In an exclusive interview, the scholar of the “lost” Iravani Khanate, Amir Ali SardariIravani, reveals a rich history of a society marked by a peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims which has been all but erased from the understanding of the region by the subsequent and victorious governments.
According to the researcher, Iravan Khanat was an independent state in the South Caucasus, which emerged around 1748. The official end of this state was in 1828 after the defeat of Qajars against Russia. The period between its creation in 1748 and 1805 is called the real life of the independent Khanate of Iravan, whereas between 1805 and 1828 the Khanate was under the rule of the Qajar dynasty. It means that in this time the Khan of Iravan was appointed by the Qajar state.
The Qajar dynasty was a Persian royal dynasty of Turkic origin which ruled over Iran from 1789 through 1925 when it was displaced by the Pahlavis.
The development of the city Iravan as a center goes back to the Chukhur-Sa’adbeylerbeyli period in the beginning of the Safavid dynasty in 16th century, which followed by the independent Iravan Khanate in 18thcentury. As a result of the wars between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, the city of Iravan passed 14 times from Safavids to Ottomans and vice versa. Each time the city exposed to certain destruction and was reconstructed again. After the collapse of the Safavids, the city wasoccupied by the Turks in 1723. In 1733 Nadir Shah conquered Iravan city from the Ottomans again. Nader Shah was an Iranian who belonged to the Turkmen Afshar tribe of Khorasan in northeastern Iran, which had supplied military power to the Safavid dynasty since the time of Shah Ismail Independent khanates were created after the deathof Nadir Shah Afshar in 1748. The city of Irevan became the capital of the Iravan khanate.
Iravan khanate covered the area between Mount Agri (Ararat) and MountAlagoz (Alayaz) and located on both banks of the Araz River. The Iravan khanate was bordered on the north by Pambak river and Ganja khanates, on the east by Karabakh and Nakhchivan khanates, on the south by Khoy and Maku and Bayazid khanates,; on the west by Kars and on the north west by Shorayel sultanates. The territory of Iravan khanate was about 24 thousand square kilometers.
The Irevan fortress locating in a strategic position between the Ottoman Empire, Georgia and Safavid and later Afsharid empire has great importance for all neighboring states. It was built in 1582 by the Ottomans. The causes of political and military interference of neighboring governments in the internal affairs of Khanate of Iravan had emerged due to the commercial and strategic characteristics of Iravan and its unique geopolitical situation in the commercial routes and crossways of south Caucasus region. Located at the cross section between Europe, Asia, Russia, and the Middle East, and is known for the gamut of climates, and landscapes, and in those days, an international trade hub, which brought about a great deal of intercultural exchange, and contributed to the cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity in the region, as described in Thomas de Waal’s ” A Brief Guide to Understanding the Countries of the South Caucasus.”.
After the death of Nadir shah Afshar Mir Mehdi khan was the first khan of independent khanate of Iravan in 1747 but short time after that Azad khan, Afghan who was a general of Nadir shah, conquered Iravan and appointed Khalil khan uzbak as his representative and Khan of Iravan. In his timeIravan was being often attacked by Lezgins of Daghistan and Khalil khanuzbak was unable to protect Iravan.
Lezgins are a Northeast Caucasian ethnic group native predominantly to southern Dagestan, Russia and what is now northeastern Azerbaijan. In the 4th century BC, the numerous tribes speaking Lezgic languages united in a union of 26 tribes, formed in the Eastern Caucasus state of Caucasian Albania (which has nothing to do with the Balkan state), which itself was incorporated in the Persian Achaemenid Empire in 513 BC. Descendants of these tribes are now part of the rich makeup of the region, and retain distinctive cultural traditions.
The Lak Kazi Kumukh Khanate controlled a part of the Lezgins for a time in the 18th century after the disintegration of the Safavid Empire. In the first half of the 18th century, Persia was able to restore its full authority throughout the entire Caucasus under Nader Shah. Some Lezgins were part of the Kuba Khanate in what is now Azerbaijan, while others fell under the jurisdiction of the Derbent Khanate.In 1755 Hasanali khan who was a native Iravani and gained support of people of Iravan, replaced Khalil khan Uzbak.From this time on Iravan was an independent state under the rule of native khans for approximately 50 years until 1805. Hasanali khan gave his position to his brother Husseinali khan 4 years later. Under the rule of Husseinali khan and his son Mahammad khan, Iravan khanate experienced its most prosperous time. Husseinali khan and his son Mahammad khan were real politicians. Thepolitical life of Iravan Khanate was always under the threat of neighboring powers.
This situation forced Husseinali Khan and later his son Mahammad khan towards the third power so that their political independence can be maintained. In fact, the formation of relations between Khanate of Iravan and neighboring powers was due to political considerations and mutual interests. However, relations of Khan of Iravan with neighboring governments were not always stable, since the only objective for the Khanate of Iravan was to preserve its domain and governance over a localized region through utilization of any measures or means.
In the reign of Husseinali khan he benefited from support of Ottomans and also sometimes of Karim khan Zand (from Iran) to encounter Irakli (Erekle II) of Georgia. He used the conflict between Russia and Ottoman Empire on black sea as a political opportunity.
Later his son Mohammad khan played the similar political role with Russia and Agha Mohammad khan Qajar to maintain Iravan khanate, essentially playing one off the other, and receiving a level of protection from each – without ever being fully (or really) subservient to either. Agha Mohammad khan Qajar defeated Zand dynasty in Iran and came to power
in 1796. The Zand dynasty was an Iranian dynasty, a branch of Lurs or Kurds, origin founded by Karim Khan Zand that initially ruled southern and central Iran in the 18th century. It later quickly came to expand to include much of the rest of contemporary Iran, as well as what is modern day Azerbaijan, Bahrain, and parts of Iraq and Armenia. Mohammed Khan Qajar expected from the Khanates of Caucasus to obey him. The Khanates were ruled by the khans of Turkic Oghuz descents. Especially the khanates of Iravan, Ganja and Karabakh were ruled by the khans of Qajartribe. The Khan of Iravan did not trust him as a newcomer. It was the reason for the invasion of Agha Mohammad khan Qajar of Caucasus. The khan of Iravan was arrested by Agha Mohammad khan Qajar and sent to Tehran. But shortly after that Agha Mohammad khan Qajar was killed in Karabakh and the Iravan khan was returned to his home. Mahammad khan of Iravan continued the policy of gaining the balance of power between Russia and the Qajar state to maintain the independent Iravan khanate. In 1805 Mahammad khan was finally arrested and sent to exile by Fathali shah Qajar, the successor of AghaMohammad khan Qajar. Mahammad khan Iravani was treated by Fathali shahwith respect in exile. There were many cross marriages between his children and Fathali shah’s children in order to strengthen the ties between their dynasties. This was a strategy of rulers in those times to stabilize their power and reduce the risks of invasion or intervention by their rivals. After the death of Fathali shah Mahammad khanIravani got the highest military rank under Mohammad shah Qajar, the successor of Fathali shah, and married the daughter of Fathali shah. Hisson, Mahammad hasan khan, also married the daughter of Abbas mirza, the crown prince. This daughter was the full sister of Mohammad shah Qajar. I myself am a descendant of this line, explained the scholar. The descendants of Mahammad khanIravani have had a very good career among Qajars. They were mostly very influential personalities who at times had ruled up to 75% of Iran as local governors. They were very closely related to the royal family.
Even under Pahlavis, the family members had reached very high official posts.In 1807 Husseinqulu khan from Qazvin was appointed by Fathali shah to khanof Iravan. He and his brother Hasan khan were not native from Iravan. Manyhistorians have mistaken written that their father with Mahammad khan unfortunately.The political reform of Husseinqulu khan, driven by Fathali shah Qajar,changed the situation in Iravan khanate and led finally to heavy losses and Gulistan and Turkamanchay treaties. Khanate of Iravan was annexed to Russia in 1827.
The Treaty of Gulistan was a peace treaty concluded between Imperial Russia and Persia (modern day Iran) on 24 October 1813 in the village of Gulistan (in modern-day Goranboy Rayon of Azerbaijan) as a result of the first full-scale Russo-Persian War, lasting from 1804 to 1813. The peace negotiations were precipitated by Lankaran’s fall to Gen. PyotrKotlyarevsky on 1 January 1813.The treaty confirmed the ceding and inclusion of what is today Daghestan, eastern Georgia, most of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and parts of northern Armenia from Iran into the Russian Empire. The text was prepared by the British diplomat Sir Gore Ouseley who served as the mediator and wielded great influence at the Persian court. It was signed by Nikolai Rtischev from the Russian side and Mirza Abolhassan Khan Ilchi from the Persian side.
The Treaty of Turkamanchay was an agreement between Persia(Iran) and the Russian Empire, which concluded the Russo-Persian War (1826–28). It was signed on 10 February 1828 in Torkamanchay, Iran. By the treaty, Persia ceded to Russia control of several areas in the South Caucasus: the Erivan Khanate, the Nakhchivan Khanate, and the remainder of the Talysh Khanate. The boundary between Russian and Persia was set at the Aras River. These territories comprise modern-day Armenia, the southern parts of the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan, as well as Iğdır Province (now part of Turkey).
The treaty was signed for Persia by Crown Prince Abbas Mirza and Allah-Yar Khan Asaf al-Daula, chancellor to Shah Fath Ali (of the Qajar Dynasty), and for Russia by General Ivan Paskievich. Like the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan, this treaty was imposed by Russia, following military victory over Persia. Paskievich threatened to occupy Tehran in five days unless the treaty was signed.
Discussing the culture of the Iravan Khanate and the region, the researcher explained that at the beginning of 16th century and during the rise of Safavid empire, Iravan was an important strategic location for Safavids against Ottomans. It wasthe reason why Safavid rulers appointed their most capable and intelligent allies and generals to protect the fortifications in Iravan. In additionto the military importance, Iravan was a very strategic trade center. As a crossroad between east and west Iravan gained from economic and cultural interactions between different nations. This unique opportunity madeIravan into a cultural hub and a place for open minded people from different religions and backgrounds. Neighboring states were always very eager totake control over this area to gain from taxes and security advantages. These interests caused Iravan to be subjected to conflicts and extensive damages in Iravan from time to time.
The rulers of Iravan were close to Safavid dynasty. The first officialrepresentatives of the Safavid state, who were sent to Europe, were from Iravan. Safavid rulers finally declared Isfahan to be their capital, because it wasa safe location and far from borders but they were still very well connected with their high ranking officials and people from “Chokhur Sa’ad” (the name of Iravan state at that time). Safavi kings offered special conditions like tax relief for Armenians and tried to discourage them from treason. From time to time Christian rival states like Georgiaand Russia were inciting Armenians to conspire against Safavids.
In Safavi and Afshar periods Iravan was a battle field between Iran and Ottomans. The major powers looked to it as a potential proxy against one another and sought its allegiance, both through outreach and through force. After death of Nader shah Afshar, the Iravan Khanate era was the most peaceful period which lasted about 50 years. In this time the rulers of Iravan tried to secure their independent state through unique political position, maneuvering among the larger powers, but also utilizing the unique location to develop a business friendly climate favorable to merchants and to friendly diplomacy with neighboring states.
They could concentrate on their internal affairs and promote the quality of life and development inside their own society without interference or disturbance. Among cities with a large Christian minority, Iravan was much more tolerant than the very religious Muslim Isfahan. Many Western travelers who visited Iravan witnessed the religious freedom and tolerance in this country. It is obvious that some European travelers had sympathy for people who shared their faith and intended to reflect their complaints. It was In the 18th. century and even today we are struggling with the same conflict between ideologies, which at times portrayed conflicts as clashes between religions themselves, rather than between their practitioners. The period of Iravan khanate was the most prosperous time of this country. Trade was improved and the custom taxes were not paid to neighboring supporters but invested internally. Based on the very rare sources remaining from that period it wasthe golden age of Iravan. Mosques and churches, facilities for travelers like Bazars, Hamams and Caravansara is with eastern architecture were built or renovated. In the 18th. century, mosques were still the most important centers for education. A lesser known fact is that the first modern school and the new education system in Caucasus and Iran was initiated in Iravan some decades later, and the most appropriate conditions for this revolutionary initiative was prepared in Iravan khanate period. The tolerance for different perspectives and the openness due to the inherent diversity laid the foundation for this innovative approach.
Still, the peaceful period eventually came to an end. In 1796 and with the rise of the Qajar dynasty in Tehran, Agha Mohammad khan Qajar targeted Caucasus and the time of peace and prosperity was breached. Mahammad Khan Iravani was captured and forced to leave Iravan to Tehran. Although the Iravani khan was treated respectfully in Tehran, the conqueror Qajar state did not allow him to intervene in internal affairs of Iravan anymore. Instead, another loyal Qajar general was appointed to khan of Iravan “Hossein qulukhan”. From this time on, the history of the Khanate was written by the victors, by Qajar historians. The last Khan of Iravan started the so-called political reforms under control of Qajar state. In my opinion, continued the researcher, hedid not manage to accomplish anything of value, and only provoked Russia and the Armenian minority of Iravan. In his reign and in 1813 the entire Caucasus except Iravan andNakhchivan was annexed to Russia through the Gulistan treaty. Politicalmismanagement of Qajars led to huge territorial and other losses, and Iravan and Nakhchivan were entirely lost to Russia in 1827.
The last khan of Iravan in his reign was living in the Iravan Sardar palace,whose patron was the former khan “Mohammad khan Iravani”. Beside thepalace, Husseinqulu khan built a new mosque and named it the “Sardar mosque”.The contemporary German professor Markus Ritter, a specialist in the history of Islamic art, published a paper “thelost mosque in citadel of Yerevan” in 2009. He contacted me for some clarifications, added the scholar. Another German historian “Friedrich Sarre” had traveled to Iravanin 1897 and took some remaining tiles of this mosque to Berlin. Hedescribed in his book the very bad condition of the historical heritage of Khanate and those taken tiles are today displayed in the Berlin museum. Other European travelers who had visited Irevan at different times, described the Sardar’s Palace, its Mirror Hall, mosques, pools and baths in the castle and the city in their writings, as well as the underground marble stairedway passing down to the Zangi River.
There are eyewitness accounts of the marble Fountain once located in the middle of the hall of mirrors.As the result of the earthquake in 1853 the Iravan castle walls were damaged. Since 1868 Iravan City Police Office had been located in Khan Palace, Sardar Hall. The Caucasian viceroyalty allocated resources for there construction of Sardar hall (Mirror Hall) on the basis of petition of Iravan governor in 1867, 1871, 1874, 1880 years. From other recollections, we learn that an Armenian merchant by name of Nerse Tahiryan purchased a part of Iravan castle in 1865 and he built a winery (present cognac/brandy plant). Eventually Serdar Palace was completely demolished and the walls of the Iravan citadel were pulled down. The old districts are by also in ruins. In 1906-1911 years, B.Mehrabov, the engineer of Iravan city, mapped out the city plan and the existence of 8 mosques (Tepebashi, Zal khan, Sartib khan, Blue Mosque (Huseynali khan), Haji Novruzali bey, Gala mosque (Abbas Mirze mosque ), Demirbulag, Haji Jafar) were marked there. The Blue Mosque at Iravan was commissioned in 1765–1766 by Husseinali Khan, the Sardar of the IravanKhanate as the city’s main Friday mosque. It is today the only remaining monument from the Iravan Khanate. The reason why it survived is, the mosque was used as the city museum. There were a number of caravanserais in Iravan city as well: Afshar, Sardar, Sheykholislam, Taghli, Haji Ali, Komurchu, Gurju, Julfa, Haji Ilyas, etc. All these caravanserais had been obliterated. By the decision dated on May 29, 1918, Azerbaijan National Council (Milli Shura), as a result of a political compromise, ceded the city of Iravan to the Armenians as a capital city after three independent countries –Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia had been established in the Caucasus. The re-construction of the city Iravan after the first world war was started in 1924 but in fact, it was serving the agenda of erasing the historical heritage there. The Iravan City History Museum was located in Blue Mosque, Zal khan (the City) mosque turned to the art gallery, but all the other mosques except Demirbulag Mosque in the city had been razed to the ground. Demirbulag Mosque was set on fire in 1988.The history of the Iravan Khanate was written by the victors, first by Qajar conquerors and later by Russians, Armenians and finally by Pahlavis who removed Qajars from power. The Iravan Khanate was forgotten and its history was systematically erased.
Why was the history of the Iravan Khanate suppressed?
At the beginning of the Qajar dynasty there were only few trusted historians in Qajar court, explained Amir Ali SardariIravani . They described all events from the perspective of their master Agha Mohammad khan Qajar or Fathali shah Qajar. As said before, Iravan Khans tried to stabilize their country by switching from one neighboring supporter (Iran, Ottomans, Russia) to the other one based on their common interests. Agha Mohammad khan Qajar was actually an intelligent commander. He believed that all territories in Near and Middle East and Central Asia, even India, belong to Turkic tribes and must be ruled by them. I read a statement from him, added the scholar, that Turkic rulers of those countries should respect each other and should be peaceful to each other. But in case of Khanates he wanted to restore the Safavid territories under his flag. The Khanates could not trust him as a young newcomer.
So, despite of being from the same roots “Qajar”, the Iravan Khan refused to follow Agha Mohammad khan and Fathali Shah. It was the reason why the Qajar historians mentioned him as an unfaithful and incapable khan. After he was sent to exile and was replaced by loyal Husseinqulu Khan from Qazvin, the new Khan as a non-native governor needed a lot of publicity. He carried out some tax reforms. In the first Russian war Qajars lost a great part of Caucasus. Unfortunately Husseinqulu khan overestimated his military power. He provoked Russia and started the 2nd war, which ended in loss of Iravan. Qajar historians documented only one side of the story.
Fathali Shah Qajar and his successors respected Mahammad khan Iravani and his children. It was a respect combined with fear. The Iravani Khan was rich and influential. After death of Fathali Shah, the old Iravani Khan who was a middle ranked general made career again and got to the highest level in the army under Mohammad Shah Qajar. He married the daughter of Fathali Shah and his son married the sister of Mohammad Shah Qajar. Even the new chancellor of Iran „Mirza Aghasi“ was his old servant in Iravan. So it is obvious why the Qajar kings felt like being threatened by this family. Professor Abbas Amanat and some other historians mentioned the huge influence of Mohammad Hasan Khan Sardar Iravani (son of Mahammad khan Iravani) in Nasser-eddin Shah Qajar‘s era. The Pahlavis then systematically erased this history for political reasons.
The Implications for Further Research
This page of our history has been disregarded by censorship, continued the researcher. Through objective research the true history will be revealed. The history which goes beyond our current understanding of political borders remains in the archives for now. It will open us a horizon to find out the integrity of Christians and Muslims in a traditional society in 18th century, he underscored. It will teach us lessons about tolerance in a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society and also how such civilized community could be abused for imperialistic purposes, posited the scholar.
Researchers in this area must understand several languages. The documents obtained from this period are partly in Persian, partly in Turkish, partly in Russian and partly in Armenian.
Several archives in Iravan, Nakhichevan, Russia, Iran, Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan contain many correspondents and documents from that time. Due to conflicts and political issues, such objective, comprehensive research does not currently seem to be possible unfortunately. I am pretty sure that such steps could uncover the mistreatments regarding the history of Iravan khanate.
According to Amir Ali SardariIravani, the most interested audience and supporters live in the Republic of Azerbaijan and Turkey. Most of them are refugees from Iravan or neighboring regions who have been displaced from their homeland. They try to keep their traditions and culture. Both governments support historical research, but extensive work requires an international network of researchers who can access archives anywhere without restrictions. Such a network could be orchestrated by a cultural organization in Europe, for example. Anur Ali SardariIravani proposed to start such an initiative in Germany but it’s on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This fascinating interview leaves the reader with at least as many questions as answers, to which the lodestar of research access has not yet waxed. But it also offers a treasure map with clues that can bring the scholars following the footsteps of Amir Ali SardariIravani, closer to unraveling the enigmas presented in this story, and to reaching the buried wealth of previously unknown history.