Shahsavan in the Grip of Development

The Shahsavan are a nomadic pastoralist tribe located in northwest Iran near the Soviet frontier. These Azeri-Turkish speaking pastoralists migrate between their winter quarters, qishlaq, in the Mughan steppe of Azerbaijan, and their summer quarters, yeylaq, around Mount Sabalan, approximately one hundred fifty miles to the south.

After visiting the Shahsavan from 1971 to 1977, we set out in January 1978 to investigate the effects of large-scale agro-industrial development schemes on the traditional life of the Shahsavan, the role of women in a tribal society, and the possibility of making a documentary film of the rapidly disappearing seasonal migration between winter and summer camps.

The Shahsavan often remarked that "they did not expect their grandchildren to share the heritage of the tribal life and culture." The film was to be a visual record of their nomadic lifestyle for future generations.

Historical Background

Before the 18th century the name Shahsavan (those who live the monarch) denoted various tribal people located in northeast Azerbaijan. Historians claim that Shah Abbas Safavid (1587-1629) formed this particular tribe to defend his western frontiers from the rebellious Turkish Qizilbash tribes. Upon becoming Shahsavan, a tribal group was obligated to show its primary loyalty to the maintenance of the Safavid dynasty by adhering to Shi'ite Islam and by providing men for the Safavid monarchs' armies. In turn, Shah Abbas granted the Shahsavan lands in northeast Azerbaijan for summer and winter pasturage.

In the 18th century, under Nader Shah Afshar (1736-1747) different tribes in the area united under the same name. By the end of the century the Shahsavan split into two major confederations, Ardabil and Meshkin. The former became settled villagers around the city of Ardabil, while most of the latter continued nomadic pastoralism. The loss of northern Azerbaijan to Russia after the Treaty of Turkmanchai (1828) divided the Shahsavan winter pastures in Mughan. The Shahsavan were allowed limited use of their grazing lands in Russian Mughan until 1884, at which point the frontier was closed by the Russians for good. This was a severe economic blow which contributed to the breakdown of tribal hierarchy. Many nomads were forced to remain on the Russian side of the border, while others, of the same tribe, were on the Iranian side. Loss of traditional pastures by more than two thirds of the Shahsavan led to violent disputes, raiding and almost continual rebellion for the next forty years against both the Iranian and Russian authorities.

When Reza Shah Pahlavi took power in 1921, he attempted to gain full control over all segments of the population, especially the nomadic tribes who often challenged central authority. The Shahsavan were finally defeated and disarmed in 1923. Many of the chiefs were executed or exiled to other parts of the country. The forced sedentarization policy which followed had disastrous social and economic effects for most migratory pastoralists, including the Shahsavan. Despite its brutal efforts, the government was unable to completely enforce this policy. In 1941, with the fall of Reza Shah, the Shahsavan.-along with other nomadic tribes, resumed their traditional lifestyle and migration.

The changes that took place in the economic and political organization of the Shahsavan over the first half of the twentieth century substantially limited the power of the tribal leaders. By 1960, the tribal chiefs were removed from their traditional position of authority and the Shahsavan came under the full administrative control of the central government. Individual chiefs still maintained an important role in the local political affairs of the tribe, but their power was further undermined by the national land reform program (1962-1972).

The Shahsavan Today

The Shahsavan population was estimated at 100,000-120,000 (15,000-18,000 families). In the early 1970s 40,000 individuals migrated yearly between Mughan and Sabalan.

The Shahsavan, unlike many other nomadic tribes in Iran, do not have just one recognized chief (khan). Instead the influential chiefs (begs) of the five or six principal tribes act as intermediaries with outside authorities.

Seasonal Migration

The Shahsavan begin their migration southward to Mount Sabalan (15,816 ft.) approximately 45 days after the spring equinox. The weather determines the exact timing of departure. The nomads usually spend three to four weeks covering the 150 miles between the winter and summer quarters. For the migration, several camps form a caravan consisting of 30-60 tents. A recognized leader organizes the migration of different groups in accordance with the movement of other sections of the tribe. Daily migration starts soon after midnight and continues until midday, when sun and heat prevent further travel. The flocks begin to move several hours before the caravan of camels and other pack animals. Camels transport the women, children, lambs, chickens, the wooden frame of the tent, and the colorfully woven luggage containers. The men ride horses or walk. By late morning, the caravans catch up with the flocks. Several men ride ahead to locate appropriate pastures and a camping site where the tribe will settle for the night. A day's travel covers between six and ten miles.

Pack animals are unloaded upon arrival. The dome-shaped tents take only 15 minutes to set up. A circular crown is held up by a man, while 24 to 32 bent wooden rods are inserted into it; the frame stands like a giant spider. To give the tent lateral strength, woolen bands are wrapped around the frame, and a large wooden peg is driven into the ground under the crown to tie the tent down. Once assembled, the frame is covered by several sheets of thick felt, ketcha, which are tied to the frame and the ground. A lighter tent is set up by shepherds or families who do not have a larger one. Everyone is involved in setting up camp. Afterward women fetch water, prepare food, and shortly after sunset everyone goes to sleep. The next day begins soon after midnight.

Like many other tribes, the Mughanlu rely on two major routes during their migration - one is used only by caravans and flocks. The other, passing through the villages of Ziveh and Salavat, is an unpaved automobile road. Over the last thirty years nomads have been forced to restrict grazing of their animals on their way south. Increasingly, villagers cultivate land along the traditional migratory route, especially in the Ziveh and Salavat region. At times, the nomads are forced to bypass their anticipated settling place until they can find a villager who will allow them to graze their flocks in his fields. The villagers charge exhorbitant prices for the limited use of their land - often as high as seventy dollars for seven hours of grazing - even though the lands are fertilized as the animals eat. The nomads complain bitterly about this. Previously, they had rights to traditionally designated areas along the route for 24 hours without paying any fees to villagers or gendarmes. Nowadays the nomads' right of passage is ignored. The constant harassment of the nomads by the villagers, and the increased cost of renting pastures, has forced the Shahsavan to hasten their movement through this region.

They maintain a hectic pace until they arrive at the Salavat, Samanlu and Arshaq hills, the mid-point of their journey. The following week of travel takes them as far as the Meshkin plain, where the different routes converge. At that point the nomads camp, observe the weather, and prepare the flocks for the ascent to the spring quarters. After essential supplies are purchased in the market town of Meshkinshahr, the tribes set out in different directions to their summer quarters. The Mughanlu tribe takes two different routes up the mountain in order to reach summer pastures on the mountain's southern side. Passage through the Haft-e Tappeh pass is the most spectacular and dangerous point in their journey. Once over the pass, two days brings them to their spring quarters, where they remain for four to five weeks. By the end of June, as the snow recedes and new pastures become available, the nomads move to their summer camps at higher elevations.

On the Sabalan mountain range the summer pastures extend approximately 50 miles from west to east at altitudes between 6,500 and 13,000 feet. Above this altitude, slopes are too steep or rocky to serve as pastures. From mid-May through September, the Shahsavan utilize approximately 200,000 hectares of pasture. Days are warm, but temperatures can drop to freezing at night. This period is considered to be the most enjoyable of the year because there is plenty of lush pasture and water from mountain springs. The animals reach their peak condition, and after being sheared, are often sold. Travelling merchants visit the Shahsavan frequently, selling cloth and household utensils. Similarly, professional felt makers spend several days at each camp converting sheared wool into felt mats used as tent and floor covers. A considerable amount of time is spent visiting kinsmen, feasting, and celebrating weddings and circumcisions. Most important, the nomads enjoy the relative lack of governmental control and infringement on their pastures and lifestyle. In September, damp mists and threat of snowfall force the Shahsavan to return to their winter quarters.

The return migration covers the same route. The nomads descend from the mountain to the Meshkin plain, awaiting news of rainfall in Mughan. Relations with villagers are not as strained because the farmers want the flocks to deposit manure on their fields. The pace during the autumn migration is more leisurely and the cool days allow the nomads to travel during the daylight hours.

In recent years, camel caravans have become less numerous as the Shahsavan increasingly depend on tractors, cars, and trucks during their seasonal migration. In 1978 yearly migration could cost as much as $1,500 to $2,000 in payments to graze animals on villagers' fields. Transportation by camels and horses will probably not last 10-15 more years.

Mughan and the Process of Change

Mughan steppe is near the Caspian Sea. It is relatively humid, with approximately 300 mm of rain annually. Starting in May, the green pastures turn into dry and dusty wasteland. With the October rains, grass returns to the steppe. Winters are mild and the vegetation is usually adequate to feed the Shahsavan herds. Occasionally, severe cold temperature and snow kill large numbers of livestock. By 1979, only 200,000 hectares of land were used as winter pastures.

It is in these areas of winter pasture that the Shahsavan have felt the brunt of rapid socioeconomic change. Government studies have declared the area to be one of the most potentially productive agricultural regions in the country. Since the 1950s the Shahsavan have lost 100,000 hectares of valuable pastureland along the Aras River to various government-sponsored irrigation and agricultural development schemes. The more enterprising Shahsavan have used tractors to plough tens of thousands of hectares of pastureland, claiming that they are forced to raise fodder for their animals because of the shrinking size of their pastures. Still others have begun to produce wheat and cotton for sale before they lose their land to the agribusiness companies. Cultivation was seen as a way to maintain rights to the land. However, unlike earlier times when pastureland had been transferred to the nomads by the government with the understanding that they become settled cultivators, this time the state wanted to create large-scale commercial farms. Nomads have been forced to become both pastoralists and agriculturalists.

By 1979 close to 2,000 households had lost their winter pastures to large-scale farming operations. The hardest hit were the Ajirlu, the third largest tribe in the confederation, with approximately 450 households residing in 40 winter camps and controlling 25,000 hectares. (Gotaz Beg, the chief of the Ajirlu, managed to save his two-story multi-room house with its high television antenna which stood conspicuously surrounded by cultivated land as far as the eye could see.) Other tribes that lost pastureland included the Geyiklu, Mughanlu, Khalfalu, Sarvanlar and Jelodarlu.

Two new cities, Parsabad and Shahabad have sprung up since the development project began. Before the 1979 revolution, Parsabad was the home of agribusiness managers and engineers with American ranch-style company housing and supermarket fully stocked with imported roods.

Not far away stood the planned settlements and permanent model villages for the tribesmen. Rows of houses - with grey concrete facade, steel doors and windows - consisting of two bedrooms, a hall and kitchen, could be rented by the tribesmen who had lost their winter camps. On the other side of the town, the machinery lots contained monstrous Caterpillar tractors, land graders and trucks. Ten miles outside of Parsabad, the road to Shahabad passed through the Bagh-e Gatre'i, a massive garden where every tree was watered continuously by drip-irrigation systems. Modern technology appeared to have solved the problems of sun and heat in Mughan. Farther down the road stood the skeleton of what was going to be a cannery. These were only a few of the many outstanding projects. More ambitious undertakings included the construction of the irrigation dam on the Aras River and the building of an elaborate network of irrigation canals which brought water further south into the steppe year after year. Mughan was a new frontier; Parsabad a company town with teahouses full of Shahsavan men looking for employment or enjoying television broadcast from Soviet Azerbaijan after a day's work before going to their model homes in the evening.

Development had brought about drastic changes among the Shahsavan. They had become tenant farmers, sharecroppers and wage laborers migrating to faraway cities to find jobs. Tribal affiliation was no longer as strong or important. Land was replacing livestock as a major source of wealth and income for many families. Many nomads seriously considered selling their flocks to become farmers. Pastoralism, which for many centuries had been their response to the environment, was being fundamentally challenged by more intensive methods of land use.

Revolution and the Shahsavan

After the 1979 revolution, the Shahsavan began to reclaim some of their land and obstruct the operation of the agro-industrial complex. There were some lootings and destruction of machinery. The irrigation equipment of the Bagh-e Gatre'i and large numbers of seedlings, for example, are said to have disappeared as disturbances broke out. Other large-scale units, such as the farm corporations, were quickly dissolved in the area. Four hundred leaders from 30 different tribes went to Qom to present Ayatollahs Khomeini and Shariatmadari with a list of requests for the improvement of health, education, and production conditions. They urged them to remove the corrupt and oppressive officials in the area. On March 4, 1979, Ayatollah Shariatmadari issued the following statement:

According to reports in Parsabad and the surrounding area, seizure of gardens, animals, and land belonging to the agro-industrial unit have taken place. I want to make clear to all the people that property belonging to the government no matter where it is located is considered the property of the Muslim community [bait-ol mal-e muslimin] and no one has the right of trespassing or takeover. Persons found guilty of such acts shall be tried and sentenced according to the shari'a.

As for many other groups in Iran, it is unlikely that conditions for the Shahsavan will improve under the present regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini. If present policies continue, their nomadism may well be nearing its final hour.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue: