The Thousand Families

Commentary on Leading Political Figures of Nineteenth Century Iran

by Ali Shabani (Author) Patricia J. Higgins (Editor and translator) Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi (Editor and translator)
©2018 Monographs XXX, 200 Pages
Series: From Antiquity to Modernity, Volume 2


The Thousand Families by Ali Shabani, former court journalist and writer under Mohammad Reza Shah, is a lively and entertaining anecdotal history of the Qajar family, who ruled Iran from 1796 to 1925, as well as a number of their associates. Using memoirs, diaries, government documents, and nineteenth century histories, the author paints a vivid picture of the strengths and weaknesses, character and habits, and family backgrounds and familial legacies of the leading figures of the day. He comments, often ironically and with novel metaphors and sometimes biting criticism, on the behavior of these leaders, and he provides concise observations concerning the effects of their actions on the country and people of Iran. He outlines as well the policies and practices of the Qajars with respect to governance and traces the changes effected in the overall governmental structure of Iran during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The gradually increasing influence of foreign powers (primarily Great Britain and Russia) throughout this era does not escape the author’s acerbic comments. Appendices provide extensive documentation on kinship relationships within the royal family.
The translators have added notes, bracketed in the text and in footnotes, to help orient readers less familiar with Iranian history than the author’s original audience. These include key dates, more detail on sources (when available), reference to easily accessible additional information on key figures, and explanations of selected Persian sayings, customs, and practices.
Scholars and students of Iran, the Middle East, and the nineteenth century in general will find this book of interest, as will the general reader interested in royalty, political systems, revolution, and center-periphery relationships.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for The Thousand Families
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Translators’ Introduction
  • Glossary
  • Preface to the Second Edition [Including a Letter from Shams Āl-e Ahmad]
  • Preface to the First Edition
  • 1 The Era of Khans
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • Notes
  • 2 The Age of Princes
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • Notes
  • 3 The Arrival of the Court Bureaucrats
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • Notes
  • 4 The Presence of the Statesmen
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • Notes
  • 5 Parliamentary Government
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • Notes
  • Appendix A: Wives of Fath 'Ali Shāh (Alphabetically)
  • Notes
  • Appendix B: Sons of Fath 'Ali Shāh (By Year of Birth)
  • Notes
  • Appendix C: Daughters of Fath 'Ali Shāh (In Order of Birth)
  • Name Index
  • Subject Index
  • Series index

| vii →


The Thousand Families: Commentary on Leading Political Figures of Nineteenth Century Iran is a translation of Hezar famil (The thousand families) by Ali Shabani, a journalist, editor, and administrator who worked closely with the court of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and continued his writing career independently in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Originally published in Persian in Tehran by Bu Ali Publishers in 1987 and then published in a second, revised edition by Zarrin Publishers in 1996, the book is a lively and entertaining anecdotal account of, and commentary on, the Qajar family, who ruled Iran from 1789 to 1925, as well as a number of their associates. Using memoirs, diaries, government documents, and nineteenth century histories, the author highlights the strengths and weaknesses, character and habits, and family backgrounds and familial legacies of the leading figures of the day. He also outlines their policies and practices with respect to governance, traces major changes in the overall governmental structure of Iran during the nineteen and early twentieth century, and comments on the effects of the actions of these leading figures on the country and people of Iran. He gives attention as well to the increasing influence of foreign powers on internal as well as external Iranian affairs throughout the Qajar era. Appendices provide extensive documentation on Fath ʿAli Shah’s wives and immediate descendants. ← vii | viii →

Ali Shabani (1927–2002) was educated in Persian literature and journalism at Tehran University and had a certificate in journalism from the University of Maryland. He began writing for periodicals at the age of 14 and also wrote for Radio Tehran. He rose to become the chief editor of various journals, such as Ruznameh-ye kargar (Workers’ newspaper), Mehr-e Iran (Sun of Iran), Sepid-o siah (Black and white), and Khandaniha (Readable). He continued to contribute numerous articles, most of which were satirical critiques on political and social issues, to these and other periodical publications. During the Pahlavi years, he also served as a government liaison to the timber industry. From 1976 to his retirement in 1996, he was managing director of the poultry cooperative, a private-sector organization formed by poultry producers. In that position he founded and edited the periodical Sanʿat-e morghdari (Poultry industry), which included his bimonthly column of social and political critiques as well as scientific articles.

In the 1970s, Shabani was commissioned by Asadollah Alam, then court minister, to write two books on contemporary history. Consequently, Bohran (Crisis) was published in July 1977 by the Court Ministry Research Publication Centre and distributed by Amir Kabir Publication House. Tarrah-e kudeta (The plotter of the coup d’état) was published and distributed in the same way in August 1977. Bohran is a historical narrative based on events that took place in Iran in the first six years of the Pahlavi era (1925–1931), while Tarrah-e kudeta is an account of the 1921 coup d’état that put an end to the Qajar dynasty. Both books include a foreword by Asadollah Alam praising the author for his mastery and writing style, especially his directness in stating the historical facts.

With Hezar famil, published independently of the Court Ministry, Shabani extended his research and writing to the previous era—that of the Qajars. That a second edition of the book was published is evidence that it was well received in Iran, at least in some quarters, as the author indicates in the preface to the second edition. That preface includes a letter that the author had received from Shams Al-e Ahmad, brother of the late Jalal Al-e Ahmad (1923–1969), the prominent twentieth century Iranian writer, best known for his book, Gharbzadegi (translated as Weststruckness by John Green and Ahmad Alizadeh and published by Mazda Publishers of Lexington, Kentucky, in 1989). In this letter, Shams Al-e Ahmad shares his opinion and feeling toward the book and the author of the book, encouraging him to write a second, supplemented edition. Calling him “an enchanter and master of brevity” and “the Saʿdi of the era” (evoking the world famous Persian poet of the thirteenth century), he advises the author not to abandon writing, as had many other authors of his generation when Iran had become an Islamic republic. ← viii | ix →

The term “the thousand families” is commonly used in Iran to refer to the ruling elite of the nineteenth century, many of whom (and/or their descendants) continued to hold wealth, power, position, and authority during the twentieth century Pahlavi era as well. By extension, this phrase is also used in Iran for any regime where family favoritism is common.

While several books published in English in the last thirty years are focused on the same era of Iranian history, on particular Qajar shahs, or portions of the Qajar era, none of these previously published books devotes as much attention to the Qajar family overall, court life, elite politics, and forms of government in Iran from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth century. While the span of the book is vast, it is not a comprehensive historical account, but rather a commentary. In addition to historical accounts and published memoirs, the author had access to oral family histories, as he was personally acquainted with many members of Iran’s elite families. The book thus incorporates oral as well as written history in describing the personalities and events of the era. The book is also unusual, at least among English-language books on the Qajar era, in that it was written from the perspective of an Iranian with ties to the court and the elite of the Pahlavi era, who was writing for an Iranian audience, in an Iranian style, and residing, at the time he published the book, in the subsequent Islamic Republic of Iran.

The book is of relevance for a wider twenty-first century audience in several ways. For one, with its focus on family, the book demonstrates, among other things, the extent to which kinship was used for political purposes, a pattern we often continue to see in the most modern democratic and supposedly meritocratic societies. In the case of nineteenth century Iran, kinship often bound power holders to one another, but this book also highlights how politics and power seeking could trump kinship, sometimes even leading to fratricide. Similarly, those interested in the relationship of political states of the “periphery” to central powers and in current events will also find this book relevant, since so many of the trends in the internal and foreign affairs of Qajar Iran prefigure those of late twentieth and early twenty-first century Iran. For example, the influence of foreign governments, especially Great Britain and Russia, on events in Iran permeates the pages of this book and helps the reader appreciate the depth of concerns about modern forms of imperialism and domination underlying the tenuous relationship of Iran to Europe and the United States today. As another example, in its treatment of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1911 and the “failed democracy” of early twentieth century Iran, the book contributes to a useful comparison between that era and the more recent Iranian Revolution of 1979 and its aftermath. ← ix | x →

The body of the book is divided into five chapters, the chronology of which is overlapping. The first chapter, “The Era of Khans,” commences with a discussion of the long tradition of tribal and familial rule in Iran and then focuses on the period between the fall of the Safavid dynasty in A.D. 1736 and the establishment of the Qajar dynasty by Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar in A.D. 1789. While there is some discussion of the early history of the Qajars (before they were successful in their bid to rule Iran), much of the chapter concerns Nader Shah, the two paternal nephews and the grandson who followed him as shah, and the Zand dynasty which followed them and which immediately preceded the Qajar dynasty. The author shows some admiration for Nader Shah, the orphan tanner who repelled the Afghans, came to rule Iran, and conquered India. This admiration is tempered by the fact that his conquests did not benefit the people of Iran. He considers the reigns of Nader Shah’s three successors, however, to have been disastrous. On the other hand, the author appears to agree with the general Iranian assessment that Karim Khan Zand was an able ruler, but he bemoans the fact that none of his descendants were up to the task of retaining control of Iran, let alone ruling wisely.

In Chapter 1 we find the first few examples of several themes that run throughout the book. One of these is how men of humble origin were sometimes able, largely thorough chance encounters with more powerful men, to rise to dizzying heights. One example is the itinerant locksmith (Hoseyn Ali Beyk Bastami) who opens the prince’s snuff box, becomes a member of the entourage, rises through the ranks, is given a title, marries into a high-ranking family, and becomes the ancestor of several aristocratic families.

A second theme is how people and families in high places can lose their position precipitously, as does the powerful Hashemiyeh family, headed by a grand vizier or chief minister of Agha Mohammad Khan. All the members of this family were deposed and many massacred in a single day.

Another theme is the use of marriage as a political tool, most prominently displayed in the marriage Agha Mohammad Khan arranged between his nephew and heir and a woman from their primary rivals among the Qajars. He also instructed his nephew to appoint the son of this union as his heir, so as to ensure continued support from the rival tribal section.

Yet another theme is the identification of twentieth century elite families rooted in the Qajar and pre-Qajar era. For example, in addition to identifying those elite families who are descendants of Hoseyn Ali Beyk Bastami, the itinerant locksmith, the author comments on the number of twentieth century descendants of Haj Samiʿ Rashti (a wealthy merchant during the Afsharid era) who held seats ← x | xi → in parliament. He also notes that a descendant of the mostly massacred Hashemiyeh family held sufficient elite status in the twentieth century to be married to Princess Ashraf, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s twin sister.

The second chapter, “The Age of Princes,” is primarily the story of Fath ʿAli Shah and his sons. While Agha Mohammad Khan founded the Qajar dynasty by uniting two major factions of the Qajar tribe and defeating his competitors, the foundation of the thousand families lies primarily with his nephew and successor, Fath ʿAli Shah, who reigned from 1797 to 1834. During his long life Fath ʿAli Shah married many women, 158 of whom remained in his harem at his death, and he sired some 260 children. The author describes Fath ʿAli Shah’s practice of replacing regional and local leaders throughout the country with his sons and other close relatives. He sees this practice as having had largely negative effects on the country. Fath ʿAli Shah’s grandsons through his daughters and his in-laws through all these wives, sons, and daughters also considered themselves entitled to, in the author’s words, “a share of the sacrificial flesh of the country.” For this reason, the author considers the legacy of Fath ʿAli Shah to have been a calamity for Iran.

A theme especially prominent in Chapter 2 is the rivalry between brothers, especially half-brothers, and between paternal uncles and nephews, each of whom could make some claim to leadership, no matter who might have been officially designated heir to the throne. This rivalry sometimes extended beyond court intrigue to actual warfare between potential heirs, and no newly enthroned shah seems to have felt secure until many of his male kin were blinded, imprisoned, or killed.


XXX, 200
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XXX, 200 pp.

Biographical notes

Ali Shabani (Author) Patricia J. Higgins (Editor and translator) Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi (Editor and translator)

Ali Shabani (1927–2002) was educated in Persian literature at Tehran University and had a Diploma of Journalism from the University of Maryland. He was court journalist and chief editor of various journals, and he published numerous articles, mostly satirical critiques. In addition to Hezar Famil (The Thousand Families), he wrote Bohran (Crisis) and Tarrah-e Kudeta (The Plotter of the Coup d'État). Patricia J. Higgins (Ph.D. in anthropology, University of California, Berkeley) is Emeritus Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology at SUNY, Plattsburgh. She has conducted ethnographic research in Iran and among Iranians in the United States. Her work has been published in peer-reviewed journals and as chapters in edited volumes. Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi (Ph.D. in linguistics, University of Ottawa) is Senior Lecturer of Persian Language and Linguistics at McGill University. Her publications include Processing Compound Verbs in Persian and The Oxford Handbook of Persian Linguistics, several book chapters, and articles in peer-reviewed journals. She is the daughter of Ali Shabani.


Title: The Thousand Families
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