On the Edge of Empire: Governing the Caucasus in Early Qajar Iran

Historians of Qajar Iran have traditionally compared the Qajars to European states and empires. To the extent that historians have compared them to the neighboring Ottomans, it has been in the context of the military and bureaucratic reforms, and modernization more broadly, of the mid- to late-nineteenth century. The result has been twofold: first, the Qajars are rarely included in the “empire” club, and second, the tendency has been to depict them as “backward” and in decline. This paper begins by posing a modest question: what if one were to shift the comparative framework to other tributary empires – including the Ottoman Empire, but also the Qing, Mughal, and pre-colonial African empires?

A change in perspective would reveal that the Qajar Empire shared features with many other tributary empires, including “ruling over vast agrarian regions and relying on the taxation of surplus peasant production” – the definition recently provided by Peter F. Bang and C.A. Bayly. But beyond whether the Qajars should be considered an empire or not, a comparative approach will sharpen our understanding of the socio-political relationships and mechanisms that sustained their power.

This paper draws on an unpublished collection of over 200 farmans, petitions, and letters, found in Tehran’s Majlis Library, which were written during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and exchanged between the Kangarlū tribal community in the Caucasus and central Qajar rulers. The paper uses these sources to provide a case study on the politics of frontier administration during the formative period of the Qajar empire. A careful reading of the correspondence reveals a multi-pronged approach by Qajar rulers to incorporate tribal khans into the empire: marriage alliances, financial support, and the mediation of tribal disputes. In return, the Qajars expected tributes in the form of gifts and taxes, as well as the supply of troops. The outbreak of war with the Russian Empire in 1804 only intensified the entanglement of the Kangarlū tribal community with the Qajar state.

Scholars writing in both Persian and English have long pointed to farmans as important sources for the political, social, and cultural history of Iran. And yet, historians of the formative period of the Qajar empire have rarely drawn on these rich sources in their studies. This paper is an attempt to show how a sustained use of farmans, and other forms of correspondence, can contribute to a deeper understanding of the Qajar period.