The Bakhtiyari


The Bakhtiyari is one of the major tribal sections of the Lur and live mainly in the Zagros Mountains in Southwest Iran. They number around 800,000 and speak the Lur-i Buzurg (Greater Lur) dialect of Luri, which has features of Kurdish. Luri (and Kurdish) are closely related to Farisi or Persian, an Indo-Iranian language of the Indo-European phylum.

Like others who comprise the Lur tribal confederacy, the Bakhtiyari is most likely of Kurdish origin coming from Syria between the 9th and 12th centuries. Other ethnic groups, such as Arabs, have been absorbed into the Bakhtiyari as well. They were under the Khushidi Atabeksand became 12er Shi‘ites along with the other Lurs supporting the Safavid Shah Isma‘il I (1501–1524).

The Bakhtiyari have played important roles in Iranian history. During the period following the collapse of the Safavids in 1722, Bakhtiyari tribal leaders were involved in the political intrigues and led Bakhtiyari troops both for the state and against it. The Qajar dynasty (1779–1925) had generally poor relations with the Bakhtiyari and, despite numerous mili-tary expeditions sent against them, the Qajars were never able to bring them fully under state control.

The Bakhtiyari are divided into two major groups, the Haft-Lang and the Chahar-Lang, which are further divided into subgroups; the Haft-Lang is com-posed of 55 sub-tribes and the Chahar-Lang is composed of 24 subtribes. Tribal leaders are called khans, who are judges called upon to settle disputes inside the group and are representatives for their people to the outside, including to governments. Wives of the khans are able to stand in for their husbands to settle disputes between tribespeople when the khans are absent, and the wives’ decisions are binding.

The yearly migration from the lowlands at the foot of the Zagros Mountains to highland summer grazing areas is legendary. The trek was the subject of a Holly-wood documentary in 1925 called Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life. The film crew was the first group of Westerns to make the journey across the Zagros with the nomads. In 1976, a similar documentary was made of the yearly migration called People of the Wind, which was nominated for the Oscar (1976) and for the Golden Globe (1977) for best documentary.

There is a good deal of Bakhtiyari oral literature; stories, proverbs, poems, and the like. Some of this has been collected and translated into English by a number of scholars. In addition, Bakhtiyari women are noted weavers. Bakhtiyari weaving is easily recognizable by their designs; the main field of the rug is divided by squares, diamonds, and other such shapes that are filled with floral patterns. Settled sections of the Bakhtiyari have adopted elements from urban Persian designs, but keep their distinctive Bakhtiyari use of floral-filled geometrics. Like most “tribal” carpets, Bakhtiyari are mainly red with designs in green, brown, yellow, and blue.

Like other pastoral nomads in Iran, attempts were made in the 1920s and 1930s to force the Bakhtiyari to settle. Most of these settlements failed, and they returned to pastoral nomadism once Reza Shah (1924–1941) was removed from power. Sections of the Bakhtiyari have remained resolutely pastoralist, and their great migration has been aided by the building of roads and bridges along their route.

Many Bakhtiyari have held important positions in the Iranian government. Perhaps the most famous was Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiayri, who was queen of Iran. In 1951, Muhammad Reza Shah married her as his second wife.

Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiyari was the daughter of Khalil Esfandiary, a Bakhtiyari khan and Iran’s ambassador to Western Germany, and the niece of Sardar Assad, a major figure in Iranian politics and constitutional movement. They divorced in 1958 due to her infertility.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Abecassis, Michael. “War Iranian Cinema:Between Reality and Fiction.” http://www .html (accessed January 4, 2010).

Bamborough, Phillip. Antique Oriental Rugs and Carpets. London: Blandford Press, 1979.

Melkonian, V. “Bakhtiyari.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., CD-ROM.

Minorsky, V. “Lur.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., CD-ROM.

“Soraya Esfandiari Bakhtiari.” (accessed January 4, 2010).