The Lurs of Iran

The Lur or Lor are an Iranian people living mainly in southwest and south Iran. Their exact population is not known, but they number over two million. The territories occupied by Lurs include three provinces: Luristan (the land of Lors), Bakhtiari and Kuh-Gilu-Boir Ahmed. In addition, Lurs constitute a significant proportion of the population in several provinces including Khuzistan, Fars, Ilam, Hamadan and Bushehr.


Most Lurs speak an Iranian dialect known as Luri; however, nearly half the Lurs of Luristan province speak Laki, another Iranian dialect. The Luri dialect is closer to Persian while Laki is closer to Kurdish. Generally speaking, Luri is divided into northern and southern dialects. The northern dialect is spoken in Luristan, several districts of Hamadan (Nahavand, Towisarkan) and by the inhabitants of south and southwest Ilam and northern part of Khuzistan province. The southern dialect is spoken by the inhabitants of Bakhtiari, Kuh-Gilu-Boir Ahmed and also in the north and east of Khuzistan, in the Mamasani district of Fars, and also in most areas of Bushehr province.

Historical Background

The territories presently occupied by the Lurs have been inhabited by man for some 40,000 years (Hole 1978). Thus far, archaeological investigations in Luristan have unearthed tools and artifacts from the middle paleolithic, upper paleolithic, mesolithic and bronze age. However, the earliest known people to inhabit the territories presently occupied by the Lurs were the Elamites, who settled in the area as early as 3000 BC. Later, the Kassites, who are well known for their bronze artifacts, lived in Luristan as early as second millennium BC, while the Elamites continued to hold the rest of their territories. The Kassites formed a dynasty, conquered Babylonia in 1747 BC and dominated Mesopotamia for 576 years (Ghirshman 1978).

The Elamite and the Kassite dynasties were overtaken by the Indo-Iranians during the first millennium BC. Thus, the ancestors of the Lurs, as a segment of the Persian population, settled in their present territories and dominated the native inhabitants in the later part of the first millennium BC (Cameron 1936). Unfortunately, little information is available on the history of the Lurs during the Greek (331-192 BC), Parthian (129 BC-AD 226) and Sassanid (AD 226-641) periods.

During the Arab invasion of the seventh century, the Lurs, along with other Iranians, unsuccessfully fought against the Arabs. The Arabs' absolute domination of Iran, including Lur territory, lasted over two centuries. In the beginning of the ninth century, however, revolts took place in different parts of Iran and local dynasties were established in several areas of the country. One such local dynasty was that of the Buyids, who originated in northern Iran and conquered most areas of the country, including the Lur territory, in the tenth century. By the middle of the tenth century, the areas inhabited by the Lurs were collectively known as Luristan. Later on, Luristan was divided into two parts: Lur-i-kuchek (Luristan Minor) and Lur-i-bozorg (Luristan Major). The former corresponded to modern Luristan and Ilam provinces while the latter included modern Bakhtiari, Kuh-Gilu-Boir Ahmed and Mamasani.

In the eleventh century, Iran was invaded by the Seljuks, Turkish speaking pastoralists from central Asia. As a result, a group of Turkmans under the leadership of Sunqur settled in Kuh-Gilu of Lur-i-bozorg. The capital of Luri-i-kuchek was also invaded and ransacked by the Seljuk Turks in 1043.

In spite of all these invasions, the Lurs maintained their territorial integrity, absorbed the invaders, and eventually established two local dynasties known as Atabak during the twelfth century.

Lur-i-bozorg (Luristan Major)

Lur-i-bozorg came under the control of a local dynasty known as Atabakan-i Lur-i bozorg during the twelfth century. The Atabak dynasty of Lur-i-bozorg was established in 1155 and was ended by the Timurids in 1423. Members of this dynasty ruled over a vast territory extending from the Diz River in the north to the vicinity of Shiraz in the south. Their territory included modern Bakhtiari, Kuh-Gilu-Boir Ahmed, Mamasani and parts of Khuzistan and Isfahan provinces. The archaeological remains clearly indicate the economic prosperity of Lur-i-bozorg during the reign of this dynasty.

The fall of the Atabak dynasty terminated the territorial unity and the economic prosperity of the Luri-bozorg. The area broke up into tribal territories without a centralized administrative apparatus. Later, during the Safavid period (1501-1750), Lur-i-bozorg was divided into three parts: the northern part became known as Bakhtiari, the central part or KuhGilu retained its old name, while the southern part became known as Mamasani. The Mamasani district was previously inhabited by another group of Lur known as Shul and hence the area was known as Shulistan (the land of Shuls). However, the Mamasani tribal confederacy left their territory in Kuh-Gilu, moved southward and conquered Shulistan. The area has been known as Mamasani ever since.

The Safavids, who had come to power by the support of seven Turkic tribes, granted lands as well as high administrative position to the leaders of these tribes as they took control of Iran. Thus, Kuh-Gilu was granted to the leaders of Afshar, one of the seven Turkic tribes, who moved to Kuh-Gilu and assumed the leadership of the area (Minorsky 1936). However, the Afshar were faced with constant uprisings of the Lur tribes, and eventually they were driven out during the latter part of the Safavid rule at the end of the seventeenth century.

In the meantime, Bakhtiari was ruled by influential Luri tribal leaders, some of whom were occasionally appointed as governors of the entire area (Sardar As'ad 1914).

Mamasani, on the other hand, remained a district of Fars province, under the jurisdiction of the governor-general of that province. However, the tribal leaders maintained a certain degree of influence in the area.

In 1736, the Safavids were replaced by another Turkic dynasty known as Afshar, which ruled from 1736 to 1750. Nader Shah, the founder of this dynasty, spent much of his time campaigning inside and outside of the country. He carried on several military operations against the Lurs of Bakhtiaris and Lur-i-kuckek during which he executed several tribal leaders and exiled several thousand families of the Bakhtiaris to northeastern Iran.

The Afsharids were overthrown by the Zand (1750-1794), a Lur dynasty from Lur-i-kuchek. The founder of this dynasty was Karim Khan, from the Zand tribe of Lur-i-kuckek, who took control of Iran after a long struggle. The Zands chose Shiraz as their capital and maintained dose ties with the Lurs of Mamasani, Kuh-Gilu, Bakhtiari and Lur-i-kuckek. The founder of the Zand dynasty transferred several thousand families from Lur-i-kuchek to the vicinity of Shiraz.

In general, the reign of the Afsharids and Zands witnessed numerous tribal revolts and the expansion of pastoral nomadism at the expense of the settled communities in regions inhabited by the Lurs as well as some other tribal groups of Iran.

The Zand dynasty was ousted by the Qajars, Turkic pastoral nomads from northern Iran. The Qajars (1794-1924) managed to overthrow the Zands after a long struggle which left many villages devastated. As they took power, they enforced the following policies: 1) the Zands along with several other Luri tribes were exiled from Fars province to central Iran, 2) the Kuh-Gilu and the Mamasani regions were annexed to Fars, 3) high-ranking Qajars were appointed as governors to various regions of Iran, including the territories inhabited by the Lurs, 4) military operations were often carried out against tribal chiefs who disobeyed the Qajars or refused to pay taxes. Often influential Luri leaders were killed.

Despite these policies the Qajars never managed to subdue the Lurs entirely. As a matter of fact, not only did they lose control of most Lur territory during the later part of their rule, but they were severely weakened by the Bakhtiaris, who marched to Tehran in support of the Constitutional Revolution (1906), conquered the capital and forced the Qajar monarch to cede his absolute power. In addition, several Bakhtiaris assumed high-ranking positions such as prime minister and governors-general. The weakened Qajar dynasty was overthrown by Reza Khan in 1924.

Lur-i-kuchek (Luristan Minor)

Traditionally Lur-i-kuchek corresponded to modern provinces of Luristan and Ilam. It comprised the entire belt of mountainous region stretching from the plains of the Tigris in the west to the Diz River in the east. The entire area came under the control of a local dynasty known as the Atabakan-i-Luristan, which lasted from 1184 to 1597. The rulers of Lur-i-kuchek established their capital in Khorramabad (currently the provincial capital of Luristan), maintained a semi-independent dynasty and paid tribute only when the supreme rulers of Iran were strong enough to collect tribute by force. The last ruler of Lur-i-kuchek was Shah-Vardi Khan, whose sister was married to Shah Abbas, the King of Iran, while Shah-Vardi Khan himself was married to one of the Safavid royal princesses.

The Atabak dynasty was replaced by the Wali dynasty (1596-1929). The founder of the new dynasty was Husain Khan, whose father had married the aunt of the last Atabak, and on the basis of this kinship tie Husain Khan later received the position of ruler of Lur-j-kuchek. The Walis played a significant role in the political affairs of Iran. They guarded southwestern Iran against the Ottomans, who constantly attacked the western and southwestern borders of the country. Ali Mardan Khan was appointed the commander-in-chief of the entire Iranian armed forces dur downfall of the Safavids, when the country was invaded by the Afghans in the early eighteenth century (De Bode 1845).

The reign of the Walis coincided with several dynasties of Iran including: Safavid (1501-1736), Afshar (1736-1750), Zand (1750-1794), Qajar (1796-1925) and the beginning of the Pahlavi(1924-1929). The last two dynasties, namely the Qajar and Pahlavi, are responsible for the political weakness of the Lurs and the decline of the Wali dynasty. Thus, the Lurs maintained their political integrity under the Safavids and Afshars, while they ruled over Iran during the Zand dynasty. However, when the Qajars came to power, they divided Lur-i-kuchek into two parts, Luristan and Posht-kuh. From this time on, the domain of the Walis was limited to Posht-kuh only, while Luristan came under the direct control of the central government. Thus, a governor-general, usually a member of the royal family, was appointed by the king and sent to Luristan. Yet during the Qajar dynasty, Luristan was continually in a state of anarchy. The Qajars were unable to subdue the tribes of Luristan and hence, except for some short periods, there was no peace in Luristan. As a matter of fact, the Qajar dynasty lost total control over Luristan after the assassination of Nasir al-Din Shah in 1896. In short, the division of Lur-i-kuchek by the Qajar dynasty weakened the political strength of the Walis and reduced the Lurs' political influence. Furthermore, the inability of the Qajars to establish law and order in Luristan contributed to the expansion of pastoral nomadism and the destruction of settled communities. Consequently, Luristan suffered politically as well as economically under Qajar rule.

The Qajar dynasty was overthrown by Reza Khan, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, in 1925. The Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979) is best characterized as a dictatorial monarchy with absolute rule, that is, the concentration of power in the monarch's hands. The regime built an army whose strength was without precedent in the history of Iran. The army was used against Lurs and other groups who refused to give up their power to the new regime. Through bloody confrontations between the new monarch and the Lurs (as well as other peoples in Iran), the Pahlavi dynasty eventually crushed the powers of the Lurs. Thus, Reza Shah ended the Wali dynasty of Posht-kuh, executed or exiled many of the Lur leaders, forcefully sedentarized the nomadic pastoral tribes and changed the territorial integrity of Lur-i-kuchek.

The Lurs under the Pahlavi Regime

While the Qajar dynasty was responsible for the spread of anarchy among the Lurs, the Pahlavi-dynasty was responsible for their political disorganization, social disruption and the loss of political freedom and semi-independent status. For the first time in their long history, the Lurs were stripped of their traditional rights and political freedom by the Pahlavi dynasty. When Reza Shah took power, he established a centralized government, transferring power from the provincial communities to Tehran. He carried out his plan through the use of military operations against various provincial communities, including the Lurs. A key element to Reza Shah's success was that the Lurs were not unified so he could attack each group separately. Furthermore, Reza Shah used one tribe to fight against another. As the Lurs were defeated, Reza Shah took the following measures to keep them under control: 1) tribal leaders were removed from their positions of authority and were replaced by military officials, 2) many of the leaders, were executed, imprisoned or exiled to other parts of Iran, 3) some tribes were exiled to distant lands, 4) all pastoral nomadic tribes, which formed the majority of the Lur population, were forceably sedentarized without sufficient provisions, 5) all tribesmen were disarmed, 6) the use of the traditional black tent was outlawed, 7) tribesmen were ordered to abandon their traditional costume and were forced to wear Western clothes; however, this rule was not totally carried out, and 8) governmental offices were established in order to carry out the state policies.

The above policies were intended to subjugate the Lurs to the central government. Reza Shah altered the traditional sociopolitical organization of the Lurs without providing opportunities for their participation in local or national government. Undoubtedly the establishment of the central state demanded the integration of various regions and ethnic groups. However, that need not entail political deprivation and the lack of respect for members of the different tribal or ethnic groups. Under the Pahlavi regime, however, the establishment of the modern state came to mean precisely that - the expansion of state domination and disruption of the traditional political organization without the slightest opportunity for peoples to participate in local or national politics.

Reza Shah was deposed by the British and Russians in 1941, and was replaced by his son Mohammed Reza Shah, who ruled from 1941 to 1979. The reign of Mohammed Reza Shah witnessed further centralization of state power and the disintegration of traditional political organization among the Lurs. The enforcement of the land reform program and the nationalization of the forests and pastureland (1962-63 along with various forces of modernization including the expansion of capitalism, urbanism and modern schooling gradually changed many aspects of the Lurs' culture.

Under the Pahlavi regime, the Lurs lost their freedom and their semi-independent status, and the Lurs' territories were divided into several administrative units without any regard for traditional boundaries. For instance, Lur-i-kuchek has been limited to modern Luristan while Posht-kuh, formerly ruled by the Wali dynasty, was incorporated into Ilam province. The most dramatic change caused by the Pahlavi regime was the loss of freedom and the semi-independent status of the Lurs. Prior to the establishment of the Pahlavi Regime, basic decisions were made within the local communities. For instance, the Bakhtiari was ruled by a local dynasty who paid certain tributes to the central government, while internal affairs were taken care of by the members of that dynasty. In Luristan, each tribal group acted as a semi-independent unit. In Posht-kuh, the Walis were supreme, while the tribes of Kuh-Gilu-Boir Ahmed and those of Mamasani also enjoyed the same internal freedom. The Pahlavi regime, however, sent high-ranking officials from Tehran to supervise the Lur territories. Just prior to the recent revolution, all governors-general were directly appointed by the Shah without taking into consideration the existence of the Lurs' communities. Lurs, like other Iranians, were prohibited from organizing political parties, forming associations or expressing themselves through mass media and public gatherings.

Second, Iranian oil is extracted from the mountain slopes of Luristan, Bakhtiari and Kuh-Gilu-Boir Ahmed provinces, but the Lurs were deprived from their share of oil revenue, particularly during the reign of Mohammed Reza Shah. The money derived from oil went to the pockets of the Tehranis, creating regional economic inequalities.

Third, despite the fact that the Pahlavi regime provided elementary and, to some extent, secondary education for the Lurs, it failed to provide them with opportunities for higher education. Until a few years prior to the revolution, not a single institution of higher education was established among the Lurs, nor were they given scholarships or financial support. The Pahlavi regime was thus responsible for depriving the Lurs of access to higher and prestigious positions. High-ranking Lur families were the only exceptions; they could afford to send their children to universities either in Iran or outside the country.

Modern education was used during the Pahlavi rule as a way to undermine local cultural values. School curriculum was prepared in Tehran without taking the cultural diversity among the Iranian peoples into consideration. Not a single course in the entire elementary, high school or university curricula reflected the history, geography or sociocultural values of the Lurs.

In sum, the Lurs lost their sociopolitical integrity under the Pahlavi dynasty. They were integrated into the "modern" state without any opportunity for effective participation in the decision-making process that affected their lives.

The Lurs under the Islamic Regime

It is too early to evaluate the sociopolitical conditions of the Lurs under the present regime. So far, political parties, associations and local newspapers have not yet emerged. Administrative boundaries of the Lurs' territories remain unchanged from those of the Pahlavi regime. While it is difficult to speculate about the future of the Lurs under the current regime, considering the fact that the present regime is concerned more with an Islamic community rather than with a country of diverse ethnic groups, it seems unlikely that there will be considerable change in the near future.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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