian and Sassanian empires, western Iran retained strategic importance, located as it was between the imperial capitals (Babylon, Ctesiphon) and the Iranian Plateau.
The mountainous nature of the region and its cultural links with Mesopotamia lead to the development in this part of Iran of a very specific form of artistic expression, rock-carved bas-reliefs. Until the VII century BC, these carvings were relatively few in number, but increased considerably once the Achaemenian rulers used them for political and religious reasons, combining figurative representations with inscriptions. This practice continued, with greater or lesser success depending on the period, during the Parthian, Seleucid and Sassanian dynasties. These carvings, often remarkably well preserved despite their age and the harshness of the climate, are historical documents of exceptional importance and form a large part of the cultural visits in the region. However, some of the sites require long detours by road and may therefore be difficult to include in a tour.
Western Iran is a linguistic and cultural patchwork: Kurds predominate in Kurdistan and Kermanshah provinces; Lors in Ham and Lorestan; Arabs inhabit southern Khuzestan; Talesh and Gilaki are the traditional languages of Gilan (the southwest Caspian hinterland); and Azaris whose language is more Turkish than Persian, predominate in the rest of the northwest. In remote regions, and in Kurdish towns, traditional dress is still worn. The Arab geographers described the region used the term 'Kurd' for all the nomadic tribes in the area, regardless of their ethnic or cultural background. It was only after the Mongol invasions in the XIII century that the name 'Kurdistan' was used to designate the whole northwestern zone of the Zagros. The central government of Iran never really had much direct administrative control over this region until 1865, during the Qajar dynasty, when the last Kurdish prince was dismissed from his post.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Kurdish demands for separatism, which were growing as much in Iran as in Turkey and Iraq, were suppressed by Reza Shah. In 1946, however, taking advantage of the Russian occupation of northern Iran, the small Kurdish Republic of Mahabad was founded around Lake Orumiyeh. Isolated from other, more predominantly Kurdish areas further south, the republic lasted only a few months. Since then, the Kurdish question has been continually present in the political arena and has influenced many of the decisions taken by the central government. The problem of Iranian support for Kurdish autonomists in Iraq, for example, was one of the key points in the negotiations that lead to the signing, in 1975, of the Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq.
To make the most of western Iran, try visiting for the spring flower blooms in April/May, or the autumn harvest of juicy grapes and delicious mulberries in September/early October. The craggy peaks of the Zagros from Hamad an northwards see snow arrive early and leave late (about November to March), while the sweltering lowlands around Shush begin to boil in June.