History of Iran: Qajars

This is part of a series of an overview of Iranian history–please refer to my posts of 5.10, 5.11, 5.19 and 5.27.


Safavid control of Iran (covered in my post of 5.19) began to decline in the end of the 17th century, not long after the reign of Shah Abbas the Great. By the beginning of the 18th century, Afghan forces would overwhelm Iran, invading and occupying cities as far as the Safavid capital of Esfahan. Persian control of Iran was restored by military leader Nader Khan, later self-crowned Nader Shah, who conquered not only now Afghanistan but famously raided India, bringing back some of the Moghul rulers’ greatest treasures, including the diamonds known as the Kuh-e Nur and the Darya-ye Nur (likely from Golconda’s mines–see my post of 3.28). Nader Shah was killed in 1747, after which most of Iran was ruled by Karim Khan Zand, a peaceful and successful ruler who established his capital at Shiraz.

Soon after the death of Karim Khan Zand, Agha Mohammed Qajar, of Azeri Turkish descent, was able to establish control over Iran and found the Qajar dynasty, with its capital at the then-village of Tehran. The Qajars, who ruled Iran from 1794 to 1925, are best known for their failures as rulers, bringing Iran from its glorious past to its troubled twentieth century.

Although the first Qajar rulers were relatively successful, the Qajars in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries lost a series of wars resulting in the loss of substantial territory (now Azerbaijan, now Armenia and part of now Turkmenistan to Russia, parts of now Afghanistan and Pakistan to Britain), as well as the payment by Iran of indemnities and the grant by Iran of extraterritorial rights to foreign governments. Starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, economic decline and Qajar mismanagement also came in the form of the selling of financial, infrastructure and mineral development/exploitation rights to foreign governments and nationals. By the early twentieth century, Iran was essentially run by the Russians and the British, who had carved up the country as part of their other “Great Game” territorial divisions (with the Russians controlling Central Asia and the British controlling their Indian Empire and Afghanistan). The unfair selling of concessions to foreign interests would also leave a deep scar on the Iranian psyche–the control and pricing of Iranian oil concessions are responsible for much of Iranian turbulence in the twentieth century and average Iranian citizens today are still much filled with distrust and suspicion about foreigners coming to “steal” Iran’s resources.

In my view, Qajar rule was not only a period of political and economic decline, but also a period of artistic decline. Qajar-era structures are not only less impressive structurally than those of Iran’s other periods, but decoration becomes downright strange and incongruous. Our guide also suggested (perhaps unfairly but revealing the contemporary Iranian point of view that the Qajars were responsible for a lot of what went wrong with Iran, at least until the Islamic Revolution) that the Qajars were poor stewards of Iran’s cultural heritage, overseeing a period of ruination and destruction.

While we first saw in India mirrors embedded in walls as a form of decoration, it is not clear to me where the idea originated. But the concept seems to have reached its, um, height in Qajar Iran. Still a common form of Iranian interior decoration, not only in private spaces such as homes but also for religious shrines (including religious shrines built by Iran in other countries), such rooms are something of a horror to the taste of a modern non-Iranian viewer, reminiscent of a carnival hall of mirrors, although I must admit that some of the rooms are remarkably sparkly.

A private home in Shiraz, now converted into a museum.

Truly dazzling, the Imamzadeh-ye Ali Ebn-e Hamze in Shiraz. An imamzadeh is a shrine to a relative of one of the twelve Shiite Imams (in this case, a nephew of the seventh Imam) (cf. my post of 5.20 on Shia Islam).

The Marble Throne Veranda at the Golestan Palace in Tehran. The extravagant spending for the construction of the many buildings of the Golestan Palace is said to have aggravated the Qajars’ financial woes.

The Marble Throne is, for something that obviously took much effort and expense to craft, quite ugly. [picture to come]

The Zand-era Regent’s Mosque in Shiraz is a beautiful building [picture to come in a post on Iranian architecture], but its interior has been tainted, in my view, by Qajar tiles. I have two objections to Qajar tilework. The first is the subject matter depicted in them–the Qajars had a fascination with the West, extending to European Christian architecture, a totally unfit image for a tile in a mosque.

Tile inside prayer hall of the Regent’s Mosque, Shiraz, depicting Christian churches

The second is that they are often very poorly executed, as if rushed by conscripted grade school students.

Typically poorly painted tile, Golestan Palace, Tehran

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