Tumultuous Cultural Situation in Qajar Persia

  September 01, 2021   Read time 3 min
Tumultuous Cultural Situation in Qajar Persia
Abbas Mirza, Fath Ali Shah’s son and heir apparent, died a year before his father. Abbas Mirza, 1787-1833, was the second son of Fath Ali Shah but became heir to the throne because his older brother’s mother was of Georgian descent and not from the Qajar tribe.

In his brief life he had shown great valour in battle and administrative skill in governing the north-western provinces. He appears to have been one of the earliest Qajar princes to have had an inkling of what was being accomplished in the Western World in industry and science. Abbas Mirza aroused the enmity of the clergy for sending a few Iranians abroad to learn modem science, for his plans to bring foreign military advisers to create a standing army and for plans to establish small industries. This opposition hampered his efforts. He surrounded himself with some very able men. principally Abol Qasem Qaem Maqam.t Abbas Mirza, sensing his imminent death and wanting to ensure sound government, had prevailed upon Qaem Maqam to continue to serve his son. The future Mohammad Shah in turn had promised his father that he would never harm or ‘shed the blood of his Minister.

At Fath Ali Shah’s death the crown passed to Abbas Mirza’s eldest son who was prodaimed Mohammad Shah. Mohammad Shah’s rule had begun on a hopeful note principally because Qaem Maqam served as his chief First Minister. But Mohammad Shah could tolerate neither a strong character nor a dissenting voice. Before a year had passed he had his First Minister suffocated in a felt carpet, presumably shedding no blood. He replaced him with a mystic fool from Erivan. Haji Mirza Aqasi,* and ruled miserably for 13 years. Mohammad Shah’s rule witnessed an unnecessary and unsuccessful war with the Afghans for the capture of Herat and the growing influence of the Russians and the British.

Mohammad Shah died in 1848 and was succeeded by his son Naser al Din Shah. Bom in 1831. he ascended the throne at the age of seventeen. The death of kings in nineteenth-century Iran always presented problems. There were claimants and pretenders. Had it not been for the acumen of Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Nezam (later Amir Kabir). who soon became Naser al Din Shah’s First Minister, the path to the throne would not have been smooth. Amir Kabir was probably the ablest Iranian public servant of the nineteenth century. An intelligent and thoughtful man, he had the advantage of having visited Russia and Ottoman Turkey on diplomatic missions earlier In his career. These trips convinced him of the necessity of measures to drag Iran out of its isolation and backwardness. But within four years he met the fate of his predecessor and mentor. Qaem Maqam, and was murdered at the order of the Shah. Several Iranian writers believe the countiy never fully recovered from this loss. What is certain is that Amir Kabir’s murder deprived Iran of a fine administrator and its first systematic planner, and left foreign powers an even freer hand to meddle in the country’s affairs.

In addition to cultural and historical reasons, the Shahs of Iran were able to get away with arbitrary power over life and death because there was no well-defined aristocracy in Iran comparable in composition and function to that of Europe. This lack of hereditary aristocracy allowed for no other power bases, vesting totally unrestrained power in the Shah. The land-owning elite often changed when the king changed. The property of no-one was secure and could be taken away at the Shah’s pleasure. Ministers and government officials were the personal servants of the Shah, the populace his serfs.

Naser al Din Shah had some difficult years after Amir Kabir’s death. He became entangled in foreign wars and faced serious turmoil at home, but sheer longevity gradually made him a proficient preserver of the status quo. More significantly he kept both Britain and Russia satisfied and maintained an equilibrium in the award of concessions. Although the countiy remained stagnant, the last forty years of his rule was a period of relative stability and peace, and whether by chance or his acumen the territorial boundaries of Iran remained substantially intact.