Sources for Qajar Imperial History

The resurgence of interest in the social and cultural history of 19th century Iran has led historians back to considering some fundamental questions about the Qajar Empire. In searching for the origins of later 20th century revolutions and social movements in Iran, the history of Qajar Iran is often considered from a perspective that favors high profile modernization, centralization, and reform programs with little reference to longer term developments. A general consensus has emerged that the Qajar state ruled through a delicate negotiation of power with local and tribal elites throughout the empire. This line of research has helped generate a series of local histories on Tabriz, Kirman, Isfahan, and Mazandaran, and thematic studies of Qajar social, economic, cultural, and intellectual history. Beyond this, little has been said about the influence of Qajar initiatives and structures on developments within Iran. But what exactly was “Qajar” about Qajar Iran? This panel will include three papers exploring this question from the perspectives of the Qajar Empire’s legal, administrative, and intelligence gathering structures through focused discussions of various source collections for Qajar imperial history, and suggest some ways in which we can draw connections between research on the Qajar state and studies on the social and cultural history of 19th century Iran more generally.


by /

This paper will consider a geographical text prepared by the Qajar court, the Mi'rat al-Buldan or "The Mirror of the Lands," as a critical source for Qajar imperial history, revealing methods for accessing and utilizing local networks of power in their state building projects. The Mi'rat al-Buldan project was undertaken by Nasir al-Din Shah in the 1860s and 1870s in an attempt to create a massive geographical dictionary of Iranian towns and villages. This project was so ambitious, in fact, that they found it impossible to complete and eventually abandoned it after the letter "jim" and a lengthy diversion into a chronicle history. Although incomplete, this text is a significant artifact of the ambitions of the Qajar state to know, control, and eventually reform elements of Iranian society through centralization, taxation, and economic development. This project also helped spur a series of local histories and geographies in the 1870s and 1880s in Iran, which emerged from the local networks of knowledge and power that the Qajars were attempting to utilize and control in completing their Mi'rat al-Buldan.

by /

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.