Timeline: Qajar {1779-1924}

The Qajar monarchs ruled Iran during a turbulent period, marked by crises within their own territory, threats from neighboring states, and by global events that had an impact on the social order of their society. The most prominent threats posed by other nations included occupation of territory by foreign powers, the First World War I, Russian Revolution of 1917, the constantly looming threat from the Ottoman Empire at their borders, and the growing economic power of the United States. Internally they faced a number of uprisings in which populations demanded self-governance or independence, as well as financial crises. Intrigues, disagreements, and even betrayals by and among the politicians who supported them often compounded these external challenges. Such challenging times created a sense of confusion and powerlessness that prevented the Shahs from fully focusing on the well-being of the nation. At the turn of the twentieth century, the cumulative distrust of the rulers and resentment among the general public primed Iranians to demand an alternative governing system. The Constitutional Movement of 1906/1324 AH resulted in the drafting of a new constitution that affirmed the rule of the Qajar Shahs. It remained in effect until 1925/1343 AH when the dynasty was overthrown.


Despite such political and financial challenges, there were cultural and social developments that carried the country along a path of modernization. Iranians made strides in the arts, music, literature, and other fields. Leading politicians, activists, artists, architects, poets, writers, and educators, both men and women, became advocates for fruitful improvements in various sectors; and, the royal family, as the main patrons, supported those changes including the import of photography, lithography, and cinema; new styles in visual arts, literature, music, and architecture; and opening modern schools for boys and girls. The Qajar period was one of great intellectual exchange with the world. Students from the region were sent to Europe, and European educators were hired to teach in the region. As a result of new publishing techniques and the flourishing of the publishing industry, books were translated into Farsi, and information became available via newspapers to an unprecedented degree.


Qajar rule began when Lotf Ali Khan, the last sovereign of the Zand Dynasty was defeated by Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar (r. 1794-1797/1208-1211 AH), who unified the Qajar Turk tribes and brought Iran under his rule. He moved the capital to Tehran and was crowned king in 1796/1210 AH. At that time Azarbaijan, a northwestern region bordering the Ottoman Empire, was the most important state of Iran in terms of trade and foreign relations with the West, and most important Qajar families owned lands there. Because of these factors, the crown prince of each Qajar shah lived in Azarbaijan and served as the governor until he was called to Tehran to be crowned king. Farsi was made the official language and Shia’ Islam the official religion.


Agha Mohammad Khan was assassinated in 1797/1211 AH and succeeded by his nephew, Fath Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834/1211-1250 AH). Only three years later the Russian Tsar would announce his intention to annex territory under Qajar control, and by 1804/1219 AH the Tsar’s forces had invaded. In 1813, Fath Ali Shah signed the Treaty of Golestan recognizing Russia’s authority over most of the north Caucasus region. The signing of the Treaty of Turkamanchai in 1828 ended a second Russian onslaught but gave Russian control of what is now Armenia and Azerbaijan.[1]


While struggling with Russia and Britain, Fath Ali Shah and Abbas Mirza (r. 1789–1833/1203-1248 AH), the crown prince, reorganized the army, reformed the taxation system, and modified tribal regulations to meet the Islamic legislation and the edicts of the previous Iranian dynasties. Fath Ali Shah also supported religious activities and commissioned mosques, for example, the Sahn-e Azade at the Imam Reza Shrine Complex in Mashhad, to emphasize on his court’s reverence for Islam.[2] Recognizing art as a tool through which the dynasty could assert its legitimacy and sway, the monarch ordered many self-portraits, some of which were sent to European authorities as gifts.[3]


Also, with the permission of the Shah, for the first time, Abbas Mirza sent two students to London to study painting and medicine: Mohammad Kazem, the son of Abbas Mirza’s personal artist, and Mirza Baba Afshar, the son of one of his sergeants.[4] Following this example, other Qajar monarchs sent students to Europe to study in various fields. Abbas Mirza, also focused on his own children’s education and urged them to become familiar with European achievements in technology.[5] Unfortunately, his ambitions to ensure major progress in Iran came to an end with his unexpected death in 1833.


Mohammad Shah (r. 1833-1848/1248-1264 AH), son of Abbas Mirza, succeeded Fath Ali Shah and attempted two unsuccessful campaigns to Heart. The province had been a part of Iran during the Safavid Period but was incorporated to Afghanistan by Britain. Unable to unravel political crises, Mohammad Shah pursued achievable changes in other areas. He invited European politicians, travelers, and artists to his court,[6] and he sent several groups of students to Europe to study for example sugar and textile manufacturing and to modernize factories in Iran.[7] He was enthusiastic about bringing new inventions to the nation; including photography, which reached Iran in 1844.[8] A love for this invention led to the extensive use of photography and the study of its techniques.[9] Artists, for instance, studied the use of studio lighting techniques and began to use photographic techniques that rendered more accurate representations of their subjects.


After the death of Mohammad Shah, his son Nasir al-Din (r. 1848-1896/1264-1313 AH) was crowned king. He arranged a campaign to Afghanistan in 1856/1272 AH to retake Herat, but Iranian corps was defeated by Britain. The monarch finally agreed to sign the Treaty of Paris (1857/1273 AH) and recognize Afghanistan’s independence.[10] Being aware of Russia and Britain’s increasing political ambitions to control Iran, and Iran’s feeble military power, scNasir al-Din Shah contemplated re-organizing the military based on French model and modernizing the educational system. He granted his first prime minister, Mirza Taghi Khan (honorary title: Amir Kabir), the authority to reform Iran in possible spheres.


One of Amir Kabir’s significant plans was initiating Dar al-Fonoun (Polytechnic School for the arts, military, and sciences). Iranian and European teachers were hired to teach classes in sciences and engineering subjects including medicine, pharmacology, physics, mineralogy chemistry, mathematics, geography, and cartography; the arts and humanities including painting, lithography, music, history, religion, languages and literature, including Arabic, Farsi, Russian and French; as well as topics such as candle making, herbal medicine, and military arts.[11] Amir Kabir opened another school in Tehran for traditional arts; the Majma’-e Dar al-Sanayeh (The Polytechnic School of Crafts) encouraged the best artists in different traditional fields to train young talented students as well as to create artifacts for their patrons.[12]


The presence of European educators and artists in Iran, the opening of European-style schools in Iran, the visits of Iranian artists to Europe, photography, lithography, the demands by patrons for a more modern style, and the social and cultural changes all contributed to the development of a new movement in the visual arts. During the second half of the nineteenth century, leading artists such as Sani al-Molk (1814–1869/1229-1286 AH), Kamal al-Molk (1848-1941/1264-1360 AH), Mahmoud Khan Saba (1813-1893/1228-1310 AH) and Abou Torab Ghaffari (d.1890/1307 AH) were the first in the region to adopt a new school of realism. They familiarized themselves and their disciples with western styles, implemented necessary stylistic features, and customized them to create their own distinguished style. They established an art that asserted their autonomy and individuality, thus allowing them to express their true feelings toward their subjects. Their works realistically depicted the lives of the middle and lower classes. Art no longer exclusively served the interests of the royal family; artists started communicating with the needs of the growing bourgeoisie as well.


Another important advance was the import of lithography that was improved by Sani al-Molk after his return from Italy sometime around 1850. Lithography played a crucial role in increasing public sentience toward politics and social happenings, because it made possible mass publication of books and newspapers. In 1837/1253 AH, Mirza Saleh Kazerouni, one of the students sent to Europe by Abbas Mirza, published the first newspaper in Iran. It was an untitled monthly published in Tabriz, and because of it, Kazerouni is considered the first Iranian reporter.[13] Later, owed to Amir Kabir, the first lithographed weekly newspaper, Vaghayeh Etefaghiyeh (The Happenings), was published from 1851 to 1861 covering the the government’s announcements and events in the major regions.[14] Many books were illustrated and published by using the technique of lithography. One example is Mirza Motaleb Esfahani, an artist working and teaching at Majma’-e Dar al-Sanayeh, who illustrated a book, Tarikh Nameh Khusravan (The History of the Kings) written by Jalal al-Doleh.[15]


Lithography also impacted the visual arts by enabling the middle-class to purchase reproductions of artworks. This affected existing patronage systems. Such changes also increased society’s awareness of the ability of the visual arts to provide a means of expression.


During the Nasir al-Din Shah’s period women, too, started recognizing their capability to gain their social rights. For instance, Tahereh Qurrat al-Eyn, one of the leaders of Babi faith (a religion founded by Ali Muhammad Shirazi in 1844/1260 AH) was the first Iranian woman who tore off her veil in a Babi gathering and inquired women’s liberation.[16] Another example is Safiyeh Yazdi, who opened the first school for girls named Aftiyeh in Tehran in 1865/1282 AH. In 1868/1285 AH, she organized Women’s Freedom Organization for the first time in Iran.[17] Also, Bibi Khanoum Astarabadi (1858-1921/1274-1339 AH), who is known for her book Ma’ayeb al-Rejaal (The Vices of Men), enthusiastically led women to demand their rights during the rule of Nasir al-Din Shah and the next two shahs. She wrote several articles and opened a school for girls.[18]


Nasir al-Din Shah was assassinated in 1895 and Mozafar al-Din Mirza (r.1896-1906/1313-1324 AH) was called to Tehran. Despite Mozafar al-Din Shah’s efforts to establish modern schools, expand the publication of books, and set up Tehran’s first modern police force, his inability to disentangle political and economic complexities led to more unrest in society.[19] By 1906, the dynasty had acquiesced to public demands for establishment of the Ministry of Justice and a Parliament. A new constitution limited the authority of the Shahs in other areas, as well. For example, they were no longer allowed to sign any treaty without the approval of the Parliament. Such limitations were a notable step toward democracy for a nation with an inveterate dictatorial ruling system.


In his trip to France and Belgium in 1900, Mozafar al-Din Shah became familiar with cinematography, ordered Ebrahim Khan (honorary title: Sani al-Saltaneh), his court photographer, to learn filmmaking and to purchase all necessary equipment to be taken to Iran.[20] Like photography, cinema eventually became a passion for many individuals and brought information about the places and people that they never had a chance to learn about directly.


Mozafar al-Din Shah died a few days after he inaugurated the first session of the Parliament. Mohammad Ali Mirza (r. 1907-1909/1325-1327 AH) became Iran’s next ruler. In 1907, Russia and England proposed another treaty to expand their control over Iran. Based on the Anglo-Russian Agreement, Iran was divided into three zones: Russia controlled the north; Britain controlled the south: and the center, including Tehran, remained neutral. Both Russia and Britain had the right to conduct political and economic operations in the center. In spite of the Parliament’s opposition, the treaty remained in effect until 1918.[21] Supported by Russia, Mohammad Ali Shah’s first attempt after succeeding to the throne was to shut down the Parliament and to arrest many constitutionalists. His act, as well as Anglo-Russian Agreement, resulted in insuppressible rebellion in most cities. The people created a constitutional army, deposed the Shah, forced him to exile in Russia, and re-opened the Parliament.[22] The Parliament recognized the then-eleven-year-old Ahmad Shah (r.1909-1925/1327-1343 AH) as the ruler and his uncle, Azod al-Molk, as his regent.


A major achievement during Ahmad Shah’s reign was revolutionizing music mainly by Colonel Ali Naghi Vaziri (1887-1980/1304-1400 AH). The colonel had studied music in Paris and Berlin, and after returning to Iran in 1923/1341 AH, he composed songs for western and middle eastern music instruments. He wrote several Operas and Ballet. He founded a music school for both girls and boys, and Iran’s first European style National orchestra in 1923/1341 AH. He also transcribed various Iranian traditional pieces using western notation and he published several books about music. The next generation of singers and musicians, such as Rouh al allah Khaleghi and Abol-hasan Saba (1902-1957/1320-1376 AH), were either his students or used his methods and teachings in their music career. The best example is Ghamar al-Molouk Vaziri (1905-1959/1323-1379 AH), the first female singer who appeared in a public concert for men and women in 1924.[23]


In 1914, World War I added more instability to Iran’s economy and political affairs. Prime Minister Mostofi al-Mamaalek, and the Parliament declared Iran’s neutrality during the War. However, Russia and Great Britain ignored the government’s proclamation and used Iran’s lands as a battlefield. In order to prevent the downfall of Tehran and to secure the integrity of the nation, Mostofi al-Mamaalek proposed a carefully considered plan. He asked twenty-seven politicians, led by Reza Qoli Khan (honorary title: Nezam al-Saltaneh Mafi), the governor of Khuzestan province, and Sayyed Hasan Modares, the representative of Tehran, to leave Tehran and create a provisional government elsewhere, in case the Allies would win the war, Iran’s central government would oppose and abrogate the provisional government’s decisions. If the Alliance won, Ahmad Shah and his ministers would remain in power.[24]


In 20-21 February 1921, the coup d’état designed by commander –in-chief Reza Khan and Sayyed Zia Tabatabaee, a journalist, opened a new chapter in the history of Iran. Reza Khan marched to Tehran from Qazvinand. Sayyed Zia Tabatabaee was proclaimed the prime minister. He immediately imprisoned the intellectuals and some Parliament members who had declared his cabinet unconstitutional. Britain paid sixty thousand Tommans for the cost of the coup and assisted Reza Khan and Sayyed Zia Tabatabaee.[25] Later, Reza Khan forced Sayyed Zia to resign. Britain did not support Sayyed Zia and only gave him refuge in Palestine to remove him from the scene.[26]


Ahmad Shah, who had departed to Europe in November 1923, sent a telegram to Reza Khan and his office in Tehran in October 1924 announcing his return to Iran, but he never fulfilled his plans. Reza Khan, now becoming more powerful, ordered his allies in the Parliament to approve a resolution entrusting the government to him.[27] In December 1925, the constitution was modified to permanently end the reign of Ahmad Shah and to exclude the Qajar Dynasty from power. Reza Khan crowned himself king in 1925.[28]


Mahshid Modares



 1 See: Maziar Behrooz, “Revisiting the Second Russo-Iranian War (1826-28): Causes and Perceptions,” Iranian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 3 (2013): 359-381.

 2 Abbas Amanat, Ghebleh A’lam: Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar va Padeshahi Iran (Pivot of the Universe: Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar and the Iranian Monarchy), translated by Hassan Kamshad (Tehran: Karnameh Publishers, 2004), 40.

3 Layla S. Diba, “Images of Power and the Power of Images,” in Royal Persian Paintings, The Qajar Epoch (1785–1925), edited by Layla S. Diba and Maryam Ekhtiar (New York: I. B. Tauris Publishers, 1998), 31.

4 Ahmad Hashemiyan, Tahavolat Iran dar Doreh Ghajar va Madresseh Dar-al-Fonoun (The Improvements in Iran During the Qajar Period and the Dar-al-Fonoun School) (Tehran: Moaseseh Joghrafiyaee va Kartougraphy Sahab, 2000), 13. Also see “History of Iran: Abbas Mirza,” Iran Chamber Society, http://www.iranchamber.com/history/articles/siege_of_herat13_appendix.php (accessed February 12, 2014).

5 Amanat 2004, 67–68.

6 L.Thornton, The Orientalists Painter-Travelers 1828–1908 (Paris: ACR Edition International, 1983), 80.

7 Hashemiyan 2000, 56.

8 Pirooz Sayyar, “The Legacy of Qajar Period Photographers,” Fasl Nameh Tavoos, No. 1 (Fall 1999): 40.

9 See: Yahya Zoka, Tarikh-e Akasi va Akasaan-e Pishgam dar Iran (The History of Photography and Pioneer Photographers in Iran) (Tehran: Elmi & Farhangi Publishers, 1997), 59, 146, 147, 223.

10 Joachim M. Waibel, “The making of the Treaty of Paris and the futility of the War between Great Britain and Persia 1856-1857,” Journal of the International Qajar Studies Association, Volume V (2005): 111-112.

11 Hashemiyan 2000, 91-93.

12 Yahya Zoka, Zendegi va Asar-e Ostad Sani’ol-Molk (Life and Works of Sani’ol-Molk, 1814–1866) (Tehran: Markaz Nashr Daneshgahi, 2003), 32.

13 Ahmad Tajbakhsh, Tarikh-e Tamadon va Farhang Iran, Doreh-e Qajar (History of Civilization and Culture of Iran During the Qajar Period) (Shiraz: Navid Shiraz Publishers, 2003), 392.

14 Tajbakhsh 2003, 393–394.

15 Zoka 2003, 151-152.

16 Muhammad Shahimi, “Iranian Women and the Struggle for Democracy,” PBS Frontline: Tehran Bureau, April 15, 2010 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2010/04/iranian-women-and-the-struggle-for-democracy-i-the-pre-revolution-era.html (accessed January 16th, 2014).

17 Tajbakhsh 2003, 455-457.

18 See: The Education of Women and The Vices of Men, Translated from the Persian and with an Introduction by Hasan Javadi and Willem Floor (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2012). Also see: Afsaneh Najmabadi, editor, Bibi Khanum Astarabadi's Ma'ayib al-Rijal: Vices of Men (Midland Printers, Chicago, 1992).

19 Nikki R. Keddie, Qajar Iran and The Rise of Reza Khan 1796-1925 (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1999), 51-52.

20 Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 1: The Artisanal Era, 1897-1941 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 27 and 44.

21 “Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, an agreement relating to Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet,” Encyclopedia Iranica http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/anglo-russian-convention-of-1907-an-agreement relating-to-persia-afghanistan-and-tibet (accessed January 17th, 2014).

22 Homa Katouzian, State And Society In Iran: The Eclipse of the Qajars and the Emergence of the Pahlavis (New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2006), 35.

23 Rouh al allah Khaleghi, Sargozahst e Mousigi-ye Iran (The History of Iranian Music), 5 ed. (Tehran: Safee Ali Shah Publishers, 1956), Vol. 1: 329, 441 and Vol. 2: 1-7, 34-36.

24 Ali Modaresi. Mard e Rozegaran: Sayyed Hasan Modares (A Man For All Ages: Sayyed Hasan Modares) (Tehran: Hazaaraan Publishers, 1995), 65-70.

25 Michael Zirinsky, Imperial Power and Dictatorship: Britain and the Rise of Reza Shah, 1921-26 (Boise: Boise State University, 1992), 645 and 658.

26 Zirinsky, 1992, 646.

27 Cyrus Ghani, Iran and the Rise of Reza Shah: From Qajar Collapse to Pahlavi Power (New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1998), 9.

28 “Ahmad Shah Qajar (r. 1909-1925), the seventh and last ruler of the Qajar dynasty,” 2011, Encyclopedia Iranica http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ahmad-shah-qajar-1909-1925-the-seventh-and-last-ruler-of-the-qajar-dynasty (accessed March 12, 2014).

29 “Ahmad Shah Qajar (r. 1909-1925), the seventh and last ruler of the Qajar dynasty,” 2011, (accessed March 12, 2014).


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