Life at the Court of the Early Qajar Shahs, a memoir translated into English for the first time, offers a uniquely intimate look at a world veiled by privilege and power. Its author, Soltan Ahmad Mirza, was a prince—the forty-ninth son of Fath Ali Shah Qajar, who ruled Iran from 1797 to 1834. Looking back over the reigns of his father and two other shahs, he assembled a vast wealth of detail about life at the apex of Persian society: the role of the ruler, the hierarchy of the harem, court eunuchs, ceremonies, diversions, disputes, occasional violence, and—as a nexus for it all—an extraordinarily intricate web of connections by birth and marriage.
Among members of the royal family, Soltan Ahmad Mirza was revered for his vivid recollections of the past. When he set about composing his memoir in 1886, he widened his own knowledge by drawing extensively on the memories of women of the court—his mother (the favorite among his father’s hundreds of wives), his sisters, aunts and other residents of the harem. As a result, for the first time in any work about the period, women shine and cut sharp and sometimes-splendid figures. They are not mere appendages to the greater glory of the ruler, passively submitting to the dominant religious and patriarchal structure. Rather, they are complete persons, some of them highly intelligent and resourceful, as related in the memoir’s many vignettes about their influence in court matters.
This translation not only includes the complete text of Soltan Ahmad Mirza’s memoir, but is augmented with a great deal of additional contextual information and ancillary materials that makes the book an invaluable source to those interested in this important era of Iranian history.
Little is known about the Arab migrants who settled on the Iranian coast between Bushehr and Lengeh in the late 1500s. They were a disparate group of small tribes of sailors, traders, fishermen, pearl divers, and cultivators. Although they were all referred to as the Bani Hula, they were not a uniform group. In fact, they were each other’s fiercest competitors for access to the pearl banks. This frequently led to bloody and murderous encounters and feuds. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Arabs of Nakhilu had a fearsome reputation as pirates—which the Portuguese soon discovered to be warranted.
The Bani Hula received much attention during the eighteenth century when they tried to fill the power vacuum in the Persian Gulf caused by the fall of the Safavid dynasty and the civil war in Oman. However, although they were a maritime force to be reckoned with, they had no common cause and dissipated their strength by fighting among themselves. Furthermore, they had no staying power as their political and economic base was too narrow. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and down to the early twentieth century, one of the most active groups of Hulas were those of Kangan and Taheri. Their history, told here in some detail, is emblematic for the other Hula groups. Apart from showing the violence against each other, their story also highlights how their local lineages dominated political and socio-economic life for centuries in their area, often spanning more than one or two dynasties. It was these local families that guaranteed stability, continuity, and permanence even when, at the national and international level, there was turmoil, upheaval and profound change.