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.
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.