Sunday, January 17, 2010

Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar


Moḥammad Khan Qajar (1742-1797) was the chief of the Qajar tribe. He was the son of Mohammad Hasan Khan, and grandson of Fath Ali Khan Qajar. Both his father and grandfather were already local rulers while his father even tried, unsuccessfully, for several years to wrest power from the Zands. He became the King of Persia in 1794 and established the Qajar dynasty. He was succeeded by his nephew, Fath Ali Shah Qajar.


Agha Mohammad Khan was so slender that at a distance he appeared like a youth of fourteen or fifteen. His beardless and shriveled face resembled that of an aged and wrinkled woman; and the expression of his countenance, at no times pleasant, was horrible when clouded, as it very often was, with indignation. The first passion of his mind was power; the second avarice; and the third revenge. In all these he indulged in excess, and they administered to each other. His knowledge of the character and feelings of others was wonderful; and it is to this knowledge, and his talent of concealing from all the secret purpose of his soul, that his extraordinary success in subduing his enemies can be attributed to.

At the age of six Agha Mohammad was castrated on the orders of Adil Shah to prevent him from becoming a political rival, but this disability did not hinder his career. Despite being a eunuch, he became the chief of his tribe in 1758. In 1762 he was captured by a rival tribe and sent to Shiraz as a prisoner to Karim Khan's court. Agha Mohammad spent the next 16 years as a hostage, until he escaped in 1779. That same year, the death of Shah Karim Khan Zand plunged the country into a series of civil wars and disputes over the succession, with many members of the Zand dynasty acceding to the Peacock Throne in the space of only ten years. In 1779, when Karim Khan was at the point of death, Agha Mohammad found excuses to remain out of the city. By pre-arrangement his sister notified him when Karim Khan had died. Agha Mohammad immediately galloped toward the north and reached Isfahan, a distance of 316 miles, in less than 3 days. From there he hurried to the southern shores of the Caspian Sea and was welcomed by his tribesmen.


While he was busy uniting and strengthening the Qajars, the Zands were torn by fratricide and a bitter struggle for succession. Agha Mohammad took the opportunity to launch a rebellion which, in 1794, succeeded in capturing Lotf Ali Khan, the last Zand ruler. Aided by the treachery of Haji Ebrahim, a counselor of Lotf Ali Khan, the young prince was blinded and strangled and the province of Kerman, which had aided Lotf Ali, was devastated and its population savaged. Two years later he proclaimed himself Shahanshah.

Agha Mohammad restored Persia to a unity it had not had since the fall of the Safavid dynasty. He was, however, a man of extreme violence who killed almost all who could threaten his hold on power. In 1795 he ravaged Georgia, a Christian kingdom to the north of Persia, which was formerly part of the Safavid empire. In the same year he also captured Khorasan. Shah Rukh, ruler of Khorasan and grandson of Nadir Shah, was tortured to death because Agha Mohammad thought that he knew of Nadir's legendary treasures.

In 1796 Agha Mohammad moved his capital from Sari to Tehran. He was the first Persian ruler to make Tehran, then only a village, his capital. Although the Russians took Derbent and briefly occupied Baku during the Persian Expedition of 1796, he successfully expanded Persian influence into the Caucasus, reasserting Iranian sovereignty over its former dependencies in the region. He was, however, a notoriously cruel ruler, who reduced Tbilisi to ashes and massacred its Christian population, as he had done with his Muslim subjects.

Agha Mohammad was assassinated in 1797 in the city of Shusha, the capital of Karabakh khanate, after about 16 years in power. Legend has it that at the night of his death, Agha Mohammad Khan ordered his servants to bring him a melon cut into slices. He finished half, ordered the other half to be put away and vowed to his servants, that if even one slice of the melon was missing in the morning, all three servants would be beheaded by him. Later on that night one of the servants forgot and ate a slice. The servants then killed Agha Mohammad Khan with the dagger because they were afraid he would kill them in the morning.

Agha Mohammad Khan is remembered most for his cruelty and his capacity as a warrior. His wrath was fearsome and devastating. But he was also a great military genius, nation-builder, and founder of a dynasty.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your interesting entry. If I can offer a couple of clarifications: Karim Khan never took the title of Shah. Instead, he was called Vakil, or regent of the people. That's the reason Karim Khan's name (and that of Lotf Ali Khan Zand) remained on street signs after the Islamic Revolution, when the names of the Shahs were removed.

    It's true Agha Mohammad was under a kind of house arrest in Shiraz, but he was treated with respect by Karim Khan and given a fair amount of freedom (or else he could not have been outside the city when Karim Khan died). Despite this treatment, Agha Mohammad had Karim Khan's remains taken from Shiraz to the new capital of Tehran, where they were buried beneath the threshold of Golestan palace, so they would be tread on by all who entered.

    ReplyDelete