The Great Khan, Hossein Gholi Khan – and the period of turbulence after his death
Hossein Gholi Khan, the Great Khan, the Consolidator (1820-1882), was the first Khan to hold all the various Bakhtiari factions in balance. He “succeeded in all the areas in which Muhammad Taghi Khan failed”. This was achieved not only through his personal leadership, but also by using strategic family alliances. By 1867, he was formally recognised as paramount not only by the Bakhtiari themselves, but also by the Qajar Shah, Naser ol-Din. A firman (order) from Naser ol-Din declared Hossein Gholi Khan the first Ilkhani of kul (the whole of) the tribes of the Bakhtiari and fully recognised his expanded confederational – as well as military – role.
Ilkhani did not lead in isolation. His full brother, Imam Gholi Khan (known after 1882 as Haji Ilkhani), served as mediator and judge, and also coordinated the migrations. His half-brother, Reza Gholi Khan (Ilbagi), acted to collect the taxes due to the Shah.
By the 1880s, Ilkhani was becoming increasingly influential outside of the tribal area: dominant in Arabistan; challenging the leadership of Fars; with increasing links to the British – and even a possible threat to the throne, if he had combined forces with Zill ol-Sultan. Zill ol-Soltan (the ‘shadow of the Sultan’) was the oldest son of the Shah – but his younger brother Mozzafar al-Din was favoured for the throne and so had been designated Vali’ahd.
The ageing Ilkhani, however, started to try to divest himself of his responsibilities. He even petitioned the Shah – who merely replied “you have served excellently . . you must continue to do so”. Recognising the imminence of a succession power struggle, the Ilkhani's sons, his brother’s sons and the Ilbagi all started to position themselves.
Then in 1882, when Ilkhani was – as usual – himself delivering the Bakhtiari taxes to Isfahan, he was seized and strangled. His two favoured sons, Esfandiyar and Ali Gholi were imprisoned. This may all have followed an order directly from the Shah, or have been an attempt by Zill ol-Soltan to prove his loyalty.
After Ilkhani’s death, there was a twelve year period of disorder. This affected not only the Bakhtiari, but much of South West Persia. Zill ol-Sultan’s power struggle with his own younger brother continued, as did disputes over the leadership of Arabistan. During this time, Esfandiyar Khan helped the newly appointed governor of Arabistan, Nezam al-Saltaneh, to bring order to the area. For this, he was given the additional title of Samsan al-Saltaneh (the First).
Only the Ilkhani, Haji Ilkhani and Ilbagi factions – the descendants of the three key sons of Hossein Gholi Khan – were in any economic or political position to compete for the Bakhtiari leadership and the office of ilkhani moved back and forth between them as the families jostled for power.
Finally however, in 1894, the Ilkhani and Haji Ilkhani factions drew up an agreement excluding the Ilbagis. This was recognised by Naser al-Din Shah, and then later by the British. It was agreed that chosen sons from the two Ilkhani and Haji Ilkhani families would alternate as ilkhani and ilbagi. This basic principle remained in force, with minor modifications only, until 1936 when Reza Shah placed the Bakhtiari under civil administration.