Three British ladies in Bakhtiariland

This week, my article on Three British Ladies in Bakhtiariland is published in the journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. The article explores the history of the Bakhtiari – through the eyes of three British women who visited the area across a span of 40 years.

The first of the women, Isabella Bird, travelled with the military spy Colonel Sawyer in 1890. She was a rare eye-witness of the 12 years of internal tribal turbulence which followed the 1882 murder of the Great Khan, Hosaynqoli Khan.

By the time Dr Elisabeth Ross worked in the area in 1909-10, the Bakhtiari had become much more outward looking. Dr Ross described what it was like in the Bakhtiari territories during the early years of what is now described as the Bakhtiari Domination. Most of the senior men were away in Tehran. Dr Ross is easily the most perceptive of the three British women; but her insider understanding means that she made exactly the same miscalculations as the Bakhtiari themselves. When Dr Ross described the Bibis, or senior wives, as splendidly in charge; she was actually witnessing the transformation of the Khans into absentee landlords, and their alienation from their traditional “tribal pyramid” of power.

Vita Sackville-West, by William Strang. Wikimedia Commons, 1910

Visiting in 1927, Vita-Sackville West seems blissfully unaware of the rapid decline in Bakhtiari power.

Sardar Zafar with his entourage

Stephanie Cronin (click here to see much of her book on tribal politics) describes how in 1923, “paralyzed by their own dissensions”, the Khans actually requested that the national government select their tribal leaders. Reza Khan then “reduced the Bakhtiyari khans to a condition of impotence and most of them to docility also”. All of the Khan’s castles in the Bakhtiari territories were empty – their nominal residents now “suave hosts” in “sumptuous houses” in Tehran.

Despite this – and like the other two British women – Vita did meet some descendants of Hosaynqoli Khan on Bakhtiari land. Although his son was “very handsome”; the then-ilkan, Sardar Zafar, was “a dumpy round figure”, being transported in the “motors of the Company” [B.P.] before he sent Vita’s party “presents out of his store: tinned peaches and tinned asparagus. Our table looked like the counter of an English grocer”.

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