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1794-1925 - Qajar Dynasty

Agha Mohammad Khan17941797
Fath'Ali Shah17971834
Mohammad Shah II18341848
Naser o-Din Shah18481896
Mozaffar o-Din Shah18961907
Mohammed Ali Shah19071909
Sultan Ahmed Shah19091925
A period of anarchy and a struggle for supremacy among Afshar, Qajar, Afghan, and Zand tribal chieftains ended when Karim Khan Zand (1750-79) was able to defeat his rivals and to unify the country, except for Khorasan, under a loose form of central control. He refused to assume the title of shah, however, and ruled as vakil al ruaya, or deputy of the subjects. He is remembered for his mild and beneficent rule. At Karim Khan's death, another struggle for power among the Zands, Qajars, and other tribal groups once again plunged the country into disorder and disrupted economic life.

This time Agha Mohammad Qajar defeated the last Zand ruler outside Kerman in 1794 and made himself master of the country, beginning the Qajar dynasty that was to last until 1925. Under Fath Ali (1797-1834), Mohammad Shah (1834-48), and Naser ad Din Shah (1848-96) a degree of order, stability, and unity returned to the country.

The Qajars revived the concept of the shah as the shadow of God on earth and exercised absolute powers over the servants of the state. They appointed royal princes to provincial governorships and, in the course of the nineteenth century, increased their power in relation to that of the tribal chiefs, who provided contingents for the shah's army. Under the Qajars, the merchants and the ulama, or religious leaders, remained important members of the community. A large bureaucracy assisted the chief officers of the state, and, in the second half of the nineteenth century, new ministries and offices were created. The Qajars were unsuccessful, however, in their attempt to replace the army based on tribal levies with a European-style standing army having regular training, organization, and uniforms.

The Shah was regarded as Vicegerent of the Prophet; consequently his acts were those of an absolute monarch, and his will was the acknowledged law of the State. Oriental despots, especially those professing the faith of Islam, have usually the same standard besetting proclivities, and were educated on one pattern, so that the regeneration of a kingdom like Persia can only be looked for by the exercise of healthy influence from without.

In no court was there more rigid attention paid to ceremony. The looks, words and even the movements of the body were all regulated by the strictest forms. When the King was seated in public his sons, ministers and courtiers stoon erect, with their hands crossed and in the exact place belonging to their rank. They watched his looks and a glance was a command. If the Shah spoke to them, a voice replied and the lips moved, but not a motion or gesture betrayed that there was animation in the person thus addressed. The Shah often spoke of himself in the third person, as "The King is pleased. The King commands." His ministers addressed him with high-sounding titles, giving expression to the popular sentiments with regard to him. For instance he is called, "The object of the world's regard," "Kiblah I Alam," or "The Point of the Universe," "King of Kings," and "The Lord of the Universe." They were as particular in forms of speech as in other ceremonies, and superiority and inferiority of rank in all the graduations are implied by the terms used in the commonest conversation.

Nothing could exceed the splendor of the Persian court on extraordinary occasions. It presented a scene of the greatest magnificence regulated by the most exact order. To no part of the government was so much attention paid as to the strict maintenance of these forms and ceremonies which were deemed essential to the power and glory of the monarch; and the highest officers to whom this duty was allotted, were armed with the fullest authority and were always attended by a number of inferiors who carry their commands into the most prompt execution.

The princes, nobles, ministers and public officers of high rank imitated the King in many ways. All the respect they paid to him they exacted from their inferiors. Each in his rank has a petty court of his own with about the same forms and regulated in about the same manner and by officers bearing the same official names as those who attend the monarch. Every chief or officer of high station has his harem, his secretaries, his officers of ceremonies, his master of horse and sometimes even his poet and jester. In his house there is as strict attention to exactness of conduct as in the palaces of his sovereign. Sensible of the conditions by which they are surrounded these persons appear as desirous of obtaining money and as eager to spend it lavishly for their own pleasure as do those of the same rank in other countries. Women, horses, rich armor and elegant clothing are the principal objects of their desires. Their splendid apartments are furnished with rich Persian carpets and are generally so situated as to be perfumed by flower gardens and refreshed by fountains.

If truth or honesty exists in Persia, it must be looked for in the poorer and humbler classes, rather than among those who adopt the veneer of European civilisation. Provinces and districts were sold to the most lavish bidder, who if not wealthy enough to pay the heavy price himself must do so by practical robbery in the name of taxation. It was not uncommon, however, to make the Hakim, or ruler of one of the larger provinces, perhaps a Shahzada or one of royal birth, only nominal head, and to associate with him a really competent and intelligent Wazir or Minister, who does the whole work of administration, and, in his way, does it well. In such cases there is a kind of real justice dispensed.

When there are three or four men standing the one on the other's shoulders, the one on top has an easy time of it, the one next a comparatively easy time, and so on down the column; but how about the one at the bottom? So it was in Persia - the whole weight of the government and all the splendor that those in the highest ranks enjoy falls upon the poor classes, lower who constituted the great majority of the people.

With Turkey on one flank, Afghanistan and Baluchist an on the other, and the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf on the south, Persia found her northern frontier wholly occupied by Russia, and Russian influence in trade and in the development of the country is predominant all over the north. The profession of a common Mohammedanism does not necessarily draw the Turk or Afghan towards his Persian brother, and there is comparatively little intercourse with west and east On the sea side, or southern line of boundary, the United Kingdom has more direct relations than any other State and dominates the commerce of the south. Not only is Indo-Persian traffic facilitated by ready communication with Bombay and Karachi; but the existence of a British Protectorate for the waters west of Ormuz and the presence of a British Consul-General at Bushire, enable the Shah's Government to maintain its authority on the northern littoral of the Persian Gulf.

Early in the nineteenth century, the Qajars began to face pressure from two great world powers, Russia and Britain. Britain's interest in Iran arose out of the need to protect trade routes to India, while Russia's came from a desire to expand into Iranian territory from the north. In two disastrous wars with Russia, which ended with the Treaty of Gulistan (1812) and the Treaty of Turkmanchay (1828), Iran lost all its territories in the Caucasus north of the Aras River. Then, in the second half of the century, Russia forced the Qajars to give up all claims to territories in Central Asia. Meanwhile, Britain twice landed troops in Iran to prevent the Qajars from reasserting a claim to Herat, lost after the fall of the Safavids. Under the Treaty of Paris in 1857, Iran surrendered to Britain all claims to Herat and territories in present-day Afghanistan.

The two great powers also came to dominate Iran's trade and interfered in Iran's internal affairs. They enjoyed overwhelming military and technological superiority and could take advantage of Iran's internal problems. Iranian central authority was weak; revenues were generally inadequate to maintain the court, bureaucracy, and army; the ruling class was divided and corrupt; and the people suffered exploitation by their rulers and governors.

When Naser ad Din acceded to the throne in 1848, his prime minister, Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir, attempted to strengthen the administration by reforming the tax system, asserting central control over the bureaucracy and the provincial governors, encouraging trade and industry, and reducing the influence of the Islamic clergy (see Glossary) and foreign powers. He established a new school, the Dar ol Fonun, to educate members of the elite in the new sciences and in foreign languages. The power he concentrated in his hands, however, aroused jealousy within the bureaucracy and fear in the king. He was dismissed and put to death in 1851, a fate shared by earlier powerful prime ministers.

Persian political affairs, fraught as they are with misfortune and misery for millions of innocent people, was conducted very much as a well-staged drama as an opera bouffe. The same old characters weaved in and out of the story, at one time wearing the make-up of a Royalist Minister, at another the garb of a popular patriot. Cabinets were formed and dissolved with unreal rapidity. Men high in the councils of the nation sink in a day into perfect obscurity only to emerge again as the ceaseless whirl of intrigue dragged them into public favor.

All these men belong to what may be described as the professional governing class in Persia, and there was very distinctly such a class. Indeed it is only in the late 19th Century that the idea has been even admissible that a man of mediocre parentage, or without a title, could fill any official position. Thus the fortunes and hopes of millions of voiceless subjects were largely dependent upon the line of action which some professional cabinet officer, or governor, or self-styled general may decide to adopt at a given time.

Couple with this the fact that the principal object of holding office has always been, with slight exception, to enrich oneself and one's friends, and the strange actions of Persian personages become somewhat clearer. A proper understanding of the character, motives and type of some of these men, whose personal actions and motives have played such a large part in Persia's recent political happenings, is essential to the correct reading of her history.

Another feature which was very puzzling to the uninitiated is the to foreigners absurdly complicated system of names and titles. Ordinary Persians had merely names, but few did not possess some form of title, and the failure to know or recognize a man's title was not easily overlooked. Imagine a gentleman in American political life deciding that he would adopt and wear the title of "Marshal of the Marshals," or " Unique One of the Kingdom," or " Fortune of the State." Having duly taken such a title, and obtained some form of parchment certifying to his ownership, he drops his real name and is thereafter known by his high-sounding title. It was rather difficult for foreigners to remember these appellations, especially as a great many of them end with one of the four words Mulk (kingdom), Dawla (state), Saltana (sovereignty), or Sultan (sovereign).

In 1858 officials like Malkam Khan began to suggest in essays that the weakness of the government and its inability to prevent foreign interference lay in failure to learn the arts of government, industry, science, and administration from the advanced states of Europe. In 1871, with the encouragement of his new prime minister, Mirza Hosain Khan Moshir od Dowleh, the shah established a European-style cabinet with administrative responsibilities and a consultative council of senior princes and officials. He granted a concession for railroad construction and other economic projects to a Briton, Baron Julius de Reuter, and visited Russia and Britain himself. Opposition from bureaucratic factions hostile to the prime minister and from clerical leaders who feared foreign influence, however, forced the shah to dismiss his prime minister and to cancel the concession.

Nevertheless, internal demand for reform was slowly growing. Moreover, Britain, to which the shah turned for protection against Russian encroachment, continued to urge the shah to undertake reforms and open the country to foreign trade and enterprise as a means of strengthening the country. In 1888 the shah, heeding this advice, opened the Karun River in Khuzestan to foreign shipping and gave Reuter permission to open the country's first bank. In 1890 he gave another British company a monopoly over the country's tobacco trade. The tobacco concession was obtained through bribes to leading officials and aroused considerable opposition among the clerical classes, the merchants, and the people. When a leading cleric, Mirza Hasan Shirazi, issued a fatva (religious ruling) forbidding the use of tobacco, the ban was universally observed, and the shah was once again forced to cancel the concession at considerable cost to an already depleted treasury.

The last years of Naser ad Din Shah's reign were characterized by growing royal and bureaucratic corruption, oppression of the rural population, and indifference on the shah's part. The tax machinery broke down, and disorder became endemic in the provinces. New ideas and a demand for reform were also becoming more widespread.

In 1896, reputedly encouraged by Jamal ad Din al Afghani (called Asadabadi because he came from Asadabad), the well-known Islamic preacher and political activist, a young Iranian assassinated the shah. Nasiru'd-Din Shah, who had ascended the throne on September 20, 1848, was shot on May 1, 1896, after nearly fifty years of power. His assassin was a fanatic named Mirza Muhammad Riza, of the city of Kirman, and the motive, though never clearly established, was not unconnected with the general belief that the rights of Persia were being rapidly sold out to foreigners.

The Crown Prince, Muzaffaru'd-Din Shah Qajar, was made Shah on June 8, 1896, and reigned until January 4, 1907, when he died. Some six months before his death the Persian people, whose discontent with the tyranny of their rulers had been constantly increasing, commenced an open agitation for the granting of a constitution, and in July, 1906, by a measure which was as remarkable as it was successful, they brought about this result.

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Page last modified: 01-07-2019 19:03:53 ZULU