Social History of Persia:
"Transition of Tribal Nobility into Qajar Urban Elite"
My very own family’s ancestry line is close related to the Qajar Dynasty of Persia. In maternal line we are traced back to the princely line of the Bahmani-Qajars, but in paternal line we descended from Kurdish tribal chiefs of the Zarrinkafsh clan and the Zarrinnaal family from Sehna (Sanandaj), respectively.
In Persia’s history often the numerous tribes played an immense role. Even in antiquity the Greek historian Herodotus told us about several Persian (that means in the South-Western Iranian province Pars living Indo-Iranian or Arian) tribes.
Furthermore Ferdowsi’s heroic epic Shahnameh (“Book of the Kings”) is about the seven mythological sons or the Iranian arch-emperor Manoutchehr, which became the fathers of the seven Iranian tribes.
The Arabian sources told us about several tribes within the former Sasanian Empire, too. And after the Seljuqs in the 11th century AD different Turco-Mongolian groups entered Persia and erected several realms based on tribal structures.
A political value get the different tribes when with the aid of Turk originated tribes some dynasties came to power like the Safavids, Afsharids and Qajars, and these dynasties often used their tribal backgrounds for establishing and continuing their power and rule which founded the base of Iran as a modern national state.
The Qajars themselves from tribal nomadic origin could unify finally 1779 under their chief Agha Mohammad Khan (later Shah) their rival branches and conquered the whole country until 1798. The Qajar rule based from the very beginning on the feudal structures of their former chiefship allying with other tribes by marital bands and guaranteed loyal vassals semi-independency under the imperial supremacy of the Qajar shahs. But this system of divide et impera also created the fact that until the end of the Qajar rule the Persian society was not a centralized nation but often especially in rural districts more a half-tribal feudal society.
The tribes did not act according to national but to tribal interests and could only forced by a strong central government to serve for the state. But also some tribes could be convinced to work for the Qajar state and were integrated into the Persian urban elite.
Elite (taken from the Latin, eligere, “to elect”) here is defined in its sociology meaning as a relatively small dominant group within a larger society, which enjoys a privileged status. A special elite is the result of economic and political forces within a social structure. Upon formation, societies have often had the tendency to stratify due to a combination of politics and ability. The position of an elite at the top of the social strata almost invariably puts it in a position of leadership and often subjects the holders of elite status to pressure to maintain their position as part of the elite. However, in spite of the pressures borne by its members, the existence of the elite as a social stratum is usually unchanged.
In the following article I will try to point out how members of tribal nobility were assimilated by the settled central fiscal forces and finally transformed to urban elite which supported the Persian government of the Qajar state.
There are six steps significant here, which such social groups had to pass: 1) Leadership of a tribe, 2) Appointment to an official post by central government, 3) “Urbanized” by settlement, 4) “Persianized” by settlement, 5) Marriage into urban elite classes, and 6) Consolidation of elite structures.
One of these families passing this development and changing from tribal to urban was my own…
I. Social structures in Qajar Iran – tribal society and urban organisation
1. Tribal Society
Iran is an arid high plateau, five parts from eight of the country therefore are not to be cultivating because of geographical or climatically reasons and only one part can be cultivated. Because of these geographic-climatically and economical forces some ethnic groups have a tribal-nomadic lifestyle. Today there are still about 500 independent little nomadic tribes and nearly one hundred bigger tribal communities with circa 3 to 5 million members. “Tribe” means here a form of political-social organisation, which mostly acts as a single group autonomously against fiscal authorities based often on mobile cattle-breeding.
You can divide the Iranian tribes in two sections, those of Indo-Iranian (Aryan) origin, and those you were settled there later in history like the Turks and Arabs.
Expect from the Persians, to whom the inhabitants of the provinces of Gilan and Mazanderan were counted as well, and which almost were amongst the settled urban population of central Iran, the other Indo-Iranian ethnics belong to several nomadic and settled tribes.
The largest of these ethnic groups are the Kurds with all about two million members in Iran, settled mostly in the administration province of Kurdistan. These Kurds include the tribes of Jaf in the South and Korus, Kalhor, Mokri and finally Bani-Ardalan between Hamadan, Sanandaj and Kermanshah. Partly there are some Kurdish settlements in Azerbaijan and the Zafaranlu in Khorassan.
Kurdistan (i.e. Persian “Land of the Kurds“), was first in 1117 named as a province and governmental unit of the Seljuqs, who ruled Persia from 1037 to 1159. It was situated strategically in a good position between Turkish Anatolia and the Persian Plateau. Up from the beginning 16th century Kurdistan became as well a puffer-zone as battlefield between the Ottoman sultans and Persian shahs about the supremacy in this region. The Kurdish chieftains switched hereby in allegiance once to the Turkish once to the Persian side and so forth could keep their independency from both central governments. Ethnically close to the Iranians, the Kurds were traditionally mostly semi nomadic herders or sedentary but had a stringent tribal society.
The term “tribal” is difficult to explain and refers to several criteria. The tribal group comprise some levels of organization, from the camp to the confederation, and again different criteria define membership of groups at each level. There are al lot of terms for tribe in the Persian language often using words of Turco-Mongolian or Arab origins like il, ashireh, qabileh, tayefeh, tireh or ulus. Later on these terms should be more analysed.
Often the term “tribe” is used commonly and synonymously with the meaning of tent-dwelling pastoral nomads. In fact in Persia at that time the economic life of most tribal groups was based on nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralism, with herding cattle, cultivating land, and hunting, raiding and trading goods. The tribal population of Persia of the19th century varied between one and a half and three millions, forming nearly the half of the total population of that time, living in frontier districts and in the arid areas which were better suited to pastoralism than agriculture.
Pastoral nomadism is related to geography and ecology. Under the pre-industrial conditions of the Qajar state terrain and climate of Iran made much of the country uncultivable, only suitable for seasonal grazing. Because only a small proportion of such pastures could be used by village-based livestock, the remaining area of large steppe and mountainous regions were left to be exploited by tent-dwelling nomads. Also these circumstances influenced the kinds of animal herded, which were in most of Persia sheep and goats. Transportation animals for the nomadic movements were camels, donkey and mules, while horses usually only were for military or prestige reasons. Nearly every half a year the herders changed between the summer quarters (Persian sardsir), where the cattle could find food even during the driest period of the year, and the winter quarters in the lower plains and snow free valleys (Persian garmsir). Other members of the tribe stayed at home at the villages responsible for harvest and the crop.
Especially in the Western half of Iran, in Kurdistan, “vertical” movements of people and animal took on a regular form from year to year, according to temperature and rainfall; between alpine (yailaq) summer quarters and lowland (qishlaq) winter quarters. The ecological interest of nomads in corporation herding their animal at the seasonal best pastures, led to certain forms of social and political organization. This is why labour resources in herding effectively must be pooled among the individual animal-owning households based on nuclear families of parents and children, which formed camps as herding units. These camps (mal or oba) varied in size from 5 to 20 tents, depending on the need of defence and extensiveness of the pastures, and led by an elder (rish sefid). The camp controlled the access to pasture, kept outsiders away and distributes grazing rights among insiders. Several camps formed a pasture-holding group, which legal and cultural emphasis based on descent from a common paternal ancestor. These pasture-holding descent groups (tireh) counted 20 to 200 tents. The patrilinear and patriarchal bonds of these divisions varied among the different tribes.
Actually based on familiar solidarity the Kurdish tribes were a mostly economic federation of families often based on the same patrilinear ancestry. Every tribal community was built in a severe patrilinear hierarchical pattern and often organized in a feudal system where the eldest men have the leadership, make decisions and solve feuds. Traditionally the hereditary tribal leader came from one single family, which often were the local big landowner and also appointed as provincial ruler by the shah. The common basic feature of tribal organisation was egalitarianism, individualism and independence as well as loyalty to paternal kinsmen.
The tribe (il) was the basic political group, numbered from 500 to 5000 tents. Some tribes claimed to be of common descent as a “clan” (tayefeh), but more often they were heterogeneous elements whose essence to unity was the allegiance to a leader (ra‘is). While the terms of khan and beg (actually in the meaning of “warlord” and “chieftain”), often used for tribal chiefs, actually implies a feudal relationship of master and vassals often associated with political or governmental duties on a fiscal level. With such a following under his protection these men had the power and influence to deal with local and perhaps national authorities. Several sub-tribes could unified in tribal confederacies (ashireh) which could count 20 000 tents, often led by a hereditary feudal chief (ilkhani, ilbegi).
Thus, the base of a tribal section was a “moral community” which could be a descent group, a migratory camp and a political unity and occupied a distinct area of pasture under some kind of leader. The tribal group feeling arise from common descent and ethnic and cultural similarity, and they share cultural symbols of common identity, like signs or clothing. So, mostly all marriages took place within that group and its members shared the same cultural symbols to distinguish them from others over generations.
Pastoralism is a specialized form of production, but was never the sole source of the tribes. Pastoral nomads were dependent on settled society because they needed many products of villages and towns for their own life. Exchanging their animals or animal products for grain, metal, manufactured goods or arms, directly or indirectly there were several relationships of nomadic tribes and settled urban communities whether by trade, tribute for protection or simple raids. Sometimes the tribes raised crops by themselves on their own land, or might have their land cultivated by share-cropping peasants. Often a rural village community included both, permanently settled cultivators and semi-nomadic pastoralists, who spent half the year away in the pastures. This form of agriculture often was the first step for an enduring settlement of certain tribes and the swift of tribal to more feudal and finally national structures like described later below in this article.
Nomadic pastoralism is an unstable economical resource compared with settled cultivation. Farmer’s land can recover after diseases, like drought or corrosion by war, and is able to produce again next year. But flocks of herding animals are highly susceptible to starvation, epidemics, exposure and robbery and can be devastated in a very short time but unlike farmland will not recover automatically next year. The mortality rate of the nomads was higher than that of the settled population due to famine and epidemics. Because of that through the times there had been a sedentarization of nomads and migration into towns or from lesser towns to provincial centres. To provide food for the family or even clan, tribal nomads need a minimum number of animals and the critical size of flock depends how far kinsmen are willing to help each other in sharing all duties of rising and herding cattle. The richer tribespeople can sell their surplus stock, get wealthy to buy luxury items and in times of security choose the higher profitable investment of farmland, where they build houses and eventually become members of wealthy settled elite.
Thus, in secure times a development for settlement is seen among the tribes, where fractions established in urban centres supported by the central government in their tendency for being pacified.
2. Urban Organisation and Qajar Administration
In the early Qajar period the Persian society basically was divided in sedentary agriculture and pastoral nomadism. Only a small percentage of the population lived in an urban environment. These cities were religious and administrative centres, crosses of trading routes and emporiums, and refuges of art and literature. City life seems to have benefited from the relative peaceful reign of the Qajars after the anarchy and civil war of the 18th century. The most important urban centres had a history tracing back to the beginning of the Islamic era in Iran and far beyond that: Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad, Tabriz, Kashan, Yazd, Kerman, Hamadan and Kermanshah. Only the Qajar capital of Tehran was a recent foundation made by the dynasty’s founder Agha Mohammad Shah in 1785 very next to the ancient town of Rayy. After these prominent cities came those of local importance in the provincial districts like Shushtar, Dezful, Sanandaj, Maragha, Sari and Astarabad. Next to the few freshwater sources, mostly the cities were situated at great distances from each other, green oases in an arid area, isolated from their neighbours by desserts or mountains.
Because of the infrastructural isolation most cities developed autogenous and autonomous institutions and had a special degree of internal self-government. The ruling class of the towns usually were patricians, indigenous inter-related families of prominent landlords, merchants and members of the ulama. They also made the leaders of the ward (mahal) and city, kadkhoda and kalantar, who mediated between the citizens and the official governor’s of the shah. The kadkhoda was the headman of a district or ward, chosen among those men who had the respect and confidence of his community. The kalantar was appointed by the ruler and his “eyes and ears” in the city, but a local man with some reputation as well. He was responsible for the regulation of the guilds and administrative supervision of the several wards, comparable to a modern major. Often these posts were bequeathed within the same families for generations. In addition to this elite of participates, the urban society of course counted the lower classes of traders, pedlars, craftsmen, artisans, guards, manual workers and servants and finally beggars, too.
Most of the larger cities were the headquarters, capitals and residences of provincial government. The city governors (hakem) or district governors (beglarbegi) in Qajar time often were royal princes, the ruler’s brothers, sons or grandsons, or loyal court servants appointed by the shah. They have to pursue rebels, pacify restless tribes and collect taxes in the name of the shah. A great part of the revenues finally landed in their own pockets, but the material requirements of the governor’s civil and military equipment was paid from local revenues, he had to bear the costs of his court and courtiers and had to handle with any governmental problems.
The first Qajars have had to manage not only to conquer a vast country but to install fiscal structures to govern it, too. Thus, it was necessary to create a central administration to secure income for running the imperial court, bureaucracy and army. Their nomadic tribal warriors and chiefs were at first the best instruments to defend and support the rule of the new dynasty. Agha Mohammad Shah and Fath Ali Shah trusted these tribal forces (ahl-e seyf, “people of the sword”) and allied their line with them by several intermarriages. Often the leaders were granted high posts in the new built administration which found its origin in the pattern of Safavid administrative systems.
But very soon especially the urban administration was in the hands of the ahl-e qalam (“people of the pen”), the Persian old urban bureaucratic class of patricians from the former Zand and Afsharid times, which held for several generations administrative jobs in cities like Shiraz or Isfahan.
More and more the state dignitaries came from families of local nobility or humble origin out of the provinces, especially from the provinces of Mazanderan and Persian Iraq as well as from Fars during the reign of Fath Ali Shah, and from Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kurdistan during the time of Mohammad Shah. In the middle of the 19th century there was a huge class of bureaucratics and state officials, which very clearly kept their very own interests in eye, and in the meantime were granted with military posts and the provincial governments, too. But all these court and government officials depended on the grace of the absolute monarch. Royal favour was therefore granted to them by a certain post (mansab) with a salary (mawajib), tax-free land (toyul), a provision (suyursat) and pension (mustamarri), or by symbolic gestures like the granting of a robe of honour (khel‘at), a title (laghab), a decoration (neshan) or a certain amount of money (sala).
II. Transition of Elite structures – from tribal to urban
Step 1: Leadership of a tribe
Tribal groups often stayed under political autonomy but getting larger could even become a strong militaristic power, sometimes founding their own dynasty, as happened in Persian history with the Safavids, Afshars, Zands and finally Qajars. From the time of the Safavids until the end of the Qajar dynasty the tribal element brought the ruling house to power and was used as source of revenue, military forces and agricultural producer. Under governmental control the tribal community developed feudalistic class structures.
Traditionally the Kurds had a stringent feudal system, too. Those who belong to a special tribe (sorani) were powerful, formed the caste of knights (spahi) and also made demands to be the provincial lords (agha). The Kurdish warriors were famous for their bravery and art of warfare and keep until the 19th century their traditional armour: a chain shirt with vambraces and pads for legs, a cuirass and a pointed metal helmet with feather plumes at the top. The face was protected by an iron clamp, the neck by a neck guard made of many small iron rings. Next to a huge leather-stringed shield, the warriors were armed with a dagger and long sword or lance. Often a handgun and riffle were added to this basic equipment. These men distinguished physiognomically often from the peasants which did not belong to any special tribe (gorani) in height and facial features as well as in accent. Between the aghas and the peasants there was a classical feudal relationship of liege and vassal. The land which the chieftains regarded as their own property was farmed by the peasants and therefore the latter had to pay taxes. In use was the “zekat”, the crop’s tenth lot. This was why the aghas enjoyed next to manorial authority as tribal chiefs and warlords economical privileges, too. But in change the chief’s tribe protected the peasants and serve in military campaigns for them. At first all harvest belonged to the regional prince or emir (Kurdish mir), who stood above all aghas. The crop was divided by the prince to his vassals. He demanded over all their dos and don’ts, and was asked by them for patronage and protection. The Kurdish begs had a high reputation among their vassals and treated them often very friendly, nearly familiar but also their command was absolute and they could decide about their people’s life and death.
A tribal leader often began his career with moral authority over a group of followers, and their allegiance mostly depended on the booty they got from him. Sometimes he could expand his leadership to establish a hereditary dynasty. As chief of his whole tribe he had to be more able to command than his kinsmen, and strengthen the moral and authority of the chiefship, and had to reward them not only with booty but with entertainment and hospitality, too.
According to Ibn Khaldun’s theories of rulership in Islamic history, all tribal dynasties, if local or national ones, will pass four phases of development. In the first phase, the expansion, a leader recruits followers, rewarding them usually by booty from successful raiding. The leader uses his followers’ support to gain control of a city and its surrounding region with the settled peasants of that area. Then, the second or establishment phase begins, when the leader settled in the city, makes it his capital and takes over the already existing administration. Now, his aims are not more raiding and taking booty or tribute, but collecting regular taxes and establishing control over the tribes. But then his erstwhile followers were frustrated in their drive for booty, and while the dynasty becomes used to urban life, the peripheral tribes were alienated from the dynasty and the third or phase of decay is entered. Here the tribes refuse their support, rebel in favour of other leaders and take over the region, which is now helpless without the guard of the dynasty’s tribal troops. In the last or replacement phase, finally the tribes under a new strong leader invade the city and a new circle begins.
The only problem of establishing a strong long lasting dynasty in many cases were the problems of succession, the practise of polygyny and the absence of strict recognized rule of succession. Often different branches of the ruling house were fighting for superpower and at the end weakening their rulership. To widen his authority a chief sometimes deal with the government and let recognized his chiefship by a more powerful ruler and the legitimate leader of his followers. So, a chief had duties to the government and his followers and was more in the position of a feudal lord than a group commander. Typically, he collected tax and military levies and maintained order for the government. For his tribesmen he conducted external political matters, co-ordinated the migrations, adjudicated disputes and allocated the pastures. For himself he took a large proportion of the tax he collected, and he was given land grants for his service by some rulers. With that wealth, supplemented by his private land and flocks, a chief could not only display hospitality and generosity to his followers and guests but also support a large court by himself with servants and armed guards.
Tapper says about the Kurdish chiefs:
“…hereditary chiefs were rarely challenged even in ‘tribal’ conditions, while with government backing, the begs often emerged as powerful and oppressive autocrats.”
Like the shah or sultan the Kurdish begs celebrated a certain kind of pomp. For example, they never lifted up from their seats alone without nearly a dozen of companions, and her favourite topic was their family’s age and their glory rulership.
The aghas’ authority had been institutionalized in the tribal guesthouse and audience hall, the so-called diwan-khaneh. In 1838 a European commission travelled throughout Kurdistan, describing the life of the Kurdish, the land and people. About the court of the Agha of Sehna they told us:
“…The diwan always was squared with an upper and lower end; the entrance was near the lower end. There were rugs and carpets on the walls around and cushions to sit on it. A guest of honour or a respected elder of the village got a lot of comfortable cushions to lean against it. But for young men that would have been an affront, however. The agha’s seat was at the upper end, and the high-ranking members of his staff and important guests sat next to him. The younger a member, the lesser his status, the more he sat to the lower end. Men of really less status were not allow sitting but had to cower next to the door. If somebody entered, all of equal or lower ranking had to stand up and wait until the newcomer had found a good place to sit and sat down. Then all saluted and welcome him one after the other and he responded to every single salute.”
The reception at the diwan was a good instrument of social control. The male inhabitants of a village had the duty to attend the gathering every evening. If somebody left a day, he was asked why he did not come, and those who were absent several times were rebuke by the agha and the elders. The elder men were a good example for the younger, how one should behave. When an elder was talking the younger had to be sit motionless next to him listening to his speech. The younger only were allowed to whisper but never to talk loudly. They had to sit straight erected, legs crossing and not leaning against the wall, what implicated weakness. And this way they sat together night after night, listening to the old men discussing daily problems, planning agriculture production, talking about clashes or organising military steps. Sometimes an important resolution was made and the agha asked the elder for their advice, but finally made his decision alone on his own. The elder talked about former times, often about the heroic deeds of the great chiefs, and singers performed hundred of songs and told stories and epic tales. Often the aghas ruled over hundreds of families and demanded on their territories them for unpaid work as tribute and from nomadic tribes for the usage of summer pastures to pay compensation. So they were paid with horses, sheep and other stuff. Furthermore the agha had to judge about internal conflicts within the tribe or between different sections of the tribe. A classical case here was the blood feud. When a clan member was hurt or killed by a member of another clan, the tribal community answered with a stroke against the latter and so a simple clash of two or more parties could become after a short time a war among the tribes. A peaceful solution only was possible with aid of the leaders. Very often conflicts in the tribes rose up because of the succession. Again and again there were struggles about the leadership and the post of the agha. The line of succession still stay in one family, but there was no legal rule of succession. Once a leader was appointed he nearly ruled absolutely and his vassals served him faithfully.
So the tribespeople were a valued source of revenue and irregular cavalry, but leaders of larger tribes could also withhold their dues and in more remote provinces could get virtual autonomy. The tribes had a natural tendency to rebellion, rapine and destruction. Thus, on the other hand this basis was also feared as a disruptive element for their raids against non-tribal urban society and damaging crops, their armed opposition against the rulers and often own dynastic ambitions. Tribal policy and military policy were closely connected and tribal contingents formed a great part of the military forces, especially before the military reforms in the era of Nasser od-Din Shah Qajar.
Professor Ann Lambton writes about this problem:
“Control of the tribal element has been and is one of the perennial problems of government in Persia. All expect the strongest governments have delegated responsibility in the tribal areas to the tribal chiefs. One aspect of Persian history is that of a struggle between the tribal element and the non-tribal element, a struggle which has continued in a modified form down to the present day. Various Persian dynasties have come to power on tribal support. In almost all cases the tribes have proved an unstable basis on which to build the future of the country.”
In Qajar Persia, the ruling dynasty originated of a tribal chiefship, came to power by exact these forces and its rule based on the same principles. To solve these problems and make the tribes loyal subjects or at least allies to the government, the tribes were allowed certain autonomy so long as they kept within certain bounds defined by the government. Often the government gained control over them by nominating their leaders, keeping members of the chief’s family as hostages, establishing marital alliances between the chiefly and the imperial family and making harsh punitive expeditions against tribal rebels or playing off one rival branch of the leading family or tribe against the other.
One can summarized the principle of divide et impera the Persian tribes when
“…the Qajar rulers … appointed ilkhanis and ilbegis over the more important tribal groups, although they usually had to nominate individuals acceptable to their tribesmen, most often the hereditary chiefs. Recognized chiefs were expected to collect and pay taxes, to maintain order and to organize military levies, which were due both to the Shah and often to the provincial governor as well. Irregular tribal levies continued to form the main body of the army, though attempts were made to introduce more regular disciplined troops.
Step 2: Appointment to an official post by the central government
Strong rulers like Shah Abbas I in the 17th century or later on Nasser od-Din Shah Qajar at the end of the 19th century replaced the hereditary chiefs with their own candidates as local governors and developed disciplined non-tribal troops in the army or balanced the tribal element with their own virtual power. So for example the Safavid Shah Abbas I (r. 1589-1629) used the help of indigenous Kurdish tribes to replace the Qizilbash forces and to reconquer the Ottoman occupied provinces at his Western borders and then made their troop commanders vassals to the Persian crown.
This was also the fact with Mohammad Ali Beg-e Zarrinnaal, the founder and eponym of our family. Belonging to the Zarrinkafsh tribe, which lived since the year 1448 in Kurdistan and possessed the area around Sanandaj as their fief, this Kurdish chief was asked by Shah Abbas the Great to make war on the Ottomans, and on 24th of August 1605 with the aid of his troops from the Mokri tribes could reconquer the Turkish occupied province of Kurdistan for Persia. After that he was made vicegerent (vali) of Kurdistan, where he himself and his tribe were known by the name of Zarrinnaal (lit “Golden Horseshoe”). He reigned probably from 1605 to 1615 as governor and was head of the administration and army, chief judge and legislator. This first Kurdish beg entitled Zarrinnaal became the founder of a lineage of tribal chiefs loyal to the Persian rulers and in governmental administrative service in addition to their duties as tribal chiefs.
According to the political influence of a tribe, the degree and kind of governmental interference and control played an immense role. On the other hand with the policy of appointing loyal vassals or even officials in the tribal areas, the autonomous power of local tribal leaders was weakened. So security was improved and raiding suppressed. In many areas the nomadic elements were settled and tempted to exchange their mobile tents for immobile dwellings in villages and towns. With that development they were more and more urbanized and finally with the socio-political changes during the Constitutional era at the beginning of the 20th century ethnic and tribal identities were losing their importance to a general national consciousness.
Step 3: “Urbanized” by settlement
In addition to that, what was said before, ambitious leaders needed both tribal support and urban bases, and no ruler only could rely on just one element of them. There was always a necessary relationship between the cities and tribes. To govern the cities rulers had to make the choice between installing their tribal chiefs as official governors of their local towns (and so accepting their semi-autonomy), or sending their own state officials as governors with the problem to continue to take the local tribes under control. The tribal leader wanted to capture the city and finally made his home base there and brought some of his followers, and they would settled as his servants or henchmen.
This is why all kinds of long lasting rulership had the tendency of settlement and at least had been urbanized by the local subjects automatically.
The ruling families of the tribes, local dynasties itself and often not of the same origin like their tribesmen, were among the most influential in the country, and in their own local provinces or at the capital they played an important role in the political affairs. So, the powerful tribal chiefs themselves, whether through assimilation to the government bureaucracy or through detention as hostages or by family ties to the imperial house, became urbanized and estranged from the majority of tribesmen, and so could no longer exercise direct control over their people.
This for example happened already in the middle of the 18th century when after the fall of the Safavid Empire the remaining tribes portioned out the country and tribal heads reached the highest post in army and government in the country. Under Nader Shah Afshar (r. 1732-1747) my own ancestor Abbas Beg Zarrinnaal son of a Persian governor of the Afghans, was not only father of eighteen children and the leader of his entire tribe (ra‘is-e il) but also the head of Persian administration and one of the viziers to the shah. But with this post involved in the central administration he was bounded to urban fiscal structures, therefore “urbanized” and lost his provincial tribal ties and finally was mediated from his own tribesmen, too. So when he was murdered with the shah in his camp in 1747, his son Oghli Beg I was not more than a mere big landowner (mallak) with large landed properties in Kurdistan but without important tribal connections or political influence like his ancestors.
With these measures of involving local tribal elements into the fiscal machinery, little by little in the 18th and 19th century in Persia the nomadic tribes lost their tribal identity and organization to settle in the urban centres of bigger towns like Tabriz, Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz or Sanandaj. Here settlement meant the abandonment of pastoralism and mobile tent-camps instead of cultivation and fixed dwellings. For sure that also means a loss of political mobility and independence in opposite to the central government, but implies the advantages of accesses to land and greater security of home and property.
Barth says about this point facing the same tendency in the Ottoman Empire:
“The degree to which settlers became detribalized depended to a great extent on whether they settled in an area where they could identify with the dominant ethnic group. For example, when Kurds settled in the mountains where they were the majority element, they maintained their identity and that forms a tribal organization, but where they settled in the plains among communities of Turkic peoples, they were quickly Turkicized.”
This also happened in Persia in the Kurdish Ardalan principality. After the ruling family the entire province of Persian Kurdistan which corresponded roughly to that of the present-day Shahrestan (sub-province) of Sanandaj was called Ardalan up from the 18th century. About 6500 hectares of size it bordered in the West to the Ottoman Iraq and in the North to the province of Azerbaijan, in the North-East there was Zanjan, in the East Hamadan and in the South Kermanshah. The Ardalan territory counted the areas of Zardiawa (Karadagh), Khanaqin, Kirkuk and Kifri. Furthermore they dominated the several Kurdish tribes of Jaf, Kalhor, Mandami and Sheykh-Esmaili, and sometimes over the Mokri, Bilbas and Hawrami, too. The founder Baba Ardalan got in 1219 the rulership of Shahr-e Zur, and in the 14th century the Bani-Ardalan moved to their present settlement place and belonged to the Mamu’i branch of the Gurani Kurds. Until the Safavids they were independent princes and then were made valis, hereditary vicegerents or “lords of the marches” when their domains were integrated in the Safavid Empire with the conquest by the first Safavid ruler of Persia, Shah Ismail I (r. 1501-1526). As vassals of the shah they got a semi-autonomous status and were one of the most powerful provincial lords in the Persian Empire until the end of their rule 1860. Nearly all Valis of Ardalan from then on were Ardalans. The only exceptions were valis who were imposed upon the province by the Persian government when the latter was trying to impose its will upon a recalcitrant khan. When the Qajar dynasty ascended the Persian Peacock Throne in 1796 the Ardalans and their Kurdish tribes joined the new imperial house and for their alliance were granted high official posts and married into the Qajar dynasty. Amanollah Khan Bozorgi (1799-1825) was one of the last powerful Ardalan rulers, came to power with Fath Ali Shah and like the Qajar ruler, decorated his capital with new buildings and ran a splendid court, which impressed as well the Persian shah as foreign visitors.
Of the court of the Vali of Ardalan at Sanandaj, Kinneir wrote:
“The Vali resides in a sumptuous palace, built on the top of a small hill in the centre of the town, where he maintains a degree of state and splendour, superior to anything I have seen in Persia, except at court.”
In his days about 5000 families with 25 000 persons belong to the Bani-Ardalan tribal confederacy around Sanandaj. The vali’s chancellor and chief secretary 1799-1826 was Oghli Beg’s I son Ali Beg “Monshi-bashi”, who died 1826 in a battle against the Turks at Mossul and bequeathed this office to his son Oghli Beg II “Monshi”, my paternal great great great-grandfather.
Sheerin Ardalan counts in her book Les Kurdes Ardalân – entre la Perse et l’Empire ottoman several aristocratic families, which served for generations the Ardalans. Among them were the sultans of Bana, the sultans of Hawraman, the Mir Eskandari, the Soltan Soleymani, the Vakili (the hereditary regents of Kurdistan), the Qaderi, the Baraz, the Vaziri (the hereditary first minister of Kurdistan), the Mawali (the hereditary judges and sheykh ol-islam of Kurdistan) and the Mardukhi (the hereditary imam-e jom‘eh of Kurdistan). Next to these principal families counted the Zarrinnaal as the hereditary monshi (chancellor) of Kurdistan, which came from the Zarrinkafsh or Kafsh-e Zarrin tribe and possessed the fiefdom of Sanandaj.
Thus, although the Ardalan state was a tribal principality it has urbanized structures and based on a settled community, with the city of Sanandaj as it capital, administrative and cultural centre. Sanandaj, in Kurdish Sehna or Sinneh, was the administrative and cultural centre of the Persian province of Kurdistan. Settled in a valley with huge dense woods with oak trees, walnut, elm and beech trees, this area was full of game animals like leopards, moufflons, wild goats, hyenas, jackals, wolves, foxes, sables, weasel and birds like partridges, wild ducks, storks and eagles. Here next to the Zagros Mountains winter was cold and snowy and summer hot and dry. Sanandaj was relatively rich and popular for its fine handmade tribal rugs. After the Portuguese found the sea route to India and China in the 16th century the overland Silk Road which ran through Kurdistan lost importance and Kurdistan as marketplace for goods between Orient and Occident lost its economical importance, too as well as handcrafts and trade declined in this region. But Sanandaj still was a regional trading centre for the export of oak galls, gum tragacanth, skins, fur and carpets. However the province lived on cattle-breeding and cultivation of agriculture products like wheat, barley, crop and fruits. But the land was mountainous crossed by several rivers, lakes, glaciers and caves without large parts of arable farmland. Settlements often were located in far away valleys and only consisted of a few homesteads and hamlets which counted a total of about thousand villages. Thus, the city itself was situated 1 500 meter in altitude overshadowed by the giant 3 500 meters high Kuh-e Chehelcheshmeh (“Mountain of the Forty Eyes”), between the right bank of the Qishlak River and Mount Avidar, which separated the city from the former capital of Hassanabad. It was made capital 1637 when in 1634 the old capital of Hassanabad was destroyed by the Ottomans and the administration shifted to Sanandaj, ten kilometres south-east of Hassanabad, on the ruins of the old settlement of Sisar (“Thirty Peaks”) by Soleyman Khan Ardalan. At the beginning of the 19th century the city counted about 8 000 inhabitants.
The name of Sanandaj means nothing more than “Fortress of Sehna”; when Persian dez, Kurdish daj, means “fortress” and Sehna actually means in Kurdish “sultan”. That settlement formed the strategically centre of this area on the historical town hill. Around this fortress, people came and built homes and the little village grew into a town. The fortress today is located in the middle of the city. Around the new centre and residential palace of Khosrowabad under Amanollah Khan Bozorgi new suburbs and districts were erected like Katarchian, Chahar Bagh, Aga Zaman, Khiyaban-e Farah, Javar Abad, Pir Mohammad or Gonj Fatemeh Khanoum. Sanandaj counted then by the middle of the century 5000 families with 20 000 inhabitants in 6000 houses.
My own family is closely connected to the city of Sanandaj and its history. About the history and origin of the city of Sanandaj Burhan Ayazi states in his historical book about Kurdistan Aineh-e Sanandaj (“Mirror of Sanandaj”):
“Before the Hejjri year of 1046 (i.e.1634 AD) the castle of Sehna-dez, which became later Sanandaj, was a little village where the clan of Zarrinkafsh lived a noble and respected life. The historians told about the family of Zarrinkafsh as follow: This clan (tayefeh) was called in Kurdish kosh zarrin and in Persian zarrin kafsh (lit “golden shoe”). The members were descendants of famous Shahnameh hero Tus-Nozar. This noble line was the first one which settled in the area around Sehna-dez and the city’s first inhabitants. The area of Tappeh-e Painshahr, a hill which forms now the city’s lower district, should have been the camp of Prince Tus-Nozar with a tent for the hero and was then called Tappeh-e Tus-Nozar. There you have a nice view there and from every direction it is a beautiful panorama. It makes no different from which side one enters Sanandaj, this hill is always visible. The first settlers, members of the Zarrinkafsch tribe wear a distinct headgear (kolah), Kurdish “klut”, and a black shawl (shala'i) which was wrapped around it in a specific way. They wear golden shoes as well, a hint for their royal ancestry (shahzadehgi). This is the reason why they were called Zarrin (Golden) Kafsh (Shoe). Some of these people, which descended from this house, still live in Sanandaj where they live a respectable life...”
Sheerin Ardalan mentioned this tribe in her book, too:
“Le nouveau vâli [Soleyman Khan Ardalan] choisit l'ancien bourg de Sena/Sanandaj, fief de la vieille tribu des Kafsh-e Zarrin (“bottines d'or”) situé à un farsang de Hasanâbâd, comme capitale...” And in footnote 112 at that page she wrote: “Cette très anciennes tribu remonte à Tus, fils de Nowzar, héros et sepahdâr (chef de l'armée), aux bottines d'or, du roi mythique Key Khosrow. Jusqu'à la première moitié de notre siècle, les hommes et femmes de cette tribu continuèrent à porter des chaussures en cannetille d'or (golâbtun), symbole de la royauté dans l'ancienne Perse. Une colline à l'est de Sena porte encore aujourd'hui le nom de Tus-e Nowzar, en souvenir des agapes que celui-ci organisait à cet endroit.”
The Ardalan rule declined when Amanollah Khan Bozorgi’s two grandsons Reza Gholi (r. 1834-1846 and 1848-1860) and Amanollah Khan Ardalan (r. 1846-1848 and 1860-1867) struggled for the succession. In 1859 dissatisfaction took place among the Kurds about their ruler. Because the Ardalans ruled over the Kurdish tribesmen by nomination of the Shah of Persia, and not because they were legitimated as legal tribal overlords in their province the Ardalans’ people were not their kinsmen and tribesmen. Although the vali clothed, feed and paid them, his own inferiors did not follow him anymore and refused further service. Then in 1860 he was finally deposed by Nasser od-Din Shah, who on a visit trip to Kurdistan recognized that the governor violated the right to possess land but interfered from time to time in his subjects’ private land tenure. With an imperial decree the shah finished not only the Ardalan rule over 150 000 Persian Kurds but a tribal feudal system that lasted for centuries, too. The old nobilities’ power concerning the peasants was restricted now but the old families from where the Ardalan dignitaries of the vali’s court came from still played an important role in the province and were among the biggest landowners. The vali was replaced 1867 by the shah’s own uncle Prince Farhad Mirza ‘Motamad od-Dowleh’ as governor (hakem) of Kurdistan to extend direct control of the central government.
Then Oghli Beg II ‘Monshi’ quitted his service for the Ardalans and in the last years of his life he was only looking after his estates in Kurdistan. Like most of all Kurds he originally was a Sunni Muslim but for political reasons converted to the Shiite faith, the main religion in the Persian Empire and at the vali’s court. Beyond that religious assimilation Oghli Beyg wanted to join his own family with the new Qajar dynasty by marriage and asked for the hand of a Princess of Abbas Mirza’s house.
Tribes like that of the mentioned Ardalan rulers or of my own family settled in their own domains, firstly were urbanized there but kept their own Kurdish identity. But with getting stronger relations to the Persian central government they became more and more “Persianized”. A process that even got stronger in Qajar time when they settled in Persian cities like Tehran. They still stayed in kinship-based communities but became assimilated with the Persian-speaking majority and finally became inhabitants of the Qajar capital, working for the court, government and army as officials and militaries. So, next to the town the kin-groups of a tribe settled to cultivate their own land or the land of their chief, but also kept their tribal common identity for a long time. Chiefs as well as other wealthy tribesmen who settled as landowners often could continue to save their status and be known as tribal leaders, but their relation to cultivating tribespeople is no more a “tribal” one but that of ordinary landlord and peasant, also when he maintained mobile military units.
Oghli Beg’s son Agha Mirza Zaman Khan Kordestani ‘Lashkar-nevis’, born in Sanandaj 1840 by Noor-Jahan Khanoum and died in Tehran 1906, got an extensive education in Arabic, literature, calligraphy and arithmetic. Finally after the Ardalan demise he left his Kurdish hometown and moved to Tehran. With the settlement in the Persian capital a total “Persianization” of this Kurdish grandee and the last but one phase of transition from tribal nobility to urban elite took place. There, with this move the title of Beg used in the family’s past “tribal period” changed in that of Khan, according to common Persian customs of calling landowners of old provenance with this not only hereditary but also adoptive surname. Known by the shah from the latter’s last trips to Sanandaj before, in Tehran Agha Mirza Zaman Khan Kordestani entered service at Nasser od-Din Shah’s court. Familiar with Arabic, Persian and the Gurani and Sorani dialects of the Kurds some samples of his handwriting convinced his superior to give him an employment at the imperial court offices and so he became a bureaucratic in the governmental administration. His career started as a clerk (mirza) with a beginning salary of five to six Touman per month, the double income of a court servant, and he was in charge of fiscal duties of the government, administration and military. Then he got the post of the lashkar-nevis (muster-master), the chief secretary and head of military administration until 1904. Also, he was honorary called Agha (“Sir”) by Nasser od-Din Shah and became his military adviser and wrote books about military history and astronomy.
For all the military and administrative reforms at the court of Nasser od-Din Shah, who wanted to improve the army, the government needed scribes, clerks and civil servants to write and copy lists about tax, salary, material stuff and recruiting. Therefore the ministry of war needed an own administration. Head of these clerks was the muster-master or lashkar-nevis. This post did exist since Safavid time and under Agha Mohammad Shah Qajar the muster-master was responsible for the recruitment, arrangement, logistics and supply of the royal troops. With reforms in the army he became the central dignitary of military administration; and as the army's chief secretary he was responsible for the salary of every army member (asaker), which included not only military persons but court servants and provincial officials, too. As chief accountant he only was responsible to the ministry of war, which laid in the hands of Prince Kamran Mirza ‘Nayeb os-Soltaneh’, Nasser od-Din Shahs favourite son and then in the responsibility of Prince Vajihollah Mirza ‘Amir Khan Sardar’ ‘Seyf ol-Molk I. Agha Mirza Zaman Khan Kordestani ‘Lashkar-nevis’ wrote annual reports for the shah, which counted all payment documents and vouchers of salary of all servants of the civil and military service. The army’s costs were counted for troops of 200 000 men, which were one third of the state’s total expenditure, paid with fiscal revenues.
Established in the circle of the court elite, in 1868 Agha Mirza Zaman Khan Kordestani married Pari Soltan Khanoum Pir-Bastami. She was the elder daughter of Mohammad Hossein Khan ‘Sardar’ and Princess Effat od-Dowleh Qajar and hence grand daughter in paternal line of Dust Ali Khan ‘Moayyer ol-Mamalek’ and in maternal line of Mohammad Shah Qajar. Thus, with this marriage Agha Mirza Zaman Khan Kordestani got access to one of Tehran’s patrician families and so at least the final phase to transform into urban elite began. This bond was the first family connection to a leading Qajar bureaucratic dynasty of noble blood and another attempt for unification with the Qajar ruling house itself.
In Qajar Persia marriages were arranged and not only made for family or sexual purpose but because of economical reasons and family property, too. A pragmatic marriage, facilitated by formal procedures of family or group politics, was encouraged often by a professional matchmaker to find a suitable spouse for an unmarried person. The authority figure could be parents, family, a religious official, or a group consensus, and normally chose a match for purposes other than marital harmony. Because of these economical reasons endogamy, the practice of marrying within the same social group was very common in Persian society. Endogamy played an important role in social stratification and could refer to different social factors such as origin, occupations, activities, or education. These relationships were created because people feel more comfortable around people of their own social group with similar lifestyles. Elite families generally contribute to endogamy within big business. As all big business works together, so do the families running them. In Qajar Persia the court grandees and state officials could pave the way for their offspring to follow a similar path in their business. Being a member of this group create social bonds that are continued through one’s life and often through generations.
The fact that Mirza Zaman Khan married relative lately in his late twenties was under the circumstances of his move to Tehran. He came from outside, had no female relatives in the city who could know a candidate, and first had to established occupationally. All that made it difficult to find an able bride for him.
In contrast his children were married in their middle to late teens, normal in those days. Grown up with all advantages of young aristocrats in Tehran, their father’s position at court and wealth and at least a network of female relatives from their mother’s side made it possible to marry within the same group of kinsmen and Qajar relatives arranged by the matrilineal bonds of Pari Soltan Khanoum. Maybe this is also a reason why the traditional paternal endogamy of Persian and especially Kurdish families hardly existed in favour of a maternal one in my own family (see: Schemata of maternal endogamy in Pari Soltan Khanoum’s family).
It is told within the family that at first the bride’s parents did not want to give Mirza Zaman Khan their daughter’s hand until they were convinced of the Kurdish groom’s wealth. So, Mirza Zaman Khan came to the marriage ceremony at Mohammad Hossein Khan’s house riding a horse with golden horseshoes to pick up his bride. This is why Pari Soltan Khanoum after her marriage was nicknamed Zarrin Khanum (lit. “Golden Lady”). In due to respect to her noble birth, Agha Mirza Zaman Khan Kordestani married no more other wives and Pari Soltan Khanoum gave birth to three children by Agha Mirza Zaman Khan, two sons and one daughter: Agha Mirza Ali Akbar Khan-e Zarrinnaal ‘Lashkar-nevis’ ‘Nasr-e Lashkar’, the father of the Zarrinnaal main line (including the Zarrinkafsch-Bahman Family as well); Mirza Ali Asghar Khan (alias H.E. Ali Asghar Zarrinkafsh), the father of the Zarrinkafsh Family; and Banou Fatemeh Soltan Khanoum (alias Fatemeh Afshartus), the mother of the Afshartus Family. All three children were married with close relatives from their mother’s side and members of the Qajar aristocracy, like the Vali, Amirsoleymani and Bahman-Qajar families.
Finally with this marital bond the transition of tribal nobility into urban elite was done and the Zarrinnaal family, in former time tribal chiefs and Kurdish dignitaries of the Ardalans, became Qajar state officials and members of Tehran’s urban elite. The best example for this transition is Agha Mirza Zaman Khan’s eldest son Agha Mirza Ali Akbar Khan-e Zarrinnaal ‘Lashkar-nevis’ ‘Nasr-e Lashkar’ in whose days a consolidation of the family’s status took place.
Agha Mirza Ali Akbar Khan-e Zarrinnaal entitled for his merits in military sector with the title (laghab) ‘Nasr-e Lashkar’ (lit. “Defender of the Army”) by the shah was born in 1868 at Tehran and died there 1930 on his estates at Doshan-Tappeh in eastern Tehran. He was the patriarch of our large family, named originally “Zarrinnaal”, when family names were mandated by Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1930, married four times and two of his maternal cousins, and had issued eleven children.
Like every member of the aristocracy he got an education next to skills in writing, arithmetic and reading, in the noble arts of fencing, poetry, hunting, horsing and calligraphy and then he started military service. At the Tehran military academy (madresse-ye nezam-e dowlati) he studied weapons technology and martial law. After his studies as son of a Qajar notable he entered service at court and became, like his father, military adviser to Nasser od-Din Shah and was honorary called Agha (“Sir”), as well. After his father he became muster-master and head of military administration (lashkar-nevis) to Mozaffar od-Din Shah (r. 1896-1906) with the military rank of an inspector (nazem). Under Mohammad Ali Shah (r. 1906-1909) he became conservative Member of Parliament at Persia’s first majles, which constituted on 7th of October 1906. With the nickname Kordi (Kurd) he was a delegate for the district of Kurdistan and one leader of the royalist conservative wing (etedahiyun), supporting Mohammad Ali Shah’s efforts to return to absolutism, because both men feared that the British dominated parliament could strengthen more English influence in Persia. (History shows us that they were right when after the Russian Revolution England got ultimate access to influence and power in Persia and governed the country quasi as protectorate.) During the reign of the last Qajar ruler Soltan Ahmad Shah (r. 1909-1925) he was senior public prosecutor at martial court (modda'i ol-omum koll-e nezam), which had been instituted by Prince Abdol Hossein Mirza ‘Farman-Farma’ as minister for Justice, with a high monthly salary of 111 Touman. For his loyal service to the Qajars he got parts of Nasser od-Din Shah’s imperial hunting area East of Tehran, called Doshan-Tappeh.
Mostly favourites of the shah were granted with tax-free land as a fief (toyul). The land system was inherited from centuries before and its feudal structures showed close connections between revenue assessment and the levy of troops or other service to the shah. Like in Safavid times the feudal rights of the vassals theoretically were limited on this person and ended with his service, but in praxis they became hereditary and came out of control of the central government. So that big landowners were economically independent from any others and could run their affairs autonomously. In theory the Qajar shah was the ultimate owner of land, taken by force at the conquest of the early Qajars. Supporters and allies were rewarded by grants of land as well as defeated enemies were punished and weakened by the confiscation of their lands. But next to the toyul system the rulers had to accept the rights of individual property (molk).
When by the end of the 19th century more land was brought under cultivation, land grants were given to the court elite and more rural property became urbanized. At urban levels prominent families tried to copy the courtly luxury and built up residences on their properties granted by the shah mostly at the outskirts of Tehran in huge garden areas. This did for example the Moayyeri Family at Firowzabad, the Mossadegh Family at Ahmadabad in Bagh-e Shah or that of Agha Mirza Ali Akbar Khan-e Zarrinnaal ‘Lashkar-nevis’ in Doshan-Tappeh. This sandy area (shanzar) became the immobile base for his family’s wealth, when later on it was watered by ditches, tubes and canals (qanat), and cultivated and villas and summer residences of Tehran’s court elite were built there, naming it “Zarrinnaal-District” (mahalleh-ye zarrinnaal). So, time after time when the city of Tehran grew, it took over these outskirts with the former huge hunting and residential areas of the Qajar dignitaries and finally they became ordinary city districts and the urban centre became bigger. Tehran’s inhabitants grew from contemplative 15 000 after Agha Mohammad Shah made it his capital 1785, to over 150 000 in the era of Nasser od-Din Shah, to finally 210 000 at the turn of the century. Day-labourers, craftsmen and merchants flew ceaselessly into the city and settled there. To enlarge the residential areas Nasser od-Din Shah pulled down the old muddy fortress walls from Safavid times and erected a new city wall of 16 kilometres in length with twelve tile-mosaics decorated city gates. Then it surrounded a municipal area five times bigger than before.
With Agha Mirza Ali Akbar Khan-e Zarrinnaal ‘Nasr-e Lashkar’ his family finally had consolidated its status in Tehran’s society. He was born there and was the son of a court official with connections to the dynasty itself. He had a well paid job in the administration and with his family ties he married into the same group he came from. Finally granted with large landed properties around Tehran he lost all connections to his tribal Kurdish origin but became himself one of Tehran’s big landowners and a founder of one of Tehran’s city districts. Thus, here during eleven generations and three hundred years from 1600 to 1900 and from the tribal chief Mohammad Ali Beg-e Zarrinnaal to Agha Mirza Ali Akbar Khan-e Zarrinnaal, passing phases of having the leadership of a tribe, the appointment to an official post by the government, the settlement by urbanization and “Persianization” and finally the marriage into urban elite structures, the last step in a transition of tribal nobility into urban elite was done. Based on the prestige and wealth of his forefathers he got access to social and political power not only on an urban but also national level and could connect his own family history with that of the city of Tehran.
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This website was created by Arian K. Zarrinkafsch (Bahman-Qajar).