Cultural Improvements in Iran During the Qajar Period and the West (late 18th c. until 1906-07 Constitutional Movement)
Mahshid Modares, USA, 2007
This article is Published in Iran Chamber Society, U.S.A., Spring 2007

The nineteenth century in Iran marked one of the most complicated periods in its history. For the majority of Iranian people, the nineteenth century was a time of agony, starvation, torture, and war. Social and political changes occurred relatively quickly in a society capable of making rational judgments about social necessities. Perhaps for the first time Iranians started questioning both the monarchy and the judiciary system. One important fact, the presence of individuals from European countries in Iran, on the one hand, became an obstruction to economic and political progress, while on the other hand, it provided a tool for finding new solutions.

The major cultural changes started during the reign of Fath Ali Shah (1797–1834), the second shah of Qajar dynasty, who spent his time attempting to change his tribal behavior and to bring it in line with the manners of the previous shahs of Iran. He commissioned palaces and mosques and their related artwork, such as their tiling, stone reliefs, murals, and paintings. Moreover, he recognized the chief values of government functionaries who had already worked for the Zand dynasty (1757-1794) and who were familiar with the ruling system in Iran; the monarch brought them to his court and gave them governmental positions. He also understood the supremacy of the Shi’ite clergy and their authority in society. Fath Ali Shah attempted to meet their demands by offering them lands and gifts and he recognized their command over the Islamic judicial system.(1) Fath Ali Shah’s policies, in hiring the government functionaries from the previous dynasty and introducing himself as the shah of the Shi’ite world, became a fundamental practice of the Qajar ruling system.

In addition to this system of government and the recognition of Shi’ite beliefs as the main religion, there was a third factor: European culture. Its powerful tools weakened indigenous government practices and religion. European culture, introduced to Iran during the Safavid period (1502–1736), became dominant in the Qajar epoch due to the direct political and economic control of England and Russia, as well as the royal courts’ belief in the superiority of Western civilization and its interest in European culture and technology. The differences in attitude between the Safavid and Qajar rulers, however, rests on the fact that, even though the Safavid rulers realized they needed the new military technology to survive, they were aware and proud of their strength in philosophy, religion, science, culture, art, and morality. Nonetheless, the sovereigns of the Qajar period, from the time of Fath Ali Shah, viewed themselves as politically and militarily inferior, believing that the West should be their role model in almost all aspects of life, even in clothing and social manners. This belief rendered the country susceptible to European influences. Although these influences were harmful economically and politically, they did create a fruitful environment for exchanges in art and science and the introduction of new technology.

Qajar shahs and aristocrats deeply believed in Europe’s superiority in civilization. As the leading patrons of schools and the educational system, they transferred such a belief to the people. The Qajar monarchs and aristocrats, therefore, focused their attention on European culture by visiting Europe, sending their sons and talented students there to study, opening European-style schools in Iran, hiring European teachers, importing new inventions, translating books, and even wearing European-style clothing, which became more fashionable after the time of Fath Ali Shah. With the permission of the ruler, Abbas Mirza, the crown prince, sent the first students to England, and then he reorganized the army based on the French military. Unfortunately, the crown prince’s ambitions to introduce major changes based on Western technology came to an end with his sudden sickness and death in 1833.(2)

Fath Ali Shah chose Mohammad, son of Abbas Mirza, as the crown prince. Mohammad and his brothers were very well educated; their father had hired tutors to teach them Farsi literature, the Arabic language, the fundamentals of the Shi’ite religion, and calligraphy. Abbas Mirza also urged his sons to become familiar with European culture and its achievements in technology.(3) Fath Ali Shah died one year after Abbas Mirza, and Mohammad was crowned king in Tehran in 1834.

Unable to analyze or change the political aspirations of England and Russia, Mohammad Shah searched for possible changes in other areas. He invited European politicians, travelers, and artists to his court,(4) and he sent several groups of students to France to study for example sugar and textile manufacturing.(5) He showed great interest in bringing inventions to Iran; these included photography, which reached Iran in 1844.(6) Mohammad Shah ordered a ninety-page book about Napoleon Bonaparte in French and Farsi. Moreover, the monarch even allowed a French lady to become the nurse and tutor of the crown prince, Naser-al-Din Mirza, and his sister, as well as hiring a second French teacher for the prince.(7) Mohammad Shah did not realize that such achievements were not as constructive as changing the whole educational system. But his endeavor signified him as a ruler who brought Western culture and technology into Iran.

After the death of Mohammad Shah in 1848, his son, Naser-al-Din Mirza, became the ruler. Naser-al-Din Shah had even more enthusiasm for European culture than his father. In the first years of his rule, the monarch’s first minister and chief commander of the military, Amir Kabir, took advantage of Naser-al-Din Shah’s interest in Western improvements and started instigating fundamental changes in the educational system. Amir Kabir was a key figure in the Qajar epoch and understood the requirement for changes in the judicial system, the government, the military, the economy, and certainly in education. The first step was opening Dar-al-Fonoun School (The Polytechnic School of Skills), the first school in Iran for the new sciences of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.(8)

It is crucial to note that this school was not the first school in Iran. Schools were always a part of the educational system of the country. John Chardin (1643–1813), the philosopher and traveler who twice traveled to Iran during the Safavid period, mentions that the royal family and aristocrats hired tutors to train their children, but ordinary people sent their children to school twice a day.(9) By the end of the Safavid Dynasty, however, the materials and the style of teaching in those schools had not changed, and students were no longer exposed to new ideas in religion, philosophy, and the sciences. Moreover, the rapid changes in technology and science in Europe, on the one hand, and Iran’s social catastrophes after the Safavid period, on the other, placed the country in need of recovery.

Amir Kabir adapted the idea of opening Dar-al-Fonoun School from a school in the Ottoman Empire that had the most advanced educational system of any Islamic country. Dar-al-Fonoun was officially opened in 1851. The school, built near the main bazaar in Tehran, included classes in engineering, military education, medicine, chemistry, candle making, pharmacy, physics, mineralogy, and music. The school also included a theater for plays and music and a lithography studio for publishing schoolbooks. Later, other subjects such as history, geography, traditional medicine, mathematics, cartography, painting, Farsi, Arabic, French, and Russian were added to the curriculum.(10)

Choosing appropriate educators for the school was a challenge. Iranian teachers were chosen both from the best of the clergy to teach religious duties, hold daily prayer, and teach Arabic and from the best physicians and scholars who studied the new sciences in Europe. European teachers were hired from Austria, Italy, France, and the Netherlands, and the schools employed translators to translate professors’ lectures for the students. The students were paid and given clothes, and the best of them were hired as teaching assistants. Dar-al-Fonoun had its own newspaper, which informed society about its achievements.(11) After many decades, Iran eventually began to recover because of the Dar-al-Fonoun School, whose graduates started working professionally in different fields and training the next generation.

Besides Dar-al-Fonoun, Amir Kabir opened another school at the end of the Tobacco Merchant’s bazaar in Tehran to teach traditional art; the Majma’-e Dar-al-Sanayeh (The Polytechnic School of Arts and Crafts) encouraged the best artists in different traditional fields to train young talented students as well as to create artifacts for their patrons.(12) These two schools became models for other schools that were opened subsequently. Amir Kabir’s concern for traditional art, as well as for modern technology and the sciences, reveals a man who was completely aware of the significance of keeping the roots of society alive and building a new society upon them. Although he held office under Naser-al-Din Shah for just four years, he established the basis of a high-quality educational system in Iran.

Another important improvement of this period was the publishing of newspapers, also owed to Amir Kabir; because of Naser-al-Din Shah’s interest, the first weekly newspaper, Vaghayeh Etefaghiyeh (The Happenings), was published in 1851. This newspaper was not Iran’s first, however. Fourteen years before Vaghayeh Etefaghiyeh, Mirza Saleh Kazerouni, one of the students sent to Europe by Abbas Mirza, published a monthly untitled newspaper in Tabriz from 1837. It is not clear how long he continued publishing his newspaper nor what subjects he chose, but he should be given the credit of being the first Iranian reporter. Vaghayeh Etefaghiyeh continued for ten years, informing people about the price of food, the government’s announcements, the monarch’s travels, and events in other provinces.(13) Like the schools, this newspaper played a crucial role in educating people and it led to the publication of many other newspapers. Moreover, it provided an opportunity for artists to provide lithographic images and for calligraphers, reporters, and writers to work together as their ancestors did in the book-illustrating studios in the Iranian royal courts, but with a different approach and technique.

Published in Istanbul and Izmir, two cities in the Ottomans Empire, European newspapers were available in Tabriz and Tehran as well. Thus, European politicians, travelers, and merchants were kept informed of European news.(14) Always curious, Naser-al-Din Shah had someone read French newspapers to him even when traveling. In his Safar Nameh Dovoum Khurasan (The Second Travel to Khurasan), the shah explained that almost every morning one of the princes read a French newspaper for the monarch while riding to Khurasan.(15) Naser-al-Din Shah was also eager to learn about the history and geography of the world and ordered books in French to be translated into Farsi.(16)

Naser-al-Din Shah’s inquisitiveness was not limited to European civilization; he loved Iranian poetry, invited poets to his court, wrote poems, and read books such as The Thousand and One Nights, which the monarch would later commission his court artist, Sani-al-Molk, to illustrate. By inviting poets, writers, artists and architects to his court, and learning about art, literature, history and geography, as well as allowing wise individuals such as Amir Kabir to provide the tools for cultural and educational enhancement, Naser-al-Din Shah’s court nearly achieved the level of the Safavid court. Unfortunately, it was his weakness in managing the political and economic conditions of Iran that held back the country’s progress and had dreadful effects on the society, resulting in an unhappy and disenfranchised populace. In the end, after ruling for fifty years, the monarch was assassinated.(17)

Mozafar-al-Din Shah (1853–1907), the crown prince, ascended to the throne at the age of forty-three. He had neither his father’s keenness for learning nor for the improvement of art and education, nor the good fortune to have great men like Amir Kabir to serve him. He inherited his ancestors’ weakness in political and economic analysis and a love for the European lifestyle. He did not pay attention to the schools, even Dar-al-Fonoun, leaving its funding and management responsibilities on the shoulder of teachers, principals, and families whose sons studied at the school.(18) Thus, there were few new achievements in culture and modern or traditional arts. There were, however, some positive aspects in Mozafar-al-Din Shah’s regime, especially in the cultural and political arena.

Mozafar-al-Din Shah’s weakness and ignorance of almost all the aforementioned major social and political changes encouraged people to take action. Women, for example, became socially active and requested that the government provide them with education and open schools. Until that time girls from upper and middle class families were tutored at home by male or female teachers. Qajar princesses usually sat in the same class with their brothers. Despite the government’s and some conservative clergy’s disagreement, in 1865, Safiyeh Yazdi, the wife of Shiekh Mohammad Yazdi, one of the well-known clergy, opened the first school for women named Aftiyeh in Tehran and invited men and women educators to her school. She lectured in the school about women’s rights and trained sixty-six young women, some of whom became teachers and principals of future schools. Eventually other women joined her and she founded the Women’s Freedom Organization in 1868.(19) It was not the first time that women showed their power and concern for social issues. They had also participated in rallies and objections against the government in Naser-al-Din Shah’s reign.(20) This was the first time that women asked for social improvement and equal rights with men for education.

In the last years of his life, Mozafer-al-Din Shah witnessed a popular uprising against his regime that dominated Tehran and other major cities. When protesters asked for the opening of a Ministry of Justice, he immediately consented and signed the agreement written by the people. Although his ministers and some courtiers firmly objected to both the new ministry and the signature of the monarch, Mozafar-al-Din Shah preferred to do what the people favored.(21) At this point, he was wise enough to understand the social changes. Also, his travels to Europe and an attraction for the European lifestyle made it easier for him to accept revolutionary ideas. The next step was the revolution of 1906–07, the Constitutional Movement, and the opening of the First Congress in the same year.

The relationship between Iran and the West in the nineteenth century can be considered from three different viewpoints. There were individuals who believed that Iran must copy Europe entirely, even in clothing, to become modern while disregarding its traditional culture and religious beliefs. Some Iranian students who had lived in Europe for a while and saw themselves as backward became the main advocates for this idea. The second group consisted of conservatives who objected to any association with Europe and other social enhancements and tried to stop the enlightened activists, sometimes in the name of Islam backed by some of the clergy. The best example was their hostility toward the opening of a women’s school. And finally, enlightened individuals, including activists, artists, poets, writers, clerics, politicians, merchants, and people from other groups who considered such an affiliation an opportunity to learn about Western technology, culture, and social changes, followed their ancestors who had been open to other civilizations and cultures such as China, India, and the Arab world and adopted what they believed was positive for the society without harming its cultural roots; they left behind what they felt was not needed.

(1) Abbas Amanat, Ghebleh A’lam: Naser-al-Din Shah Qajar va Padeshahi Iran (Pivot of the Universe: Naser-al-Din Shah Qajar and the Iranian Monarchy), translated by Hassan Kamshad (Tehran: Karnameh Publishers, 2004), 40.

(2) “History of Iran: Abbas Mirza,” Iran Chamber Society, (accessed September 14, 2005).

(3) Amanat 2004, 67–68.

(4) L.Thornton, The Orientalists Painter-Travelers 1828–1908 (Paris: ACR Edition International, 1983), 80.

(5) Ahmad Hashemiyan, Tahavolat Iran dar Doreh Qajar va Madresseh Dar-al-Fonoun (The Improvements in Iran During the Qajar Period and Dar-al-Fonoun School) (Tehran: Moaseseh Joghrafiyaee va Kartougraphy Sahab, 2000), 56.

(6) Pirooz Sayyar, “The Legacy of Qajar Period Photographers,” Fasl Nameh Tavoos, No. 1 (Fall 1999): 40.

(7) Amanat 2004, 129, 109–112. The nurse was a French woman who married Hajj Abbas, one of the students sent by Mohammad Shah to France to learn chinaware manufacturing. Hajj Abbas went back to Iran in 1830 with his wife. Soon, she found her way to the court and amazed Malek Jahan, Mohammad Shah’s wife, by her knowledge of flower arranging, cooking, embroidery, dancing, and singing. She became the queen’s best friend, the tutor of her children, and one of the leading figures of the court of Mohammad Shah and Naser-al-Din Shah. Also, the French teacher was Mirza Ebrahim Armani, who studied in France and was hired as a translator and teacher at the court.

(8) Amanat 2004, 148–210.

(9) John Chardin, Siyahat Nameh Chardan (Voyages de Chardin en Perse et Autres Lieux de L’ Orient) Vol. 4 of the Complete Works of John Chardin, translated by Mohammad Abbasi (Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1957), 155.

(10) Hashemiyan 2000, 91–93.
(11) Hashemiyan 2000, 120–130.

(12) Yahya Zoka, Zendegi va Asar-e Ostad Sani’ol-Molk (Life and Works of Sani’ol-Molk, 1814–1866) (Tehran: Markaz Nashr Daneshgahi, 2003), 32.

(13) Ahmad Tajbakhsh, Tarikh-e Tamadon va Farhang Iran, Doreh-e Qajar (History of Civilization and Culture of Iran During the Qajar Period) (Shiraz: Navid Shiraz Publishers, 2003), 392-394

(14) Amanat 2004, 127.

(15) See Naser-al-Din Shah Qajar, Safar Nameh-e Dovvom-e Khurasan (The Second Travel to Khurasan) (Tehran: Kavosh, 1984), 31.

(16) Amanat 2004, 126.

(17) Naser-al-Din Shah was assassinated by Mirza Reza Kermani, a follower of Jamal-al-Din Asa’d Abadi who lived in Egypt and later in Istanbul and had mounted political activities against the Qajars. Asa’d Abadi ordered Kermani to assassinate Kamran Mirza, the chief of the army. However, Kermani shot the monarch instead when he was in the holy shrine of Abd-al-Azim near Tehran celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his rule in 1896. Interestingly, Kermani went to a photography studio in Tehran the day before the assassination, took a photo, and told the photographer to keep it since it would become precious (Ali Modaresi, in an Interview with the author, May 5, 2005). He was right.

(18) Tajbakhsh 2003, 455.
(19) Tajbakhsh 2003, 456–457.
(20) See Amanat 2004, 500–504.
(21) Ali Modaresi, May 5, 2005.

Articles: Culture, History, Theory

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