A Persian Odyssey: The History of Iran from the Sasanian Empire to the Fall of the Qajar Dynasty


From Yazdegerd III Ancient Persia to the Timurid Empire

WHILST the history of Iran is indelibly marked with the achievements of the Ancient Persians and, most notably, the rise and fall of the Median-Achaemenid (650-330 BCE), Seleucid (312-248 BCE) and Parthian (248–224 CE) eras, one of the country’s more formulative periods came in the shape of the Sasanian Empire (224–651 CE).

The etymological roots of Iran stem from the Old Persian word for ‘arya’, which reveals the region’s Indo-European (Aryan) origins. Indeed, the ‘Iranians’ of past and present were not merely different in a cultural and religious context, but the racial composition of the ancient inhabitants themselves was also markedly different than it is in the twenty-first century.

Prior to the collapse of the Sasanian Empire, in 651 CE, as future ruler Yazdegerd III (d. 651 CE) was forced into hiding during a bitter Zoroastrian civil war between army chief Farrukh Hormizd’s (d. 631 CE) Parthian faction and the Persian forces that were headed by former Sasanian minister, Piruz Khosrow (d. 642 CE), things finally came to a head when Hormizd was murdered and Khosrow saw to it that Yazdegerd was crowned Emperor on June 16th, 632 CE. Whilst the Zoroastrians had been distracted, however, the country became subject to large-scale Muslim Arab immigration in line with the general expansion of the Rashidun Caliphate in the wake of the Prophet Muhammad’s (570-632 CE) death in the Arabian city of Medina.

Yazdegerd made an abortive attempt to negotiate with the foreign invaders, but in 634 CE was eventually forced to send his most trusted general, Bahman Jaduya (d. 636 CE), to repel Abu Ubaid al-Thaqafi’s (d. 634 CE) Islamic forces along the banks of the Euphrates river in what became known as the Battle of the Bridge. That day, the Persians emerged triumphant, but just two years later – in November 636 CE – they suffered a major defeat at the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah, which became the first real step towards the Muslim conquest of Persia itself. By April 637 CE, Yezdegerd was forced to flee into Media as his armies suffered another huge defeat at Battle of Jalula. In 642 CE, after raising a new army, the Persians were defeated again at the Battle of Nahāvand and the beleaguered Emperor fled to Isfahan, two hundred miles north of Tehran. In 650 CE, as Yezdegerd moved into the Fars Province, the region was decimated by Abdallah ibn Amir (622-678 CE) and the Muslim general went on to score a succession of notable military conquests throughout Persia. The following year, as Yezdegerd arrived in the city of Merv and made an attempt to extract taxes from the local population, he was driven out and eventually murdered by a thief attempting to steal clothes and jewellery.

Despite the fact that the incoming Caliphate adopted many of the country’s existing Persian customs, the Muslim conquest was not yet complete and following the overthrow of the Sasanian Empire certain areas were nonetheless still ruled by Persian elements such as the Daylamites, Dabuyids, Paduspanids and Masmughans. One prominent resistance leader, for example, was Farrukhan the Great (712-728 CE), who did well to hold out against the armies of General Yazid ibn al-Muhallab (672-720 CE).

Islam, on the other hand, was experiencing its own internal problems and when the Umayyads were defeated by the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258 CE) a mixture of both Arabs and Persians came together to ensure that Iran became a multi-ethnic country that had a different identity to that of the Muslim Empire to the south and west. The Islamic capital was also moved from Damascus (Syria) to Baghdad (Iraq) and this became the nerve centre of Abbasid power. Contrary to former Umayyad reliance upon an Arab ruling class, however, the new infrastructure was staffed by Persian bureaucrats. Inevitably, this move appealed to the worst side of human nature and led to the more upwardly-mobile Persians relinquishing their traditional Indo-European heritage in return for enhanced social standing. As Bernard Lewis explains, Iran

was indeed Islamized, but it was not Arabized. Persians remained Persians. And after an interval of silence, Iran reemerged as a separate, different and distinctive element within Islam, eventually adding a new element even to Islam itself. Culturally, politically, and most remarkable of all even religiously, the Iranian contribution to this new Islamic civilization is of immense importance. The work of Iranians can be seen in every field of cultural endeavor, including Arabic poetry, to which poets of Iranian origin composing their poems in Arabic made a very significant contribution. In a sense, Iranian Islam is a second advent of Islam itself, a new Islam sometimes referred to as Islam-i Ajam. It was this Persian Islam, rather than the original Arab Islam, that was brought to new areas and new peoples: to the Turks, first in Central Asia and then in the Middle East in the country which came to be called Turkey, and of course to India.[1]

From the ninth century onwards, as the Muslim population rose by 40% and the Abbasid Caliphate began its slow decline, Iran became host to an entire litany of dynasties and semi-independent governments and these included the Tahirids (821–873 CE), Saffarids (861–1003 CE), Ziyarids (930–1090 CE), Samanids (819–999 CE), Sajids (889–929 CE), Sallarids (919–1062 CE), Banu Iyas (932–968 CE), Buyids (934–1062 CE) and Kakuyids (1008–1141 CE).

At one stage, Iran was ruled by the Seljuk Empire (1037–1194 CE), a Turko-Persian dynasty comprised of Sunni Muslims and founded by Tughril Beg (1016-1063 CE). The Seljuks managed to retain an uneasy alliance with the dwindling Abbasids whilst exporting their own dominant Persian culture as far afield as Anatolia but when the Khwarezmshah leader, Ala ad-Din Tekish (d. 1200 CE), defeated Sultan Toghrul III (d. 1194 CE) in battle the Seljuk Empire was reduced to little more than an Anatolian sultanate. The Seljuks had also faced problems from the formidable Ismaili sect, whose famous Assassins had been responsible for murdering many of its government officials.

In 1219 CE, with the arrival of the Mongol invasions, Iran was plunged into a state of utter turmoil and the short-lived Khwarazmian dynasty (1077–1231), whose Central Asian power-base had extended into Iran for less than three decades, found itself face to face with the indomitable might of Genghis Khan (1162-1227 CE). The Khwarezmid shah, on the other hand, Ala ad-Din Muhammad (1169-1220 CE), was forced to contend with the wholesale Mongol bombardment of Bukhara, Samarkand, Herat, Tus and Nishapur, whose inhabitants were completely slaughtered. Genghis Khan’s armies included a number of Chinese gunpowder experts and their opponents were no match for the powerful explosives that were projected into their cities by catapault. This led Shah Muhammad to seek exile on a small island off the Caspian coast, although the Mongols soon moved on in their efforts to conquer neighbouring Azerbaijan.

Despite the fact that the Mongols later converted to Islam, the unprecedented obliteration of the Khwarezmid Empire led to the destruction of mosques, libraries and important centres of learning, not to mention irreparable damage to the country’s economic infrastructure. Historians have estimated that around 90% of Iranians were either killed or starved to death.

Following the death of the Mongolian leader in 1227 CE, the country was governed by a succession of minor Oriental warlords. One of these, Hulagu Khan (1218-1265 CE), who was the grandson of Genghis Khan himself, dealt with the increasing fratricide of the waning Mongol Empire by establishing a breakaway state called Ilkhanate. The region was centred mainly in Iran, but also took in present-day Azerbaijan and most of what is now Turkey. From there he waged a series of campaigns in Baghdad and Palestine, before his great-grandson, Ghazan Khan (1295–1304 CE), later established Islam as the state religion. The damaged infrastructure was gradually revived and Iran began to trade with its eastern neighbours. By the middle of the fourteenth century, however, further misfortune befell Iran when around 30% of the population died as a result of the Black Death.

Whilst modern-day Iran has the reputation of being an exception to the rule, not merely in terms of its dissident status but also due to its high concentration of Shi’a Muslims, prior to the coming of the Safavid Empire at the beginning of the sixteenth century the country was still 90% Sunni. However, contrary to Sunni claims that Shi’ism is a foreign phenomenon with no authentic historical ties to Iran itself, the hadith that comprise the four most sacred books of the Shia religion – Kitab al-Kafi, Man la yahduruhu al-Faqih, Tahdhib al-Ahkam Shaykh and Al-Istibsar – were each collected by Iranian scholars. The aforementioned Ziyarid, Buyid and Kakuyid dynasties that were active between 930 CE and 1141 CE had also been Shi’a in nature.

Elsewhere, Shi’ism was dominant in Iranian cities such as Tabaristan, Qom, Kashan, Avaj and Sabzevar, with mixed Sunni and Shi’a communities – despite their theological differences – also to be found in at least three cities in neighbouring Iraq. The negative impact of the Mongol invasions had wiped out large numbers of Sunni Muslims and their Shi’a counterparts were able to take advantage of the fact.

Between 1370 CE and 1500 CE, large swathes of Iran was ruled by the Timurid Empire. Founded by a Turko-Mongolian warlord by the name of Timur (1336-1405), the dynasty was nonetheless Persian in character and had seized the country in a sudden wave of violence and brutality. By encouraging native Iranians to form the basis of his administration, Timur initiated a major cultural revival and helped to facilitate the spread of poetry and architecture. By 1452 CE, however, the Timurid Empire was losing much of its territory to the Black Sheep Turkmen (Kara Koyunlu) who, themselves, were eventually overthrown by the White Sheep Turkmen (Aq Qoyunlu) in 1468 CE. The latter remained in power until 1501 CE, but the country’s internal problems soon helped to smooth the way for the rise of one of Iran’s most famous dynasties.


Shi’a Consolidation Under the Safavids

HAVING discarded its minority status in the wake of the Mongol decimation of Iran’s overwhelmingly Sunni population during the thirteenth century, Shi’a Islam continued to thrive. Ironically, therefore, Genghis Khan and his rampaging Eastern hordes had proven to be one of the religion’s most unlikely benefactors.

As Barnaby Rogerson has noted, when

you examine the religious practice of a Sunni and a Shia Muslim for differences, the variations are small. They acknowledge the same Koran, the same practice of five daily prayers, the same calendar, the same practice of fasts and the same rituals of the haj pilgrimage.[2]

The real difference between the Sunni and Shi’a branches of Islam lies in the fact that, once the Prophet Muhammad had died in 632 CE, his followers began to argue over who was more deserving of becoming the logical heir to the Muslim religion itself. Indeed, whilst in his own lifetime Muhammad had united the Arab tribes into a single unit, his absence soon led to serious infighting. Indeed, it began when he was still on his deathbed. One prominent follower, Umar ibn al-Khattab (584-644 CE), proposed that Muhammad’s successor should be his close friend, Abu Bakr (573-634 CE), and he was duly made First Caliph. A sizeable number of dissenting Muslims, on the other hand, strongly disagreed and insisted that Muhammad had already formerly decreed beside a pond at Ghadir Khumm that his successor should be Ali ibn Abi Talib (601-661 CE), his cousin and son-in-law. This dispute, caused by the fact that Muhammad’s own sons had not survived into adulthood, eventually led to the so-called Ridda Wars, or ‘Wars of Apostasy’. These conflicts took the form of a series of military campaigns initiated by Abu Bakr against those tribes who had rejected his leadership and who preferred, instead, to collaborate with rebel tribal leaders such as Tulayha, Musaylima and Sajjah, each of whom were striving to attain prophethood. However, most of Abu Bakr’s enemies were either routed or became reincorporated within the Caliphate.

The Sunni view is consistent with that held by Umar ibn al-Khattab and his unwavering support for Abu Bakr, whilst the Shi’a insist that Ali ibn Abi Talib Ali, on account of having married Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima (609-632 CE), should have been the one to succeed his father-in-law. Ali himself, on the other hand, who Shi’ites also recognise as the First Imam, did go on to become the Fourth Caliph and ruled from 656 to 661 CE, although he was eventually assassinated and succeeded by his chief opponent, Muawiyah I (602-680 CE).

Throughout the course of the subsequent Abbasid period, between 750 and 1258 CE, not one of the descendents of Ali and Fatima – including Husayn ibn Ali (625-680 CE), their beloved son and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad himself, who was beheaded by Yazid I (647-683 CE) after his defeat at the Battle of Karbala – exercised any political authority whatsoever, but the Shi’a nonetheless venerate such figures as ‘true imams’ and condemn both Abu Bakr and the second and third Caliphs who succeeded him: namely, Umar (584-644 CE) and Uthman (579-656 CE).

As noted previously, one Islamic sect that had grown in strength – particularly during the Abbasid and Seljuk periods – was the Ismailis. Based at Alarut, between the Iranian cities of Tehran and Rasht in the mountainous north, by the time the Safavid Empire had arrived on the scene its followers had already been propagating their own brand of Shi’ism for quite some time and had managed to extend their influence to Yemen, North Africa, southern Iraq, eastern Arabia and Syria.

Those Shi’ites who believe that Muhammad’s rightful successor was Ali, however, are themselves divided into two factions: Activist and Quietist. The Ismailis fall into the former category and believe that the Muslim world can only be governed by an imam who is descended from Ali himself, on account of possessing secret knowledge. The Quietists, meanwhile, believe that the line of visible imams ended in 874 CE, when five year-old Muhammad al-Mahdi (868-874 CE), the twelfth imam, had gone into hiding at Samarra. They also believe that he will eventually return as the Mahdi (“guided one”), a religious figure who will go on to prepare the Muslims for the Last Judgement. According to the Sunan Abu Dawud, one of six collections of hadith:

The Prophet said: The Mahdi will be of my stock, and will have a broad forehead [and] a prominent nose. He will fill the earth with equity and justice as it was filled with oppression and tyranny, and he will rule for seven years.[3]

His future reappearance is said to coincide with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, who will assist the Mahdi against the Masih ad-Dajjal, or Antichrist.

The Ismailis – also known as ‘Sevener Shi’a’ – dispute this idea on the basis that the imamate had not ended during the third quarter of the ninth century at all, and that it merely continued in a different line of Ali’s descendents. The ‘Activist’ epithet is applied to the Ismailis as a result of their commitment to spread the Shi’a religion through missionary work. The Twelvers, however, as ‘Quietists’, argue that the absence of the true imam implies that such activity should come to an end. It was the Twelvers, as we shall see, who went on to achieve religious supremacy within Iran.

By 1501 CE, after years of uncertainty and fratricide, the Timurid Empire had been forced to relinquish Persia, the Caucasus, Mesopotamia and Eastern Anatolia. These important territorial acquisitions were now in the hands of what eventually blossomed into the Safavid Empire. Shi’ite in nature, the Safavids had made use of new technological advances in gunpowder and few were able to compete with their military superiority.

In many ways, the Safavid era represents the emergence of Iran on the modern stage. Given the region’s colourful history, of course, the Iranians themselves were no longer one people as they had been under the Persian Empire and the Safavids had migrated between Kurdistan and Azerbaijan before establishing themselves at Ardabil in the country’s Ardabil Province. They had Turkic origins, too, as the Oghuz Turks had sunk their racial and cultural roots in Azerbaijan during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. They also had Greek, Circassian and Georgian lineage, but it was the Azeri Turks, in particular, who became the founders of the Safafid Empire. They are, nonetheless, considered by some historians to be ‘indigenous’ on account of having been in Iran for over four hundred years. This, despite the fact that the native tongue of the early Safavid shahs was Turkish and often masked by their promotion of Persian culture.

As Shi’ites, the Safavids naturally believed that they were direct male descendants of Ali but one of their number, Safi-ad-din Ardabili (1252–1334 CE) had earlier founded a Sufi order known as the Safaviyya and became a great poet and mystical leader. His successor, Sadr al-Dīn Mūsā (1305-1391 CE), continued the Sunni tradition and passed it on to his sons, although when Ismail I (1487-1524 CE ) became the first ruler of the Safavid Empire he declared that Iran’s official religion was now Twelver Shia. Ismail, who had previously been Shah of Azerbaijan, also proclaimed himself to be the long-awaited Mahdi and a reincarnation of Ali.

There were several reasons behind Ismail I’s decision to made Shi’ism the prevailing religion of the Safavid Empire. Among them was his desire to give Iran a unique identity of its own, as well as to contain the subversive Sunni elements who, spiritually, had more in common with the neighbouring Ottoman Empire. Forcing his Sufi subjects to adopt Shi’ism, therefore, was a way of securing loyalty to the Iranian state and this was achieved by appointing special religious leaders charged with the task of disseminating Twelver doctrine throughout the country’s institutions. Sunni mosques were destroyed, the names of the first three Caliphs were ritually cursed, Shi’a scholars replaced their Sufi counterparts, large-scale funding was made available for the construction of Shi’ite shrines, Sunni graves were desecrated and exiled Shi’a living elsewhere were invited back to Iran. Ismail also invited leading Islamic scholars from Southern Lebanon, Mount Lebanon, Syria, Eastern Arabia and Southern Iraq to form a new theocratic elite. Whereas only a single Shi’a text had existed prior to the widescale Safavid changes, Ismail’s specialised Ulema now spread the beliefs of Twelver Shi’ism throughout the country.

Having acquired enormous swathes of Persian territory, the Safavids ignored the Mughul Empire in northern India and Afghanistan and turned their attention west to the Ottoman Empire. The latter, which controlled parts of Iraq, Anatolia, North Africa and Eastern Europe, was a mighty foe indeed and Ismail thus began recruiting some of the Turcoman tribes in Eastern Anatolia. The Ottomans, concerned that the Safavids might persuade significant parts of Asia Minor to go over to the Shi’ite cause, particularly as the Takkalu Qizilbash tribe rose up against the Ottomans in 1511 CE and managed to resist a military force sent to put down the rebellion, led the newly-crowned Sultan Selim I (1470-1570 CE) to invade Safavid territory three years later. Due to the fact that Selim was in possession of muskets, Ismail’s soldier were eventually defeated at the Battle of Chaldiran and were forced to relinquish the Iranian capital of Tabriz. The threat of mutiny, however, led Salim to withdraw his troops and this allowed the Safavids to regroup and Ismail to recover most of his lost kingdom.

Whilst rulers such as Ismail II (1576-1577 CE) later made a stubborn attempt to reverse his predecessor’s iniatives by sparking a mini-Sunni revival, as the Safavids slowly consolidated their rule over subsequent decades the likes of Abbas I of Persia (1587-1629 CE) and Muhammad Baqir Majlisi (1616-98 CE) saw to it that Shi’ism remained supreme.

Under Sultan Husayn (1668–1726 CE), the last of the Safavid rulers, a state of religious turmoil gripped the country and there was constant war against the Ottomans. This had been brought about by Husayn’s own persecution of Iran’s remaining Sunni population, not to mention an attempt to forcibly convert his Afghan subjects to Shi’ism. As a result, in 1709 CE there was a rebellion in the Kandahar region and the local Safavid governor was murdered. By 1721 CE, Sunni Lezgins from the frontiers of Imperial Russia and Azerbaijan attacked the Shirvan province and 15,000 tribesmen massacred the Shi’a population. When the Russians discovered that some of their own countrymen had been killed in the fighting, meanwhile, trade links with Iran were ended and it resulted in the Russo-Persian War of 1722-1723 CE. To make matters worse, the Safavids were also defeated at the 1722 CE Battle of Gulnabad by Shāh Mahmūd Hotak (1697-1725 CE) of the Hotaki Dynasty, an Afghan monarchy that went on to capture Isfahan and bring the Savavid Empire to an end.


Iran During the Reign of the Qajar Dynasty

WITH the Safavids well and truly vanquished, rising star Nader Shah (1688-1747 CE) – founder of the Afsharid Dynasty – soon took advantage of the region’s heightening chaos by expelling Peter the Great’s (1672-1725 CE) imperial Russian troops, regaining valuable territory during the tempestuous 1730-1735 CE Ottoman-Persian War, invading the Mughal Empire and capturing Delhi in 1739 CE and then managing to reunite his new subjects back home. In addition, Nader actively sought to dismantle the country’s Shi’ite infrastructure by creating a mixed Shia-Sunni school of theology, having the leading Persian cleric murdered, recruiting Sunnis from Afghan, Kurdish, Turkmen and Baluchi backgrounds, relegating Ali to the status of an ordinary Muslim and outlawing the systematic vilification of the first three Caliphs. Furthermore, he asked the Ottomans to recognise Twelver Shi’ism as a fifth school of Sunni law in order to dissolve it within the wider field of ‘orthodox’ Islamic religion. Nonetheless, following Nader’s murder in 1747 CE – which came after he had blinded his own sons for allegedly staging earlier assassination attempts – the devotees of Shi’ism fought back to ensure that the religion continued to thrive.

Once Nader was out of the way, the country descended once again into the throes of chaos and disintegration. The Ottomans took back some of their old territory in Anatolia and Mesopotamia, the Caucasians formed their own khanates and the Omanis across the Gulf declared independence. Some of Nader’s minor sovereigns and military leaders briefly rose to the fore, but it was not until the advent of Karim Khan (1705-1779 CE) and the Zand dynasty that some form of comparative harmony was restored.

Following Khan’s own death, in 1779 CE, the Iranians lost Basra to their Ottoman rivals and the Qajar Dynasty took full advantage of a bitter civil war to impose their own rule.

The Qajars were descended from the Oghuz Turks and had arrived during the Mongol invasions, when they had settled in Armenia. Originally, they had formed one of seven Qizilbash tribes that gave their allegiance to the Safavids and a certain Shahverdi Sultan went on to govern the Azerbaijan cities of Ganja and Karabakh during the sixteenth century. He was later sent by King Tahmasp I (1524-1576 CE) to oversee key Safavid territory in Georgia. The family itself, which took the name Qajar, provided the Safavids with diplomats and governors and were eventually located in strategic administrative centres throughout the Empire. The Qajars at Astarabad, close to the shores of the Caspian Sea, rose to prominence under Fath Ali Khan (1686-1726 CE), a military chief who was eventually murdered on the orders of Nader Shah. His son, Mohammad Hassan Khan Qajar (1722-1758 CE), was later killed in battle by soldiers belonging to Karim Khan’s Zand Dynasty, but not before he had inflicted great cruelty on the country in an effort to reunite it under his own rule. Cities were burnt to the ground and 20,000 of his opponents at Kerman were blinded after taking part in a siege.

The Qajar Dynasty was in the ascendency at a time when the imperialist Western powers – particularly Britain and Russia – were seeking to gain a foothold in the region. Naser al-Din Shah Qajar’s (1831-1896 CE) dictatorial reign even saw the importation of the latest European technology, although he was forced to relinquish the Caucasus to his Russia neighbours and withdraw from Afghanistan after the British saw his occupation of the country as a form of encroachment into India. Naser al-Din later signed over the Persian tobacco industry to a British major and sold the Iranian customs business to a wily Anglo-German entrepreneur.

Naser al-Din’s tenure was also marked by a series of modern reforms, including changes to the country’s taxation system, the restriction of religious leaders in the judiciary, the construction of factories, the publication of a national newspaper and the facilitation of higher education. More controversially, perhaps, he formed a military unit known as the Persian Cossack Brigade that was both armed and funded by the Russians. Naser al-Din’s reforms were often opposed and, in 1896 CE, he was assassinated by Mirza Reza Kermani (d. 1896 CE), a political revolutionary and loyal disciple of the leading Islamic modernist, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838-1897 CE).

His son and heir, Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar (1853-1907 CE), had been governor of Azerbaijan and was known for having spent his thirty-five years as Crown Prince in a haze of fornication and lavish spending. When he came to power, therefore, he was completely unsuited to the task and not able to deal with the financial chaos that had been left behind by his father. With the country in debt to both Russia and Britain, he was perfectly happy to travel extensively whilst borrowing even more money to pay off the country’s earlier loans and, in 1901 CE, handed over the rights for newly-discovered Iranian oil to yet another English businessman who apparently found himself in the right place at the right time. In 1906 CE, amid a series of angry protests at his wholesale capitulation to foreign interests, he was forced to agree to the formation of a National Consultative Assembly (Majles), a new constitution and an Iranian parliament. Less than six weeks later, Mozaffar ad-Din suffered a heart attack and died.

Following his father’s sudden demise, Mohammad Ali Shah Qajar (1872-1925 CE) stepped into his shoes and, conspiring with the Russians, made an immediate attempt to reverse the constutional changes that were set to be implemented by the National Consultative Assembly. Using his grandfather’s Persian Cossack Brigade, Mohammad Ali Shah ordered his troops to shell the parliament building and arrest its new deputies. In June 1908 CE he disbanded the Assembly itself, although by July 1909 CE demonstrations were taking place in some of Iran’s larger cities and a huge march – led by his constutional opponents – took place between Rasht and Tehran. This resulted in him being deposed by a wealthy nobleman called Mohammad Vali Khan Tonekaboni (1848-1926 CE) and having to seek permament exile in the north-west Italian city of San Remo, where he died some sixteen years later.

As soon as Mohammad Ali Shah had fled the country, the National Consultative Assembly held a vote and elected his eleven year-old son, Ahmad Shāh Qājār (1898-1930 CE), as their new monarch. One year later, the deposed Shah made an attempt to take back his throne by sending Russian-backed troops to Iran’s borders, but he was unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the fact that an Anglo-Russian Entente had been signed in 1907 CE, essentially paving the way for Britain and Russia to carve up Persia’s territorial extremities between them, the Russians in the north and Britain to the south, eventually led to Iran hiring a United States ambassador to sort out its finances. When, towards the end of 1911 CE, an attempt was made to extract taxes from wealthy oligarchs living in the Russian zone, the Russians themselves insisted that the ambassador be dismissed and moved their troops to the capital. As a result, the National Consultative Assembly was closed down once again and the constitution suspended.

In 1914 CE, with the outbreak of the First World War and the country adopting a policy of neutrality, Iran was nonetheless still under Russian occupation and its territories in Azerbaijan were also invaded by the forces of the Ottoman Empire. This led to clashes between two foreign armies taking place on Iranian soil, although the turmoil caused by the 1917 CE Bolshevik Revolution soon led the Russians to rapidly withdraw. Between 1914 and 1918 CE, however, the Ottomans continued to make military incursions into the country and committed brutal genocide in both Armenia and Assyria. Throughout this period, as you would expect, the boy-king Ahmad Shah Qajar was effectively relegated to the sidelines before the leader of the Persian Cossack Brigade, Reza Shah Pahlavi (1878-1944 CE), seized control of the country after staging a February 1921 CE coup d’état. Ahmad Shah, by then twenty-three years of age, fled west to Europe as his father had done before him. Ensconced in his new exiled abode, he issued the following statement:

At this tragic moment when the future of my country is at risk, all my thoughts are with my people, to whom I address this declaration: The coup d’état just committed by Reza Khan against the constitution and my dynasty, was committed through the force of bayonets. It contravenes the most sacred laws and fatally leads my people into great calamities and undeserved sufferance. I strongly raise my voice in protest against this coup d’état. Now and in the future, I consider null and void all acts emanating from such a government and committed under its rule. I am and remain the legitimate and constitutional sovereign of Persia, and I await the hour of my return to my country to continue serving my people.[4]

Ahmad Shah’s unwanted ‘return’ never materialised. After a period of one hundred and thirty-six years, the last ruler of the Qajar Dynasty had finally been vanquished.


1. Lewis, Bernard; From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2004), pp.43-4.

2. Rogerson, Barnaby; The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad and the Roots of the Sunni-Shia Schism (Abacus, 2006), p.353.

3. Abu: Kitab-ul-Mahdi, No. 4269.

4. International Qajar Studies Association; “Soltan Ahmad Shah and the Coup of 1925-26” at qajarpages.org. Retrieved October 13th, 2017.

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