Qajar Dynasty

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Ruling family of Iran, 17961925.

The Qajars were a Turkoman tribe that rose to prominence in Iran during the Safavi dynasty (15011722). In the turbulent civil wars that broke out after the Safavis were deposed by invading Afghans, the Qa-jars gradually consolidated power until Agha Mohammad Shah Qajar crowned himself shah at Tehran in 1796. He was killed a year later, and his nephew succeeded him as Fath Ali Shah (r. 17971834). During his reign, Russia defeated Iran in two wars (18051813, 18271828), acquiring territory in the north, while England blocked Iranian aspirations in Afghanistan. Both countries secured favorable treaty rights in Iran and acquired influence in the succession, which went in 1834 to Fath Ali's grandson Mohammad Shah, who ruled the country un-eventfully until his death in 1848.

During the long reign of Naser al-Din Shah (r. 18481896), Iran had to confront an increasingly powerful European presence. Trade and budget deficits forced Naser al-Din Shah to grant lucrative concessions in the north to Russia for the operation of the Caspian fisheries, and in the south to Britain for telegraphs, tobacco exports, and river navigation. Believing that various economic and social
reforms would help his government withstand British and Russian influence, Naser al-Din set up European-style educational institutions, brought in Russian advisers to drill his Cossack Brigade, created government printing offices, and tried to establish factories to supply the army. However, he neglected the financial and administrative requirements of the reforms, thus undermining their effectiveness. A serious challenge to his rule arose between 1890 to 1892, when the shah was forced to repeal a monopoly concession for tobacco that he had granted to an English company. In the first mass social movement of the modern period, the entire nation, including Naser al-Din's wives, boycotted tobacco in protest against European economic encroachment and the shah's acquiescence in it.

The aftermath of the Tobacco Revolt was marked by further popular unrest, which culminated in the assassination of Naser al-Din Shah on 1 May 1896. His son, Mozaffar al-Din Shah (r. 18961907), faced worsening economic conditions, which the bazaar merchants and ulama (Islamic religious leaders) increasingly attributed to the shah's helplessness in confronting foreign pressures. The less numerous Western-trained intelligentsia began to criticize European economic control and Qajar absolutism. In 1905 the beating of four sugar merchants (because of high prices) in the bazaar touched off a series of protests that soon engulfed Tehran and culminated in the summer of 1906 with the bazaar merchants closing their shops en masse and the ulama withdrawing from their religious services. Mozaffar al-Din Shah, unable to rely on support from Russia owing to the revolution there, was forced to agree to the formation of a national assembly (the Majles). This body set about in the fall of 1906 to write a constitution, which the shah signed on 30 December 1906, only nine days before his death.

The Constitutional Revolution brought political turmoil upon Iran between 1905 and 1911. The new king, Mohammad Ali Shah (r. 19071909), proved to be autocratic, and with Russian support he closed the Majles in June 1908. Constitutional resistance to the shah organized in Tabriz and other cities, and in July 1909, two proconstitution armies converged on Tehran and deposed Mohammad Ali Shah. His eleven-year-old son, Ahmad Shah Qajar, was crowned and ruled under a regent and the watchful eye of the reconstituted Second Majles. The former shah attempted a comeback, with tribal support, in the summer of 1911, but was defeated by the constitutional forces.

The central government under the figurehead Ahmad Shah looked on helplessly during World War I as Russian and British troops fought against Turkish forces in Iran. Local movements arose in several provinces to challenge Tehran, especially in Gilan. A coup d'état in February 1921 brought to power Reza Khan, commander of the Cossack Brigade. As war minister, Reza Khan repressed the provincial opposition movements; by October 1923 he had become prime minister. Soon thereafter, Ahmad Shah left Iran for Europe on a trip of indefinite duration (in fact, he never would return). Reza Khan used his power base in the army and among the majority parties in the Fifth Majles to bring about the deposition of Ahmad Shah on 31 October 1925. Two months later the Majles vested the monarchy in Reza Khan, who adopted Pahlavi as his family surname. This "legal" transfer of royal authority formally ended the rule of the Qajar dynasty.

see also ahmad qajar; bazaars and bazaar merchants; constitutional revolution; fath ali shah qajar; mozaffar al-din qajar; muhammad ali; naser al-din shah; pahlavi, reza; qajar, agha mohammad; tobacco revolt.


Amanat, Abbas. Pivot of the Universe: Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar and the Iranian Monarchy, 18311896. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Foran, John. "The Concept of Dependent Development as a Key to the Political Economy of Qajar Iran (18001925)." Iranian Studies 22, nos. 23 (1989): 556.

Lambton, Ann K. S. Qajar Persia: Eleven Studies. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987.

john foran
updated by eric hooglund