Fifty-seven percent of Iran’s population lives in the cities. Urbanization proceeded rapidly under the Pahlevis as the cities became the focus of an emerging class, the professionals, and hundreds of thousands of peasants looking for a better life. Cities have a long history; several have served as the nation’s capital, or as regional service centers.
Each of the major cities contains an old section and at least one major covered bazaar, teeming with craftsmen selling their wares, and modern, well-planned sections built in the 1940s. The largest of these, Tehran has a population of about 7 million and is the national focus.
It is located in the north at the base of the Elburz Mountains on a broad alluvial fan at an elevation of 4,000 feet (1,295 meters), and was made the nation’s capital in 1788 although it did not develop much until the mid 19th century. Most of its development occurred during and since the reign of Reza Shah Pahlevi (1925-1941).
The city and the suburbs now contain a large share of the nation’s commercial, industrial, cultural, and political activities. Tehran is an important manufacturing center, accounting for a third of the nation’s industrial units specializing primarily in light engineering, chemicals, textiles, food processing, and consumer goods. Its rapid development has made it a crowded, congested metropolis with serious air and water pollution problems.
Isfahan (1.3 million) is more centrally located in a fertile plain in the middle of the Zagros Mountains, commanding routes towards Iraq. It was the capital of Persia under Shah Abbas in the 16th century, and is notable for its fine monumental buildings that reflect Iran’s past splendor. Tabriz (1 million) lies in the extreme northwestern part close to the borders of Turkey and Azerbaijan, on the ancient east-west route way between Europe and Asia.
It is also an ancient city and known for its elegant monuments and buildings such as the Blue Mosque. Tabriz has played an important role in Iran’s political affairs, mainly as the center of Kurdish and Azerbaijani dissident movements against the central government. The city is commercially important and is connected with Tehran by railroad and road.
The principal industries of the city deal with the manufacture of carpets, cement, and agricultural machinery. The city lies in the earthquake zone liable to frequent and severe shocks. Mashhad (1.9 million) on the historic eastward route to Afghanistan has experienced phenomenal growth as a major religious and political center of the Shiites.
It is located in a rich agricultural region, specializes in the wool trade, and is connected with Tehran by a railroad. Shiraz (1 million) is located in south-central part in the Zagros Mountains near the historic site of Persepolis, the seat of the ancient empires of Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes. Persia’s two great poets, Saadi and Hafiz, were born here and praised its beautiful gardens and excellent wine.
The city is a trading and road center, and is linked to Bushire, its port on the Persian Gulf, and to Tehran. Cement, sugar, fertilizer, and textiles are the major industries. Abadan (300,000), the nation’s only large port, is located in Khuzistan province in the rich oil-producing region on the Karun River (part of the Shatt-al Arab delta) some 33 miles (52 km) from the Persian Gulf near the Iraqi border.
Iran’s major oil company is located here, and the city is the terminus of oil pipelines. The city’s development and economy are entirely based on petroleum refining and shipping. In 1980 the city was overrun by Iraq and the refinery was largely destroyed; it was partially reconstructed in 1988 following the end of the Iraq-Iran War.