Maybe you’ve heard of Queen Soraya, the Iranian-German empress, or Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister of the Pahlavi era? What about the founder of the SAVAK, Teymur Bakhtiar, or the NFL Green Bay Packers player David Bakhtiari? All of them are members or descendants of the Bakhtiari tribe.
The Bakhtiari are one of the largest and most prominent tribes of Iran. Yet, when we look beyond the grandiose splendor that surrounds their high-profile members, we discover a tribe rooted in humility and with a deep connection to nature.
Although the origins of the tribe are debated, the Bakhtiari themselves trace their lineage directly from Cyrus the Great. Others claim that they are descendants of the Iranian epic hero Fereydoon. But what is certain is that they have been roaming the lands of Persia for thousands of years and are an integral part to its history.
The Bakhtiari live between the region of Khuzestan and Chaharmahal va Bakhtiari (Yes, that’s right. The province is named after them).They speak a dialect of Persian called Lori and are Shiite muslims like the majority of the country.
Today, it is estimated that only a third of the tribe remains nomadic as many have settled down to become agriculturist or were forced to move to cities due to economic hardship and unemployment.Yet, those that continue the nomadic lifestyle undergo one of the most challenging and fascinating migratory traditions alive.
It is believed that throughout most of Iran’s history, the Bakhtiari have lived as independent smaller clans and only formed a union during the reign of Shah Abbas the First in the 16th century. This union or confederacy was created for self-defence and self-preservation against attempts by the central Persian government to control these clans. And so, for four hundred years this power struggle between the tribe and the Persian rulers continued.
At one point, Nader Shah expelled 3000 Bakhtiari to Khorasan after shutting down a rebellion. Some were then forcefully drafted into the army and sent to campaigns in India! (You can still find their descendents in India today)
Yet, the Bakhtiari never gave up on their desire for fair ruling by the central government. When Naser al-Din Shah became more autocratic and tried to bypass the constitution, it was Bakhtiari warriors who captured Tehran in 1909 and pushed for the implementation of the constitution.
The Bakhtiari and the Oil Industry
Let’s also not forget that oil was first found in Iran on the winter grazing grounds of the Bakhtiari. The British, who were the first exploiters of Iran’s oil, knew they had to have some form of agreement with the Bakhtiari to be able to continue their oil exploitation and production. But Reza Shah, like many kings before him, was worried about the tribe’s growing power. He ordered that the British deal directly with the Government of Khuzestan instead of the Bakhtiari Khans. Then he arrested, tortured or executed many of their leaders.
Reza Shah’s nationalization policies also worked to force all subjects, including the Bakhtiari, to speak one dialect of Persian and learn one version of history of Iran in school, ignoring the multi-ethnic diversity that has always existed in Iran.
Subsequent governments also continued these practices and tried to encourage or force the Bakhtiari nomads to adopt sedentary lifestyles. However, this does not mean the Bakhtiari faded from the front pages of Iranian history. For some very interesting life stories, look up Teymour Bakhtiar, Queen Soraya, or Shapour Bakhtiar.
Much of Bakhtiari culture is based on their seasonal migration and the fact that their primary source of income is their livestock. For example, they eat little meat during the migratory period as meat will make them feel heavy and stop them from moving quickly. Instead, they use milk, yogurt and doogh as their main source of nutriment during this period.
Even their handicrafts contain the hairs of the animals they take care of. The Bakhtiari are famous for their black tents, siah chador, which is waterproof and woven using the wool of their goats. Even more well known are their carpets, made from ewe wool and typically with geometric or floral designs and famous for their vibrant colors.
The Family Contribution
Both men and women have hard working days. As the men go out to farm and shepard, the women bake bread, fetch water, milk the goats, and take care of all other household needs.
A common sight you will see is what looks like a large waterskin swing. The waterskin, called mashk, is usually made out of cow or sheep bladder because it works well to retain water. Milk is poured into it and two women work to swing it back and forth, so much that butter eventually floats up. During this process, the women sing traditional songs to make the work more enjoyable.
The Bakhtiari have many folk songs for every occasion. Check out some audio clips of their songs sung during the Kooch.
The men wear a no-rimmed wool black hat, baggy trousers and a coat with black and white stripes called chogha. The women wear long flowy skirts and scarves usually detailed with stitching, coins or other gold and silver objects.
Although the style of clothing really depends on the weather and the tribe, oftentimes you’ll see a wonderful array of colors being used. The simplicity of the possessions they own also is rooted in their nomadic lifestyle.
Since they have to move their homes twice a year, through rugged terrain and dangerous mountain tops, the less they own, the easier it is to move. This isn’t to say they are poor. The amount of livestock nomadic families own can end up being of high value.
Social Structure of the Tribe
Each nomadic tribe in Iran has a very diverse history and culture. Yet, even within the Bakhtiari tribe you can see a lot of differences. Such differences are in terms of ethnic background, traditions and everyday lifestyles.
The unity of these clans is rooted in a social structure which is based on a number of social hierarchies of several categories. The smallest and closest unit is the nuclear family, bahon, who live under one tent. Throughout the year, they live with several other tents composed of the extended patrilineal family (olad), creating a kind of encampment known as mal.
In the past, when it came time to migrate, the olads travelled in joint family groups known as tira. This was the largest social unit that you would see living in one location as the Bakhtiari tend to spread out to avoid scarcity of natural resources in one area. Back then, it was important to travel in large groups as there were many thieves and dangerous animals along the route. Today, these dangers have mostly disappeared and it is more common to see only two or three families travelling together.
The tira make-up the various Bakhtiari clans called tayefeh. The clans are all part of different sections (bab) and these sections make-up one of the two parts of the Bakhtiari tribe, the Haft Lang or the Chahar Lang. The largest unit is of course, the tribe itself, also known as il.
The Epic Migration
Twice a year, around 200,000 nomadic Bakhtiaris make a 300 kilometer journey with their entire flock of sheep across the steep mountain passes of the Zagros. Throughout the years, the same passes have been used as only a few safe pathways exist across the treacherous mountain tops.
The tribe moves from the cool pastures used in the summer to warmer regions for the winter and vice versa. The summer abode high up in the mountains is called yehlagh and the winter home in the low hills of Khuzestan is called garmsir.
This journey can take anywhere from one to six weeks. As there are no facilities on the journey, each family carries everything it needs for up to two months.The timing of this journey is also incredibly important as the tribe must decide to leave late enough so that the ice has melted to allow a safe passage but early enough to arrive in the green plains before the plains have been overgrazed by other animals.
Days of Nomadic Migration
Each day, their journey begins at dawn, with a long train of people and animals walking through the narrow passes of the hills and mountains. Sometimes large rivers need to be crossed and the entire flock of sheep is carefully guided through the rushing current.
If it rains, the nomads have to stop and wait for it to pass. If their tents get wet, they’ll have to wait for it to dry or it’ll be too heavy for the animals to carry.
Can you imagine what happens when suddenly your donkey refuses to go any further? Your home is being carried by this donkey! Therefore, there has to be a strong connection between the animal and its owner. So, oftentimes, the journey is dictated by the needs of these many animals rather than the comfort of the tribe themselves. Then as the day closes, the many families pitch their tents to recreate a small village or mal.
Other People and Nomadic Migration
So inspiring and brave is this journey that in 1920s, Grass, one of the first ethnographic films, followed this difficult trek. “It has to be experienced to be believed, and once it is experienced, it will never be forgotten.” As risky as this journey is, it’s a necessary method to survive the cold snowy temperatures of the yehlag and the hot dry season of the garmsir.
It is also a great method to prevent overpastuerization. Allan Savoy explains in his TedTalk that as herds of animals are forced to move, it not only prevents overgrazing, but their dung that is trampled on as they move, ensured good cover of the soil. To learn more about how nomads help fight climate change and the inspiration behind the creation of Persia Nomad Tours, check out here.
People of the Wind (1976)