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1750-1794 - Zand Dynasty

"It is pleasing to recount the actions of a chief, who, though born in an inferior rank, obtained power without crime, and who exercised it with a moderation that was, in the times in which he lived, as singular as his justice and humanity."
-Sir John Malcolm on Karim Khan.

A forward thinking and notably popular leader, Karim Khan Zand (1705-1779) was the founder of the Zand dynasty in Iran. The total length of Karim Khan's reign was twenty-nine years (1750-1794), and for over twenty he was undisputed ruler of Persia. He refused the title of Shah-the puppet Ismail was kept in captivity at Abadeh-and termed himself Vakil, or Regent. Shiraz was his capital, and the fine buildings, of which it still boasts, were all erected by him.

The assassination of Nadir Shah in 1747 was a signal for the break up of his composite army. The act of the conspirators was approved of by all its leaders except Ahmad Khan Durrani, whn commanded the Afghan and Uzbeg contingents. With this force, the Afghan chief sought to avenge his fallen leader, but he was defeated and retreated to Kandahar^where he founded a kingdom. T.h£.sjnews of war he obtained by the fortunate capture of a treasure cnnvny containing part of the spoils of DeIm'T and among the jewels seized on this occasion was the famous diamond known as the Kuh-i-Nur, or "Mountain of Light," which now adorns the crown of the British sovereign.

Adil Shah, A.m. 1160-1161 (1747-1748), nephew of Nadir, succeeded him on the throne under the title of Adil Shah, or " The Just." His first act was to issue a proclamation in which he accepted responsibility for the murder of a tyrant who " delighted in blood and, with unheard-of barbarity, made pyramids of heads of his own subjects." Adil Shah, after a short, inglorious reign, was dethroned and blinded by his brother Ibrahim, who in turn was defeated, made prisoner by his own troops, and put to death when on the way to Meshed. Adil Shah was also put to death. Shah Rukh then ascended the throne. It might have been thought that his descent and noble qualities would have made his rule universally acceptable in Persia, but a rival appeared in the person of Mirza Sayyid Mohamed. The monarch was taken prisoner and blinded ; but Yusuf Ali, his general, in whose absence he had been overpowered, appeared on the scene, seized the pretender, who had taken the name of Sulayman, and after blinding him put him and his two sons to death.

A fourth pretender was Karim Khan, son of Aymak of the Zand, a section of the Lak tribe. Born to no high position, Karim had served Nadir as a soldier without special distinction. He often told how, being in want, he had stolen a gold-embossed saddle from a saddler's shop, but learning that the saddler had been sentenced to be hanged on account of its loss, he was conscience-stricken and restored it; and he heard with pleasure the prayer of the saddler's wife that the man who brought the saddle back might live to have a hundred gold - embossed saddles. At the period to which this anecdote relates Karim was evidently a private soldier, but when we first hear of him at Isfahan he had, by sheer force of character, risen to power, and had joined the Bakhtiari chief on equal terms. As invariably happened in such combinations, jealousies arose and Ali Mardan marked down the Zand for death. The latter, however, rode off with his following, and shortly after the rupture the Bakhtiari was assassinated. Karim Khan thereupon became the sole ruler of Southern Persia, and by his kindness, generosity, and justice won all hearts. The position in Persia was extremely curious. Khorasan was left in the undisturbed possession of Shah Rukh, while Karim Khan, Mohamed Husayn Khan, and Azad fought for the throne. Each in turn seemed likely to win, but the final victory lay with the popular Zand chief.

Karim Khan engaged in an expedition against Basra, mainly in order to occupy and pay his army ; though he put forward the flimsy pretext that pilgrims to the sacred sites were taxed. The place was taken by Sadik Khan, brother of the Regent, after a blockade of thirteen months. He treated the citizens justly, and was particularly friendly to the British Resident. No attempt seems to have been made by the Turks to recover Basra, but upon the death of Karim Khan a few years later it was evacuated by the Persians and fell again into their hands.

Of Karim Khan's justice, his sense of humour, and his kindliness, there were many instances. To give a single instance, he was so anxious that his subjects should be happy that if in any quarter of the town no music was heard he invariably inquired what was wrong, and paid musicians to play there. To quote a Persian writer, "The inhabitants of Shiraz enjoyed the most perfect tranquillity and happiness. In the society of moon-faced damsels they passed their leisure hours ; the sparkling goblet circulated ; and love and pleasure reigned in every breast." In close touch with the people, affecting no state and yet shrewd and capable, Karim Khan gave exhausted Iran two decades of sorely needed rest, and when he died at a great age the homely Zand chief was genuinely and deeply mourned.

From 1750 (1163) to 1779 (1193) Karim Khan governed all Persia except Khurasan, where Shah Rukh the Afsharid, though old and blind, still maintained some show of authority. At the time of his death, Karim Khan had ruled Persia for over thirty years and in that period had established himself as a popular, wise and efficient ruler. He re-established a significant degree of peace and prosperity in a land that had been ravaged by years of conflict, restored Shiraz to greatness and developed Persia’s relations with foreign powers including the Mughal Empire and the East India Company.

Indeed, it was Karim Khan that had allowed the company to establish a trading post in Bushire in 1763. To the inhabitants of Persia his rule was a welcome change to the tyranny and cruelty they had suffered at the hands of recent rulers of Persia, notably Nader Shah, who ruled from 1736 until his assassination in 1747.

Karim Khan remains a respected and popular figure in contemporary Iran for the achievements and style of his rule – a large statue of him now stands outside the residence he built in Shiraz. That he never took the title of Shah and instead adopted the tile of vakil or-ra’aya (agent or representative of the people) is indicative of the nature of his rule.

Not only was the Zand family weakened by family feuds and assassinations, but in 1779 the long struggle for power between it and the Kajar dynasty was renewed. Since Karim Khan did not nominate a successor, following his death a number of potential – and rival – successors swiftly emerged and a vicious power struggle ensued that once again threw Persia into an extended period of warfare and upheaval. His death was a source of fear and confusion not only to the population of Persia but also to Beaumont and other East India Company officials. The company was operating in Persia with Karim Khan’s permission and the stability that his reign provided had allowed trade to flourish to the company’s benefit.

With him gone, it was unclear what path Persia would take and what implications there would be for the Residency in Bushire as well as the company’s trading activities in the region more broadly. This uncertainty and confusion was set to last for several years and forced the Resident at Bushire to closely monitor the complex and fluid political situation in the country.

On the death of Karim Khan a contest was waged for a dozen years between his Zand successors and Aka, Mohammad the Kajar, which ended in the triumph of the latter - the struggle ended in the victory of the Kajars, who remained the ruling family of Iran.

The city of Kerman, a Zand stronghold, was treated with almost inconceivable cruelty. Not only were its women handed over to the soldiery, who were encouraged to rape and to murder, but the Kajar victor ordered that twenty thousand pairs of eyes should be presented to him. These he carefully counted, and then he remarked to the officer charged with the atrocious task, " Had one pair been wanting, yours would have been taken ! " Thus almost the entire male population was blinded, and their women were handed over to the soldiery as slaves. In order to commemorate the capture of Lutf Ali Khan in a suitable manner, Aga Mohamed ordered six hundred prisoners to be decapitated. Their skulls were then carried to Bam by three hundred other prisoners, who were then also killed, and a pyramid of skulls was erected on the spot where Lutf Ali Khan was taken.

The awful massacre and the extirpation of the family ended the short-lived Zand dynasty. Lutf Ali possessed remarkable beauty of physique, a valour which has seldom, if ever, been exceeded, and leadership in the field of a very high order. Unfortunately his severity and his imperious and overbearing character, which would not allow him to stoop to conciliation, cost him the support of the great families. Fighting gallantly against hopeless odds, he long maintained the struggle, but in the end he lost the throne of Persia to the rival Kajar chief.

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Page last modified: 26-07-2019 18:47:51 ZULU