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Black Iran: The Forgotten Legacy of Enslaved Africans in Persia Is Being Resurrected

Slaves who were not eunuchs were sometimes assigned to the armies of the Qajar elites. The 14 pictured here belonged to Qajar prince Zell-e-Soltan, Ghameshlou, Isfahan, 1904. Photograph: Zell-e-Soltan/Modern Conflict Archive, London, UK

Slaves who were not eunuchs were sometimes assigned to the armies of the Qajar elites. The 14 pictured here belonged to Qajar prince Zell-e-Soltan, Ghameshlou, Isfahan, 1904. Photograph: Zell-e-Soltan/Modern Conflict Archive, London, UK

Although Iran receives attention these days for a number of things, including the nuclear deal it reached with the U.S. and other nations, there are other aspects to the nation and its history that have remained elusive. Take, for instance, the history of Africans in Iran.  Slavery had existed in the country for hundreds of years, and yet Iranians have not come to terms with their past, if they understand it at all.

One scholar has amassed a collection of photographs and texts that  provide a narrative of the story of Black people in Persia, as the Guardian reports.  Anthropologist Pedram Khosronejad, who is the Farzaneh Family Scholar for Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies at  Oklahoma State University, has devoted his attention to the issue of slavery in Iran since the late 1990s, after studying the traditional clothing of Afro-Iranians.

 In this staged photo taken by Zell-e Soltan at his summer hunting palace near Isfahan, one of his African slaves holds his son. According to the caption, the infant (Iqbal) is the real son of the adult African slave, Haji Yaqut Khan, suggesting he wasn’t a eunuch and could father his own children. The caption says that Yaqut Khan is in his ethnic clothes (languteh), which was mainly worn by Africans outside of Iran. Photograph: Zell-e-Soltan/Modern Conflict Archive, London, UK

In this staged photo taken by Zell-e Soltan at his summer hunting palace near Isfahan, one of his enslaved Africans holds his son. According to the caption, the infant (Iqbal) is the real son of the adult enslaved person, Haji Yaqut Khan, suggesting he wasn’t a eunuch and could father his own children. The caption says that Yaqut Khan is in his ethnic clothes (languteh), which was mainly worn by Africans outside of Iran. Photograph: Zell-e-Soltan/Modern Conflict Archive, London, UK

The history of Black people in Persia reaches back to the ninth century, and the Persian Gulf slave trade has ancient origins. Most Afro-Iranians emerged in Iran through the Indian Ocean slave trade, which included a trade route between East Africa and the Middle East.  Enslaved Africans worked as soldiers, bodyguards, eunuchs and servants to households of the wealthy.  The enslavement of African people continued until 1928, when Iran abolished the practice.  According to the Ajam Media Collective, although Afro-Iranians were scattered throughout the country, many settled in the Southern region bordering the Persian Gulf following emancipation.

Haji Firuz—the Santa Claus-type figure that is an icon of the Persian New Year—is a jovial, red robed, minstrel-type figure who provides people with holiday wishes.  And he is depicted in blackface and was intended to be a slave.  But the topic of slavery in Iran is an invisible and sensitive one, the Guardian reports, given the lack of research on the subject.

“There are some Qajar families who have issues with the term ‘slave’,” Khosronejad noted, referring to the ruling dynasty in Iran from 1794 until 1925. “They say what their families had were domestic servants and they were not treated as slaves. This might be correct, but slavery is slavery and we should be able to talk about it openly.”

Khosronejad has collected 400 photos depicting Afro-Iranian slaves and servants, which he plans to compile into a book and a series of exhibitions.

From the Afro-Iran series by Mahdi Ehsaei (Copyright: Mahdi Ehsaei)

From the Afro-Iran series by Mahdi Ehsaei (Copyright: Mahdi Ehsaei)

Meanwhile, Iranian-German photographer Mahdi Ehsaei has chronicled the lives of Afro-Iranians in the present day through beautiful photographs of a community that is little known, as Muftah reports.  Ehsaei has published a photo-book called Afro-Iran – a historical and cultural exploration of the African presence in Iran.  The photographer reflected on his project:

The Hormozgan province in the Persian Gulf is a traditional and historical region with a diverse and unexplored population. It is framed with unique landscapes and people with profound personalities. Iranians, who still have African blood in them and continue their African heritage with their clothing style, their music, their dance and their oral traditions and rituals.

From the Afro-Iran series by Mahdi Ehsaei (Copyright: Mahdi Ehsaei)

From the Afro-Iran series by Mahdi Ehsaei (Copyright: Mahdi Ehsaei)

The resulting portraits reveal new facets and unfamiliar faces, which are not typical for the common picture of Iran. They show details documenting the centuries-long history of this ethnic minority. A confrontation between the Persian culture and the, for Iran unusual, African consciousness.

Efforts to unlock the history and present realities of Black people in Iran will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of this often-neglected and forgotten minority.

What people are saying

27 thoughts on “Black Iran: The Forgotten Legacy of Enslaved Africans in Persia Is Being Resurrected

  1. I have always been suspect of the "Atlanta Black Star" and their open biasness/hate of ISLAM. now not once has that site ever did any articles of the enslavement of Africans by each other only making it seem like Africans have only been the victims of slavery by everyone else in the world. Now if anything lets see who had the best treatment of slaves and who made it the easiest for a slave to attain their freedom and upward mobility in their society and even ruler?????

  2. Islam is no better for/to the Black/African man than Christianity was/is, let's be serious. With that being said, that has nothing to do with the purpose of this article, which is purely, to make people aware of the fact that there were Africans in Iran and still are. I, for one, was unaware of that and am glad i read this article as it has added a new layer to my areas of study.

  3. Reigen Folks says:

    they Made Slavery easier? What are you talking about. Africans are Human Beings not Horses. Treatment of animals is to be admired, who are Iranians to decide on how to treat others. We have the natural right not to be subject to any treatment. Freedom is not granted by another, it is an unalienable right to be pursued by Human Beings!

  4. Yah On Location The Muslim never enslaved the African "in the name of Islam", the way the Christian enslaved the African "in the name of Chrisitianity". That fact alone would allow me to say that Islam is better for the African than Christianity. Can you argue that?

  5. Reigen Folks Not saying that the African is a subservient people, but their has always been people of servitude throughout history…whether it was the African people, poor Europeans of the Cass System or peasant Asians during the times of the Emperors of Asia, THERE HAS TO BE SOMETHING SAID ABOUT HOW PEOPLE TREATED THEIR SERVANTS/SLAVES. What I find throughout history is America REACHING to find a parallel to the BRUTALITY of the American slave trade in the history of other nations and people…THERE IS NO PARALLEL.

  6. Javonte Tubbs The true christian never enslave anyone. Since America was never a true christian nation, as many people of european hertiage claim. It enslaved people. The Bible speaks about slavery, but that was from standpoint of waring nations. The truth be told, slaves were a type of prisoners of war, since America technically was never at war with any nation from the continent of Africa at that time in history. It was illegal for America to have slavery, therefore it has tried to use the Bible or has implied that Blacks were of inferior intelligence,or a subspecies, or had no souls, in weak attempt to justified its ungodly attempt to justified slavery within its border at that time. Javonte, the Arabs were also known for slavery. There some parts of the Arabia kingdom that have slaves today. If you were to go to Saudia today, you would be known as a second class citizen. What do you think, that is another way of saying?

  7. And you sir stop trying to justify anything with religion your statement alone suggest you have a high regard for what is now known as a true Arab. Blacks are the original people of that land mass which is still Africa. The Middle East never existed. So the thousands of black people living there who kept their oral history and know they was there be for the invasion came. And the people who occupy know they didn't come from there. Your own Quran which you live by even states that Allahabad have given us land and riches of another people need I say more. Neither of or any religion that's causes harm to people and you are apparently brain washed. Our creator don't need anyone's help causing destruction or killing people no matter the destruction why would the creator of the heavens earth and beyond need any of us to go and hurt people you need to look beyond your religion why was our original practices removed, worry about that instead of fighting and putting interest in something not for us.

  8. Javonte Tubbs first there was never a Middle East black people have been living in what is now called the Middle East long before it was invaded even the people who are honest know that's not their land . Even your Quran states that Allah have allowed us to take land and gave us riches of another people. I can go on and on traditional stories don't lie.

  9. Once again the Middle East never existed blacks have been occupying that land mass which is also what we still call Africa. The original black people know that was there land which they have kept with oral history. Now everyone all excited about Dubai , Abu dabi and so forth making songs. But don't even know that land mass was invaded buy what we now call Arabs. Even though back then to be considered a true Arab you had to be black. Even in the Quran states that Allan have given us land and riches of another people. But I guess to some comments on here Egypt aka kmt aka ta merry was also a non Black Country. Come on people wake up. You got to stop letting religion define you and keeping us apart. The real religion is in our hearts and minds all ready. Put away the drugs and alcohol and free our minds and we will find peace and our creator will show us the way

  10. Robert Perry says:

    I've always felt in my heart exactly what you said, thank you for making it clear! Forgive my lack of History but Alexander the Great brought European's to a section of Eygpt which brought the mixture of Blacks and Whites (light skinned people) and (I) believe this is another stolen fact of Eygpt being Blacks and now the lighter skinned tone Eygptians (President Anwar Sadat..who probably looks like our uncles, brothers etc) God Bless…

  11. Chris Gray says:

    Javonte Tubbs What about the way they treat Blacks TODAY? You would think it was still the 19th century in Arab Mid-East and North African Muslim countries. They are brutal, and rife with hate

  12. Regardless of the identity of the enslaver, during chattel slavery "the best treatment of slaves" is an oxymoron! If someone is enslaved there is no "best treatment." If someone can sell you, your spouse and your children there is no "best treatment."

  13. Hey I am Sherri's better God she is my Goddess and my Orange I drink in the Morning good health…. I want to thank u for this well said. Now find me James Gales, profile Lion, and we the Most High gave y'all his Knowledge Wall again Sister well said. You

  14. Freddy Alvin says:

    Africans have lived in the Middle Eastern Region for thousands of years and it had nothing to do with slavery.
    If there were Africans in Australia, the only way they got there is through slavery, this is total bull. Africans immigrated all over the world just like everybody else.

  15. Marie J. Groesbeck it's not about a salary it's all about reality.

  16. Make it plain Erykah, your clarity is very much needed.

  17. Javonte Tubbs Islamic took our people, cut off the men's testicles and made the women whores for the harems and killed their babies when these women got pregnant. Slavery to Islam had been way before and way after the colonial slavery began and ended. Even today we still have slaves in the Islamic world.

  18. You have not been suspect of this site, you have been in abject fear of them telling the truth as it terrifies you.

  19. Also know that the Bahais, stemming from Iran, have to deal with this issue too. Researchers, check into "Black Pearl" and open up the truth about slavery and know that Shogi Offendi requested a map of Africa on his grave.
    For the rest of us out there, bring up 14 centuries of Arab oppression of Aficans and work this mess out at the corner stores, and overabundance of Halal food trucks when they want to cozy up at the next protest. Apply James Baldwin's famous quote to them "Whites too are caught in a history they don't know or understand."
    Remember who was helping to steal Kunta Kente in Roots, the movie? Don't know? It was the ancestor of your friendly corner store owner.

  20. Javonte Tubbs does it matter? Either of these mythogies are a detriment to your existance.

  21. Larry Payton says:

    Slavery is slavery..regardless of the reason,treatment,by what religion ect…no matter cut or state it..it's still enslavement of a people..

  22. Robert Perry Anwar Sadaat's Mother was Sudanese.

  23. Its just like Saudi Arabia (which saudi means black) which was inhabited by blacks before the semitic or half blacks/Arabs chased them into places….like Somalia!

  24. Ken Williams says:

    There needs to be a video dvd presentation of this vital history of African Slavery
    by Arab Muslims . Arab Muslims have always been given a pass about their involement in the African Slave Trade .

  25. Sal Johnson says:

    Why are people so ignorant? Egyptians were the BLACKS. They Slaved the WHites FIRST before all this shit happened with the Whites. They reaped what they sowed. HELLOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

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