Qajar Borderlands: Locating the Global Within the Local in the Great Game

Historians have long objectified Qajar Iran as little more than a square on the vast chessboard of the “Great Game” over the course of the 19th century. As social and economic historians have begun to assert the historical agency of the Qajars, they have also stressed the low level of integration within the empire, and the importance of accounting for local or regional institutions and contingencies. To more thoroughly re-assess the social, political, and economic history of Qajar Iran and its relations with neighbors beyond the eastern frontiers requires greater attention to the varied experiences of provincial communities and local elites acting nearly autonomously from the center. This panel will explore the intersection of the global and the local within Iran’s engagement with the Great Game through the experiences of frontier communities and the activities of local elites.

The first paper on this panel will explore the question of imperial knowledge, and the networks utilized by British and Iranian officials along the frontier zones to advance political and economic control over remote corners of the Qajar Empire and link them to imperial networks of global reach. After exploring the international context of imperial competition, a second paper will situate the issue of daughter-selling in Quchan, Khurasan within a Great Game framework to highlight the ways in which understanding imperial competition across frontiers can be used to reassess a controversial element of modern Iranian social history. The third paper on the panel will then discuss local economic structures in the frontier zone of Narmashir, demonstrating how a family of local notables in Bam was able to leverage their responsibilities in patrolling frontier zones in Baluchistan to gain control over lucrative henna producing lands nearby. Together, these papers will demonstrate the utility of a new approach to Qajar imperial history emphasizing the low level of integration within the Qajar Empire and links between competing networks of imperial control and powerful local actors.


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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Iran’s vast southern and eastern borderlands were subjected to increasing surveillance by the central government in Tehran and by foreign powers, especially Britain and Russia. Qajar, British, and Russian officials viewed these regions as a dangerous terra incognita, ignorance of which threatened their respective empires. Using Iranian and British sources, this paper explores the manner in which these states sought to alleviate their anxieties by collecting, storing, and exploiting information about southern and eastern Iran. Such knowledge, they hoped, would render legible borderland landscapes, peoples, and loyalties and facilitate political and economic control.

Iran’s borderlands were a site in which competing imperial knowledge projects intersected with local information networks. The players in this “Great Game” were many and varied: Russian and Anglo-Indian diplomatic and intelligence officers; Qajar governors, karguzars, telegraph clerks, and customs officials; and local notables, such as landowners, tribal leaders, ulama, and merchants. This last group was particularly important, because in the absence of a strong, centralized bureaucracy, local knowledge was essential to governance. Qajar and foreign officials’ attempts to access this knowledge, combined with improved communications, resulted in the development of a series of new, overlapping information networks, which connected the Qajar borderlands not only with Tehran but also with London, St. Petersburg, and Simla.

This paper seeks to enhance our appreciation of the relationship of center and periphery in late Qajar Iran. It emphasizes the continued significance of local notables as well as the centralizing impulses from Tehran that would find fuller expression during the Pahlavi period. Anxieties about the frontier were fundamental to understanding the militarism, autocracy, and bureaucratization of Pahlavi nationalism. Finally, this paper seeks to bridge the inexplicable gap between the historiographies of modern Iran and modern European imperialism, connecting accounts of Qajar state-building, reform, and revolution with studies of European colonial knowledge and imperial expansion.

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Over the 1880s and 1890s, the Qajar Empire increased patrols along its eastern frontiers in Baluchistan in response to Anglo-Russian expansion in Central Asia in what has been termed the “Great Game.” In Bam, the site of an important frontier military outpost, Ibrahim Khan Saʿd al-Dawla gradually consolidated his control over local tribal forces during these decades and established his family, the Bihzadis, as the major players among the local elite. In the process, the Behzadis pushed out several important local notable families in Bam, including a dominant administrative and landholding household, the Mirzaʾis and began to consolidate their control over the lucrative henna crops of nearby Narmashir. Using a recently published 1894 travelogue from the governor of Kirman, ‘Abd al-Husayn Mirza Farman Farma, and the writings of provincial elites from the late 19th and early 20th century, this paper will discuss the Bihzadis as an example of a frontier military household that successfully navigated the politics of the Great Game along Iran’s eastern frontiers and utilized Qajar attention to Anglo-Russian advances to their own advantage. The case of the Bihzadis is an important contribution to the ongoing debate over Iranian agency in the Great Game, while also reconciling this with the low level of political and economic integration of the Qajar state, by shifting the focus of historians to the exercise of power at the local level. The economic activities of the Behzadis, in expanding commercial agriculture along the frontier and expanding the administrative control of Kirman’s governor-general, was as an important part of the integrative process on the margins that accompanied Qajar imperial ambitions in the Great Game.