Circassians in Iran

Many thousands of Caucasians, Georgians, Armenians, and Circassians who were transplanted to Persia by Shah ʿAbbās I (1588-1629) were peasants, and they were settled in villages in the Persian hinterland. A large group of Georgians and Armenians, Circassian were moved into the west of Isfahan, probably in 1603-5, when the shah embarked upon a systematic depopulation of the area north of Azerbaijan to discourage Ottoman incursions. Because the Isfahan-Borūjerd road, which passed through their territory, was seldom used by European travelers, we have very little information about them before the 19th century.

When J. M. Kinneir visited them in 1810, he estimated the number of Circassian in the region at one thousand families. By then, they had already converted to Islam, but they were not yet intermarrying with Persians. However, most of them not continued to speak circassian.

At least two groups of Circassians were settled along the Isfahan-Shiraz road, perhaps to protect that thoroughfare from raids by predatory nomads. According to Thomas Herbert, Amīnābād, southeast of Qomša, had a part-Circassian population when he passed through the village in 1627. By then, they had already converted to Islam. In any case, they must have been quickly absorbed by the local population, for no subsequent travelers have mentioned them. A larger group of Circassians, was settled in and around the small town of Āspās. During the 17th century, they were visited by several famous travelers, including Pietro Della Valle in 1621, Herbert in 1627, Jean Baptiste Tavernier in 1665, Jean de Thévenot in 1665, and John Fryer in 1677.

When the new road through Ābāda and Dehbīd was built in the 18th century, most of the caravans bypassed Āspās and the economy of the region steadily declined. Oddly enough, some of the circassian of Āspās were absorbed by the Fārsīmadān tribe of the Qašqāʾī tribal confederacy, becoming one of its clans. These circassian, who are called cherkesʾīlū, are Turcophone and constitute the only tangible vestige of the circassian community of Āspās.

Finally, according to de Morgan, in 1890-91 there was a small colony of circassian in Dezfūl, Ḵūzestān. “They have preserved in very pure form the traits of their ancestors” he observed, “and, a though they have become Muslims, they have not yet given up their language”. But no trace of these circassian exists today.

In 16th & 17th centuries According to Persian sources, the Safavids introduced a considerable number of Caucasian elements into the Persian society, either as prisoners of war or as population segments relocated by force. Between 1540 and 1553, Shah Ṭahmāsb led four expeditions to the Caucasus. In the course of these campaigns, Čarkas prisoners, as well as Georgians and Armenians, were taken in large numbers and were brought back to Persia. The majority of the prisoners were women and children and many of them were introduced into the court. The men were employed as royal pages (ḡolām), while some of the women were married to the king or the princes. Shah Ṭahmāsb had several wives from the Caucasus, and, of his nine sons who reached adolescence, at least five were of Caucasian mothers, four Georgians and one Čarkas. Gradually they grew into a powerful faction, which at the time of Ṭahmāsb’s death was vying with the qezelbāš for power. The court was the scene of numerous intrigues involving the ladies of the royal harem, each of whom, supported by her ethnic faction, tried to place her own candidate on the throne.

A very influential figure in the middle of the 16th century, from the latter half of the reign of Ṭahmāsb to the beginning of the reign of Solṭān-Moḥammad Ḵodābanda, was Parī-ḵān Khanom, daughter of the Čarkas woman, Solṭān-Āḡā Khanom, a wife of Ṭahmāsb. She was “more intelligent than the other royal princesses” and “her opinion and counsel were valued by her father”. She was once engaged to a cousin, but as the marriage was never consummated she was constantly in attendance on her father. A Čarkas party formed around her and her brother, Solaymān Mīrzā, and her uncle, Šamḵāl Solṭān. Her residence, which was so large that Shah ʿAbbās later used it as a temporary palace just after his coronation at Qazvīn city, was next to the garden of the royal harem, and she could enter the palace freely.

Parī-ḵān Khanom acted as a king-maker in two instances. Once she worked to promote the succession of Esmāʿīl Mīrzā upon the death of Shah Ṭahmāsb (1576). Having the Georgian mother of Ḥaydar Mīrzā, who had been a favorite son of Ṭahmāsb and regarded as heir apparent, she gave the keys to the royal palace to her maternal uncle, Šamḵāl Solṭān, who took control of the palace immediately and filled it with 300 Čarkas. Her plot succeeded, and Ḥaydar Mīrzā was murdered by some assassins among whom was Jamšīd Beg, a Čarkas ḡolām of Solṭān Solaymān Mīrzā. But the new king, Esmāʿīl II (1576), was not the man she had expected. To the amirs who made it a habit to call at the house of Parī-ḵān Khanom even after his accession he said, “The interference in matters of state by women is demeaning to the king’s honor”. After this declaration, the amirs ceased to visit her.

Solṭān-Moḥammad Ḵodābanda, the next king she put on the throne, had become aware of the dangerous influences of Parī-ḵān Khanom and her Čarkas group on state affairs and had decided to eliminate her party. On very day of their entrance to the capital, Qazvīn, they ordered the execution of the princess and her uncle, Šamḵāl.

With the death of Parī-ḵān Khanom, the intervention of the Čarkas in the political arena of the Safavids was suspended for a time, but it did not cease.

We have little evidence concerning the Čarkas after the fall of the Safavids. As the ḡolām system did not survive well under the succeeding states, it is not difficult to suppose that the days of the Čarkas ḡolāms had ended. But we also found a large number of king’s wives in Qajar period in Iran.

Now Iranian circassian are an ethnic group living in center and south of Iran. The circassian community of Dezkord city (Cherkes region) have retained their distinct Ciracssian identity until this day, while adopting aspects of Iranian culture such as Persian language, and Shia Islam.

The number of circassian in Iran is estimated from 5,000 to over 50,000. But unfortunately just among 5000 of them is retained their identity. 

By the way unfortunately, until now no one has visited these areas and we hope some Circassian researchers who know circassian to travel to these areas for Survey of their latest status of linguistic.


Hamed Kazemzadeh, special for Caucasus Times

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