On October 23, 1722, after seven months of siege and suffering the horrors of famine and disease, the last of the Safavid rulers, Shah Soltan Hosain (r. 1694–1722), walked out of Isfahan’s city gate accompanied by his courtiers and officials, and abdicated in favor of Mahmud Hotaki, the chief of the Ghalzai Afghan invaders. For the previous decade, Mahmud, the Sunni chief of an Afghan tribal force had wrought havoc in the eastern Safavid provinces before reaching the walls of the Safavid capital (map 3.1). The shah personally removed from his Qezilbash cap the bejeweled pin symbolizing his royal authority and secured it onto Mahmud’s turban. A few days later the Afghan chief, accompanied by the former Safavid shah, entered Isfahan and was enthroned in the Chehel Sotun (“forty columns”) palace as Mahmud Shah. This effectively brought to an end a dynasty that had ruled for 221 years, longer than any dynasty in the history of Islamic Iran. For most people of Isfahan, who observed the events with horror, it was a catastrophe of unequaled magnitude.

The fall of the Safavids resonated in Persian consciousness throughout the eighteenth century. Even though there was a brief Safavid restoration under Soltan Hosain’s son Tahmasp II (r. 1732–1736), and despite at least three later attempts to reconstitute, reform, or reshape the shattered empire, in the end only the memory of the fallen dynasty lingered (see chart 1 in chapter 1). Twentieth-century historiography treats the fall of the Safavids as the end of a long period of decline that had politically and militarily weakened Iran and eventually plunged it into political strife and economic decay. The question of decline, in particular, had engaged observers even before the fall of the Safavids. Unlike the neighboring Ottoman and Mughal empires—the former partially modernized and survived up to the twentieth century, and the latter colonized piecemeal and was dismantled in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—the dramatic collapse of the Safavids and their surrender to a small tribal army raises questions about the economic and administrative problems of the empire, as well as political legitimacy, Shi‘i identity, changes long occurring at the Iranian periphery, and shifting regional patterns across the Eurasian world.


When ‘Abbas I died in 1629, he had not groomed a successor. Of his four sons, one had died, two others were executed at his own order, and one was blinded on feigned charges of treason. His brutal treatment of his own offspring accelerated the internecine killings in the Safavid house and among its successors. ‘Abbas I’s grandson, a minor, crowned as Shah Safi (r. 1629–1642), shortly after his accession put to death many of the princes of the royal family eligible to ascend the throne, as well as some officials and army officers. Although vicious even by seventeenth-century standards, Safi’s actions prevented a war of succession. The weakening of the old elite inadvertently opened the way for a new breed of administrators of non-Qezilbash origin, who for most of the next century would dominate the Safavid state and steer it toward greater centralization. Destruction of the Imam-Qoli Khan, the powerful and accomplished governor-general of Fars province, extended the long arm of the central government to the commercial and agricultural revenue of the southern provinces.

The grand vizier Saru Taqi, a capable minister in office between 1634 and 1645, dominated the divan and the army and effectively ruled on Safi’s behalf. Such delegated power, though potentially resulting in separation of the state’s administrative arm from the court, did not translate into political security for the grand viziers or into the steady growth of an institutionalized state, free from the shah’s meddling. A similar ministerial drive for state building as well as the same royal obstructionism would also occur later, during the tenure of Shaykh ‘Ali Khan Zangeneh, grand vizier between 1668 and 1689, and again under Fath ‘Ali Khan Daghestani between 1694 and 1721, during the last days of Safavid rule.

A glance at late Safavid administrative charts, such as those found in Tadhkirat al-Muluk (memorandum for the rulers) reveals an elaborate state machinery, well staffed and with a relatively sensible division of labor, presiding over a vast system encompassing revenue collection, the judiciary, the court, and the army. Yet the inherent problem of insecurity in high office, especially for the grand viziers, persisted and was aggravated because of the gholam origins of some and the slavelike status of other holders of high office. Safavid ministers never mustered enough power from the ruler to check the whims of the monarch or harness the wishes of the court. It is worth noting that the symbolic separation of the Ottoman Sublime Porte (Bab-e ‘Āli) from the sultan’s court in the middle of the seventeenth century, which over time added to the administrative power of the grand vizier, never occurred in the Safavid state. Despite their remarkable attempts to build an administrative base, by the late seventeenth century the Safavid divan had already been hollowed out by factionalism and deadly rivalries.

Map 3.1. The fall of the Safavids, the Afghan occupation, and the rise of Nader Qoli Khan Afshar, 1722–1736

The declining governance of the late Safavid shahs also contributed to the steady weakening of the state. As eligible princes of the royal family, nearly all the late Safavid rulers were brought up in the confinement of the harem. This deliberate isolation was designed to avert rebellious aspirations, a practice similar to the Ottomans’ “cage” (qafas) policy. Under the supervision of the harem eunuchs, who acted as virtual parents, these princes were largely devoid of public experience and political education before coming to the throne. In the male-dominated public world of court and government, their insecurities translated into impulsive behavior. At times they demonstrated symptoms of paranoia, even insanity, triggered by bad habits. Safi died of alcoholism at the age of thirty; ‘Abbas II (r. 1642–1666) apparently of syphilis at the age of thirty-three; and Solayman (r. 1666–1694) of what was diagnosed as gout at the age of forty-seven.

As part of a global pattern, syphilis was raging through Europe. It was introduced to Iran via the Ottoman Empire, reaching almost epidemic proportions by the late seventeenth century. It was known in Iran as farangi, or European, disease, among other names. The seventeenth-century French traveler John Chardin claimed that nearly half of the Iranian population had contracted the disease. Even if we treat his opinion with skepticism, it is probable that some members of the royal family suffered from it. Frequent sexual contacts with many partners in and out of the harem no doubt facilitated contracting the disease. References in Safavid sources to royal deaths caused by “excessive sexual intercourse” can be taken as an indication of prevalent venereal diseases. Excessive wine drinking and addiction to a variety of opiates, hashish-based potions, and narcotics in the promiscuous climate of the late Safavid court may also have been remedies for syphilitic pain and suffering. Among the members of the royal house, behavior such as abrupt killings, mutilation, self-inflicted wounds, and utter feebleness might be taken as either withdrawal symptoms or as signs of mental degeneration associated with contracted or congenital syphilis.

Despite all this, degenerate princes and inefficient state machinery were not unique to the Safavids—nor were they by themselves potent enough to bring down a venerable state. Indeed, so far as the subjects of the empire were concerned, the seventeenth century was one of the longest, most prosperous, urbane, and peaceful episodes they had ever witnessed. The reign of ‘Abbas II in particular epitomized an age of economic prosperity and social calm. Despite the decay that gradually set in, the late Safavid artistic and intellectual endeavors, refined material culture, and freer contact with the outside world, distinguished this period as one of the most exciting in early modern period. Such prolonged age of tranquility can be viewed as a peace dividend, primarily resulting from the Zohab Treaty of 1639, which immunized Iran against the familiar Ottoman threat for eight decades.

Yet domestically, too, Safavid society had reached a certain cultural maturity well evident in intellectual and artistic expressions of the period. It may be argued that existential questions that engrossed the celebrated Safavid philosopher Mulla Sadra about resurrection of the body or the cultural incentives that motivated the influential theologian Majlesi to write tomes on the intricacies of ritual hygiene were both aspects of a common desire to preserve the body rather than deny it, as classical Sufi doctrine advocated. Likewise, the paintings and poetry of the period, at times daring and expressive, sought to break away from the constraints of Shi‘i piety. They came to represent a more realistic picture and in-depth expression of the self. Safavid poetry, though, never returned to the heights it had achieved during the classical age, also presented a new sense of awareness of Safavid surroundings and the poetic self. Sa’eb Tabrizi (1601–1677), a master poet of seventeenth-century Isfahan, who also spent some years at the Mughal court, demonstrated in his poetry technical marvels and aesthetic complexity, along with a novel cosmopolitan outlook reflective of the tranquil spirit of his time.

The originality found in these artistic and literary expressions lay in their greater appeal to the common man. Besides the Safavid poetry produced at the court and under elite patronage in Iran (as in Mughal India), poetry gave voice to the lesser known and amateurs. Merchants, artisans, and ordinary folks were less interested in set themes and tropes of courtly culture and more in earthy pleasures, everyday life, and even unorthodox beliefs—always expressed using allegorical language. Perhaps not technically as sophisticated, the amateur oral poets of the bazaar conveyed the aspirations of the ordinary people better than the panegyrists of the court. As they recited their odes (ghazals) in poetic gatherings and at coffeehouses, one cannot fail to detect a joyous inspirations and spirit of skepticism, at times with sexual undertones. Admiring the beauty of youth, often male, became acceptable through the lyrics and paintings of the period (fig. 3.1).

The culture of leisure and pastime was appealing to the urban public. Despite occasional religious sanctions, the number of coffeehouses, taverns, and “pleasure houses,” as brothels were known, increased throughout the realm. Consumption of tea and coffee, the former from China (and later from India) and the latter from Arabia and the Levant, made coffeehouses an alternative to taverns. In the mid-seventeenth century we know there were at least six major coffeehouses in Isfahan alone. Poetic competitions (mosha‘ereh), chess matches, card and board games, music and dancing, and readings of the Shahnameh and other “action-packed” Persian epics and romances attracted the male public as well as the royals.

On their nocturnal rounds, ‘Abbas I, and later his successors, visited coffeehouses and listened to poetry readings, one of the reasons, no doubt, for these public venues’ survival even though they were frowned upon by the ulama. Later on, storytellers of the Safavid coffeehouses incorporated into their repertoire Shi‘i stories and performances, such as the popular Hamza-nameh, which narrated in accessible language the fantastic exploits of Hamza, the Prophet’s uncle. Other epics in praise of ‘Ali, the First Imam, were also recited in public by storytellers. The clergy, and at times government authorities, remained suspicious of the coffeehouses’ subversive ambiance, of their habitués and their storytellers. And not without reason. John Chardin informs us that free and open expressions of beliefs and opinions, presumably religious and political, in the Isfahan coffeehouses were unique in the world. As part of a global trend, one cannot fail to note the budding Safavid public space comparable not only to similar Ottoman and Egyptian establishments, but also to French salons and English coffeehouses of the period.

Figure 3.1. The young lovers in this elusive sixteenth-century drawing are typical of homoerotic references in Safavid art.

Shaykh Mohammad, “Young couple,” late sixteenth century. Paper, black ink. Musée du Louvre, Paris, France. ART520476. © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY.

Wine drinking also was a popular pastime, with wine consumed, as often noted, in immoderate quantities. The late Safavid era witnessed successive anti-drinking campaigns orchestrated by the ulama, under ‘Abbas II, Solayman, and Soltan Hosain. Targeted mostly at the general public, these crusades also obliged the court to destroy its precious wine cellars, even though prohibition could not easily change old habits. As part of the drinking culture there were various establishments for the consumption of narcotics, often highly addictive derivatives of opium, which were also widely used by the public and taxed by the government. Prostitution, both female and male, was also tolerated by society and taxed and regulated by the state, which considered prostitution inevitable, especially during military campaigns.

Although tobacco smoking did not become a national habit in Iran until the early nineteenth century, it was fashionable among the elite of the late Safavid era. Reaching Iran from the New World via Europe and the Ottoman Empire in the early seventeenth century, tobacco quickly found its own place among the courtiers. Although under ‘Abbas I there was an initial resistance to smoking, that did not stop the cultivation of tobacco in Iran. A century later, by the late eighteenth century, despite anti-smoking campaigns, the popularity of the Persian pipe (chopoq) and water pipe (qalyan) superseded opiate and other drugs. These and other leisure activities and social habits presented a very different side of Safavid society from that of the purist pursuits of the jurists. The leisure culture flourished with greater urbanization. Even though one should not exaggerate the grip of either religion or leisure on late Safavid society, it is difficult to ignore the sense of social laxity, even complacency, at least in the urban centers of the empire.


Despite relative urban calm in the late Safavid era, pressure on the empire’s frontiers continued to build. Following the death of ‘Abbas I in 1629, Iran experienced yet another Ottoman onslaught, this time under Sultan Morad IV, the last of the great Ottoman conquerors. After nearly three decades of calm, and without any provocation, massive Ottoman armies occupied the western Iranian provinces. Facing resistance in Tabriz and Hamadan, the Ottomans did not hesitate to massacre the population and lay waste to cities. In 1638, Baghdad also fell into Ottoman hands, this time permanently. Despite stiff Iranian resistance, the Safavid state acted circumspectly. The conclusion in 1639 of the Treaty of Zohab once again called for the Ottomans’ evacuation of western Iran in exchange for the permanent annexation of southern Iraq. The fragile border between the two empires thus was set roughly along the lines of the previous 1555 Amasiya treaty, even though Iran has to face yet another Ottoman occupation in the early eighteenth century.

On another front, facing the Uzbeks’ recurring attacks also obliged the Safavids to act with caution, as the central state began to feel the financial burden of waging war on two fronts. The centralizing policies of ‘Abbas I and his successors transformed most semiautonomous provinces (mamalek) into crown property. Direct control brought greater revenue, especially in Fars, the Caucasus, and Khorasan, but it also made the empire more vulnerable on the periphery. To remedy such peripheral pressures, ‘Abbas has already implemented a complex policy of tribal resettlement. The nomadic defensive walls in the west and east temporarily fended off the external threat while diminishing tribal tensions in the interiors. As many as fifteen thousand Kurdish families resettled in northern Khorasan so as to create a dependable barrier against the Uzbeks’ forays. But by the last quarter of the seventeenth century, the Safavid Empire, like its Muslim neighbors to the west and the east, encountered increased threats along its frontiers and trade routes from a variety of nomadic powers.

In the Caucasus, the Lezgian tribes of Dagestan and other semi-nomadic peoples of the Transcaucasus, including the Cossacks, ravaged the prosperous Shirvan region and threatened the overland Caspian trade. To the west, the Kurdish tribes of the Persian and Ottoman frontiers captured Kermanshah and Hamadan, both centers for trade of Mesopotamia and the Levant. In the south, the coastal Arab tribes, often in collaboration with Omani pirates based in and around Muscat, posed a similar threat to the Persian Gulf trade. In Khuzestan the remnants of the Musha‘sha autonomous region in the marshlands of Huwiza were in periodic rebellion, and in the southeast, the Baluch tribes of the Makran region began to make raids on the eastern trade with Hindustan. This unrest at the periphery was not uncommon, especially during times of trouble in the center. Yet the simultaneous revolt of so many frontier forces at once was highly unusual (see map 3.1).

The most significant—and fatal—blow came from the revolt of the Ghalzai Afghan tribes of Kandahar province, in today’s southern Afghanistan. A coveted Safavid southeastern stronghold and frontier trade center, the possession of Kandahar was long disputed by the Mughal Empire. Though by 1653 the Safavids had managed to make Kandahar their own, their reassertion of city control bred much anti-Persian sentiment. As early as 1701, after several petitions to the Safavid court, Mir Vays Hotaki, the mayor (kalantar) of Kandahar, who resented the anti-Sunni policies of the Safavid state, rose in rebellion and murdered the Safavid governor-general of the province who was a Georgian of gholam origin. Mir Vays was supported by his Ghalzai kinsmen in the vicinity of the city and backed by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707). Aurangzeb’s policy toward the Safavids was guided not only by Mughal territorial claim over Kandahar but also by a new spirit of Sunni reassertion. The Kandahar rebellion, also blessed by the anti-Shi‘i fatwas of the Meccan jurists, successfully resisted the Safavids’ reprisal. Less than two decades later, Mir Vays’s son Mahmud, in collusion with subordinate Afghan and Baluch tribes, felt confident enough to raid the Iranian interior and go as far as attempting to lay siege to the cities of Kerman and Yazd, albeit unsuccessfully. These would be rehearsals for what came in 1722, when Mahmud Hotaki laid siege to Isfahan, a city virtually intact and long unaccustomed to nomadic incursions.

Shah Soltan Hosain proved utterly helpless in his handling of the Afghan crisis. He was the quintessential product of a confined upbringing in the harem. Even if we allow for some exaggeration in the European and Ottoman eyewitness accounts of the Safavid capital, they convincingly portray a government on the verge of collapse, with rebellions and insurrections in the making, an army unprepared to fight, statesmen and army chiefs in the throes of ethnic and factional disputes, and an indecisive shah incapable of controlling his quarreling courtiers, many wives, eunuchs, clerical dignitaries, and corrupt officials. Shortly before the attack by the Afghans, the elimination Fath Ali Khan Daghestani, the grand vizier and decimation of his allies in the Safavid army on charges of Sunni proclivities shook not only the administrative and financial stability of the empire but also its defenses. The downfall of the shrewd Lezgian minister, who earlier had established his power base in Georgia, was one example of how the spread of Shi‘ism in the Safavid realms gradually eroded tribal support for the empire on the Sunni periphery.

The air of complacency that had set in at the Isfahan court after decades of trouble-free lives of both luxury and laxity as well as zealous religious policies was to be rudely interrupted by the arrival of a half-starving, ragged band of nomads. At the Battle of Golnabad on the outskirts of Isfahan in May 1722, the more numerous and better-equipped Safavid forces were defeated by no more than twenty thousand Afghans who forced the Safavids to retreat behind the city walls. Somewhat surprised by the ease with which they had routed the imperial army, the Afghan forces laid siege to the capital and waited for the starved and terrified population of the city to surrender. Empty coffers and sheer incompetence of the shah and his administration deprived Isfahan even of the backing of the Georgian mercenaries who had been summoned to the capital.

During the seven-month siege, vital links with the outside were severed and the supply of provisions was blocked. Once the city dwellers had consumed the cats and dogs, they devoured rats, and reports of eating corpses became rampant—then the diseased-ravaged city caved and defenses crumbled. Once inside the walls of Isfahan, Mahmud and his troops rode though the deserted streets and bazaars before arriving at the Chehel Sotun palace. There the Ghalzai khan unceremoniously enthroned himself as Mahmud Shah. He detained the royal family and divided up the Safavid household and the harem as booty for himself and his chiefs. It did not take long before he found himself presiding over an empire riddled with rebellion and chaos. What interested the Afghan invaders, however, was not the running of a broken empire but the wealth of the capital and the glitter of royal edifices such as Chehel Sotun, which whetted the invaders’ appetite for plunder (pl. 3.1 and pl. 3.2).

At the outset Mahmud tried to act graciously toward the people of Isfahan and, to some degree, even to remedy the war-ravaged and starving capital. By the end of the Isfahan siege, nearly eighty thousand inhabitants had perished. He also enjoyed the support of Jews and Zoroastrians of Isfahan, and elsewhere in the empire, who had long been felt the discrimination of the Safavids’ religious policies. Yet soon his attitude began to change as he sensed persistent loyalty to the Safavids within the divan and among the population at large. Insecure and paranoid, he quickly resorted to violence. He executed nearly all of Soltan Hosain’s sons and relatives. The shah himself was spared, only to later die at the hand of Ashraf, Mahmud’s nephew and successor. A vast number of the ranking officials who ran the Safavid divan also fell victim to repeated massacres that were motivated by the Afghans’ fear of mass uprising. Even the Armenians, considered the Safavids’ favored minority, did not fare any better. The city quarter of New Julfa was plundered, houses and churches destroyed, and women and children enslaved.

The occupation of Isfahan and the collapse of the Safavids sent signals to the former empire’s western neighbors. Almost immediately a new Ottoman campaign was launched by the pasha of Baghdad under the pretext of restoring the former Safavid shah to the throne. In response, in 1726 Ashraf Hotaki, whose survival on the Iranian throne was at the stake, executed Soltan Hosain and sent his head to the Ottoman pasha as proof of the Safavids’ demise. Even if the last of the Safavid shahs could have repelled the Afghans, it is debatable whether the demise of the dynasty could have been averted.


Whatever the shortcomings of late Safavid rule and the defects of its administration and army, the surprise Afghan invasion and the sudden fall of the Safavid state deserves further explanation. The expulsion of the Afghan occupiers less than a decade after the fall of Isfahan did not bring back peace and tranquility to Iran. The failed attempt to restore Safavid rule under Tahmasp II, and the consequent rise to power of the tribal strongman Nader Shah Afshar (r. 1736–1747) instead ushered in a period of extraordinary turmoil. With the exception of short-lived interludes, material destruction, urban, agricultural, and commercial decline, continued almost to the end of the eighteenth century (see map 3.1).

One underlying factor of this decline may be the tribal resurgence, which was possibly caused by climate change that was taking place over the whole of the Eurasian landmass. The impact of this climate change, the so-called Little Ice Age, has primarily been studied in the context of seventeenth-century Europe, but western Asia also was affected by these changes. The late decades of the seventeenth century and early decades of the eighteenth century seem to have witnessed a period of dryer and colder air with longer and harsher winters and less rainfall in the spring. In western Asia, the sudden outbreak of nomadic unrest, and the perennial pattern of peripheral resurgence, affected not only Iran but also the far more populated and wealthier Mughal and Ottoman Empires.

On the Iranian plateau, the shaping of new Afghan warring confederacies, both the Ghalzai takeover of Kandahar and the occupation of Herat by the rival Abdali tribes, may be attributed to the same climatic changes. It is likely that the nomadic and seminomadic pastoral Afghans in the highlands of the Hindu Kush, who decades earlier had descended to the adjacent plains, could no longer sustain a growing population because of colder weather and scarce pastureland. The simultaneous rise of the Baluch tribes in the Makran, the Kurdish tribes in northwestern Iran, and the Cossacks and Lezgians in the Transcaucasus, all soon followed by unrest among the Afsharids and other tribes of Khorasan, the Kurdish tribes of the northern and eastern Iranian periphery, and the confederacy of frontier Turkmens in the northeast, may also be contributed to the same phenomenon. From the middle of the seventeenth century not only the periphery but also the Safavid heartlands suffered hardship due to intemperate weather. Contemporary European reports about Safavid Iran observe that within a short span of two decades, from the 1650s to the 1670s, agricultural production fell drastically, perhaps by as much as half. Repeated crop failures and recurring droughts coincided with the shrinking of the agricultural hinterlands, decline of trade in Persian Gulf and Mediterranean ports, and the depopulation of the cities. The impacts were so evident that in 1666 the royal astrologer, fearing an ominous celestial conjunction, advised the Safavid ruler to abdicate his throne, only nominally, so as to avoid ongoing calamities. He was then reinstated to the throne with the freshly assumed name Shah Solayman. The investiture, though, did not change the empire’s fortunes. When John Chardin visited Iran for the second time in the 1670s, he encountered a country weakened by natural and manmade calamities, a fact that other visitors of the time also attested to.

The Afghan invasion was not the last of the tribal insurgencies that ravaged the Iranian countryside and damaged cities throughout the eighteenth century. The nomadic inroads were marked by violence and by the nomads’ mass-scale decimation, mutilation, and displacement of people. Increased access to firearms, in particular, greatly enhanced tribal capabilities. It is quite likely that the dissipation of Safavid armies and concurrent dispersal of the state arsenals offered the restive tribes of the frontier, and soon after the nomads of the interior, an unprecedented firepower. Throughout the eighteenth century, Iranian cities suffered from recurring occupations by competing tribes, the destruction of residential quarters, the collapse of the bazaar economy, and insecurities that seriously disrupted travel and trade.

Administrative malfunction and domestic turbulence hastened the collapse of the already-troubled Safavid silk trade. The Arab privateers of the Oman coasts who had successfully evicted the Portuguese from Muscat and created a maritime power in the Persian Gulf were the latest in a series of threats to Iranian trade. Earlier, the near monopoly of the silk trade by the Dutch had weakened Portuguese and British competition and helped undermine the state-backed Armenian commercial enterprises and network. The Safavid state welcomed the commercial overtures from the French in the final decades of the seventeenth century. The Safavids’ failure to persuade the Portuguese, still lingering on the horizon, to fight back against the threat of Omani pirates made French intervention desirable. But the French, too, proved unwilling to venture into the hazardous waters of the Persian Gulf while they were also fighting against English supremacy south of the Indian subcontinent. French representatives engaged in Safavid court intrigues and in the missionary politics of Isfahan without offering any substantive alternative to other maritime powers in the region. Nor were the Safavids able to benefit from their French connection to compete effectively through the alternative Levantine route.

The attacks by the Baluch tribes on Bandar Abbas in 1721 and the pillaging of the Dutch and English factory houses there was an ominous prelude of the troubles still to come. They soon wiped out much of the long-distance trade in the south. Not until the beginning of the nineteenth century did trade in the Persian Gulf recover, and even then it did not reach the heights of the Safavid period. The decline of the silk-producing centers of Gilan and the Shirvan was further hastened by the Afghan occupation. The nascent commercial bourgeoisie of the Safavid cities never mustered the financial resources or the political prestige to be able to avert this course of events.

The empire’s fundamentally agrarian economy, based on centuries-old practices of sharecropping, became more susceptible to bureaucratic abuse in the late Safavid period. The gradual shift from the Qezilbash-held land tenure to crown land and the appropriation of the old fiefdoms granted by the state as private property only added to the peasantry’s burden. The diminishing revenue from booty, trade and crown lands—the latter due to mismanagement and corruption—demanded heavier taxation on private land at a time when income from properties was dwindling because of agricultural shortfalls and depopulation of the countryside.

The tax burden and inflationary pressures, even before the fall of the Safavids, became intolerable enough under Solayman and Soltan Hosain that the peasants and nomads had to be forcefully kept on the land and prevented from fleeing. This policy of near serfdom, previously alien to the Islamic world, may help explain the explosion of restlessness among the nomadic and seminomadic tribes once the central state had largely collapsed. The relocation policy of warring nomads by the Safavid government from one place to another, and their reallocation from one tribe to another, which was the routine practice under Tahmasp I and ‘Abbas I, had created a highly volatile pattern of displacement, with the potential to ultimately lead to breakup once the state no longer possessed the military resources for surveillance and coercion.

Safavid Iran had a far smaller and more vulnerable economy than that of its imperial neighbors. Whereas the population of Safavid Iran probably never grew beyond ten million, by the early eighteenth century the neighboring Mughal Empire ruled over a population of over one hundred million, and the Ottomans over more than twenty-two million. The Safavids, even at the best of their time, could not exact from their landed population the gigantic revenues available to their competitors. That Iran’s agrarian economy historically was susceptible to nomadic pressure, and to state mismanagement, may offer further explanation for Safavid agrarian decline.

By the last decades of the seventeenth century, Safavid Iran had fully suffered the consequences of a global inflationary crisis that since the sixteenth century had affected the fortunes of eastern empires. The large volumes of New World gold and silver injected into Western European economies gave those economies enormous purchasing power vis-à-vis the agrarian economies of Asia. This resulted in the devaluation of the silver-based currencies of the Ottoman Empire and Iran. Inflationary pressures in the form of depreciating currency, as well as higher costs of overland trade and prices for agricultural products, not only weakened the once-prosperous Safavid mercantile class but also reduced the empire’s ability to defend itself. A shortage of currency, hoarding by state authorities and the privileged classes, drainage of currency, and overall weakening of the agrarian base intensified the empire’s fiscal crisis.

In particular, the siphoning off of Persian silver by the Dutch and English trading companies to Europe and by Indian traders (banyans) to the subcontinent had a long-term negative impact. This was a lucrative trade that went on for more than a century hand in hand with the silk trade. Despite the apparent abundance of New World silver in European markets, it was still beneficial to the trading companies to smuggle Iranian silver in the form of bullion for a handsome profit. Despite repeated Safavid measures to stop the drainage of currency, between 1642 and 1660, the Dutch East India Company smuggled the equivalent of more than nine million guilders from Iran, a gigantic drainage of spices profoundly contributive to the Safavid insolvency. In a similar manner, the Dutch remained in their Persian Gulf factories even at the darkest hours of the early eighteenth century when there was little to gain from the declining silk export. The cycle of trade from Europe through the Ottoman Empire, Iran, and to Mughal India generated three to four fold profit for European trading companies at the expense of impoverishing the empires of the east.

Even if the Safavids could have withstood nomadic pressures and embraced domestic challenges, they stood little chance against a fresh wave of foreign inroads. News of the Afghan invasion and the siege of Isfahan set in motion an intense race to annex Iran’s northern and western provinces between the Ottomans and the fast-expanding Russian Empire (see map 3.1). Counting on Iranian military vulnerability, in 1721–1722, the Russians dispatched a huge army first into the northern Caucasian provinces of Darband and Dagestan, under Safavid suzerainty, and then southward to Gilan. Before the occupation, Peter the Great (r. 1682–1721) was encouraged by reports from Isfahan that painted the northern Iranian provinces as ripe for conquest and annexation. The thirteen-year occupation of the greater part of the Caucasus, Gilan, Mazandaran, and Astarabad, though in cahoots with the Ottomans, proved disastrous not only to Iran but also to Russia. The ravages of malaria were one of several reasons for the hasty Russian withdrawal. This was the first Russian sortie along the Caspian shores, presaging a course of expansionism that for the next 270 years placed Russia at the center of Iran’s foreign policy.

In 1723, the Ottomans capitalized on the waning of their traditional enemy and crossed Iran’s western border to attack the Safavid Caucasus without any provocation. This was the fourth wave of Ottoman expansion since 1514. A contest thus began between the Russians and the Ottomans to partition the northern Safavid provinces. As in earlier instances, the Ottomans aimed to recoup territory in the east while retreating in the Balkans to the Austrian Habsburgs. By 1725, successive Ottoman campaigns resulted in the loss of a vast swath of Iranian territory stretching from Georgia and Armenia to the western provinces of Ardabil, Tabriz, Kermanshah, Hamadan, and southwestern Iran. Earlier in 1722 the Ottomans supported the Afghan invasion and even sent a contingent to Mahmud’s aid. However, they later changed their position under Ashraf, Mahmud’s nephew and successor, in favor of restoring Safavid rule presumably because the Afghan regime in Isfahan was willing to go to war and recapture the Iranian provinces lost to the Ottomans.

In 1725, Ashraf Hotaki (r. 1725–1729) assassinated his mad uncle, Mahmud Ghalzai, ascended the throne and began to mobilize his forces against the Ottoman invaders. Despite relative success on the battlefield, Ashraf had a weakness: both the Ottomans and the Russians preferred to negotiate with Tahmasp II, Soltan Hosain’s surviving son and the powerless claimant to the Safavid throne. Escaping the Afghans’ ever-shrinking circle, the wandering Tahmasp’s only recourse was to comply with the territorial demands of his neighbors in the vain hope of being recognized as the legitimate ruler of Iran and eventually restoring the Safavid throne. For the same reason, Ashraf agreed to the humiliating treaties that ceded vast parts of Iran to the occupying Ottomans and the Russians. His stance was further impaired when in 1726 he decided to execute the incarcerated Shah Soltan Hosain so as to remove any possibility of Safavid restoration in Isfahan.

By 1727 Safavid Iran had nearly ceased to exist as an empire. The Afghans, their rule harsh and alien to the Shi‘i Iranians, held only a semblance of control over what was left of Iran. Within a few short years not only the most prosperous northern and western provinces were snatched away; cities and countryside throughout the empire were depleted, nomadic forces on the periphery were in rebellion, and confidence in the culture and social order was at its lowest ebb. Even the extensive Safavid state archives in Isfahan were completely destroyed by the invading Afghans, obliterating more than two centuries of dynastic and administrative records.

In the meantime Tahmasp was blundering his way through northern Iran. He settled briefly in Qazvin, then Ardabil, and next in Tehran, which marked the first time this small leafy town on the outskirts of the Alborz range would become a seat of power. He finally arrived in Astarabad, a northwestern hub where the khan of the Qajar tribe, a member of the Qezilbash confederacy, was his host. Virtually a puppet in the hands of his many ministers, Tahmasp found in Fath ‘Ali Khan Qajar a protector and a determined kingmaker. Yet the Qajars were destined to lose the contest for control of the Safavid shah and restoration of the empire to a more potent contender, Nader-Qoli, the future Nader Shah Afshar, whose appearance on the stormy political horizon raised hopes for Safavid restoration.


Few leaders in recent Iranian history have provoked such conflicting sentiments as Nader Shah Afshar (r. 1736–1747), a military genius who emerged out of the post-Safavid interregnum to put an end to foreign occupations and soon to the Safavid dynasty itself (maps 3.1 and 3.2). His countrymen viewed him first as a restorer of the empire and a savior but later a tyrant and a maniac. For his contemporary Europeans he was a thundering conqueror whose Indian campaign paved the way for British colonial domination.

To the incoming Qajar dynasty, he was a despicable usurper, yet in the Pahlavi era he was glorified as a hero and a forerunner of national unity, a prototype of a sort for Reza Shah, who admired him for his discipline and resolve. Today he is still part of Iran’s nationalist narrative, appealing to pan-Iranian sentiments of some and anticlerical aspirations of others. Beyond the constructs of the later centuries, however, Nader looms large as a unique phenomenon, in some ways reasserting tribal identity of the Iranian periphery and in other ways as a prototype anticipating the nationalist trends of later centuries.

Born around 1698 to a poor herding family among the Turkmen nomads of northern Khorasan, Nader-Qoli belonged to the Qereqlu subdivision of the Afshar tribe, one of the original members of the Qezilbash. The Qereqlu had been resettled in the hinterlands of Mashhad under ‘Abbas I primarily to repel frequent incursions by the Uzbeks, who pillaged widely and enslaved the Shi‘i residents of towns and villages. As a youth he apparently was taken captive by the Uzbeks, living as a hostage-slave for four years before escaping captivity and leading a life of banditry.

Soon after, Nader-Qoli joined Malek Mahmud Sistani, a self-styled claimant to the legendary Kayanid dynasty of the Shahnameh. In the years following the collapse of the Safavid state he had carved out territory for himself that stretched from northern Khorasan to Sistan, with his capital in Mashhad. Relying on a loose tribal and urban coalition, Malek Mahmud soon viewed Nader, then a local warlord, and his band of nomadic horsemen as a threat to his aspirations. It is not unlikely that his claim to kingship of the legendary dynasty, complete with an invented Kayanid crown and regal symbolism, inspired Nader’s image of himself as champion of a unified Iran, a concept of authority different from the Safavids’ claim to Shi‘i sacred kingship.

Nader nevertheless lost out to Malek Mahmud in the struggle for control of Mashhad. He returned to the life of a benevolent bandit, as his largesse helped at times to swell the ranks of his supporters. By 1725 when he offered his services to Tahmasp II, he probably mustered no more than two thousand horsemen with shaky loyalty and no artillery or other heavy weapons. What he really offered to Tahmasp, who was helplessly vacillating among several tribal contenders, was an instinctive ability to lead, military talent, and tactful strategizing. Soon he elevated himself to become Tahmasp’s regent after successfully masterminding the slaying of his Qajar rival. This was the first step in a willful struggle that eventually brought him to the throne of Iran.

Adopting the title Tahmasp-Qoli (slave of Tahmasp), within a year he was able to secure his base in Khorasan and sack Mashhad, removing Malek Mahmud. Soon after, in a series of successful campaigns, in 1727 he first subdued the restive Abdali Afghans in Herat and prepared to march against the occupying Ghalzai Afghans in Isfahan. Routing Ashraf’s forces in two battles, first near Damghan and then in Murchehkhort in the vicinity of Isfahan, in December 1729 he triumphantly entered the Safavid capital in the company of Tahmasp II (see map 3.1). Restoring the Safavid shah to his throne added to Nader’s prestige, although the pillage and killing of Isfahan’s population by the “liberation” army was an ominous sign of what was to come. Marching to Fars he pushed the demoralized Afghan forces southeast. Ashraf and a few of his companions were killed on their way to Kandahar, but the remnant of troops who survived the battle conveniently joined Nader’s forces. In an ever-growing enterprise for conquest, he soon turned his attention toward the provinces under Ottoman and Russian occupation.

Key to Nader’s early successes and his meteoric rise was a talent for organizing disjointed tribal groups into an army. These included Kurdish tribes of Khorasan, some of the Qajars and their Turkmen allies, the Baluch and other tribes of the southeast, the Abdali and Ghalzai Afghans, and even the Uzbeks. He often took command of these desperate nomadic forces by enticing their chiefs to join him, only to eliminate them at an opportune moment. What made his enterprise different from familiar Turko-Mongolian tribal ventures of the past was that the multiethnic character of Nader’s army also incorporated a contingent of peasants displaced from the interior. Perhaps for the first time in Iranian history—and possibly in the history of empires in the region—his crude method of drafting able-bodied men from remote villages and towns, often without serious resistance, set the precedent for a new conscription army.

Map 3.2. Major campaigns of Nader Shah Afshar, 1736–1747

Comparable to similar European armies of his time, Nader’s drive for a disciplined military force increasingly entailed an element of protonational integration. Long campaigns, under unified command and with the reward of shared booty, instilled a sense of unanimity and emphasized pronounced elements of shared identity, such as standardized insignia in campaigns, the use of Shahnameh legendary motifs, and later the creation of a new royal crown for himself instead of the Safavid Qezilbash cap. The effective use of firearms, matchlocks and light artillery, with which he quickly equipped his army once he got hold of the Safavid arsenal in big cities, also proved crucial in giving Nader’s troops mobility and tactical advantage, and in boosting their morale and semblance of a modern military discipline. Nader himself became a champion of national assertiveness, distinct from the late Safavids’ public image of debauchery on the one hand and excessive religiosity on the other.

Even before taking Isfahan, Nader was adamant that he would repulse the Ottoman occupation—with force if necessary. But unlike campaigns of the Safavid era, Nader did not rely on the Shi‘i identity to garner support. Rather, he was campaigning against Ottomans almost purely on territorial grounds. It was as though prevailing over the Afghan enemy sublimated, at least momentarily, Nader’s personal ambitions into a patriotic objective tied to defending the Guarded Domains and preserving Iran’s territorial integrity. As it turned out, this was a project different from carving out a tribal kingdom for himself with no specific geographical boundary and no ties to its subjects.

Beginning in 1730, Nader, now acting as the Safavid regent, reclaimed most western provinces in a series of brilliant campaigns (see maps 3.1 and 3.2). Despite Ottoman reinforcements to fight the unexpected rise of the new contender, the resounding defeat of the Turkish army generated a serious crisis in Istanbul and contributed to the abdication of Sultan Ahmad III (r. 1703–1730). Nader’s military pressure to recapture the province of Baghdad and the Shi‘i holy cities, however, met stiff Ottoman resistance. The loss of Baghdad would have been a serious blow to Ottoman prestige and its strategic and commercial interests. With his troops stranded at the western front, Nader sensed a greater need for Shi‘i solidarity.

To display his Shi‘i loyalty, he repaired and gilded Shi‘i shrines in Mashhad and Shiraz. Although he frowned on the demoralized clerical establishment, he still acted with loyalty to the Safavid sovereign. But this lasted for only a short while. Tahmasp’s failure to repulse a renewed Ottoman offensive in the west and the subsequent loss of nearly all the territory Nader had temporarily secured, gave the latter the long-awaited excuse to remove Tahmasp. In 1732, in a carefully staged scene in an Isfahan palace, designed to display Tahmasp’s nocturnal debauchery, Nader persuaded the state notables and chiefs of the army to depose the shah and replace him on the throne with his eight-month-old son, ‘Abbas III, for whom Nader was regent.

As the de facto ruler of the country some seven years after his emergence, Nader could act with greater facility in making new administrative and military appointments in his favor. He levied heavy taxes to finance a series of campaigns that, between 1732 and 1736, restored all of the western and northwestern Iranian provinces occupied by the Ottomans, including Georgia, Armenia, and the economically rich Shamakhi, and even established footholds in Ottoman Iraq. Nader’s forces crushed the Lezgian revolt in the Caucasus, defeated the restive Ghalzai Afghans and forced them back to Kandahar, recaptured Herat, restrained the Turkmens of northern Khorasan, forced the Russians to fully evacuate the Caspian provinces, and reasserted control over the Persian Gulf (see map 3.1). It seemed as though Safavid rule, nominal though it was, had finally restored stability and calm to the empire.


The long shadow of the “son of the sword,” as Nader often referred to his own lineage, had already been cast over the Guarded Domains. In the winter of 1736, he summoned to the plain of Moghan on the bank of the Aras River in northern Azarbaijan a great assembly of khans and notables to consider the future of the Iranian state. It was an open secret that the ambitious “slave of Tahmasp” was ready to abolish Safavid rule altogether and make the Persian throne his own (pl. 3.3).

Of the nearly twenty thousand dignitaries who were present in the Moghan assembly, reportedly only a single shaykh al-Islam (the chief clerical authority) of the last Safavid sovereign dared to express, in private, the Iranian people’s sympathy for the Safavid house. Overheard by informants, he was brought into Nader’s presence and duly executed, setting a clear example for other potential voices of dissent still loyal to the Safavids. The large gathering of patricians, urban officials, religious leaders (including the patriarch of the Armenian Church), state officials, and army chiefs from all over the country—albeit a “rubber stamp” assembly—was meant to signify the consent of the country’s elite. Perhaps inspired by the Mongolian tribal gatherings of the Ilkhanid era, the Moghan assembly was the first time that the notion of representation was introduced to the Iranian milieu. Moreover, Nader justified deposing the Safavid monarchy, and his own “reluctance” to carry the burden of kingship, on the grounds of restoring Iranian sovereignty when the Safavids were no longer fit to rule the country.

The greatest divergence from the Safavid concept of authority, however, was Nader’s extraordinary—and as it turned out, quite impolitic—call to relinquish Shi‘ism as the religious creed of Iran, at least in the way it was practiced under the Safavids. This was one of three conditions he set forth in Moghan for his acceptance of the crown of Iran. His declaration also called for total loyalty to himself and the abandoning of any sympathy for the house of the Safavids and hope for their future restoration. Instead of the Safavids’ Twelver Shi‘ism, which in his view had long been divisive internally and offensive to Iran’s Sunni neighbors, Nader proposed the relatively improvised Ja‘fari creed (after the Sixth Shi‘i Imam, Ja‘far Sadeq, who died in 765).

Devoid of anti-Sunni exclusivity, messianic longing, and juristic tradition, Nader’s Ja‘fari brand seemed to be a diluted form of the Safavids’ state-dominated creed. More than two centuries of religious conflict, which had facilitated the Afghan invasion, must have persuaded Nader, whose own career, oddly enough, had been built on expelling Sunni invaders, to see the ills of an exclusionist form of Shi‘ism. He hoped that declaring the Ja‘fari creed would persuade the Ottomans to comply with the terms of his peace proposal, which called for the establishment in Mecca for the Shi‘i pilgrims of a fifth platform around the Ka’ba (lit. rokn, “pillar”), adjacent to that of the Hanafis, which was to be taken as recognition of Shi‘ism as a legitimate Islamic creed.

Yet there were other implicit motives behind Nader’s conciliatory move. His army included among its ranks a growing number of Afghans, Uzbeks, and other Sunni mercenaries whose loyalty to Shi‘i rule for the cause of a Shi‘i empire was in doubt. On a deeper level, Nader, who earlier in his life seemed to have adhered to Sunnism, realized that minimizing Sunni-Shi‘i differences would enhance his chances for conquering Sunni lands. Annexing southern Iraq, eastern Anatolia, and perhaps beyond seemed within his reach, given the visible signs of the Ottomans’ disarray. Here, perhaps for the first time in a political context, the notion of a pan-Islamic solidarity (ettehad-e Islam) found expression in Nader’s conciliatory proposal, which, though it never materialized, denoted a shift away from the creed-based Ottoman and Safavid Muslim empires. As it turned out, Nader’s proposal was unacceptable to both sides. To the Shi‘is of Iran, being an inconsequential subsidiary of the Sunni Hanafis was a humiliating reversal of their Shi‘i identity despite all the Sunni hostilities. To the Ottoman authorities, who for two centuries were angered by the rude anti-Sunni propaganda of Safavid Iran, even partial recognition of Shi‘ism was an anathema.

Imagining himself as a new Timur, or even an Isma‘il, Nader’s first major move after the Moghan assembly was to conquer Kandahar, the homeland of the Ghalzai Afghans (see map 3.2). Rather than claiming vengeance or even reclaiming the plundered Safavid riches or recruiting a larger number of Afghan mercenaries to his expanding army, Nader’s main goal was to capture the strategic gateway to Mughal India. The rise of a new sectarian conscience in the eighteenth-century Islamic world, as evident in renewed Afghan and Ottoman Sunni aggressions against the Safavids, coincided with a rapid decline of the Ottoman and Mughal empires on both Iran’s eastern and western borders. Yet militarily the Ottomans were effective enough to slow Nader’s western advances, which in turn persuaded the Iranian conqueror, desperate for funds, to abandon his anti-Ottoman campaigns and look eastward once it became clear that his pan-Islamic project would not render the desired benefit.

At the most basic level, Nader’s ambition was to access the Mughal Empire at its most vulnerable time, to plunder its riches, and to use these exploits to defeat his Ottoman nemesis. The urge to conquer Hindustan, as the Indian subcontinent was known, became irresistible when he realized that the impoverished people of Iran could no longer sustain the cost of his territorial ambitions. By contrast Mughal India was a longtime repository of circulated precious metals of the Old World, which had accumulated over centuries. Even though as early as the sixteenth century the European trading companies had drained off substantial quantities of Indian gold and silver, there was enough left to entice Nader and his army chiefs.

Success on the battlefield, despite some Mughal resistance, proved the worth of Nader’s Indian campaign. Having first secured the walled city of Kandahar in 1738 and razed it to the ground, he used the last of the Ghalzai stronghold to build adjacent to the old city the new city of Naderabad named in his own honor. He then moved on to capture with relative ease the major urban centers of Peshawar, Kabul, and Lahore (see map 3.2). His eastward expansion into northern India was beyond anything a northern power had ever explored since the Afghan conquest of Sher Shah Suri two centuries earlier. Yet the agonizing breakup of the Mughal Empire during the first half of the eighteenth century had turned it into an easy target for Nader’s invasion, and soon after for colonial exploits.

Nader routed the lackadaisical Indian armies in Karnal north of Delhi in February 1739. In the course of the battle he defeated the numerically superior Mughal army and triumphantly entered Delhi (pl. 3.4). That he almost immediately agreed to reinstate to the throne the desperate Naser al-Din Mohammad Shah (r. 1719–1748), reaffirmed Nader’s predatory intent: the unfortunate emperor reportedly surrendered his entire royal treasure, consisting of ancestral jewels, precious metals, and other objects of value. In addition, the conquering army levied a hefty toll on Delhi notables. Nader’s total take reportedly amounted to seven hundred million rupees, one of the largest booties ever extracted in early modern history. Among many dazzling items that would later adorn the Persian (and the British) royalty were the two great diamonds, Kuh-e Nur (or Koh-i Noor, mountain of light) and Darya-e Nur (or Daria-i Noor; sea of light), and the legendary Peacock Throne (Takh-e Tavus) built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Nader’s avarice did not spare the resisting population of Delhi. His troops, drunk and fierce, rampaged through the city, raping and plundering. A popular revolt in response cost the lives of three thousand of Nader’s mercenaries. In retaliation, Nader ordered a massacre of the city population, which within few hours reportedly took the lives of as many as twenty thousand civilians.


After returning from his Indian campaign, Nader amassed his Indian spoils in the impenetrable fortress of Kalat-e Naderi near his birthplace in northern Khorasan. Hoarding at such massive scale was meant to finance his world-conquering project, whereas his merciless acts of violence were meant to instill fear in his impoverishing subjects. The darkening image of Nader, despite the awe he inspired in the European press of the time, did not bring prosperity or stability to his empire. On the contrary, military success whetted his appetite to extort with cruelty matched only by his historical role models. Some contemporary authors eulogized him for “reviving the Changizian rites,” while others depicted horrifying scenes of atrocities committed against defenseless towns and villages. Marauding across the land from Mesopotamia and the Transcaucasus to Central Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the interiors of Hindustan, and fighting destructive wars, led to the image of short-lived empire devoid of a center of gravity or a sustainable imperial vision. With Iran’s resources stretched to their limits, he left behind a ruined agrarian economy, little trade and manufacture, and decimated administrative infrastructure. It was as if Nader and his army represented a nomadic revenge of the periphery against Iran’s urban centers.

During the following eight years of his reign, Nader’s ceaseless campaigns to recapture Iraq and Anatolia, with the aim of accessing the Black Sea, brought mixed results. He seriously threatened the stability of the Ottoman eastern provinces. It seemed as though he would prevail. Yet long campaigns and even longer sieges did not deliver Iraq to Nader’s empire. The frequency of rebellions of the Baluch, who were allied with tribes of the interiors of Fars province, and the Afghans and Kurds of northern Khorasan, compelled him to rush back to the east. Predictably, the Sublime Porte also rejected his proposal for recognition of the Ja‘fari creed. Likewise, his punitive action against Daghestani mountain people in hopes of stabilizing the Iranian Caucasus and his repeated campaigns against the Turkmens of the northeast and the Lur confederacy in the Iranian interior proved ephemeral.

Nader’s unrelenting campaigning and the movement of large armies across the country devastated what was left of the prosperity of the Iranian cities and the countryside. His forced relocation of the nomadic populations was as disruptive as his appointment of Afghan, Turkmen, Kurd, and other Sunni tribal commanders to military governorships of the Persian provinces. His confiscation of private property and the appropriation of vast Safavid charitable endowments, though aimed to stop rampant corruption and raise more revenue, actually added to fiscal confusion. Heavy taxation weakened the peasants and the landowning elite alike. Forced conscription alienated the rural population and at the city gates tall conical structures made of his victims’ skulls were a gruesome reminder of Nader’s frenzied rage.

What eventually cost Nader his life, however, was not the dismal treatment he inflicted on his subjects but his evident inability to strike a balance in his multiethnic army. His progressive insanity, which erupted in bursts of violence, fueled the fire of ethno-religious tension among his officers and troops. Relying heavily on Uzbek and Afghan mercenaries, he had planned to eliminate the growing opposition among his Persian officers and troops. Yet before he could put his coup into action, he was assassinated in June 1747 in his camp in northern Khorasan while attempting to quell yet another rebellion among the Kurds of the region (fig. 3.2).

Figure 3.2. Nader’s assassination in this contemporary English engraving is consistent with the attention he received in Europe as a mighty conqueror, especially after his Indian campaign.

Thomas Bankes, Edward Blake, and Alexander Cook, New System of Geography (London: J. Cook, 1787). Author’s collection.

A group of Afshar and other Iranian military chiefs attacked him while he was sleeping in the royal tent. Despite his desperate resistance, they managed to kill him. They dispatched his severed head to his nephew Herat, who collaborated in the plot, as an invitation to succeed his uncle on the throne. The mostly Shi‘i Iranian faction among his troops, who had now regrouped under the title of Qezilbash, had felt threatened by Nader’s ominous drift toward his Afghan and Uzbek mercenaries. The latter under the command of Ahmad Khan Abdali, later known as Ahmad Shah Durrani (r. 1747–1773), posed a serious challenge. In the Iranian faction’s emphasis on the Qezilbash identity, more a memory than an institutional reality, one may trace a desire not only to check the Afghan presence but also to restore some form of Safavid rule.

Nader’s failure to put an end to post-Safavid tribal turmoil cost Iran dearly. Though he aimed to create a stable imperial model distinct from the Safavids, he essentially remained a tribal chief in control of a formidable war machine devoted to conquest. His capital, as he was quoted as saying, was on the back of his horse, and his disgust for the machinery of government was evident in his consistent crushing of the old Safavid bureaucracy and haphazard replacement of it with a military elite. His policy of deemphasizing Shi‘ism and disengaging from its clerical core never led to a tolerant alternative. It became apparent that the people of Iran, at least of the Persian-speaking urban centers, no longer would abandon Shi‘ism. It is therefore not surprising that shortly after his accession, the Persian urban public of the interiors viewed him as a usurper of the Safavid throne.

Soon, a string of pretenders to the Safavid throne raised among the populace with messianic hopes for restoration of the demised dynasty. An obscure dervish from Rafsanjan, one of several who claimed to be Safi Mirza, the younger son of Shah Soltan Hosain, rebelled against Nader during his siege of Mosul in 1744. He was first given refuge in Istanbul in 1729 in the hopes that he could advance the Ottoman objective in the power scramble in progress in Iran. As Shah Safi II, he was encouraged to rise against Nader, but his enterprise came to no fruitful end. Once he had proved useless, the Ottomans sent him off to the exile on the island of Rhodes, where he died in obscurity some years later. Other pretenders were no more successful.


With Nader’s death, his short-lived empire, stretching from Marv and Herat to Georgia and Dagestan, and on to Bahrain and the shores of the Persian Gulf, plunged into turmoil. The mosaic of nomadic and seminomadic people took part in a pandemonium that took at least another decade before a semblance of tranquility would emerge under Karim Khan Zand (r. 1751–1779). Despite three attempts by Nader’s successors to try to stabilize his amorphous empire, the Afsharid base in Khorasan proved too fragile to allow for an orderly transition. Besides jealously guarding the remnants of Nader’s hoarded treasures in Kalat, which came to be a curse rather than a blessing, his successors could barely subordinate Nader’s unruly army, no matter how generously and hurriedly they squandered his legendary wealth in exchange for loyalties. Nor were they able to hold together from Mashhad or from Isfahan the disjointed provinces of his empire.

The ensuing struggle for power plunged Iran into another civil war that lasted a whole decade. By 1757 the rise of Karim Khan Zand in the south was the only positive outcome. His regency was the most benign and durable of any attempt since 1722 to revive a nominal Safavid rule and govern in the shadow of its memory. Contrary to Nader’s diabolical temper, Karim’s personality combined political sagacity and soldierly valor with beneficence, acumen, and conviviality—a rare combination especially when compared to his cohorts. His rule of more than two decades marks one of the most tranquil in Iran’s early modern history, a remarkable example of how the ruler’s personal qualities, rather than the institutional framework within which he operated, determined political stability, the well-being of subjects, and cultural florescence. Under favorable conditions fostered by the Zand dynasty (founded by Karim Khan), Shiraz and the whole of the Fars province, which had terribly suffered under Nader, quickly bounced back.

Brought up in exile in northern Khorasan, Karim belonged to the Lak, a subtribe of the Zands and part of the lesser division of Lurs of western Iran. They were banished by Nader to the northeastern frontier presumably to guard against the Uzbeks. Karim had fought in the Afsharid campaigns, involuntarily perhaps, even though Nader had eliminated all senior members of his tribe. After Nader’s assassination, Karim led the return of the Zand contingent back to their ancestral homeland in the Malayer region in Luristan. From there, over the course of ensuing civil war he eventually became the master of Fars province, with Shiraz as his base. Zand victory in effect reaffirmed the ascendancy of the southern Iranian interior, albeit Lur and still tribal, over the mostly northern Turkic periphery, an ascendency tied to a new sense of Persian awareness.

Karim Khan’s reluctance to assume royal authority independent of nominal Safavid sovereignty gave his rule a distinctive character. He learned from Nader’s mistakes. He was realistic enough to acknowledge the place of Shi‘i faith and wise enough to respect devotion to the Safavid memory. Karim’s choice to remain vakil al-dowleh (deputy of the state), however, was a subtle shift from acting as mere regent of an obscure Safavid prince, a nonentity. By allowing reference to himself as the “deputy of the subjects” (vakil al-ro‘aya), moreover, he seemed to have implicitly shifted his own mandate to that of deputizing people rather than mere Safavid kingship (pl. 3.5). The subtle shift corresponded to Karim’s popularity with his subjects, especially the urban population. Distancing himself from the tormenting experience of the recent past, he further relied on the legends of Iranian of kingship closely associated with Fars province. Though the extent of such Persian awareness should not be exaggerated, it is evidenced in the literary and material culture of the period. Tracing the Zand revival back to Fars as the cradle of Persian culture and its rich poetic tradition was one example. Wider use of the term Iran, as an alternative to the Guarded Domains of Iran, is another.

Interest in rebuilding cities under Karim Khan went along with revitalization of the Persian Gulf trade and development of Shiraz as its hub. Consolidation of the Zands soon gravitated the political center, at least temporarily, toward the south and away from the perils surrounding Isfahan, Qazvin, Tabriz, and Mashhad. Similar to ‘Abbas I, Karim Khan created an urban complex commemorating his political achievements. His reconstruction projects complemented, and at times replaced, Safavid public buildings and palaces. Most notable among Karim Khan’s grand edifices were the new bazaar, the mosque, and a new citadel (arg), together forming the core of a new urban development (fig. 3.3).

The Zand material heritage, while incomparable in grandiosity to Isfahan of the Safavid era, was remarkable for what it accomplished in a short period of time. It was also notable for its innovations. The design features of the Vakil mosque, a vast space of more than ninety thousand square feet built between 1751 and 1773, for example, served to reaffirm a new political agenda. The absence of any domed structure, in particular, may be seen as a break from the glorification of Safavid royal patronage. The use of forty-eight single-piece marble columns throughout the mosque’s vast prayer hall, the well-proportioned courtyards, and high ivans (arched portals)—two instead of the usual four—shows artistic confidence (fig. 3.4).


Beyond the political history of the period, we know something of everyday life in the Zand period. A remarkable narrative, Rostam al-Tawarikh, provides details about the minimum wage and the price of goods and commodities. An average laborer in Zand Shiraz earned as much as nine tumans per year, enough, the author reckons, to feed and clothe a family of seven, the average size of an Iranian household at the time. One tuman, consisting of ten thousand dinars, would have bought roughly all the commodities needed annually for such a family: 950 pounds of wheat, 220 pounds of various grains, 115 pounds of rice, 220 pounds of red meat, 25 chickens, and 150 eggs. Another tuman or two would have bought spices and condiments, cooking oil, salt, sugar, coffee, tobacco, soap, wood, charcoal, burning oil, vegetables and fruits, and other necessities. Clothing, mostly cotton, but also woolen and silk for special items, constituted a hefty figure, perhaps as much as two tumans. A quality woolen carpet of about 130 square feet was worth about a tuman and a half, but a kilim of the same size was half that price. In contrast, an average urban house cost no more than ten tumans.

Figure 3.3. The Vakil bazaar, vital to the trade of the south, was at the center of Zand urban development and part of a network of bazaars, caravansaries, trading houses, workshops, and retail stores.

J. Dieulafoy, “La Perse, la Chaldée et la Susiane,” Le tour du monde (Paris, 1881–1882), 120.

Figure 3.4. Columned prayer hall (shabestan) of the Vakil mosque, Shiraz.

© Pawel Opaska/Dreamstime.com.

Land was relatively cheap as well. One jarib (nearly two and a half acres) went for only a quarter of tuman, compared to one tuman for a jarib of orchard. The most prized items, however, were horses. A pedigreed horse could cost as much as twenty tumans and even a well-bred mule was no less than ten tumans. Yet an average urbanite could afford riding a very good donkey for one tuman while a peasant could buy a plowing cow for the same price and a working donkey for one third of that. Though raging inflation, our source informs us, had led Karim Khan to introduce some measure of price controls, still the standard of living seems well within an affordable range.

Rostam al-Tawarikh nostalgically recalls the life of prosperity and leisure under the great Vakil. The author praises Karim Khan for combating crime and restoring calm to Shiraz, well known for its harassing urban brigands (lutis). Among other measures he instituted a liberal policy of establishing taverns and brothel districts for the troops and for the city folk, presumably to forestall the raping and abduction of women and children, an endemic problem under the Afsharid regime. The author also offers a long list of well-known female entertainers of Shiraz, whom he praises for their sophistication and taste.

The charming Mulla Fatemeh, no doubt an educated female entertainer, was praised for her “pleasant conversation.” She was “good natured, tender, and mannerly; never acted presumptuously, always compassionate to the prince and the pauper alike. . . . She knew by heart about twenty thousand select verses from classic and contemporary poets, and could recite them appropriately in every assembly accompanied with tambourine, drum, reed pipe, harp, lute and kamancheh.”1 She was also credited for her intelligent critiques of clerical bigotry and misogyny, as well as for being an advocate of the weak and disadvantaged. According to the Rostam al-Tawarikh, on one occasion quoting the poet Sa‘di, she cautioned Karim Khan about the transitory nature of his power and the egalitarian tyranny of death. The Shiraz environment was liberal enough for Fatemeh not only to utter such sentiments but also to express them in public through poetry and music. At the crossroads of the Vakil bazaar she and her band reportedly performed for the public, no doubt in the face of the ulama’s objection.

The portrayal of female entertainers became popular in the Zand paintings, and later was inherited by the artists of the early Qajar period. Large-scale oil painting on canvas celebrating court life of leisure and merrymaking was a late Safavid development, possibly inspired by Italian and Dutch portraitures. Yet it was in the Zand era that the inner life of the harem became the prominent subject of a school of painting distinct for its depiction of women, wine, and music. Portraitures of the Zand and Qajar periods showed unveiled women in private settings off-limits to the public eye, an indication no doubt of the concern of the patrons of these works not to transgress shari‘a sanctions and face criticism of the ulama.


Public space remained primarily a male domain. The Vakil bazaar and the adjacent caravansaries were not constructed merely to augment the ruler’s image or to please the growing out-of-town visitors. They served as the main outlet for the emerging mercantile classes and as a new market for the Persian Gulf trade being conducted through the port of Bushehr (Bushier), the main entrepôt for Fars province. The piracy common in the lower Persian Gulf, French naval attacks on English ships in the area, and the growing maritime ambitions of the Imam of Muscat and his Omani privateers undermined most of the trade of the lower Persian coast. By the mid-eighteenth century, Bandar Abbas gradually ceased to function as Iran’s chief port of entry. The British East India Company and Dutch commercial firms searched for safe harbor along the upper shores of the Persian Gulf. They first settled in Bushehr and Kharg Island and soon after in the rival port of Basra, which was the outlet of Ottoman Iraq to the Persian Gulf.

Despite Iran’s desire to safeguard its southern shores and its foreign trade, its greatest weakness in establishing a secure presence in the Persian Gulf was its lack of either a naval or a commercial fleet. Nader’s effort to build a naval force was a notable exception. By 1745 he had gathered a fleet of more than twenty boats of different sizes, purchased from the Portuguese or constructed in India. Portuguese officers and Indian sailors largely manned his navy. He also built a dockyard in Bushehr, and at great expense, and with much difficulty he imported timber from Mazandaran for the construction of warships. The major objective was to quell privateers along the Iranian coasts and revive maritime trade, although it is conceivable that he had maritime ambitions in the Indian Ocean. Nader also used the expertise of an Englishman to build a fleet in the Caspian Sea with the similar objective of securing the Iranian coast from Turkmen and Cossack piracy. He also appointed for the first time an admiral (daryabayg) to organize Iranian defenses in the Persian Gulf. Yet after Nader’s assassination, the Omanis resumed their raids of the Iranian coasts, even carrying off the ships of his navy.

By the time of Karim Khan, the ruler of Muscat and the Qasimi privateers, who were operating from the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, were capable of barring Iran from effective control of its own coast. Any effort to establish a naval presence in the upper Persian Gulf, moreover, was bound to face heavy competition from the semi-autonomous Mamluks of Iraq. While keeping their Ottoman suzerain at bay, the Mamluks were eager to host the lucrative trade of the East India Company. This offered the English unprecedented freedom to dictate terms and win greater concessions by playing the Iraqi Mamluks against the Zands. Even a joint military operation in 1768 by the Iranians, the Mamluks, and the East India Company intended to crush the Ka‘b tribes on the banks of the Shatt al-‘Arab waterway, did not result in further commercial cooperation.

It did, however, whet Karim Khan’s appetite for expansion not only in the Persian Gulf but also across the frontiers of Ottoman Iraq. Counting on the weakness of the Mamluks of Iraq and the Sublime Porte’s sluggish response, Karim Khan lent substantive support to the chiefs of Iraqi Kurdistan, who sought autonomy from their Turkish masters. But it was above all the vigorous English backing of the Ottomans in disputes with the Iranian state that in 1774 persuaded Karim Khan to send a force under the command of his brother Sadeq Khan, to capture Basra, the valuable strategic and commercial lifeline of Mesopotamian trade. This was the first time since Nader’s overland sorties into the Ottoman territory that Iranian advances had paid off in Iraq, albeit momentarily.

The fragile five-year Zand occupation of Basra, which ended with Karim Khan’s death in 1779, proved a failure (map 3.3). It interrupted the export of Persian silk and pearls from Bahrain to Europe, and it discouraged profitable trade with Mughal India, now largely fragmented into regional princely states and progressively prey of French and the British colonial gains. Moreover, it demonstrated the difficulty Iran faced in securing an important commercial outlet to the Indian Ocean, not only to compete with expanding European trade but also to outmaneuver Ottoman Iraq. As an alternative to the Persian Gulf, Karim Khan also followed Nader’s steps in developing the northern Caspian trade with Russia, which was largely conducted from Astrakhan, on the Caspian’s northern shore. The chief beneficiaries of that trade, however, were not the Zands but the northern-based Qajars, who soon after Karim Khan’s death emerged as the chief contenders for control of Iran. Russian commercial and diplomatic presence along the southern and western shores of the Caspian, which included Armenian and Muslim traders’ relations with Baku, Anzali, and Astarabad, anticipated Russia’s territorial advances in the early decades of the nineteenth century.


Karim Khan died in 1779 an old man, a rare phenomenon in an era of great political turmoil. With him perished his fragile balance of tribal alliances, built by means of consent and coercion. After his death, as Iran experienced another round of civil war, the third since the fall of the Safavids, the problem of political legitimacy resurfaced once more to haunt the many contenders. Not for another two decades, until the last year of Aqa Mohammad Khan Qajar (r. 1789–1797), the prevailing leader of the Qajars of Astarabad, did a solution to the question of political authority emerge.

Map 3.3. Rise of Karim Khan and consolidation of the Zands, 1747–1778

The collapse of the Zand dynasty, if it can even be called a dynasty, was a dismal affair. The tribal truce that was the outcome of Karim Khan’s political acumen withered rapidly after his passing. In the thirteen years between his death and the capture of Shiraz by the Qajars, in 1792, which put an effective end to Zand rule, no fewer than eight contenders successively vied for the shaky Zand seat of power. All but one, who died of acute alcoholism, were murdered in a climate of treachery and violence. In a dynastic free-for-all, brothers fought against brothers and fathers against sons. The seed of the Zands’ rapid downfall are to be found first and foremost in the self-destructive behavior of Karim Khan’s successors and the internecine tensions that long had simmered while he was alive. The small Zand tribe, moreover, had to rely on an assortment of other tribal forces, whose loyalties were up for sale to the highest bidder. The haphazard southern alliance of Greater Lurs of Fars province in the south, of which Zand was a member, had to face the Tangestani and Dashtestani warriors of the Warm Country, the Arab tribes of the Persian Gulf littoral, the Bakhtiyaris of the southwest, and the Kurds of the Kermanshah region (see map 3.3).

Two decades of urban calm had hardly tamed the nomadic culture of perpetual warfare among this quarreling bunch in the south. Karim Khan’s wisdom and foresight had clearly failed to instill values of stability and collaboration, let alone a Fars-based sense of shared identity or a commitment to a centralized state. It was as if the Persian urban centers were destined to endure another round of nomadic strife, both north and south. Yet contrary to Nader’s time, the cities, and Shiraz in particular, did not remain entirely passive. Tired of internecine Zand bickering, there emerged a new civic resolve, one that relied on a tacit alliance of landowning urban notables (a‘yan), city administrators, and members of the ulama class. The new urban voice became even more pronounced once a new Qajar contender from the north appeared on the horizon.

While Karim Khan was on his deathbed, Aqa Mohammad Khan Qajar, who was a hostage in the Zand court in Shiraz, escaped the Zand capital and galloped toward Astarabad, his tribal base in northeastern corner of Mazandaran. After his rebellious father had been killed in war with Karim Khan, the ambitious Qajar heir was captured and exiled to Shiraz, where he spent fifteen years in the Zand court under Karim Khan’s watchful eye (see chart 2 in chapter 4). Karim Khan viewed the Qajars as his most formidable adversary. For three generations, since the last days of the Safavid dynasty, the Qajar khans’ bid for power had been rudely interrupted. Tahmasp II’s original regent, Fath ‘Ali Khan Qajar, had fallen victim to the more ambitious Nader-Qoli. Even though as a member of the Qezilbash the Qajar khan was committed to a Safavid nominal sovereignty, he was no less fervent than his Afshar rival in a contest for power.

A decade later, Fath ‘Ali Khan’s son, Mohammad Hasan Khan, renewed the family’s claim to power, this time against the Zands. After a series of inconclusive sorties that at one point even brought the city of Isfahan under the Qajar control, he was contained in Astarabad, where he eventually perished. Some years later, Fath ‘Ali Khan’s grandson Hosain-Qoli (Aqa Mohammad Khan’s younger brother), an audacious brute with the self-proclaimed title “Inflamer of the World” (jahansuz), rebelled against Karim Khan. He, too, was killed in action, ironically at the hands of the Turkmen horsemen who made up his fighting force. It is noteworthy that the Qajar contender relied on the Turkmen tribes of the northeast frontier, as had the early Safavids on the Qezilbash Turkmens of Azarbaijan three centuries earlier.

It therefore seemed inevitable that Aqa Mohammad Khan would take up the family feud, even though he himself was its hapless victim. An Afsharid pretender to Nader’s throne had castrated Aqa Mohammad at a very young age to disqualify him from any future claim to the throne. In the tribal culture of the period the removal of testicles, similar to blinding, was a common form of body mutilation. The assumption was that only able-bodied men were entitled to rule. Yet the success of Aqa Mohammad Khan in establishing the new Qajar dynasty proved the opposite. The eighteenth century might be labeled the “golden age of mutilation,” since no ruler or pretender of the period from a tribal background shied away from the brutal practice. Acts of bodily mutilation also included cutting off the victim’s tongue, and more commonly, the partial or complete removal of the nose and the ear. Aqa Mohammad Khan was not just the victim of such punishments; he was their ultimate practitioner.

Aqa Mohammad Khan’s complex personality was no doubt affected by his bloody family history, the bodily mutilation he sustained, and years of confinement in the land of his paternal enemy. His ruthless discipline, his grudges toward family and tribal enemies, his love for booty—especially gems—and his deliberate acts of violence resembled Nader Shah’s. Yet Aqa Mohammad Khan can be credited for his great success in reunifying Iran, an enterprise in which Nader Shah and Karim Khan both failed. In military discipline and determination, the Qajar khan was reminiscent of Nader. For his political foresight and desire to rebuild the state as a social contract rather than a tribal war machine, he was indebted to Karim Khan and the Zand administration. He evidently valued continuity more than Karim Khan’s own successors did.

Contrary to Nader’s enmity toward the Safavid divan, he partially rehabilitated the existing Zand bureaucrats, who themselves often had their roots in divan families of the late Safavid era. He also learned from Nader’s error not to alienate the Shi‘i clerical establishment. The rise of the Usuli legal school, represented by a new class of Shi‘i jurists, created an important source of support for the nascent Qajar state. Above all, Aqa Mohammad Khan assiduously avoided the destructive free-for-all contest for succession, which twice he had witnessed ruin the Afsharid and Zand states. By the time he was assassinated in 1797, he had eliminated nearly all potential pretenders to the Qajar throne. One of the most important political figures of modern Iranian history, he founded a dynasty that survived for more than a century despite many odds. Only a man devoid of private life, who spent more time in the saddle and under the tent than on the throne or in the harem, was destined to bring Iran out of its long period of turmoil.

The Qajar success nevertheless depended on more factors than the character and resolve of the dynasty’s founder. An important feature of the rise of Aqa Mohammad Khan was a shift in Iran’s center of political gravity away from the provinces of Fars and Isfahan. On one level, the rise of the Qajars was indicative of the Turkic tribal periphery in the north reclaiming power from the Persian south, except this time the Qajars replaced the Afshars. Aqa Mohammad Khan was attempting to reconstruct the same Qezilbash-like alliance that Nader had earlier assembled, and his objectives for political unification were almost identical to those of his predecessor.


By Nowruz of AH 1200/March 1786 CE, when Aqa Mohammad Khan declared Tehran his capital, it was as if Iran was about to witness another contest for Safavid succession. Earlier on, Aqa Mohammad Khan was still loyal enough to the memory of the demised dynasty to issue new coins on behalf of yet another obscure Safavid prince, but with his own name included. The date for choosing the new capital, however, carried a centennial significance: as if the beginning of the thirteenth Islamic century marked the end of the Safavid era and the start of a new imperial fortune. That he now issued coins into circulation, this time in the name of the Mahdi, the Twelfth Shi‘i Imam, was not accidental. Most likely it pointed at his presumption that his rise to power was a prelude to a new imperial era, not dissimilar to the rise of Isma‘il I at the beginning of the tenth Islamic century. Likewise, as Isfahan was a millennial city for ‘Abbas I, so was Tehran a centennial capital for the Qajars. He was no longer a regional contender but an autonomous ruler who, utilizing the revenues of the Caspian trade and on the backs of his Turkmen, Kurdish, and Afghan mercenaries, secured northern and central Iran, and even held a shaky grip over Isfahan (see map 3.3).

The choice of Tehran, a leafy town in the southern foothills of the central Alborz range, over Isfahan proved to have lasting consequences. The locale offered an ideal strategic advantage, for it was a gateway to the Iranian interior and provided easy access to Astarabad and other Qajar strongholds in the north. Moreover, being devoid of a sizable urban population, Tehran was free from Isfahan’s pro-Safavid and Shiraz’s pro-Zand sentiments. The Alborz range immediately north of the city provided a natural wall of defense, and its many ravines and gorges afforded great hunting grounds with an abundance of game.

These features were attractive to the Qajars, as they had been earlier to the Safavid rulers who had erected a wall around the town and constructed a citadel, and to Karim Khan, who built a small residence where the Qajars later built the Golestan Palace complex. On its southern edge were the ancient ruins of Rhages, a city of biblical fame, and later the city of Ray in the early Islamic era. Not far from the edge of the central Iranian desert, Tehran was blessed with another natural defense against southern sorties. The new capital under the Qajars thus came to represent the rising north versus the weakening south (fig. 3.5). Its geopolitical polarity was to be affirmed in the decades to come by the arrival of European powers on the opposite side of the Iranian plateau, the Russians on Iran’s northern frontiers and British India on its south. Not before the twentieth century, however, would Tehran supersede Tabriz or Isfahan in size or significance.

As a first step after declaring the new capital, Aqa Mohammad Khan aimed to capture the south from the Zands. Since 1786, his repeated attempts had faced stiff resistance, most recently from the last and the most charismatic of Karim Khan’s successors, Lotf-‘Ali Khan Zand (fig. 3.6). The young heir to the waning Zands had repelled the Qajar army three times, once driving it out of Isfahan. He spent his entire fragile reign (1789–1794) on campaigns, most of them against the Qajars in attempts to hold the Zand stronghold in the south. Yet the disruptive effects of his campaigns were all the more evident to the war-exhausted people of Fars, and especially to the landowning nobility of Shiraz who were asked to finance his campaigns.

After more than a decade of conflict and economic disruption, some had come to accept the reality of the Zands’ eclipse. Among them was the chief administrator of the province of Fars, Haji Ibrahim Shirazi (1745–1801), better known as Kalantar (mayor), a shrewd statesman with influence throughout the south. Haji Ibrahim Kalantar apparently found nothing more redeeming in Lotf-‘Ali Khan than in any of the seven Zand claimants before him. In 1792, while the prince was out campaigning, Haji Ibrahim conducted secret negotiations with Aqa Mohammad Khan. In return for his own security and ability to retain his property, and those of his relatives and cohorts, and perhaps with an eye toward the safety of the people of the city, he promised to deliver Shiraz to the Qajar khan.

Figure 3.5. “The City of Teheran from the Ispahan Road.” Even in 1819 Tehran looked like an agricultural town at the foothills of the central Alborz and not at all like Iran’s former capitals.

J. Clark, after Robert Ker Porter (1777–1842), from Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1821), 1:312. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Upon Lotf-‘Ali’s return, Haji Ibrahim ordered the city gates shut and denied him entry into his capital. Through bargaining and stratagems the mayor then bought off some of the prince’s tribal chiefs and imprisoned others while encouraging the rest of the Zand forces around Shiraz to disperse. The desperate Lotf-‘Ali had no choice but to take refuge in Kerman in the hopes of mustering enough pro-Zand recruits to recapture Shiraz. By switching sides, Haji Ibrahim opened the gates of Shiraz to the eventual Qajar supremacy. Although later in the Pahlavi era he would become a target of anti-Qajar narratives, painted as a harbinger of the Qajar “calamity,” in reality he was a savvy notable who garnered urban influence and economic power to safeguard his city, and his own land and property. He was a partner with Aqa Mohammad Khan in making Qajar Iran a more stable and enduring state (fig. 3.7).

Figure 3.6. Lotf ‘Ali Khan, the last of the Zands, after a wall mural in the Shiraz citadel. Though popular throughout the south, he lacked the military means to resist the Qajar advances. His tragic end turned him into a hero-martyr commemorated in folk songs.

P. M. Sykes, A History of Persia, 2 vols. (London, 1915), vol. 2, opp. 380.

In July 1792 Aqa Mohammad Khan took over Shiraz, he spared the ordinary people from his usual retribution; however, he enslaved a number of Zand women and children as war booty and sent them to his new capital to be dispersed in the royal harem and among the Qajar chiefs. To keep his side of the bargain, he reaffirmed Haji Ibrahim as the governor of Fars and gave him the title of khan, a rare honor for an urbanite. Suspicious of potential pro-Zand sentiments in his next seasonal campaign, he also ordered the fortified city walls and the fortification around the citadel to be leveled. The purpose of destroying Karim Khan’s edifices was to deny the city notables the advantage that earlier they had used against the Zand prince. He further carried off the marble columns and doors of Karim Khan’s palace in Shiraz to be reinstalled in Golestan Palace in Tehran. Vengefully, he even ordered Karim Khan’s bones to be exhumed and reburied beneath the threshold of Golestan Palace’s reception hall, reportedly along with the remains of Nader Shah, where he could step over them every day. He thus callously repaid Karim Khan for saving him from certain death and keeping him as a guest in his court for fifteen years.

Two years later, on his next visit to Shiraz, he appointed Haji Ibrahim as his sadr-e a‘zam (chief minister), the first time in recent memory that such rank had been recognized in the Iranian divan. His successor, Fath ‘Ali Shah, also bestowed on him the title of E‘temad al-Dowleh (trustee of the state), reserved in the past for the Safavid chief ministers, thus anticipating the revival of an elaborate system of titles and honorifics in the Qajar period. He also recruited a number of trusted Zand officials to his nascent divan, which until then had relied on northern bureaucrats from Mazandaran. The southerners soon formed a powerful faction in the divan and were largely responsible for setting the tone of the bureaucratic culture of the Qajar era.

The main thrust of Aqa Mohammad Khan’s ferocity was reserved for Lotf-‘Ali Khan and for the people of Kerman. In 1794 he eventually reached Kerman at a time that the city was riddled by sectarian divisions. A majority of the population supported the Zands, while a minority backed the Qajars. Lotf-‘Ali Khan’s escape before the Qajar forces but his taking refuge in the besieged city enraged Aqa Mohammad Khan to such an extreme that he ordered the city to be looted and thousands of its civilians, including women and children, to be killed, raped, and enslaved. Reportedly, he also ordered the gouging out of twenty thousand pairs of eyes of the city’s residents. Whether this is historically accurate or not, there is no doubt about the level of cruelty displayed by his troops. Even the Qajar historians of the time witnessed and recorded the “Mongolian-like” atrocities of the Qajar army and the ferocity of the mostly Sunni Turkmen troops against the Shi‘i inhabitants (pl. 3.6).

When Lotf-‘Ali Khan was finally captured, the Qajar khan ordered his eyes to be gouged out and his troops to rape him before sending him to Tehran for execution. His tragic end is recorded in Persian memory, especially in folk songs of the Fars countryside. In the popular memory, his image of valor, virtue, and heroism stood in contrast to Aqa Mohammad Khan’s vengeful conduct and unhealthy physique, whose deep facial wrinkles, high-pitched voice, and small stature had long been subjects of contempt and ridicule, imperfections that theoretically should have disqualified him for kingship.


As with disinterring Karim Khan’s corpse, the destruction of his handsome rival was meant to reaffirm Aqa Mohammad Khan’s still-fragile legitimacy. Soon after he routed the Zands and conquered the south, he moved on to the Iranian periphery in pursuit of reconstructing his empire on the Safavid model. For the rest of his years, and to some degree for his successors, the urge to recover Iran’s lost provinces remained the chief objective. In the northwest, the Caucasian provinces, including Georgia and eastern Armenia, were at stake. In the northeast, Marv and its vicinity on the Turkmen frontier and Herat and its environs further to the east were the priority. In the south, Bahrain and the Persian Gulf shores, and in the west much of Kurdistan and even the Baghdad province, were not excluded from this program of reconquest. Recovering the Caucasus was of special importance. The revenue from silk and other products and the perpetual urge for booty motivated early Qajar campaigns. Fighting a crusade (ghaza) provided the justification.

The new Qajar ruler of Iran had to pacify Azarbaijan. Once the northwestern tribes were subordinated with relative ease, the size of the Qajar army soared to as many as forty thousand cavalrymen. In the Caucasus, however, Aqa Mohammad Khan faced formidable challenges. The autonomous khans, who after Nader’s demise had entrenched themselves in their seemingly impenetrable fortresses—such as Iravan (Yerevan or Erevan, today’s capital of the Republic of Armenia) and Ganjeh (in today’s Republic of Azerbaijan)—succumbed to the Qajar army after some resistance. Further north, the joint principality of Kartli-Kakheti of central Georgia, an Iranian vassal state since at least the sixteenth century, showed greater resistance. King Irakli (Heraclius) II (r. 1762–1798), who since the fall of Nader had ruled free of Persian suzerainty, entered into a treaty of protection with Russia in 1783 in an effort to withstand the reimposition of Persian rule. To the Qajar khan, such a shift in loyalty was no less than an act of treason worthy of punishment, especially because it anticipated Russian advances in the Caucasus under Catherine the Great and her successors. Irakli miscalculated both Aqa Mohammad Khan’s resolve and the level of Russian support. More than a decade after Irakli’s alliance with Russia, Aqa Mohammad was ready to move in and teach Irakli a lesson. After the Battle of Krtsanisi in September 1795, in which the Georgians were outnumbered and soundly defeated, the besieged city of Tiflis finally fell.

The Qajar army systematically sacked the city and thousands of civilians were put to death, and raped and pillaged. Georgian priests, the core of the resistance, were thrown into the river; churches were looted and razed to the ground. As many as fifteen thousand men, women, and children were taken captive and deported to Iran, where they were dispersed to Qajar households as concubines, eunuchs, and page boys. Not surprisingly, a vast number of Qajar princes of the following generation were born to Georgian and Armenian mothers, as they were in the neighboring Ottoman Empire, where several princes of the royal family were also born to Caucasian mothers. The sacking of Tiflis marked another shameful episode in Qajar annals. It also marked the beginning of Iran’s permanent loss of the Caucasus. While in purely political terms this was a temporary setback for Russia, in the long term it further justified Russian southern expansion, allowing it to capitalize on resentment toward Iranians among the Christian population of the region.

Returning from the Georgian campaign, in 1796 Aqa Mohammad Khan wintered on the plain of Moghan, on the very same site of Nader’s coronation six decades earlier. There he was crowned Aqa Mohammad Shah Qajar. He reluctantly accepted the title of shah at the pleading of Haji Ibrahim Khan Kalantar, his chief minister, an indication of the latter’s desire to turn an essentially tribal khan into a Persian monarch. It was in the same spirit that the ceremonial sword of Isma‘il I, kept in the shrine in Ardabil of the Safavid patriarch Shaykh Safi al-Din, was brought in and wrapped around the waist of the Qajar king.

Aqa Mohammad’s self-styled Kayanid crown, named after the mythical dynasty of the Shahnameh was inspired by the new shah’s keen interest in Iran’s ancient legends. Perhaps the outcome of his years in Shiraz at the Zand court, he listened frequently and avidly to Persian epics that were read to him while he was resting. The new Kayanid crown was a dome-shaped structure inspired by the Qezilbash cap, albeit of gold-plated copper built by a humble craftsman from Mazandaran (fig. 3.7). Its style was distinct from Nader Shah’s feathered cap. He also wore two armlets with the legendary diamonds Darya-e Nur and Taj-i Mah, both booties from Nader’s Indian campaign (the other piece, the Kuh-e Nur, which was captured by Ahmad Shah Durrani, ended up in the British crown jewels). Lotf-‘Ali Khan had earlier failed to sell the stones to an English merchant, Harford Jones, at a bargain price to finance the war with the Qajars. Aqa Mohammad Shah snatched them away.

Figure 3.7. (Left) Aqa Mohammad Khan Qajar and Haji Ibrahim Khan Kalantar Shirazi around 1792. The image of the shah and his chief minister was a new development in the paintings of the period, representing the complementing institutions of kingship and the divan. (Right) Aqa Mohammad Shah Qajar, based on a portrait by an anonymous Persian artist. In its original simplicity, his crown symbolized the Qajars’ unifying sovereignty.

(Left) Nineteenth century lacquer binding, BL ms. Add. 24903. Courtesy of the British Library Board. (Right) J. Malcolm, A History of Persia, 2 vols. (London, 1815), vol. 2, opp. 262.

The assemblage of the Safavid and Afsharid regalia, complete with the dynastic rubric of “Safavid Qajar” (Safavi-e Qajar) that the court chronicles soon coined for Aqa Mohammad Shah and his successor aimed to put an end to a seventy-five-year crisis of royal authority. But he was not naive, nor was his grand vizier, to believe that Qajar sovereignty could be achieved through the feat of a coronation ceremony. He seems to have reflected on his place in the Persian kingship tradition and his designs for rebuilding an empire when he warned that if he assumed the title of shah, he intended to be one of the greatest.

Beyond the Caucasus, which remained partially insubordinate, Aqa Mohammad Shah had to quell an assortment of eastern tribes before moving to Mashhad, the last Afsharid stronghold under Shahrokh, the aging grandson of Nader. With familiar cruelty, in 1796 he deposed the blind Shahrokh, extracting the remaining of Nader’s treasures. Before departing from Khorasan, he wrote the emirs of Afghanistan demanding the return of the ancient cities of Balkh (near today’s Mazar-e Sharif) and Herat, Iran’s eastern capital of the Safavid Empire. From the Uzbek khan of Bukhara he demanded the return of the old city of Marv, the recognized Iranian frontier with the then-fragmented Uzbek state. He also demanded the repatriation of thousands of Iranian captives who had been carried off to Bukhara during renewed Uzbek and Turkmen raids, a recurring calamity that would haunt the Qajars in the years to come. The piecing together of the Safavid Empire, now under Qajar rule, evidently shaped Aqa Mohammad Khan’s imperial project.

Back in the Caucasus, Aqa Mohammad Shah’s last campaign came to a fatal end. He reinstated control over Iravan, the old Safavid stronghold, and captured the fortress of Shushi (Susi) in Qarabagh, two hundred miles to the east. For a moment, the Qajar repossession of the Caucasus seemed feasible, in part because of a brief lull in Russia’s southern expansion after Catherine the Great’s death. Yet the situation dramatically shifted when in June 1797 Aqa Mohammad Shah was assassinated at his camp outside Shushi. He was murdered at the hands of two of his private servants, one of them a Georgian, presumably a survivor of the Tiflis campaign. The assassination apparently was a preemptive act by the servants, who had been condemned to die the following day on seemingly innocuous charges; they had quarreled behind the royal tent. It is difficult, however, to ignore the involvement of one of his ambitious generals, Sadeq Khan Shaqaqi (chief of the Shekak tribe), who could have exploited the servants’ resentment to his own unseemly ends. Immediately after the assassination, he robbed the royal tent and carried off Aqa Mohammad’s beloved treasures, including the Kayanid crown, then he headed to his tribal base in western Azarbaijan, taking with him the two culprits.

In a scene reminiscent of Nader’s assassination, the Qajar camp almost instantly dispersed and the allied tribes returned home. The “death of the king” (shah-margi) nearly always led to a period of chaos and a struggle for succession. Haji Ibrahim and the Fars troops loyal to him and the Mazandaran regiment under a Qajar chief, however, quickly returned to Tehran. Surely no one shed tears over the dead Qajar khan; but even beyond the grave, his vision for an enduring dynasty seemed to have held more firmly than Nader’s or Karim Khan’s. The ruthless warrior did not leave the fate of his heir to chance or to a free-for-all contest. His nephew and designated successor, Baba Khan, who ascended the throne as Fath ‘Ali Shah (r. 1797–1834), still had to earn his crown, literally, but at least he did not have to fight for it against his many powerful uncles. His predecessor had eliminated all but one of them. That Fath ‘Ali Shah managed to remove the last one without a hassle promised a more orderly succession. This was a great credit to the founder of the Qajar dynasty, who was ferocious but not fickle.

The order established at the dynasty’s inception was in no small part due to the state officials of the divan, who became partners in the Qajar enterprise. Headed by the grand vizier, they began early on to stamp their image of governance on the emerging Qajar state. At stake were their own survival, as well as the stability of urban life and the agrarian economy. To achieve this, they had to ensure dynastic continuity and structured growth of the bureaucracy. The officials and their affiliates, among them the Shi‘i jurists and other urban notables, amounted to an influential group willing to avert another round of tribal resurgence.


The eighteenth century, with the exception of the Zand interlude, ranked Iran quite poorly. Even compared to the Ottoman Empire, and its Tulip Era, the once-thriving Persian garden appeared dreary and dry. Yet eighteenth-century Iran was not devoid of cultural agility or intellectual inquiry. Liberated from the strictures of the late Safavid Shi‘i dogma, one might argue, writers, poets, and artists benefited from the Safavids’ cultural repository. Reflecting on the political climate of their own time, they expressed, predictably, a sense of gloom but not helplessness, even in exile or in captivity.

One early example was Shaykh Mohammad ‘Ali Hazin (1691–1766), a representative of the Persian scholarly and literary elite of the period. A prodigy from Isfahan brought up in the universalistic tradition of Safavid education, he witnessed the agonies of the Afghan occupation and the rise of Nader before immigrating to Hindustan in 1734. In a “brain drain” that continued throughout the eighteenth century, thousands of scholars, artists, artisans, poets, writers, merchants, bureaucrats, and religious dissidents took refuge in India. Some escaped the Shi‘i conservatism that had set in; others wanted to avoid the political insecurity that ensued after the Safavids’ fall. The Mughal court and, later, the Muslim and Hindu successor princely states were generous patrons and promoters of Persian culture, whether statecraft, historiography, poetry, music, art, cuisine, or court culture. Despite French and English colonial inroads, there was still an appetite for culture and plenty of material wealth in local kingdoms, from Kashmir and Bengal to Golconda, Awadh, Deccan, and Mysore, just to name a few, all of which patronized Persian newcomers. Employed as secretaries (munshis), advisers, poets, and religious scholars, as well as architects, painters, and calligraphers, Persians (i.e., Iranians who represented the Persian culture, regardless of their ethnicity) were often treated as a sort of status symbol.

The poet Hazin, who had lost revenue from his estate in Lahijan in Gilan province, could no longer finance his expensive peripatetic habit except by seeking patronage abroad. In 1742, after many years of travel and eight years residing in India, mostly homesick, he penned the greater part of his autobiography in just two days. Interlaced with vivid accounts of the events of the period, his memoirs begin with his childhood and end with Nader’s Indian campaign. Different from his nearly two hundred Arabic and Persian literary and scholarly writings, Hazin’s memoirs are written in simple and direct style and in the first-person singular, allowing him to be unhindered in expressing emotions and impressions. The nostalgia for his homeland, which Hazin praises in his memoirs and his poetry, did not stop him from lamenting the destruction of cities, mass killings, famine, and cholera, and from criticizing Nader’s regime for imposing ruinous taxes and extracting them by force, for his oppression and cruelty toward peasants and the urban populace alike, and above all for destroying the Safavid dynasty.

He is particularly reproachful of the declining quality of political leadership throughout the Muslim world, an insight that must have been sharpened after many interviews with the rulers of his time. “Of the requisites of heavens in this age,” he writes,

One is that there is no leader qualified for leadership. As I pondered the condition of each of the kings and leaders and commanders on the horizon, I found them more inferior and repulsive than most, if not all, their subjects, except some of the rulers of the countries of Europe [Farang] who are firm in enforcing laws [qawanin] and in [keeping] means of livelihood and in taking care of their own affairs. Yet because of complete incompatibility, they are not beneficial to the people of other lands and climates.2

Hazin’s first acquaintance with the Europeans of Bandar Abbas and later with those in India was likely the source of this praise, even though he underscored incompatibility with Muslim ways. Attraction to Farang was not quite enough to persuade Hazin to take the advice of an English sea captain to immigrate to Europe rather than to India, a decision he later regretted.

Hazin nevertheless was open to new ideas and enthusiastic to learn about other cultures. While still in Isfahan, he had conversed with Christian missionaries and read the Gospels and other Christian theological works. He also discussed Judaism with Isfahan’s rabbis and Zoroastrianism with Yazd priests (mobads), though neither impressed him, for what he suspected was their shortsightedness and bias. Hazin also spoke of his youthful love affair, without specifying the gender of his affections; his protracted illnesses, which repeatedly caused him to be bedridden; and his extensive travels, which included at least sixty-two cities from Baghdad to Banaras. Furthermore, he crafted a careful list of his teachers, colleagues, and friends, as well as men of learning among his contemporaries and his own extensive writings. He wrote not only on the conventional learning of his time, including Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophies, mysticism, and jurisprudence but also grappled with mathematics, physics, and astronomy. Though within the constellation of traditional Islamic learning, he demonstrates in his memoirs a rare sense of human agency, a voice of self-awareness and belief in historical causality.

In his poetry, too, Hazin (his pen name means “the sorrowful”) demonstrated a sense of protonationalism, no doubt edified by living in the Indian diaspora. “The land of Iran is the sublime paradise,” he exhorted in a nostalgic poem.

May its domain be under the ring of Solomon-like kings.

May the sublime paradise be homeland [vatan] of our souls

May not that ring fall into the hand of the demon.”

Aspiring for a Solomon-like king to rule over his homeland instead of the demons that had possessed the ring of power, he invokes powerful cultural memories.

These are complemented by other cultural references to Iran as the kingdom of Fereydun, the founder of the Kayanid legendary dynasty of the Shahnameh; the throne of Jamshid (takhtgah-e Jam), the Persian name for Persepolis; the remains of the arch of Kasra (Khosrow), the Sasanian palace in Ctesiphon (or Mada’in, north of Baghdad); and to Behistun, a double reference to the famous Achaemenid inscription near Kermanshah and to the nearby Sasanian site. “The Rum and the Rus were shivering, the day Kavus beat the drums of war”3—it is as though Hazin wishfully was calling for a warrior-king to end the Afghan occupation and repulse the Ottoman and Russian invasions. That may have already come through with the rise of Nader, whose “patriotic” yet destructive conduct resembled that of the Shahnameh’s Kay Kavus.

Through disaster and defeat, one can detect flickers of a new national awareness, one no longer tied to Safavid sovereignty but to the sorrowful memory of a glorious past, one that repeatedly would be invoked in the later Iranian experience. The same melancholic awareness of the self and of Iran, narrated through an autobiographical account, can also be detected a generation later in the remarkable memoirs of Mirza Mohammad Kalantar, the longtime mayor of Shiraz under the Zands. Heir to an old landowning family of Shiraz clergy and administrators, he was born during the last years of Safavid rule and lived long enough to write his memoirs around 1785 in the captivity of Aqa Mohammad Khan in Tehran. Between his birth and incarceration, he witnessed the coming of the Afghan invaders, the horrors of Nader’s army, the ruination of Fars following a prolonged struggle among competing warlords, a fluctuating family fortune, and finally the wars of succession that, much to his displeasure, made the Qajars masters of his land. Only a decade or two of the tranquility of the Karim Khan era lightened his litany of misfortunes.

In his memoirs, Mirza Mohammad Kalantar is as relentless as he is acerbic, full of wry humor, as he frequently showers obscenities upon his power-hungry enemies, be they uncouth tribal chiefs or corrupt members of divan. Brimming with references embedded in Persian poetry and folk culture, he writes in direct, almost conversational, Persian, and with the frankness of an old political player at the end of his rope. In captivity in Tehran he was almost deaf, which he attributed to a venereal disease he contracted from a prostitute in Shiraz. He had lost most, if not all, of his substantial estate, and he was disillusioned about his own prospects as well as the future of his city and his country.

Nowhere better than in Kalantar’s account do we see the complex maneuvering of the landowning notables to preserve their wealth and influence against tribal intruders from outside and popular insurgency from within. In tackling this complex task, Kalantar, like his protégé and successor in office, Haji Ibrahim Shirazi, and like other Iranian urban officials, relied on his administrative and accounting skills as well as on his connections with merchants and the ulama. He fostered rivalries between competing tribal leaders, raised his own private army from the peasants in his estate, and played the neighborhood brigands (lutis) against one another. Kalantar’s acute sense of Shirazi citizenship, however, was not always altruistic or instructive. He had to face the revolt of the urban poor, represented often by the same lutis, and the insurgent peasantry in the vicinity of the city who viewed Kalantar, and urban officials in general, as self-serving allies of the strongest bidder for power.

The growth of the urban notables and their control of the cities, against all odds, is a remarkable feature of the eighteenth century in Iran as in the Ottoman world. Here we can detect the seeds of an indigenous communal awareness made sharper by the loss of influence and wealth in the south to a new dynastic power from the north. Contrary to Haji Ibrahim, who sided with the Qajars, Mirza Mohammad ended his days regretting his many political errors and reflecting on the causes of his country’s misfortunes:

May dust be on the grave of the people of Iran; may dust be on the grave of Iranians for this scarcity of capable men. I wish a woman had come to power that would have been competent, like the one in Russia [Catherine II]. Central Iran has been destroyed half by this bastard [Aqa Mohammad Khan] and half by that rascal [Ja‘far Khan, the penultimate Zand ruler], two faithless, two tyrants, two damned souls.

Kalantar’s complaint then takes the form of a desperate supplication:

O God, the pure and the omnipotent! Have you created the people of Iran for these two unmanly [cowards]? You are not impotent; you are omnipotent. Now for the sake of your saints and in honor of your favored, send us a king who at least in appearance looks like a human being; what is wrong with Europeans, the Zoroastrians, and the infidels. . . . Now two demon-faced evildoers who are servants of their [evil] nature have come to dominate us. Do not allow it to happen and do not leave your country leaderless.

Hinting at an awareness of historical causality Kalantar then cites a verse by Rumi:

The world is a mountain and our deeds voices,

The voices have echoes, to us they will return.

He follows with the word of another great Persian poet, his own co-citizen, Hafez:

It is our frail and crooked body that we should blame,

Otherwise your robe of honor is not short on anyone’s frame.4

On this sober note Kalantar concludes his memoirs, which he dedicated to his wife and cousin, to whom he also left his estate. He died in Isfahan the same year.

Hazin and Kalantar represented a broader spectrum of Iranian urbanites acutely conscious of their country as a troubled political entity rather than an empire. The failed project of reconstructing the Safavid Empire through military conquest, a common answer to the post-Safavid crisis of legitimacy, made such awareness more palpable. Not before the early nineteenth century did a lasting model of the Persian state reemerge. The sacred Safavid kingship and the presumed descent of its shahs from the House of the Prophet was a lineage that could not have been easily replaced. Nader’s initiation of a new kingship and Karim Khan’s vakil status both proved impermanent. The divan officials who were inherited by the Qajar state proved crucial for the stability of the new dynasty. The post-Safavid experience made this class of landowning notables more conscious of their urban identity and increasingly aware of Iran as a broader national entity.

Succumbing to the Qajars as a political necessity came with the realization that urban welfare, and the prosperity of the landowning classes, especially in the south, could not be maintained without a unifying power. The Qajars themselves structured their authority not only according to tribal loyalties but also on the basis of coopting the divan class of the Zand era and the emerging class of jurists, known as Usulis, who came back to Iran at the end of the eighteenth century from southern Iraq, where their ancestors had taken refuge after the fall of the Safavids. The Qajar rulers relied not only on the claim of legitimate heredity that went back to their membership in the Qezilbash of the Safavid era; they claimed for themselves the memory of the legendary kings and dynasties of the Persian past, kings who defended the land of Iran against its Rum and Turan neighbors, identified with the Ottomans and the Turkic nomads of the northeast in modern times. Likewise, the Qajar cultural and artistic expressions remained indebted to the southern spirit of leisure, music, and the good life, a continuity of the late Safavid and Zand eras. What remained largely unnoticed by Iranian observers at the dawn of the Qajar era was the consequential emergence of two European powers on Iran’s horizons: the expansionist Russian Empire in the north and the colonial British Empire in the south.

Plate I.1. “Court of Solomon” is typical of Persian presentation of the kingship’s symmetrical structure. In Persian popular narratives Solomon often was associated with Jamshid.

Attributed to Isma‘il Naqqash-bashi, Isfahan, c. 1870s. Author’s collection.

Plate 1.1. Shah Isma‘il I, by an unknown Venetian artist.

Original rendering in Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Plate 1.2. Battle of Chaldiran in 1514 as depicted by Mo‘in Massaver in 1687 from Isfahan. Isma‘il (center) and his Qezilbash forces are charging against the Ottoman artillery while Sultan Salim I (top left) views the battlefield from a distance.

History of Shah Isma‘il. © The David Collection, Copenhagen. Ms. 27/1986.

Plate 1.3. Completed in AH 946/1539–1540 CE, probably in Tabriz, the “Ardabil Carpet” was one of a pair dedicated by Tahmasp to the shrine of his ancestor Safi al-Din Ardabili. Below Hafez’s famous verse, the master weaver Maqsud Kashani signed and dated the work. The design presumably echoes the plan of the prayer hall where Safavi Sufis performed ritual incantations.

No. 272-1893. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Plate 1.4. Mural in the Palace of Chehel-Sutun in Isfahan depicting Tahmasp’s banquet in honor of Homayun Padshah, produced in the latter half of the seventeenth century. The artistic trope of the king and his guest flanked by the Qezilbash chiefs conveyed a message of Mughal-Safavid symbiosis in a festive environment that included female dancers and wine drinking.

Photograph by author, March 2002.

Plate 2.1. Naqsh-e Jahan Square showing in the foreground the diagonal layout of the ‘Abbasi (Shah) Mosque. At right is the Lotfallah Mosque. Behind the Government House (Dowlat-khaneh or ‘Āli Qapi) are the remnants of the Chahar-Bagh complex.

© Bruno Barbey photographer/Magnum Photos, 1976.

Plate 2.2. The commemorative panel of the portal of the ‘Abbasi (Shah) Mosque in Isfahan. The blue ceramic reads: “The father of victory, ‘Abbas of the Hosaini-Musawi descent of the House of Safavi.”

Photograph by author, March 2002.

Plate 2.3. Main courtyard of the ‘Abbasi (Shah) Mosque.

Architectural drawing by Pascal Coste, 1841. “Place Royale et mosquée Masjid-i-Shah, Vue de la cour,” Monuments modernes de la Perse mesurés, dessinés et décrit (Paris, 1867).

Plate 2.4. ‘Abbas I and his page boy depicted in a tranquil pose. The couplet reads: “May the world fulfill your wishes from three lips / Lips of the beloved, lips of the stream and lips of the cup.”

Musée du Louvre, MAO 494. © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY.

Plate 2.5. Vank Cathedral, central panel of the nave, New Julfa, Isfahan.

© Antonella 865/Dreamstime.com.

Plate 2.6. Mughal emperor Jahangir (left) entertains Shah ‘Abbas I. The imaginary scene presumably commemorated the embassy of Khan ‘Alam (standing to ‘Abbas’s left) to the Safavid court. Verses underscore fraternal bonds; the panel above traces the Mughal lineage back to Timur. In his own hand Jahangir added, “Image of my brother Shah ‘Abbas.”

By the Mughal painter Bishandas. © Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase-Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1942.16a.

Plate 3.1. Chehel Sotun reception hall was an example of mid-seventeenth-century Safavid architecture. The frescoes of the interior, narrating scenes of the Safavid war and peace, highlighted a century and a half of dynastic continuity.

P. Coste, “Jardin et pavillion Chehel Sotoun (1840),” Monuments modernes de la Perse mesurés, dessinés et décrits (Paris, 1867).

Plate 3.2. The interior doors from the Chehel-Sotun reception hall are typical of decorative art of the late Safavid era.

Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Plate 3.3. Nader Shah’s coronation on the plain of Moghan in March 8, 1736. Wearing his improvised Naderi cap, Nader is flanked by his three sons and surrounded by chiefs of the army and representatives from his empire. Cannon in the background announce the auspicious hour.

From a 1757 illustrated manuscript by Mohammad Mahdi Astarabadi, Jahangushay-e Naderi (Tehran: Sorush/Negar, 1370/1991), illustration no. 8 by unknown artists.

Plate 3.4. Nader in an equestrian pose against the background of burning Delhi while the Battle of Carnal is still raging.

Probably by the Indo-Persian artist Mohammad ‘Ali Jobbahdar. © Francis Bartlett Donation of 1912 and Picture Fund, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, access no. 14.646.

Plate 3.5. Karim Khan Zand with the Ottoman envoy Vehbi Effendi, who visited Shiraz in 1775 to apologize for the ill treatment of Iranian pilgrims by the Ottoman governor of Iraq. He is suitably obsequious, having arrived at a time when the Zand forces had captured Basra. Attributed to Abol-Hasan Mostowfi, the patriarch of the celebrated Ghaffari family.

Courtesy of the David Collection, Copenhagen. Inv. no. 21/1999.

Plate 3.6. Aqa Mohammad Shah Qajar’s massacre of people of Kerman in 1794. Most adult males of the city were killed or blinded for their pro-Zand sympathies, and nearly twenty thousand women and children were given as captives to the Qajar troops.

Illustrated copy of Fath ‘Ali Khan Saba, Shahanshah-nameh. © The British Library Board. IO, Islamic, 3442, f. 235r.

Plate 4.1. Gowhar-Taj Bani-‘Abbasi dancing with a parrot on her hand. Her dazzling appearance is typical of female entertainers of the period.

Unknown artist, oil on canvas, S’adabad Museum of Fine Arts (formerly Negarestan Museum), Tehran. Published in Qajar Paintings: A Catalogue of 18th and 19th Century Paintings (Tehran, 1971), pl. 18.

Plate 4.2. Court of Fath ‘Ali Shah as depicted in wall panels from 1812 in the audience hall of Negarestan Palace in Tehran. The “King of Kings” on the Sun Throne is surrounded by senior prince-governors, chief statesmen, and military officers and flanked by court functionaries, Qajar khans, civilian dignitaries, and neighboring Afghan, Kurdish, Georgian, and Turkmen princes (who took refuge in the Persian court), Ottoman, English, and French envoys, and representatives of Tipu Sultan of Mysore, the Wahhabi Emirate of Central Arabia, and the princely state of Sind. The rival British and French missions conveyed a message of imperial counterbalance; the Qajars’ Russian nemesis is absent.

Color engraving after ‘Abdollah Khan Naqqash-bashi’s 1815 murals by an unknown European artist, opaque watercolor, reproduced in Royal Persian PaintingsThe Qajar Epoch, 1785–1925, ed. Layla Diba and Maryam Ekhtiar (London: I. B. Tauris, 1999).

Plate 4.3. Fath ‘Ali Shah slaying a Russian commander during the first round of the Russo-Persian War (1805–1813).

Fath ‘Ali Khan Saba, Shahanshah-nameh. © The British Library Board. IO, Islamic, 3442, 1225/1810, f. 354r.

Plate 4.4. These scenes of Shi‘i tragedies of Karbala in the pardeh style of the Qajar era are based on a late nineteenth-century mosaic fresco in the Moshir al-Molk takkiyeh in Shiraz. Presented in a wider context of the Last Judgment, such popular paintings served as visual aids to itinerant storytellers.

Painting by ‘Abbas Bolukifar, 1975. Courtesy of Fereshteh Kowssar.

Plate 5.1. The Badgir (wind tower) pavilion in the Golestan complex of the Tehran citadel, reconstructed by Naser al-Din Shah, is an example of Qajar royal architecture.

By Mahmud Khan Kashani, oil on canvas, Golestan Palace Museum and Library, Tehran.

Plate 5.2. Shams al-‘Emareh and its clock tower, seen from the interior of the Golestan complex.

By Mahmud Khan Kashani, oil on canvas, dated 1285/1868. Golestan Palace Museum and Library, Tehran.

Plate 5.3. The ‘Abd al-Azim gateway to Tehran.

H. Brugsch, Reise der K. Preussischen Gesandtschaft nach Persein1860 und 1861, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1862–1863), vol. 2, frontispiece.

Plate 5.4. Bab-e Homayun Avenue, Tehran, in 1871. One of the first thoroughfares in the European style, this avenue was adjacent to the royal citadel and equipped with lampposts, sidewalks, and modern shops.

By Mahmud Khan Kashani, oil on canvas, dated 1288/1871. Golestan Palace Museum and Library, Tehran.

Plate 5.5. Wedding of Nazhat al-Zaman from the Thousand and One Nights. The Qajar setting depicts scenes of women dancers and a mixed musical group, illuminated streets, and the newlywed couple’s lovemaking.

Golestan Palace Museum and Library, Ms. 2240, vol. 1.

Plate 5.6. A brawl in Tabriz, where the saber-rattling Caucasians terrified the chief of police and panicked the crowd.

Abol-Hasan Sani‘ al-Molk, watercolor, dated 1268/1852, by order of Naser al-Din Shah. Golestan Palace Museum and Library, no. 2706.

Plate 5.7. A young Qajar prince and his retinue. The cartoonish characters are a commentary on the complex master-servant power relationships among Qajar nobility.

Abol-Hasan Sani‘ al-Molk, watercolor, dated 1260/1844, by order of Naser al-Din Shah. Golestan Palace Museum and Library, no. 8671.

Plate 5.8. The 1858 painting Estensakh (Copying) represents Mahmud Khan Kashani’s avant-garde experimentation with light and shadow and with new subjects. The portrayal of an author and his scribe in a humble setting was a refreshing departure from royal scenes.

Oil on canvas, Golestan Palace Museum and Library.

Plate 5.9. The royal ensemble of the Naseri era led by Sorur al-Molk playing the santur (Persian dulcimer). It included celebrated musicians of the time, as well as vocalists and dancers. Among them is the tar virtuoso Mirza ‘Ali Akbar Farahani (center), whose family’s musical contribution was crucial to the classification of Persian traditional music, and Musa Khan Kashani (front row, second from left), a master of kamancheh.

By Mohammad Ghaffari Kamal al-Molk, Golestan Palace Museum and Library.

Plate 6.1. Deputies of the first Majles in late 1906 (before the arrival of provincial deputies) with the premier and a few ranking officials in front of the Tehran military academy, which served as the Majles’s venue before it moved to the Baharestan mansion.

Contemporary postcard, Tehran, c. 1909. Author’s collection.

Plate 6.2. A preliminary session of the first Majles as imagined in a French weekly.

La croix illustrée, no. 315, January 6, 1907, p. 1.

Plate 6.3. Supporters of the Constitution outside the Majles listening to Baha’ al-Wa‘ezin, one of several preachers who echoed views of the anjomans.

Contemporary postcard, Tehran, c. 1909. Author’s collection.

Plate 6.4. Assassination attempt against Mohammad ‘Ali Shah as portrayed in a French weekly.

Le Petit Journal, Supplément Littéraire Illustré, no. 997, March 15, 1908, p. 88.

Plate 6.5. Nationalist fighters from Tabriz (right), Bakhtiyari (center), and Rasht (left). The slogan reads, “Long last the National Consultative Assembly; long live national soldiers.”

Contemporary postcard, Tehran, 1909. Author’s collection.

Plate 7.1. With the rise of Pahlavi nationalism, images of Nader Shah—the savior of Iran and the presumed forerunner of Reza Khan—replaced the familiar portrayals of Qajar rulers. Responding to market demand, the designer (or weaver) of this pictorial rug replaced Fath ‘Ali Shah’s head with that of Nader Shah, leaving the king’s torso and surroundings untouched. The omnipresent chief minister nevertheless appears in his customary pose. Although Nader brought the legendary Peacock Throne of the Mughal Empire back from his 1739 Indian campaign, the throne he occupies in this scene was commissioned by Fath ‘Ali Shah a good half century after the original was destroyed after Nader’s assassination.

Pictorial rug, Ravar (Kerman), c. 1928. Author’s collection.

Plate 8.1. Galubandak intersection near the Tehran bazaar in 1938, reflecting changes in the capital as shown in the style of architecture and means of communication. To the right is the newly constructed Buzarjomehri Avenue.

By Isma‘il Ashtiyani, 1317/1938, Iran dar Negare-ha: Tehran (Tehran: Negar Books, 1989), n.p.

Plate 9.1. Commemorative stamp series issued in 1949 in recognition of Iran’s efforts during the war. The stamps show the Persian corridor (top right and bottom middle), the port of Khorramshahr (bottom right), and the Veresk railroad bridge (bottom left).

Author’s collection.

Plate 9.2. Based on a well-known legend of the Shahnameh, here in these Allied propaganda leaflets, produced in the style of the Persian miniature paintings, Hitler is portrayed as the tyrant Zahhak (left) with serpents on his shoulders representing Mussolini and Tojo, the Japanese premier. Goebbels is his satanic cook with a blood-dripping saber. Kaveh, the blacksmith, came to Zahhak’s court demanding the return of his sons, who were captured to provide food for the serpents. The caption above the picture reads: “He cried out and protested of the shah’s conduct: ‘Ye the shah! I am the justice-seeking Kaveh. Oppression may be moderate or may be extreme, but your oppression is a pretext [to destroy].’” The Allied leaders (right)—Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill—are represented as “three warriors from the palace of the King of Kings,” who came to the aid of Kaveh, who became the leader of the anti-tyranny revolution. He carries the Kaviyani standard, the symbol of Iranian independence, which is his blacksmith leader apron. These leaflets served as visual aids to the coffeehouse storytellers (naqqals) to convey an anti-Nazi message.

The seven Allied propaganda leaflets published circa 1942 were inspired by two scholars of Persian literature, Arthur J. Arberry and Mojtaba Minovi. The drawings are by the Egyptian graphic artist Kimon Evan Marengo (“Kem”). Courtesy of Manuscripts and Archives, Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University.

Plate 9.3. The constitution, here portrayed as Ms. Mashruteh (Constitution), is disfigured by the government of Premier Mohammad Sa‘ed (1881–1973) during the fifteenth Majles (1947–1949). After the assassination attempt against the shah, the Majles passed emergency legislation granting the government powers to declare martial law, censor the press, and arrest political dissidents. The 1949 Constituent Assembly also gave the sovereign new prerogatives. The cartoon in the satirical Towfiq branded Sa‘ed, the hairdresser in the Baharstan salon, as a British creature and held him responsible for turning civil liberties into repression, allowing poverty and starvation, and promoting “imperialism.” On the wall are portraits of celebrated constitutionalists Jahangir Sur Esrafil and Malek al-Motekallemin. The flame on the barber’s bench is labeled “BP” (British Petroleum), alluding to the AIOC’s part in disfiguring Ms. Constitution, who finally has been cast onto the floor of the salon.

By Hasan Towfiq, Towfiq, no. 1, 20 Mordad 1328/August 12, 1949. Courtesy of Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi.

Plate 9.4. “In the nocturnal revelry of the world-devouring Sultan Naft-‘Ali Shah.” With an eye on Mosaddeq’s Qajar ancestry and his negotiation for an American loan, the scandalous cartoon in the pro-Tudeh Chalangar draws on Fath ‘Ali Shah’s hedonistic court to accuse Mosaddeq of dancing for the pleasure of the United States and Britain. Members of the National Front are depicted as entertainers and courtesans.

Chalangar, no. 1, 17 Esfand 1329/March 8, 1951. Courtesy of Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi.

Plate 10.1. The shah meeting with President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the White House, April 1962. The Cold War considerations persuaded Kennedy, despite his qualms, to accept the shah as the sole master of the country, in charge of land reform and other modernizing initiatives.

JFKWHP-1962-04-13-A. Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, MA.

Plate 10.2. Literacy Corps’ open-air schools represented the state’s resolve to rapidly transform the rural and tribal countryside.

The Land of Kings, ed. R.Tarverdi (Tehran, 1971), 129.

Plate 10.3. The annual celebration of the White Revolution in front of the Iranian Senate was a staged exercise of loyalty to the Pahlavi project. By 1968 there were 2,800 women volunteers recruited into the Literacy Corps. Placards announce slogans of the White Revolution.

The Land of Kings, ed. R. Tarverdi (Tehran, 1971), 172.

Plate 12.1. Replica of the Achaemenid siege tower, Persepolis parade, 2,500-year celebration of the Persian Empire, October 1971.

Spiro T. Agnew Papers, box 48. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

Plate 12.2. A poster for the 1970 Shiraz Arts Festival, inspired by reliefs of Persepolis.

Designed by Qobad Shiva. Courtesy of Vali Mahlouji.

Plate 12.3. Poster for the popular 1957 movie Shabneshini dar Jahanam (Banquet in hell), a Persianized take on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

M. Mehrabi, Sadd va Panj Sal E’lan va Pster-e Film dar Iran (Tehran: Nazar Publishers, 1393/2014), 68.

Plate 13.1. At Neauphle-le-Château near Paris in October 1979, Khomeini is surrounded by eager listeners.

Tasvir-e Aftab (Tehran: Sorush Publishers, 1989).

Plate 13.2 and Plate 13.3. Popular posters offered a triumphant narrative of the revolution. Depicting Khomeini as an Abraham-like prophet and the martyrs of the revolution as the faceless “heart of history,” they vilified the shah and the Pahlavi elite as traitors. While revolution is in progress (left) and the shah is fleeing with $165 trillion in his bags, his ministers, labeled “corruptors of the earth,” face the firing squad. Persepolis serves as the backdrop to a ruined monarchy, clad in Anglo-American flags (right), and the severed heads of the Pahlavi statesmen, which are about to be devoured by the dragon of the inferno.

(Left) By Hasan Isma‘ilzadeh c. 1979. Middle Eastern Posters. Collection, Box 1, Poster no. 11, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library. (RightHonar-e Enqlab, 57 Poster az Enqelab-e 57, ed. Rasul Ja‘farian (Tehran: Kitabkhaneh, Muzeh va Markaz-e Asnad-e Majles-i Shura-ye Islami, 1390/2011).

Plate 14.1. Fayziyeh madrasa, rebuilt in the Qajar era, is in front of the shrine of Ma‘sumeh (background) and the Grand Mosque (right), completed in 1958.

Mehr News, Tehran, Iran. http://www.mehrnews.com/news/3578630.

Plate 15.1. “To salvage the ship of the revolution, throw off all heavy stuff that you can reach.” As early as July 1979 the left-leaning Ahangar mocked the Islamist monopoly on power. Freedom of the press, workers, Kurds, Arabs, and air force cadets are victims.

Year 1, no. 13, 26 Tir 1358/18 July 1979. Courtesy of Siavush Ranjbar-Daemi.

Plate 16.1. Mourners see off a martyr headed for the heavens on angelic wings.

Middle Eastern Posters. Collection, Box 3, Poster no. 107, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Plate 16.2. A propaganda poster renders the familiar portrayal of the war as a reenactment of the Battle of Karbala on ‘Ashura with Imam Hosain as the patron saint of the martyrs.

Middle Eastern Posters. Collection, Box 3, Poster no. 96, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Plate 16.3. Imam Hosain and the headless martyrs of Karbala witness a blindfolded Revolutionary Guard being shot by an Iraqi firing squad.

Middle Eastern Posters. Collection, Box 4, Poster no. 197, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Plate 17.1. “Musighi dar Khafa” (Clandestine music), a painting by Iman Maleki depicting Mohammad Reza Lotfi and Mohammad Reza Shajarian (in the back, second and third from right) and their group rehearsing revolutionary songs in the fall of 1978 in the basement of Lotfi’s house in Tehran.

Courtesy of Iman Maleki.

Plate 17.2. The fraudulent presidential election brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to a mass rally in Tehran’s Azadi Square on June 15, 2009.

© Ben Curtis, Associated Press.

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