KARĀʾI (QARĀʾI, QARĀ TĀTĀR), a Turkic-speaking tribe of Azerbaijan, Khorasan, Kermān, and Fārs. As Vladimir Minorsky wrote, “The name of the Karāʾi may in fact be connected with that of the famous Mongol tribe, the Kereʾit, who, because of their Christian Nestorian faith, were imagined to be the good people of Prester John” (personal communication). But the name could also be connected with that of other ethnic groups in Central Asia (see Németh, pp. 264-68).

Sir John Malcolm claimed that the Karāʾi of Persia “had come from Tartary with Timur,” who “had settled part of them in Turkey and part in Khorassan.” After the death of Timur (807/1405), “they had dispersed,” and Nāder Shah (r. 1736-1747), “having desired to reassemble them,” brought them together in Khorasan (II, p. 147). Although we do not know whether or not Timur brought the Karāʾi to the Middle East, the rest of Malcolm’s assertion seems to be substantially true.

There seem to have been Karāʾi on both sides of the Aras river in Azerbaijan, at least for a century before 1148/1735. Adam Olearius, who traveled in Azerbaijan in 1638, mentions a tribe by the name of Karāʾi on his list of the tribes of Moḡān (p. 28). In his Tāriḵ-e jahān-gošā, Moḥammad-Mahdi mentions two khans of Ganja, Fatḥ-Karāʾi and Eslām-Karāʾi, who are said to have facilitated the surrender of that city to Nāder Shah in 1148/1735 (pp. 216-221). There are also two villages by the name of Karāʾi in western Persian Azerbaijan, one in the šahrestān (county) of Orumiya and the other in the šahrestān of Mahābād (Razmārā, p. 350). But, after 1148/1735, nothing further is heard about the Karāʾi of Azerbaijan. Therefore, one is tempted to believe that they were moved to Khorasan, like so many other tribes of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, during that period.

The Karāʾi of Khorasan began to play an important role in the province when, in 1162/1749, their leader, Amir Khan, was put in charge of Mashad by the Afghan ruler Aḥmad Khan Dorrāni (q.v.; Yate, p. 53). But they reached the zenith of their power and influence under the leadership of Esḥāq Khan Karāʾi at the beginning of the 19th century. Son of a mere servant of Najaf-ʿAli Khan, the paramount chief of the Karāʾi tribe, he started his climb to power by illicitly building a fort in the small town of Torbat-e Ḥaydari. Then, after Najaf-ʿAli Khan’s murder, Esḥāq Khan married his daughter and assumed the leadership of the tribe. By the end of the 18th century, Torbat-e Ḥaydari was the thriving capital of a large Karāʾi principality stretching from the gates of Mashad to Ḵāf, which Esḥāq Khan ruled as a kind of enlightened monarch (Malcolm, II, pp. 146-50; Yate, pp. 52-56; Curzon, I, p. 203; Sykes, II, pp. 291, 314-15). In 1209/1795, Esḥāq Khan submitted to Āḡā Moḥammad Khan Qājār (Pakravan, pp. 197-98). But, under the more relaxed rule of Fatḥ-ʿAli Shah (1211-1249/1797-1834), he achieved almost total independence from the central government. In 1227/1813, he took advantage of a rising tide of resentment against Qājār rule in Khurasan to seize Mashad, along with the Hazāras and other discontented tribes, and to imprison the governor-general of the province, the Qājār prince Moḥammad-Wali Mirzā, in his own palace. However, soon thereafter, Esḥāq Khan’s tribal coalition began to unravel. He went to Tehran to plead his case, but to no avail, and in 1230/1816 both he and a son, Ḥasan-ʿAli Khan, were strangled in Mašhad (Sepehr, p. 164; Fraser, pp. 25-29; Bellew, pp. 350-51).

Esḥāq Khan was succeeded as paramount chief of the Karāʾi tribe by another son, Moḥammad Khan. In 1244/1829, he too took possession of Mashad, and, although he was finally defeated by another son of Fatḥ-ʿAli Shah, Aḥmad-ʿAli Mirzā, he nonetheless “retained a sort of semi-independent existence, and never thoroughly acknowledged the authority of the Kajars” (Yate, p. 53; Sepehr, p. 247). But during the second half of the 19th century, the Karāʾi chiefs lost much of their power and wealth, and Torbat-e Ḥaydari its luster. When J.-P. Ferrier visited the area in 1260/1845, the town and it surroundings were still prosperous (p. 265). But, by the time George N. Curzon came in 1306/1889, the whole region had been “terribly decimated both by Turkmen ravages and by the great famine” (I, p. 203), and Yate, who passed by in 1310/1893, wrote that Torbat-e Ḥaydari “presents a very tumble-down appearance,” the walls “now broken in all directions” (p. 54). For population estimates of the Karāʾi of Khorasan, see M. L. Shiel (p. 400), H. Field (p. 253), and S. I. Bruk (p. 32). However, owing to the fact that, already in the 19th century, the tribe had become largely sedentary, such figures are highly conjectural.

There are also Karāʾi in Kermān province. In 1957, they comprised some 420 households. Their summer quarter stretched from the Ḵāna Sorḵi mountain pass, on the Kermān-Saʿidābād (Sirjān) road, down to the neighborhood of Balvard. Their winter quarters were in the ʿAyn-al-Baḡal region, across the salt lake from Saʿidābād. Their tiras (clans) were: Ṭelā Begi, Kurki, ʿAbbāsi, Beglari, Ḥaydari and Yār-Aḥmadi. The village of Tangu was their headquarters (Oberling, pp. 100-105).

Finally, there are several groups of Karāʾi in Fars. There are clans by that name in the ʿAmala tribe of the Qašqāʾi tribal confederacy, in the Eynālly (Inānlu) and Arab Jabbāra tribes of the Ḵamsa tribal confederacy, and in the Bakeš tribe of the Mamasāni tribal confederacy. Some Karāʾi have also settled down in the dehestān of Sar Čahān, near Bavānat, and in the dehestān of Ābāda Tašk, near Neyriz. According to the Iranian Army Files (1956), the Karāʾi of Kermān and Fars were moved there from Khorasan during Safavid times (Oberling, pp. 101-2).



H. W. Bellew, From the Indus to the Tigris, London, 1874.

S. I. Bruk, Naselenie Peredneĭ Azii, Moscow, 1960.

G. N. Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question, 2 vols., London,  1892.

J.-P. Ferrier, Voyage en Perse, dans l’Afghanistan, le Béloutchistan et le Turkestan, Paris, 1860.

H. Field, Contributions to the Anthropology of Iran, Chicago, 1939.

J. B. Fraser, Narrative of a Journey into Khorasan in the Years 1821 and 1822, London, 1825.

J. Malcolm, The History of Persia, 2 vols., London, 1829.

Moḥammad-Mahdi, Tāriḵ-e Jahān-gošā, tr. W. Jones as Histoire de Nader Chah, London, 1770.

G. Németh, A Hongfoglaló Magyarság Kialakulása, Budapest, 1930.

P. Oberling, The Turkic Peoples of Southern Iran, Cleveland, 1960.

Adam Olearius, Voyage en Moscovie, Tartarie et Perse, Paris, 1659.

E. Pakravan, Agha Mohammad Ghadjar, Tehran, 1953.

Ḥ. ʿA. Razmārā, Farhang-ejoḡrāfiā Irān IV, Tehran, 1951.

Mirzā Moḥammad Sepehr, Nāseḵ al-tawāriḵ, Tehran, 1958-59, I. M. L. Sheil, Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia, London, 1856.

P. M. Sykes, A History of Persia, 2 vols., London, 1951.

C. E. Yate, Khurasan and Sistan, London, 1900.

(P. Oberling)

Originally Published: November 20, 2010

Last Updated: July 20, 2002

This article is available in print.
vol. XV, Fasc. 5, pp. 536-537