Shahsevan - History and Cultural Relations

Shahsevan means "those who love the Shah." Shahsevan ancestors are said to have been formed into a special tribe in about A . D . 1600 by Shah Abbas of the Safavid dynasty. There is no historical evidence to support this story, however, and it is unlikely that there was a single unified tribal group of this name until the early eighteenth century, when Shahsevan tribal warriors are recorded as resisting invading Ottoman forces in the Ardabïl-Moghan region. Soon afterward, several Shahsevan groups were moved to other parts of northern and western Iran, leaving the ancestors of the present Shahsevan tribes of Ardabīl and Moghan unified under a paramount chief who was appointed by the famous Iranian conqueror Nader Shah Afshar. The constituent tribes are mainly of Turkish descent, tracing their origins to Central Asia, although the ancestors of several were probably Kurdish. In the last 250 years, Azerbaijan has often been a battleground between Iran and her neighbors, and the Shahsevan figured prominently in the history of the period. Early in the nineteenth century, Russian invaders established their present frontier with Iran. The Shahsevan, deprived of the greater part of their traditional winter quarters in the Moghan steppe, became increasingly lawless. The raids sometimes disrupted trade and settlement far into both Russia and Iran and caused friction between the two countries, although neither government hesitated to exaggerate the extent of Shahsevan raiding. In 1909, after the constitutional revolution in Iran, most Shahsevan chiefs and their followers joined a Tribal Union with the neighboring tribes of Waradagh and Khalkhal, sacked the city of Ardabīl, and threatened, with secret Russian encouragement, to march on Tehran in the name of Islam to restore the deposed Mohammed 'Ali Shah. In 1910 Tehran government forces defeated them, but from 1911 until they were disarmed by Reza Shah in 1923, they maintained their independence of the government. Old men today preserve vivid memories of those times and of their victories over the Cossacks sent against them by Russia. From 1923 to 1978, they remained loyal to the rulers in Tehran, in conformity with their name. Soon after the Islamic Revolution, their name, with its Royalist connotation, was changed to "Elsevan" (lit., "those who love the people or tribe"). During the 1960s and 1970s, massive government-backed irrigation schemes were put into effect in Moghan, removing much of the remaining winter pastureland and forcing many more nomads to settle. After the Revolution, there was a brief revival of tribalism and pastoral nomadism, but it seems likely that the direction of change is irreversible. (The "ethnographic present" in this article, except where indicated, is the 1960s.)

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