Origins of the Qajars (Kadjars)*


In the study of Soltan Ali Mirza Kadjar hangs a carpet depicting the early Qajar (Kadjar) shahs and their predecessors, the Safavid shahs. Noting my interest in this piece, Prince Ali asked me what I thought about it. I answered that it was puzzling to see Qajar (Kadjar) shahs side-by-side with Safavid shahs and that I was wondering what the message of this juxtaposition might be. Without hesitation, Soltan Ali Mirza replied that this carpet depicts the reality that the Qajars (Kadjars) considered themselves the true heirs of the Safavids! This answer stunned me, in that in my view the Qajars (Kadjars) had overcome by sheer force of will and iron, the turmoil that had ended Safavid rule, and that this, at least in my mind, entitled them rightly to claim the prize as theirs without reference to any previous dynasty. It was only later, upon closer examination of the many historical sources with which I have occupied my mind for the sake of these "Qajar Pages," that I have come to understand the correctness and full meaning of that assertion.

The question of the origin of the Qajars (Kadjars) is a question that has not been answered satisfactorily yet. This has partly to do with the dearth of early records of the tribe, but also partly to do with the wishes of their detractors to keep the question hazy enough for slanders and accusations against the Qajars (Kadjars) (the tribe as well as the ruling dynasty) to stick with greater ease and virulence.(1)

On the question of slanders against the Qajars (Kadjars), there are indeed many.(2) With regard to their origins, the gist of the slanders being that the Qajars (Kadjars) were usurpers of the Iranian throne and that they themselves were of foreign origin (i.e. particularly Mongol) and thus undeserving of the rulership of the land of Aryans (Iran).(3) The stupidity of these charges aside, their existence obfuscated and obscured many important points regarding the Qajars (Kadjars) that could help us understand their relationship to the larger group of dynasties that emerged from the migration of the Turkic tribes (Oghuz and Seljuk in particular) from the central Asian plains South and West.

The Oghuz were a large confederation of tribes comprising many branches including those later termed the Qajars (Kadjars) and those later termed Ottomans (descendants of Gazi Osman Han or Osmanli). The Oghuz were of Turanian or Turkic origin of central Asia, a white race of short stature, unrelated to the Mongols but later mixed with them through conquest and intermarriage as was the case with most of the tribes residing in the path of the Mongol herds moving West, from the time of the Huns to that of Chengiz Khan and his descendants. Generally and generically members of the Oghuz tribes are also referred to as "Turkomen."(4)

As to when the Qajars (Kadjars) actually arrived in the areas of northern Azarbaijan and Gorgan (north-eastern Iran), areas they later were associated with most, is still debated. What is historically established is that the Qajars (Kadjars) as a distinct tribe are mentioned in fourteenth century records and that by the fifteenth century they had established themselves in the above mentioned regions. Their leaders or khans had already achieved high ranking positions and titles under the Safavids, and as a tribe they were part of the Qizilbash (Qezelbash) confederacy of the Safavids, with many of their leaders already titled "Shah."(6)

There were several clan divisions within the larger Qajar (Kadjar) tribe. The clans of Qovanlu (Quyunlu) and Davalu (Develu) were already prominent and often feuding clans early in the history of the Qajars (Kadjars) as they moved into the areas of southern Azarbaijan, Georgia and Northern Iran (the area of Ganja). Gavin Hambly notes that

Probably during the Safavid period, the well-established division between the two rival branches of the Yukhari-bash and the Ashaqa-bash Qajars emerged, each further sub-divided into the clans of the Quyunlu, Develu, Izzal-Dinlu, Ziyadlu, etc. The Quyunlu clan of the Ashaqa-bash branch provided the ruling dynasty of Iran from the late 18th to the early 20th century, while their erstwhile rivals, the Develu clan of the Yukhari-bash branch, provided many of the functionaries and military commanders of the kingdom. (op. cit., p. 106)

As to how and why the Qajars (Kadjars) of Ganja came to Gorgan, Astarabad and Torkaman Sahra, the area most associated with them in modern times is not exactly known. Tradition has it that Shah Abbas I (1587 - 1629) divided the Qajar (Kadjar) tribe by relocating a large number of them to the East, partly in order to provide him frontline defenses against the Uzbeks, and partly to break up their potential power from too large a number in and around Ganja. It so happens that this breakup resulted in the disappearance and assimilation of the Qajars (Kadjars) of Ganja altogether. Conversely, however, the breakup resulted in their growth in number, strength and prominence in and around Astarabad, their new capital and stronghold. It is here that the division of Yukhari-bash and Ashaqa-bash becomes more pronounced and is more firmly associated with the camel herders, Davalu/Develu (from the Turkish for camel "deveh" and the suffix "lu" meaning owner or possessor) and the sheep herders, Qovanlu/Quyunlu (from the Turkish for sheep "qoyun" and the suffix "lu" for owner or possessor). According to Hassan Fassa'i, Yukhari-bash and Ashaqa-bash referred to the geographical location of the respective clans during their sojourn in Ganja.(7) Yuqari or Yukhari in Turkish refers to "upper" or "upper part." Ashaqa, in turn, means "below" or "lower part." The term "bash," in both cases, means "head." What these appellations referred to thus were locations of the clans with respect to a geographically significant place such as a river or city. Those above it were the Yukhari-bash; those below, the Ashaqa or Ashshaq-bash.

There is still another tradition, one favored by Qajar (Kadjar) princes themselves, that the Qajar (Kadjar) shahs are descendants of Qajar Noyan son of the Mongol general Sertaq Noyan son of Saba Noyan.(7) Sertaq Noyan was reputedly the tutor (atabeg, later in Persian "atabak") of either the Il-Khan Arghun Khan (1284 - 1291) or of Mahmoud Ghazan Khan (1295 - 1304) his son. Hassan Fassa'i, the chronicler of the early Qajar (Kadjar) shahs says that "[t]he most venerable Qajars are the descendants of Qajar Nuyan son of the Mongol Sertaq Nuyan ... When the descendants of Qajar Nuyan increased in number, they and all the different branches of the tribes were called "Qajar" after their ancestor." (Heribert Busse, op. cit., p. 1)(8) This genealogy, however, is a late tradition of nineteenth century Qajar (Kadjar) historiographers and difficult to establish with certainty. It is this alleged genealogy that allows for the quip that Qajars (Kadjars) are really Mongols, with the implication that they are thus not Iranians (read not Aryans!)

There is really no need to address the racist aspect of this comment about the Qajars (Kadjars), other than to indicate that the assertion of the Mongol origin may not be correct, not in order to defend against the charge of non-Iranianness of the Qajars (Kadjars), but to set the record straight on their true origins. Even assuming that the above genealogy were correct, and one of the ancestors of the ruling house was indeed of Mongol blood, this does not establish the origin of the entire Qajar (Kadjar) tribe as Mongol, as the tribe precedes the appearance of this ancestor by centuries, nor that the ruling house is of Mongol origin, as there are scarcely any other links with individuals of Mongol origin beside that of the above named Qajar Noyan. If anything, the Qajar (Kadjar) ruling house has in its immediate ancestry Safavid blood on the paternal side, a point implied in the deeper meaning of Soltan Ali Mirza Kadjar's remark that the Qajars (Kadjars) considered themselves the true heirs of the Safavids, and on the maternal side the Qajar (Kadjar) ruling house has Qajar (Kadjar) blood going back as far as records were kept, in that the mothers of the chiefs of the Qajar (Kadjar) clans were mostly Qajar (Kadjar) and that those of the rulers most certainly had to be.(9)

The immediate ancestor of the Qajars (Kadjars) is Shah Qoli Khan Qajar Qovanlu (Qoyanlu) of the Qovanlus of Ganja, who, when the Qajars of Ganja moved east to Gorgan, married into the Qovanlu Qajars of Astarabad (Esterabad). His son was Fath Ali Khan Qajar, born ca. 1685-6 or 1692-3.(10) Fath Ali Khan's base was Astarabad and he was a renowned military commander in his time. He served as military commander under two Safavid shahs, Shah Soltan Hossein (1694 - 1722) and Shah Tahmasp II (1722 - 1732). In gratitude for his loyal and courageous service to the Safavids, Shah Soltan Hossein is reputed to have given Fath Ali Khan Qajar a wife from his own harem, Emineh(11), the daughter of Hossein Qoli Aqa, himself a descendant of Yaqub Soltan Qajar.(12) It is said that this wife was pregnant by the king at the time she was given to Fath Ali Khan, a fact he reputedly was aware of but decided to take as an even greater honor bestowed on him by his king. He not only accepted her as his first wife and queen, as he already was a local ruler, but also is said to have declared her child to be his and his heir.(13) This child was named Mohammad Hassan Khan Qajar, the future father of Agha Mohammad Khan and Hossein Qoli Khan ("Djahansouz Shah") Qajar.(14)

The fact that the father of the first Qajar (Kadjar) shah and the grand-father of the second Qajar (Kadjar) shah was possibly the son of Shah Soltan Hossein Safavi, complicates the lives of those who would deny the Qajars (Kadjars) their claim to be the legitimate heirs of the Safavids tremendously. In fact the Qajar (Kadjar) rulers are doubly legitimate. Once because they can claim descendancy from the Safavids through Shah Soltan Hossein and Mohammad Hassan Khan Qajar, and once because they earned the right to wear the Kiani crown by virtue of the force of their will to bring it about against all odds. Despite this double legitimacy and their own awareness of this fact, the Qajar (Kadjar) rulers chose not to make their parentage the issue, but rather chose to emphasize their clan and their own achievement of kingship in their own right. They had achieved great things on their own, without needing the added claim to Safavid blood.(15)

For one, while serving Shah Tahmasp II, Fath Ali Khan first earned the title of E'temad-ed-Dowleh and later the title of Vakil-ed-Dowleh. Gavin Hambly writes about these events as follows:

The grant of the title and office of Vakil-al-Daula confirmed that Fath Ali Khan was the real power in Tahmasp's camp and set a precedent followed on several later occasions: Nadir Khan Afshar adopted the same title in 1144-45/1732, when he replaced Tahmasp with the eight-month-old 'Abbas III; 'Ali Mardan Khan Bakhtiyari assumed it in 1163-4/1750 on behalf of Isma'il III; and Karim Khan Zand likewise, on behalf of the same figure-head a year later. (Op. cit., p. 108)

It was thus a Qajar (Kadjar) chieftain, Fath Ali Khan, who first held the title for which Karim Khan Zand later became so famous. For another, they had conquered all their domestic foes and even their foreign ones and reestablished the boundaries of the Safavid empire and crowned themselves Shahanshahs (emperors) of Persia.

This record did not need to be gainsaid!




*For a good article on the origins and genealogy of the Qajars (Kadjars), see Ann K.S. Lambton's study, Qajar Persia, University of Texas Press, 1988; see also Abbas Amanat's essay on Qajar Iran in Layla S. Diba, ed., Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch 1785-1925 , I.B. Tauris Publishers, London, 1998; as well as Prince Soltan Ali Mirza Kadjar's book on the subject: Les Rois Oubliés (The Forgotten Kings), Edition No1/Kian, Paris, 1992, and Prince Abounasr Azod's book (in Persian) A Review of History: The Qajars and Their Time, Iranbooks, Inc., Bethesda, MD., 1996.

As has been explained in the Introduction to these "Qajar Dynasty Pages," the ruling house's preferred transliteration of the Persian "Ghaadjaar" into European script is "Kadjar." However, since in the English speaking realm particularly, the transliteration "Qajar" has taken hold, we are keeping both side by side so as to not create confusion but at the same time acquaint the reader with the other spelling as well.

1) Soltan Ali Mirza Kadjar answers the question of the lack of records elegantly and poetically when he states that: "There were possibly already Kadjars on the steppes of Elam around 1500 B.C., or a thousand years later, during the reign of Cyrus. They themselves would never know it due to the lack of chronicles of the past. A happy people does not possess any." In Les Rois Oublies, op. cit., p. 10.

2) Much of this talk was generated during the Pahlavi era by elements who sought to glorify that dynasty by linking it to the ancient Iranian kings (read Aryan kings) and at the same time sought to legitimize the Pahlavis by delegitimizing the Qajars (Kadjars). Much like the efforts by German historiographers during Hitler's ascendancy in Germany, this movement had and still has distinct racist overtones hidden in nationalistic language. Much like their German counterparts also, these Iranian historiographers rely on a constructed mythological past, in this case heavily on their reading of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh or Book of Kings, to establish the pure Aryan origin of the appropriate lineages and the foreign (read inferior, impure and illegitimate) origin of other lineages, notably that of the Qajars (Kadjars). The fact that "Turan" is the great antagonist of "Iran" in the Shahnameh further helps to fan the racist flames against the Qajars (Kadjars) in that the Qajars (Kadjars) are in fact of Turanian (Turkoman) origin. (To this is also added -- and incorrectly we might add -- that the Qajars (Kadjars) are also of Mongol origin, thus compounding the alleged sin!) That this constitutes but only the most superficial reading of the Shahnameh, however, could be attested to by any Iranian school child! Furthermore, this attitude also glances over the fact that this search for pure Aryans as the only legitimate Iranians would yield precious little, genetically speaking, in today's Iran, in that today's Iran, much like that of Ferdowsi's time, is a multinational and multicultural Iran made up such a mix of races and peoples that to speak of race purity and legitimacy based on this elusive concept would only entail what the likes of Milosovic have asked for more recently in that poor country "Yugoslavia" -- ethnic cleansing. It is almost comic if it were not so truly twisted and sad, -- much like the short, brown haired, brown eyed Hitler and his longed for tall, blond, blue eyed "Aryans" -- that many of those who adhere to this racist view regarding Iran, would themselves not pass muster under their own criteria of racial purity for Iran and its appropriate ruling lineages!

Now, there is yet another dimension to the slanders against the Qajars (Kadjars), also from the same quarters, that has to do with the religious affiliation of the Qajars (Kadjars). The Qajars (Kadjars) following the tradition of the Safavids, made Shi'ite Islam the official religion of the country and were strongly supported by the religious hierarchy of Iran for that reason. Islam, however, is an Arab religion in origin, even though Shi'ite Islam has distinct Iranian overtones, given that it found fertile ground in Iran as a minority sect and that almost all of its imams resided in Iran and have prominent shrines dedicated to them there. This Islamization and Arabization was bemoaned by Ferdowsi when he wrote his introduction to the Shahnameh in Farsi without using a single word of Arab origin. There is thus this anti-Islamic bent in much of today's nationalist discussion as well, using the Shahnameh again to hearken to Iran's pre-Islamic Zoroastrian past and calling that a truer Iran than its post-Arab invasion self. Though one may sympathize with that view, it hardly follows from this that the Qajars (Kadjars) were somehow responsible for the Islamization of the country or for making Shi'ite Islam the official religion of Iran. Both of these facts preceded the Qajars (Kadjars) who only followed a tradition much older than them. This tradition, we might add, was continued by the Pahlavis as well, though with mixed signals and language and actions, which partly resulted in the enmity that developed between them and the clerical establishment and ultimately led to their downfall.

There is still another twist to these stories. According to Gavin Hambly, The Cambridge History of Iran , Vol 7, p. 105, the slanders against the Qajars (Kadjars), though originating from different sources than the ones mentioned above, even went as far as making them enemies of the Shi'ite martyr Hussein b. 'Ali, the third Shi'ite imam! He states: "Indicative of the opprobrium attached to the Qajar name during the 19th century was the rumour that linked their origins with Damascus and their ancestors with the army of the execrated Yazid." (Ibid., fn. 1.) On the various other charges against the Qajars (Kadjars), please see the Table of Contents in these pages, under "Answers to Questions About the Qajars (Kadjars)"

3) Soltan Ali Mirza Kadjar, in his book Les Rois Oublies, op. cit., answers the charge of "usurpers" this way:

In truth the north-south opposition that has always existed in Persia, manifests itself again in the long conflict between the Zands and the Kadjars. If the people of Shiraz and Isfahan declare their allegiance to the Zands, it is only because they are from the south and that in their eyes the Kadjars are turkoman nomads and barbarians. ... The south would always be wary of them. From their wariness would arise the tale, repeated by certain European orientalists, that the Kadjars are a foreign dynasty and thus usurpers. ...

Indeed they are not Persians, but they are therefore not more foreign to the Iranian mosaic than say the Safavids, who represented the quintessence of Persian civilization and yet came from Azarbaijan.

As to usurping power, there would have had a to be a power for them to usurp. The long quest by the Kadjars that begins with Fath Ali Khan and continues the length of the 18th century, unfolds at a time of grave instability, where those who would proclaim themselves kings are far from governing all of Iran. ... In fact they [the Kadjars] would recreate Iran. (Op. cit., pp. 53-54)

4) See Soltan Ali Mirza Kadjar, op. cit., p. 9, among others. See also G. Hambly, op. cit., p. 105, fn. 1, who states that this Oghuz link should be considered more "hypothesis" than historically established fact. Ibid., p. 104.

5) See A.K. Lambton, op. cit., pp. 1-2 and G. Hambly, The Cambridge History of Iran , Vol. 7, pp. 104-106; as well as Abbas Amanat in Royal Persian Paintings , op. cit., p. 15.

6) Heribert Busse, op. cit., p. 1. However, in another footnote referring to the same passage, Busse notes that in other records, the Yukhari-bash/Ashaqa-bash division may have occurred later than Ganja, more specifically referring to the location of the respective clans in and around Astarabad. He writes: "According to other sources, the Qajars were located at Ganja and Erevan in the time of the Safavids only; the subdivision into Yukharibash and Ashshaqbash is referred to the Safavids, too, and said to have taken place in the region of Astarabad/Gorgan, not at Ganja and Erevan." (Ibid., fn. 5). This latter version also corresponds with records among the princely families, including that of the Ghahremani family referred to below in note (9).

7) According to Heribert Busse, op. cit., p. 1, fn. 1, the term "noyan" or "nuyan" is Mongolian and was the title of military commanders in the Mongol Army.

8) An elaborate family tree of the Ghahremani princes, given to us by our cousin Fathali Ghahremani-Ghajar, retraces this same ancestry very well.

9) This tradition was established by Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar (Kadjar), the first ruler of our dynasty. We can only speculate about the reasons why, but one answer readily comes to mind. He, above all, was supremely aware of the importance of blood lines and wanted to preserve the Qovanlu line in the ruling house. The fact, though, that his own father may have been of Safavid descent but from a Qajar mother, may have reinforced in Agha Mohammad Khan the need for the mothers of rulers to be definitely Qajar and if possible Qovanlu also.

10) Gavin Hambly, The Cambridge History of Iran , Vol. 7, p. 107.

11) This is the name mentioned in Soltan Ali Mirza Kadjar's book (op. cit.); however, Mohammad Moshiri (op. cit.) gives a different name, "Kheyr-ol-Nessa Khanoum," which may well have been her title. Ibid., p. 51, fn. 1.

12) Hossein Qoli Aqa and Yaqub Sultan Qajar are mentioned as immediate ancestors of Emineh "Kheyr-ol-Nessa Khanoum" by AKS Lambton, op. cit., p. 4.

13) In Soltan Ali Mirza Kadjar, Les Rois Oublies, (op. cit., pp. 16-17 and p. 55). This fact is reiterated in Ann Lambton's book ["This woman, according to Rustam al-Hukama, was pregnant by the shah, and in due course gave birth to Muhammad Hasan." (AKS Lambton, op. cit., p.4)]. She quotes it from Mohammad Moshiri, ed., Mohammad Hashem Assef's (Rostam-ol-Hokama) Rostam-ol-Tavarikh (op. cit., p. 51, fn. 1) who has it from several sources which he cites in the same footnote.

14) Djahansouz Shah's son, in turn, will be Fath Ali Shah Qajar, the second shah of the Qajar (Kadjar) dynasty.

15) Cf. Soltan Ali Mirza Kadjar, op. cit., p.55; Mohammad Moshiri, op. cit., p. 52 fn.


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Peter Avery, Gavin Hambly, et al., The Cambridge History of Iran: From Nadir Shah to the Islamic Republic , Vol. 7, Cambridge U.P., Cambridge, 1991.

Heribert Busse, trans., Hassan Fasa'i's History of Persia Under Qajar Rule , Columbia U. P., New York, 1972.

Layla S. Diba, et al., eds., Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch 1785-1925, I.B. Tauris, London, 1998.

Prince Ali Kadjar, Les Rois Oublies: L' Epopee de la Dynastie Kadjare , Edition No1/Kian, Paris, 1992.

AKS Lambton, Qajar Persia: Eleven Studies , I.B. Tauris, London, 1987.

Mohammad Moshiri, ed., Rostam-ol-Hokama's Rostam-ol-Tavarikh , Amir Kabir, Tehran, 1969.



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