Between 1785 and 1925, an Iranian family of Oghuz Turkish descent ruled Persia, now Iran, in what was called the Qajar Dynasty. Though the first ruler aimed to reunify Iran, over the course of the family’s reign they experienced both significant gains and losses of land, losing control of large areas of the Caucasus and Central Asia as a result of the expansionist Russian Empire, which was constantly locked in conflict with Great Britain.
In spite of these losses, the Qajar Dynasty was able to effectively exploit tensions between Britain and Russia to their advantage, and in the latter half of its existence it was hugely modernised, with educational reforms and increased connection with the West transforming the country’s landscape forever.
Though the dynasty wasn’t to last – it was formally terminated in 1925 – its existence, which was peppered with assassinations, wars and finally a coup – fundamentally altered the landscape of the Middle East.
So what happened to the Qajar Dynasty of Iran?
The original leader aimed to reunify Iran
Following the death of Moḥammad Karīm Khān Zand, the Zand dynasty ruler of southern Iran in 1779, Āghā Moḥammad Khān, the leader of the Turkmen Qājār tribe, set out to overthrow his enemies and reunify Iran. He established the Qajar dynasty in 1785 when he overthrew the Zand dynasty and took the Peacock throne, and was enthroned as the king of Iran in 1789. However, at this time he had not yet been formally crowned as shah, or emperor.
In 1794, the city of Kerman harboured the nearly-deposed ruler of the former Zand dynasty, Lotf Ali Khan. After a period of fighting, Khan captured the city. To punish those there for harbouring his enemy, Khān killed or blinded all of the male inhabitants, and a pile was made out of 20,000 detached eyeballs which was poured in front of him. The women and children were all sold into slavery, and the city was destroyed.
By 1794, Khān had therefore eliminated all of his rivals. In addition, he had brutally reasserted Iranian sovereignty over the former Iranian territories in Georgia and the Caucasus, and established his capital at Tehran, a village near the ruins of the ancient city of Ray. He was formally crowned as shah, or emperor, in 1796. Just a year later, he was assassinated.
Russia took much of Iran’s land
Having been castrated when he was just six years old, the late ruler Khān had no issue. His nephew, Fath Ali Shah, succeeded him as Shahanshah, or ‘King of Kings’. Fath aimed to maintain Iran’s sovereignty over its new territories, so launched the Russo-Persian War of 1804 to 1813 to stop Russian incursions into the Caucasus region, which had traditionally been under Iranian control.
These wars were disastrous, and as a result, the terms of the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan dictated that the Qajar rulers had to cede Azerbaijan, Dagestan and eastern Georgia to the Romanov Tsar of Russia. A second Russo-Persian war from 1826 to 1828 ended in another severe defeat, and Iran ceded the rest of the South Caucasus to Russia.
Fath established connections with the West
At the same time, Fath’s reign saw the beginning of diplomatic contacts with the West, which in turn introduced intense European rivalries over Iran’s territory.
His grandson, Mohammed Shah, succeeded Fath in 1834. He made two unsuccessful attempts to capture Herat. When Mohammed Shah died in 1848, his son Naser-e-Din succeeded him. He was to become the most able and successful ruler of the whole Qajar dynasty.
The country was modernised from the mid-19th century onwards
Nasser-e-Din’s reign is best known for introducing significant infrastructure to the country as well as modern science, technology and educational methods, largely because of Nasser-e-Din’s highly effective advisor and constable, Mirza Taghi Khan Amir Kabir. The dynasty gained telegraph lines, a modern postal service, ‘Western-style’ schools and its first newspaper, and Nasser-e-Din himself was a a fan of the emerging technology of photography. In a fairly radical move, his reign also limited the power of the Shi’a Muslim clergy over secular matters.
Nasser-e-Din also contracted huge foreign loans to finance expensive personal trips to Europe. He also granted foreigners – primarily British – concessions for building railways and irrigation canals, and for the processing and sale of all tobacco in the country. All of this combined unwittingly led to Iranian nationalism, with the new tobacco rules triggering a nationwide boycott of tobacco products and a clerical fatwa, which forced Nasser-e-Din to back down.
Though the shah aimed to exploit the mutual distrust between Britain and Russia to preserve Iran’s independence, both foreign interference and territorial encroachment increased under his rule. By 1881, Russia controlled what are today Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and Britain similarly made incursions by supporting the creation of Afghanistan. By the late 19th century, many Iranians believed that their country and rulers were largely beholden by foreign interests.
Remarkable educational reforms were made
Nasser-e-Din was assassinated in 1896, and the crown passed to his son Mozaffar o-Din, who proved to be a weak and incompetent ruler. His extravagant spending – partly on lavish trips to Europe – combined with the absence of income meant that he quickly became deeply unpopular.
Iranians demanded a curb on royal power and the establishment of a formal rule of law, and in 1906, Mozaffar o-Din was forced to grant a constitution that effectively curtailed his power as monarch by implementing an elected parliament.
Though these changes were of huge importance, just a year later, the Anglo-Russian Agreement carved further bits of Iran into spheres of influence under their control.
World War One significantly weakened the dynasty
Nasser-e-Din’s son Mohammed Ali Shah attempted, with the support of Russia, to rescind the constitution that enabled parliamentary government. This created such opposition that he was deposed in 1909. His son Ahmad Shah succeeded him at the tender age of 11, and because of his hedonistic temperament proved similarly ineffective and unpopular.
Britain, Russia and the Ottoman Empire occupying Iran during World War One was a significant blow, from which the country never fully recovered. A coup in 1921 installed Reza Shah Pahlavi, a commander of the Persian Cossack Brigade, as the foremost political figure in Iran under his new Pahlavi Dynasty. However, it was only in 1925, when Ahmad Shah was absent in Europe, that the parliamentary assembly formally declared the Qajar dynasty to be terminated.
Today, the Qajar Imperial Family still exist, but in exile. However, they often identify themselves and hold reunions to stay acquainted with one another, though these associations have twice before been stopped because of political pressure.