In the Shadows of Gulistan: Servants and Eunuchs of Nasser al-Din Shah’s Court

By Leila Pourtavaf
Submitted to Session P4993 (Melancholia, Race, and Enslavement, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper focuses on the differing classes of servants and slaves that resided and worked within Nasser al-Din Shah’s royal harem in the second half of the 19th century, and traces their history in parallel to the history of both migration and slavery in late Qajar Iran. Through focusing on the archival and historiographical traces left by differing classes of maids (kaniz), servants (gholam) and eunuchs (khajeh) that resided and worked within the royal harem, I will argue that such figures are an overlooked, but primary site of shifting gender politics in late 19th century Iran. These specific classes of residents give insight into the inter-regional networks, and the various forms of migration within them during this period. The cultural and ethnic diversity within the Qajar harem was, for its time, quite unique. Many of the servants who were a part of this institution were brought to Iran either after being captured in war, or were exported through the Gulf slave trade (this is predominantly the case for the black slaves and eunuchs who originated from East Africa). While in many ways, such figures were amongst the lowest ranked members of the Gulist?n Palace, a closer look at their circumstances reveals the ways in which they were in fact deeply implicated in both the private and public affairs of the court, and held a great deal of power and influence within Gulist?n’s domestic composition and social structure. For example, servants functioned as a key connection between the women of the court and the outside public world. As such, they often occupied an ambiguous space between the public and private realms, the boundaries of which were so heavily guarded for many of the other residents of the harem. While there are many visual and textual traces of this class of constituents, there has been little scholarly work which examines their history in relation to the late Qajar court. This paper aims to offer an account that connects the themes of migration, labor, and domesticity in late Qajar Iran through focusing on the central role that this class of court constituents played in governance, social reproduction, and royal family order.