Anthropologist Pedram Khosronejad has embarked on a new and controversial topic in Iranian studies, developing a narrative on African slavery in Persia through archival photography, interviews and scattered text. Here he curates from his burgeoning collection
Qubad Il-khan Bakhtiari (right) and Hossein Il-khan Bakhtiari (left), sons of paramount Bakhtiar chief Il-khan Khosrow Zafar Bakhtiari, seated in a garden, probably in Isfahan, with their African slave, 1904. According to Khosronejad, this photo shows that slave ownership in Persia extended beyond the Qajar monarchy to tribal chiefs. Photograph: Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies, Tehran, Iran
The African slave trade in the Persian Gulf began well before the Islamic period. Mediaeval accounts refer sporadically to slaves working as household servants, bodyguards, militiamen and sailors in the Persian Gulf including what is today southern Iran. The practice lasted, and evolved, through many centuries.
In Iran’s modern history, Africans were integral to elite households. Black men were mostly eunuchs working inside the king’s harem and houses, while black women were servants to Iranian women.
African slaves in Iran during the Qajar era were often eunuchs. Their dress suggests that they belonged to the king or high-ranking members of his court. From right: Aqay-i ‘Almas khan, Aqay-i Bahram khan, Aqay-i Masrur, Aqay-i A Seyid Mustafa, Aqay-i Iqbal khan, and Aqay-i Yaqut khan (different person from other photo), 1880s Photograph: Modern Conflict Archive, London, UK
Despite its ancient roots, the topic of African slavery is rarely discussed or even acknowledged in Iran. This is partly because there has not been comprehensive research on either African slavery of the subsequent use of African domestic servants.
But there are photographs that offer glimpses, and these have been the focus of anthropologist Pedram Khosronejad for the past four years.
Slaves who were not eunuchs were sometimes assigned to the armies of the Qajar elites. The 14 pictured here belonged to Qajar prince Zell-e-Soltan, Ghameshlou, Isfahan, 1904. Photograph: Zell-e-Soltan/Modern Conflict Archive, London, UK
Khosronejad was recently appointed Farzaneh Family Scholar for Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies, a new programme at the Oklahoma State University. The topic of African slavery in Iran came to his attention in the late 1990s when he was working on a two-year ethnographic project in the Persian Gulf including the cities of Minab, Bandar Lengeh and Bashagard county in Hormozegan province. His studies of the traditional dress of black Iranians led him to the issue of slavery.
In this staged photo taken by Zell-e Soltan at his summer hunting palace near Isfahan, one of his African slaves holds his son. According to the caption, the infant (Iqbal) is the real son of the adult African slave, Haji Yaqut Khan, suggesting he wasn’t a eunuch and could father his own children. The caption says that Yaqut Khan is in his ethnic clothes (languteh), which was mainly worn by Africans outside of Iran, 1904. Photograph: Zell-e-Soltan/Modern Conflict Archive, London, UK
Kamran Afshar in the arms of his nanny, Naneh Sonbol Baji, and Haleh Afshar, standing behind a doll, in Tehran, 1940s. Sonbol Baji, who was of African extraction, was born in a harem and freed in childhood from the court of the last Qajar king, Ahmad Shah (1898-1930). She moved to the home of her future host family, the Afshars, where she grew up, married, and raised her son. She remained there until the end of her life. Photograph: Courtesy of Kamran Afshar
Later, in 2011, when Khosronejad was organising an event on Qajar photography and cinematography at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, he came across several photographs from the late 19th century of Africans living inside the harem of the monarch Nasser al-Din Shah (1831-1896).
Since then Khosronejad has been collecting photos that tell the story of African slaves and modern African domestics in Iran. His research has taken him to Iran, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, and he has sifted through several private archives including the personal collection of author Farhad Diba in Spain and the Archive of Modern Conflict in Holland Park, London. He has conducted dozens of interviews with Iranians including Haleh Afshar, the Iranian-born British baroness, who had African servants during the early 1950s and 1960s.
Shams al-Sho’ara (Abdulhossein Mirza Shams Molkara), seated, his son-in-law Amanullah Mirza Jahanbani (1869-1912) standing on the right, small boy wearing a hat (Mansour Mirza Jahanbani), other boy Azizollah, two little girls (Pouran Khanom Jahanbani, Touran Khanom Jahanbani), and an African slave girl, 1900s. Photograph: Modern Conflict Archive, London, UK
So far Khosronejad has collected around 400 photos, which he is planning to gather in the first-of-its-kind visual analysis book on African domestic servants in Iran. He is also preparing several related exhibitions around the world.
The work is sensitive. “There are some Qajar families who have issues with the term ‘slave’,” Khosronejad explains. “They say what their families had were domestic servants and they were not treated as slaves. This might be correct, but slavery is slavery and we should be able to talk about it openly.”
In this photo taken and captioned by the king himelf, a group of his wives and eunuchs are shown inside the harem garden in one of the royal complexes in north Tehran, Shahrestanak. The five African slaves include two adults, probably Ethiopian, and three adolescents: Haji Bilal (the first adult African slave from the right), Maqrur Khan (the fourth adult African slave from the right), Ismail Khan (the first adolescent white slave from the right), Haji Rahim (the second white slave from the right, head of the harem slaves), 1883. Photograph: Nasser al-Din Shah/Photo Archive, Golestan Palace Museum, Tehran, Iran
The presentation of these photos is the first step toward what Khosronejad sees as a new methodology in the visual anthropology of modern Iran: “We have lots of visual materials that have research value. Some of them have been analysed by visual artists or historians but not anthropologists. We need to read these photos as texts and data for anthropological purposes.”
As part of his responsibilities at Oklahoma State University, Khosronejad and his team are developing a methodology for assessing photos and documentary films from an anthropological standpoint. “These visual materials bear information that cannot be found in texts,” he says. “Analysing them can help anthropologists advance their studies on Iran.”
This photo was probably taken by Masoud Mirza Zell-e-Soltan (1850-1918), governor of Isfahan (1872-1907), and the eldest son of Nasser al-Din Shah. Zell-e-Soltan’s son Bahram Mirza sits in the middle on a chair accompanied by two members of his court (Reza Qoli Khan, private secretary in the right and Aqabaji eunuch chief in the left) sitting on the right and eight African eunuchs. The design of the jacket and hat of the Africans slaves could be considered a type of ethnic segregation. Photograph: Farhad and Firouzeh Diba Collection of Qajar Photographs
Based on the caption written by Masoud Mirza Zell-e-Soltan, the photographer of this image was his chief slave, Aqabaji. In this picture four of Zell-e-Soltan’s adult African slaves are seen keeping an eye on his children, Chehel Sotun Palace, Isfahan. 1890s Photograph: Aqa Suleyman Aqabaji/Modern Conflict Archive, London, UK
Gholam Hoseyn Mirza Masoud, one of Zell-e-Soltan’s sons, with his personal African slave, Julfa, Isfahan, 1880s Photograph: Thooni Johannes/Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies, Tehran, Iran
Based on the captions of other photos from the same album written by Masoud Mirza Zell-e-Soltan, the photographer of this image is Zell-e-Soltan himself and the baby in the picture a granddaughter, probably Nim Taj Khanum (Lady Nim Taj), with her African slave, in Isfahan, 1890s. During the Qajar period babysitting and accompanying royal and aristocratic children to their classes were among the main duties of African slaves. Photograph: Zell-e-Soltan/Modern Conflict Archive, London, UK
Saeed was born in the 1930s to an African mother in the house of Abolhassan Diba (4 January 1894-16 April 1982), and sent to Europe by Diba to be trained as a chef. When he returned to Iran in the 1950s he began working at the Park Hotel. He left Iran before the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and since then his whereabouts are unknown. Pictured here during a wedding celebration, Tehran, 1954 Photograph: Farhad and Firouzeh Diba Collection of Qajar Photographs
A young aristocrat posing next to her personal African eunuch. Photograph: Unknown photographer/Central Library, University of Tehran, Tehran, Iran
This 1895 photo was taken by one of the most important photographers of the Qajar era, Abdullah Qajar (1850-1909). In this rare photo, Nasser al-Din Shah is accompanied by his sons, members of court, and most of his favourite and influential slaves. There are 10 African eunuchs in the photo, among them Haji Firouz (the one wearing white and standing behind the king) who was one of the most trusted slaves of the king. Outside one of the royal tents, Norouz 1895 (Iranian New Year), possibly Shahrestanak, Tehran. Photograph: Abdullah Qajar/Courtesy of Pedram Khosronejad/Modern Conflict Archive, London, UK
Muzaffar al-Din Mirza (Muzaffar al-Din Shah Qajar 1853-1907) accompanied by his entourage. Prince Muzaffar Mirza’s high-ranking African slave (khajeh) is standing on his right, possibly in Tabriz, Iran, 1880s. Photograph: Unknown court photographer/Central Library, University of Tehran, Tehran, Iran
Nasser al-Din Shah had a special interest in taking photos of his own slaves inside the harem. In this photo, 53 eunuch slaves of different ethnic backgrounds in their early childhood, had probably been recently sent from abroad to the local southern markets, and to the king’s harem. Among them four African boys (qolam bachehha), inside Nasser al-Din Shah’s harem, Golestan Palace, Tehran. Date unknown. Photograph: Central Library, University of Tehran, Tehran, Iran