Shahsevan - Turkic nomads from Iran

Shahsevan - Turkic nomads from Iran

One of the peculiarities of centuries-old history of Iran after collapse of the caliphate and before the beginning of the XX century is predominant role of the Turkic sedentary-nomadic tribes in the political and economic life of this state. One of these tribes, the Shahsevan, are Turkic-speaking nomads living in northwestern Iran. They are moving across the coutry about seven months a year, moving from summer pastures to winter camps and back. Shahsevans go through long journeys regardless of weather conditions. In the summer, their tribes stay at the green pastures of the unactive Savalan volcano, and at the Mugan steppe in the winter. As of today there's no exact data on how many nomads live in Iran, but experts estimate their number at around one and a half million.

Just like several centuries ago, regardless of weather conditions, Shahsevans travel with cattle and camels, and their shepherds are keeping about 1000 sheeps. The more animals family has, the richer it is. Once a year, they pay taxes to the state. A couple of decades ago, Shahsevans rode on camels, put on their best outfits, and all of it looked incredibly colorful and beautiful. But over time, they began to travel by cars. Today, not all Shahsevans live lifes of nomads, some of them have settled.

Their history began in the 16th century, when Shah Abbas from the Safavid dynasty, after unitung tribes of different origin, created his own guard. Apparently, this tribe's took its name after that guard, because the word "Shahsevan" means "loyal to Shah." According to other sources, this name means that they were guarding one of the remote borders of Iran in the north. But representatives of Shahsevans themselves say these legends aren't true, claiming that they moved to Iranian lands from Anadolu (Turkish name of Anatolia, western Turkey).

Throughout history, Shahsevans' women have fought along with men. Today, they mainly do carpet weaving or knit wool socks and gloves.

In 1926, Shahsevans rebelled against Shah Reza Pahlavi, father of the last Iranian Shah who was overthrown in 1979 as a result of the Islamic Revolution. Shah considered lifestyle of non-Persian nomads a political threat and tribes were discriminated against.

Honorary professor of anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, leading expert on Shahsevans, Richard Tupper, wrote in his book “The Nomadic Peoples of Iran”: “We got used to moving together with Muganly, (another nomadic tribe), and when the government took our weapons, we decided to separate. In addition, we couldn't pay taxes for two years. Muganly offered to sell pastures, but we refused, we said that we will sell women's and children's cloth, but not our land."

In the mid-1930s, Shah Pahlavi adopted strict policy against nomadic tribes in order to "strengthen statehood". Nomad leaders were imprisoned, executed, or exiled. They were forced to settle in the villages and abandon their nomadic lifestyle. Shahsevans' homes were burned. However, territories allocated by the authorities to nomads were insufficient for agriculture. This forces Shahsevans and other nomadic tribes to resume their migration and revived the free tribal confederation.

After decades of relative peace under the Pahlavi dynasty, Shahsevans took part in the 1979 revolution, but, despite all losses, they didn't play a significant role in it. New regime called them "Elsevans" - "those who love their homeland." Since then, Shahsevans are living less nomadic lifestyle. This transition helps the government’s nomad control policy.

Since ancient times, Shahsevans preserved close contacts with  part of the Azerbaijani population. Although Shahsevans had to become a community with classical tribal traditions dictated by military-nomadic way of life over time, their militant patriotism and desire to be always close to the ruling Turkic-Azerbaijani dynasties, which at certain stages of history became a symbol of the unification, always defining Shahsevans lifestyle.


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