The term "Bakhtiari" refers to a group of people and to the area they occupy. The Bakhtiari inhabit about 156,000 square kilometers in and near the central Zagros Mountains of Iran. The most recent estimates place their population at about 700,000 in the 1980s. The Bakhtiari are traditionally nomadic pastoralists who make their winter encampments in the low hills along the narrow fringe of the northeast Khūzestān plain and their summer pastures in the intermontane valleys. Some also find summer pastures at the western edge of the central plateau, which is also the permanent habitat for a sedentary village population. Other Bakhtiari live in permanent agricultural settlements throughout the larger area, except at the highest elevations.
Sheep and goats are the basis of the Bakhtiari economy, and Bakhtiari nomadism arises from the search for pastures. Sheep and goat products are used for subsistence and for economic exchange with the sedentary population.
The family is the basic unit of production and of flock- and landownership, as well as of political and social organization. Families cooperate in the sharing of pastures. At successive levels of segmentation, families regroup and redefine themselves under different political and kin headings. The smallest political/kin unit is the rish safid, and successively higher units include kalantars (headmen), khans (chiefs), and an ilkhani (paramount chief of the entire confederation).
The confederation, Il-i-Bakhtiari (ii, tribe) is the unit that includes all those who live in the territory, speak a subdialect of the Luri dialect of Persian, and acknowledge the leadership of the khans and the ilkhani. Historically, the Bakhtiari have been divided into two major sections, the Haft Lang and the Chahar Lang, but in contemporary times the most important division has been Ilkhani and Hajji Ilkhani (two moieties from which the ilkhani were chosen).
Migration, competition for scarce resources, and the need for exchange with sedentary groups create a potential for much conflict in Bakhtiari society. Add to that the pressures of external conflict with other tribes, including defending tribal territory, and the demands of the central government, and it becomes clear that there is a need for khans as mediators and intermediaries. Traditionally, the power of the khans and ilkhani comes from personal abilities as well as the inherent power of the position. It is based on the benefits they can provide, the respect they attain through birth, their coercive capabilities within the tribe, and the support given to them by the central government or by outside sources of power.
The Bakhtiari political system has been described as a hierarchy of khans, but it is similar to a segmentary lineage in that there are segmented levels that function in balanced opposition, with certain activities and responsibilities associated with each segment. The tribes and subtribes of the Bakhtiari use force against each other, their khans, and their ilkhani. Therefore, as in a segmentary lineage, intergroup and intragroup relations are based on a balance of power at each level. Tribes that fight each other at one time may unite to fight a third tribe at another.
The Bakhtiari confederation was once much more powerful than it is today. Reza Shah considered the Bakhtiari a direct threat to his sovereignty and, in the 1920s, took military, economic, and administrative actions to subjugate them. His policy of forced sedentarization, intended to break the tribal economy and prevent tribal identification, destroyed the political power of the ruling khans but was less successful in forcing the Bakhtiari to settle in one place.
The Bakhtiari now appear to be choosing sedentarism as a way of life much more than in the past. Formerly, only the richest and poorest lived a sedentary life-stlye; today many Bakhtiari not only settle in agricultural villages, they also work in the oil fields or urban centers. Although there is little reliable information on the Bakhtiari in post-Pahlavi Iran, it appears that changes are taking place. Along with increased sedentarism has come improved communications, and many government activities may be effectively transferring loyalty and identification from the tribe to the nation-state.
Case, Paul E. (1947). "I Became a Bakhtiari." National Geographic Magazine 91(3): 325-358.
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Johnson, Douglas L. (1969) The Nature of Nomadism: A Comparative Study of Pastoral Migrations in Southwestern Asia and Northern Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago, Department of Geography.