What Was the Qajar Dynasty?

Nasser al Din Shah Qajar, ruler of Persia from 1848 to 1896.
Portrait of Nasser al-Din, a Qajar Dynasty shah of Persia (Iran). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Definition:

The Qajar Dynasty was an Iranian family of Oghuz Turkish descent that ruled Persia (Iran) from 1785 to 1925. It was succeeded by the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925 - 1979), Iran's last monarchy. Under Qajar rule, Iran lost control of large areas of the Caucasus and Central Asia to the expansionist Russian Empire, which was embroiled in the "Great Game" with the British Empire.

The eunuch chief of the Qajar tribe, Mohammad Khan Qajar, established the dynasty in 1785 when he overthrew the Zand dynasty and took the Peacock Throne.

He has been castrated at the age of six by the leader of a rival tribe, so had no sons, but his nephew Fath Ali Shah Qajar succeeded him as Shahanshah, or "King of Kings."

Fath Ali Shah launched the Russo-Persian War of 1804-1813 to halt Russian incursions into the Caucasus region, traditionally under Persian dominion. The war did not go well for Persia, and under the terms of the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan, the Qajar rulers had to cede Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and eastern Georgia to the Romanov Tsar of Russia. A second Russo-Persian War (1826 - 1828) ended in another humiliating defeat for Persia, which lost the rest of the South Caucasus to Russia.

Under the modernizing Shahanshah Nasser al-Din Shah (r. 1848 - 1896), Qajar Persia gained telegraph lines, a modern postal service, western-style schools, and its first newspaper. Nasser al-Din was a fan of the new technology of photography, who toured through Europe.

He also limited the power of the Shi'a Muslim clergy over secular matters in Persia. The shah unwittingly sparked modern Iranian nationalism, by granting foreigners (mostly British) concessions for building irrigation canals and railways, and for the processing and sale of all tobacco in Persia. The last of those sparked a nation-wide boycott of tobacco products and a clerical fatwa, forcing the shah to back down.

Earlier in his reign, Nasser al-Din had sought to regain Persian prestige after the loss of the Caucasus by invading Afghanistan, and attempting to seize the border city of Herat. The British considered this 1856 invasion a threat to the British Raj in India, and declared war on Persia, which withdrew its claim.

In 1881, the Russian and British Empires completed their virtual encirclement of Qajar Persia, when the Russians defeated the Teke Turkmen tribe at the Battle of Geoktepe. Russia now controlled what is today Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, on Persia's northern border.

By 1906, the spend-thrift shah Mozaffar-e-din had so angered the people of Persia by taking out massive loans from the European powers and squandering the money on personal travels and luxuries, that the merchants, clerics, and middle class rose up and forced him to accept a constitution. The December 30, 1906 constitution gave an elected parliament, called the Majlis, power to issue laws and confirm cabinet ministers. The shah was able to retain the right to sign laws into effect, however. A 1907 constitutional amendment called the Supplementary Fundamental Laws guaranteed citizens' rights to free speech, press, and association, as well as the rights to life and property.

Also in 1907, Britain and Russia carved Persia into spheres of influence in the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907.

In 1909, Mozaffar-e-din's son Mohammad Ali Shah tried to rescind the constitution and abolish the Majlis. He sent the Persian Cossacks Brigade to attack the parliament building, but the people rose up and deposed him. The Majlis appointed his 11-year-old son, Ahmad Shah, as the new ruler. Ahmad Shah's authority was fatally weakened during World War I, when Russian, British and Ottoman troops occupied Persia. A few years later, in February of 1921, a commander of the Persian Cossack Brigade called Reza Khan overthrew the shahanshan, took the Peacock Throne, and established the Pahlavi Dynasty.