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The term "Bakhtiari" refers to a group of people and to the area they occupy. The Bakhtiari inhabit about 156,000 square kilometers in and near the central Zagros Mountains of Iran. The most recent estimates place their population at about 700,000 in the 1980s. The Bakhtiari are traditionally nomadic pastoralists who make their winter encampments in the low hills along the narrow fringe of the northeast Khūzestān plain and their summer pastures in the intermontane valleys. Some also find summer pastures at the western edge of the central plateau, which is also the permanent habitat for a sedentary village population. Other Bakhtiari live in permanent agricultural settlements throughout the larger area, except at the highest elevations.

Sheep and goats are the basis of the Bakhtiari economy, and Bakhtiari nomadism arises from the search for pastures. Sheep and goat products are used for subsistence and for economic exchange with the sedentary population.

The family is the basic unit of production and of flock- and landownership, as well as of political and social organization. Families cooperate in the sharing of pastures. At successive levels of segmentation, families regroup and redefine themselves under different political and kin headings. The smallest political/kin unit is the rish safid, and successively higher units include kalantars (headmen), khans (chiefs), and an ilkhani (paramount chief of the entire confederation).

The confederation, Il-i-Bakhtiari (ii, tribe) is the unit that includes all those who live in the territory, speak a subdialect of the Luri dialect of Persian, and acknowledge the leadership of the khans and the ilkhani. Historically, the Bakhtiari have been divided into two major sections, the Haft Lang and the Chahar Lang, but in contemporary times the most important division has been Ilkhani and Hajji Ilkhani (two moieties from which the ilkhani were chosen).

Migration, competition for scarce resources, and the need for exchange with sedentary groups create a potential for much conflict in Bakhtiari society. Add to that the pressures of external conflict with other tribes, including defending tribal territory, and the demands of the central government, and it becomes clear that there is a need for khans as mediators and intermediaries. Traditionally, the power of the khans and ilkhani comes from personal abilities as well as the inherent power of the position. It is based on the benefits they can provide, the respect they attain through birth, their coercive capabilities within the tribe, and the support given to them by the central government or by outside sources of power.

The Bakhtiari political system has been described as a hierarchy of khans, but it is similar to a segmentary lineage in that there are segmented levels that function in balanced opposition, with certain activities and responsibilities associated with each segment. The tribes and subtribes of the Bakhtiari use force against each other, their khans, and their ilkhani. Therefore, as in a segmentary lineage, intergroup and intragroup relations are based on a balance of power at each level. Tribes that fight each other at one time may unite to fight a third tribe at another.

The Bakhtiari confederation was once much more powerful than it is today. Reza Shah considered the Bakhtiari a direct threat to his sovereignty and, in the 1920s, took military, economic, and administrative actions to subjugate them. His policy of forced sedentarization, intended to break the tribal economy and prevent tribal identification, destroyed the political power of the ruling khans but was less successful in forcing the Bakhtiari to settle in one place.

The Bakhtiari now appear to be choosing sedentarism as a way of life much more than in the past. Formerly, only the richest and poorest lived a sedentary life-stlye; today many Bakhtiari not only settle in agricultural villages, they also work in the oil fields or urban centers. Although there is little reliable information on the Bakhtiari in post-Pahlavi Iran, it appears that changes are taking place. Along with increased sedentarism has come improved communications, and many government activities may be effectively transferring loyalty and identification from the tribe to the nation-state.


Case, Paul E. (1947). "I Became a Bakhtiari." National Geographic Magazine 91(3): 325-358.

Garthwaite, Gene R. (1983). Khans and Shahs: A Documentary Analysis of the Bakhtiyari in Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Garthwaite, Gene R. (1984). "Bakhtiari." In Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, edited by Richard V. Weekes, 81-84. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Grimes, Barbara F., ed. (1988). Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Johnson, Douglas L. (1969) The Nature of Nomadism: A Comparative Study of Pastoral Migrations in Southwestern Asia and Northern Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago, Department of Geography.

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Luri-speaking tribal people of central Iran.

The Bakhtiari historically are members of several tribes claiming descent from a common ancestor and residing in the Bakhtiari region of the Zagros Mountains. The Bakhtiari primarily practiced pastoral nomadism. During the mid-nineteenth, Bakhtiari khans (leaders) organized the tribes into a large confederation that played an important role in Iran's national politics for fifty years. In particular, the khans were active supporters of the Constitutional Revolution between 1909 and 1911. Reza Shah Pahlavi's policy of forcible sedentarization of all nomadic tribes effectively destroyed the Bakhtiari confederation. Following his abdication in 1941 under Anglo-Soviet pressure, several thousand Bakhtiari villagers resumed pastoral nomadism, but the majority did not, and the sons of the former khans preferred urban life, where they were integrated with the political and social elite of the country. During the 1970s, an estimated 100,000 Bakhtiariabout 20 percent of the totalcontinued to carry out the twice-annual migrations. By the early 2000s, only 10 percent of Bakhtiari practiced pastoral nomadism, while an estimated 50 to 60 percent lived in cities.

see also constitutional revolution; pahlavi, reza.


Garthwaite, Gene R. Khans and Shahs: A Documentary Analysis of the Bakhtiyari in Iran. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Lois Beck

Updated by Eric Hooglund

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Bakhtiari (bäkh´tēä´rē, –ärē´, băkh´–), tribal group, numbering around 850,000, living in SW Iran, in a mountainous region (c.25,000 sq mi/64,750 sq km) in Khuzestan and Esfahan provs. They are mostly nomadic, migrating seasonally with their livestock. The Bakhtiari are Shiite Muslims and are famed for their courage and independence. Women enjoy a high position in the patrilineal society. The group can be divided into two large branches, the Haftlang, with about 55 tribes, and the Charlang, with about 25. The Bakhtiari originally migrated (10th cent.) from Syria to Iran, and until the 15th cent. were known as the Great Lurs. In the early 20th cent., after the discovery of oil in the region they inhabit, their chiefs were courted by the British and were paid to protect oil pipelines. The Bakhtiari played a decisive part in the deposition of Muhammad Ali Shah in 1908–9. Reza Shah Pahlevi forced many of them to abandon their nomadic ways and to settle in permanent communities; after his deposition in 1941, however, many Bakhtiari returned to nomadism. Muhammad Reza Shah was married (1951–58) to Soraya, the daughter of a Bakhtiari chieftain.