LURISTAN iv. The Origin of Nomadism



iv. The Origin of Nomadism

Early patterns of settlement and mobilityThe large valleys and plains of Luristan are exceedingly fertile.  They have often been described as suited for agriculture as well as for pastoral nomadism, which seems to have been the prevailing lifestyle for hundreds of years (Mortensen and Mortensen, pp. 929 ff.; Inge Mortensen, 1993, pp. 39 ff.).

In Luristan the earliest evidence of the domestication of sheep and goat appears in the early post-Pleistocene period, between 9000 and 7000 BCE.   It is clearly linked with incipient agriculture and with the earliest permanent or semi-permanent settlements.  Many Early Neolithic villages from the 7th millennium BCE are known in the intermontane valleys and foothills of the Zagros.  The subsistence of these villages depended upon hunting, fishing, gathering, herding, and farming.  Most of these activities took place near the villages or within a radius of a few kilometers from the permanent settlements. Other activities would have to be carried out from non-permanent campsites in marginal areas, at a distance of several days’ walk from the village.  Characteristic examples of such sites would be camps for herdsmen sent out in the spring with flocks of sheep and goats to pastures in the higher valleys, or in wintertime possibly to the lower plains.  This stage can be regarded as the last offshoot of a series of Palaeolithic hunting/gathering subsistence systems in which mobility finally was reduced to the immediate vicinity of the permanent villages (Peder Mortensen, 2014, pp. 123 ff.).  

At the same time, this phase contained the germs of most of the phenomena on which the established village agriculture of the 6th, the 5th, and the 4th millennia was based.  It was a richly differentiated period, characterized by experimentation and expansion, by incipient trade, and by specialization on several levels leading up to new organizational structures.  During these millennia large villages, based on dry-farming, and, to some extent, on various archaic types of irrigation, spread across the Zagros, Mesopotamia, and the Susiana Plain (cf., e.g., Hole, Flannery, and Neely, pp. 342 ff.; Oates, pp. 147 ff.; Nissen und Heine, 2003, pp. 32 ff.; Peder Mortensen, 1983, pp. 32 ff.). 

In Luristan, however, archeological investigations have shown that the large, permanent villages disappear by the end of the 4th millennium, and from the 3rd millennium BCE only a few tiny settlements, isolated cemeteries, and occasional reoccupations of caves and shelters are known.  It is not possible, on the evidence available, to explain why the villages were deserted, but a slight fall in temperature, perhaps combined with increasing salinization of the larger plains, may have complicated the irrigation agriculture on which the economy of many of the larger villages depended (Peder Mortensen, 1974, pp. 32 ff.; Haerinck, 1986, pp. 55 ff.).  

The depopulation of Pošt-e Kuh and Piš-e Kuh seems to coincide with a marked increase in population density in Khuzestan and lower Mesopotamia in connection with the establishment of large urban centers.  It is interesting in this context to be aware of a hypothesis advanced by Robert McC. Adams (pp. 1-22), who has shown that there is a direct relationship between the development of canal irrigation in Mesopotamia and the origin of nomadic pastoralism in the ecologically unstable border areas between the Mesopotamian plain and the Zagros.  Similar ideas were expressed by Brian Spooner, who suggested that pastoral nomadism might be regarded as a spin-off from intensive settlement with irrigation culture and grain production in Mesopotamia, the mountains being left clear for those who could now practice full-time herding and trade with people in the plains.  These theories on the first origin of nomadism in the Zagros, seen in correlation with the emergence and early development of the city states in lower Mesopotamia and Khuzestan, have been accepted and elaborated by a number scholars, including S. H. Lees and D. G. Bates (pp. 187-93), A. Zagarell (1975, pp. 127 ff.; idem, 1982, pp. 62 ff), and A. M. Khazanov (1986, pp. 85 ff.).

The Mongol invasions in the 13th and 14th centuries.  During the late 2nd and early 1st millennia BCE, nomadic cemeteries with elaborate Luristan bronzes appeared in Pošt-e Kuh and Piš-e Kuh, and, slightly later in the Seleucid period (312-63 BCE), permanent towns and villages spread again all over Luristan and Kurdistan.  Thereafter, Parthian and Sasanian settlements with qanāt/kāriz (subterranean canal) irrigation systems and terraced fields suggest a rich and well-organized, settled community in the larger plains of Luristan (Haerinck, pp. 167-73), a situation which seems to have continued into the Islamic era, not seriously interrupted until the devastating Mongol campaigns.     

The greatest wave of all was that of Čengiz Khan and his heirs, beginning in the early 13th century.  The massacres and destruction, the torture and wholesale slaughter of populations simply defies description.  In the words of Percy Sykes “The awful nature of the cataclysm is difficult to realize and impossible to exaggerate” (II, p. 98).  After the death of Čengiz Khan in 624/1227, his vast empire was divided between his sons and their descendants.  In 1251, a great expedition to Persia was planned.  It was conducted by one of his grandsons, Hulāgu/Hülegü Khan, who became the founder of the Il-Khanids of Persia.  He had been directed to crush the Assassins and to extinguish the Caliphate, and he did not hesitate long in carrying out these orders.  On the march to Baghdad, which was sacked in 656/1258, he himself was in command of that branch of the army that set out from the Hamadan region and proceeded by way of Kermanshah, which must have offered some resistance, for the city was destroyed and its inhabitants were massacred.  In the meantime one of his generals, Ket Buqa, who was in command of the left wing of the army, had conquered most of Luristan while making a sweeping southwest swing in order to reach Baghdad from the south (Boyle, p 347). 

Not much is known of the domestic affairs of Luristan in this period.  They may have been fairly peaceful, while the atābaks of Luristan (Atābakān-e Lorestān), in the period between the first Mongol invasion and the rise of Timur, were vassals of the Muzaffarids and also paid tribute to the Mongol treasury; but about 781/1380 Timur Lang started his campaigns in Iran, and in 788/1386 his army went ravaging through Luristan.  Borujerd was destroyed, and the fortress of Ḵorramābād was demolished after the local leaders had been thrown from the top of the cliff.  In 795/1393, Timur returned with his army, and Luristan was devastated piece by piece in revenge for the plundering habits of its people (de Bode, II, p. 279-80; Minorsky, 1986, pp. 828-29).

The development of nomadism in Luristan after the Mongols.  In Pošt-e Kuh and Piš-e Kuh, there are virtually no traces of permanent settlements to be found from the end of the 14th century until the appearance of small, mud-walled villages in the 20th century.  This does not mean that the area was entirely depopulated, but rather, as indicated by the nomadic cemeteries, that an overwhelmingly large part of the population that survived adopted a nomadic mode of life (Mortensen and Mortensen, pp. 929 ff.).

Xavier De Planhol has explained the adoption of “la vie nomade” as a consequence of a nomadic population pressure beginning with the Turks in the 10th century and reaching a peak with the catastrophes of the Mongol invasions.  The effect has been discernible in Anatolia, Syria, and Iran, but it is most spectacular in Iran.  De Planhol (p. 75) refers to an important text concerning Luristan to explain “the flight to the mountains” of sedentary people who became nomadized as a reaction to their penetrating enemies, whose lifestyle and system of yaylaq and qišlaq (summer quarters and winter quarters; Pers. yeylāq and qešlāq) they adopted. 

In northern Luristan this theory on the development of nomadism may be supported by the evidence of the destruction of settlements and irrigation systems by the Mongols.  Because of the aridity of the climate, irrigation is a prerequisite of intensive (village) agriculture in most of the country, and in the absence of river irrigation of any significance, as in many other Near Eastern countries, irrigation by qanāt systems had been evolved.  The qanāts require permanent upkeep and can easily be destroyed, which often has been the case.  A fatal blow must have been delivered to the qanāt systems in Luristan by the Mongols.

It should be noted in this connection that in the enumeration of the tribes of Lor-e Kuček mentioned in the Šaraf-nāma quoted by O. Mann (pp. XXIII-XXV) none of the tribal names are recognized today.  The same applies to the list of tribes found in the Tāriḵ-e gozida, written by Ḥamd-Allāh Mostawfi ca. 730/1330 (II, p. 547).  This might reflect a complete replacement of population groups caused by the invasions or it might, more likely, be a result of assimilations, regroupings, new coalitions, and new settlements.  Under the Safavids, for instance, many Turkish and Kurdish tribes were split up and settled in remote areas of the Zagros (Minorsky, 1945, pp. 73-80).  Hyacinth Rabino relates (pp. 10-11) that when the new wāli (governor) of Luristan was appointed in 1596 in the place of the last atābak, he had a hard time with the surrounding nomads.  Consequently, the king ordered the Selsela tribe to transfer from the plain of Māhidašt, where they belonged, to Luristan.  Here they formed, together with the Delfān tribe, a small corps of cavaliers, and faithfully served the wāli until the end of the reign of Nāder Shah (r. 1148-60/1736-47).

By this time and throughout the 19th and the early 20th century the names of tribes and subtribes of Luristan are reported in a number of sources, including Rawlinson (1839, p. 107), de Bode (II, p. 288), Layard (pp. 98 ff.), Sheil (pp. 401-2), Curzon (II, p. 279), Mann (pp. XXIII ff.), Rabino (pp. 30-36), and Edmonds (pp. 342-44).  The discrepancies and the confusion noticed in the published lists about the nomadic tribes and their winter and summer quarters should be considered on the background of the general difficulties of obtaining any such data at all, which were usually based on oral tradition. 

Against such information, or perhaps rather complementing it, stands the evidence of the tombstones of the nomadic cemeteries from northern Luristan, which has been studied and recently published by Inge Demant Mortensen (2010).  By revealing the date of death and the tribal name of the deceased person, they throw new light on the distribution and mobility of the nomadic tribes from the late 18th century into the 20th century.  In a historical context, the emergence and bloom of these nomadic cemeteries seem to coincide with the forced withdrawal of the wāli and his retinue from Ḵorramābād into Pošt-e Kuh in 1210/1796, a move which was occasioned by an unsuccessful attempt by Āḡā Moḥammad Khan, the first Qajar king (r. 1193-1212/1779-97), to reduce and weaken the power of the wāli and to control the prevailing anarchy in Luristan (Inge Mortensen, 2010, pp. 8-9). 

Pastoral nomadism in the 19th and early 20th century.  In 1839 Henry Rawlinson (pp. 108-9) provides the earliest firsthand evidence of the conditions in Luristan.  He relates that although agriculture is neglected, there are other valuable sources of profit.  The principal of these was the breeding of mules, “which are esteemed by far the best in Persia” and were exported in large numbers.  The tribes also had a considerable trade in “carpets, hurs, or packing-bags, and all descriptions of horse furniture:  they exclusively supply the towns of Hamadán, Niháwand, and Burújerd with charcoal, and their flocks and herds likewise afford them considerable profit.”  At the same time, however, the widespread deforestation, caused by the production of charcoal through centuries, had long-lasting effects on the whole ecosystem.

Rawlinson observes that most of the work was done by the women, who “tend the flocks, till fields, and store the grain.”  “The carpets, the black goat hair tents, end the horse furniture … are almost all the work of women.”  The men contended themselves with “sowing and reaping, cutting wood for charcoal, and defending their property against the attacks of others.”  They seemed “to consider robbery and war their proper occupation and were never as well pleased as when engaged on a foray” (Rawlinson, p. 109).

Migration was a crucial element in the life cycle of the Luristani nomads.  It presupposes and is a response to annual climatic changes and general ecological conditions.  It enables people and animals to escape the extremes of cold and heat, and to utilize the pastures of different territories at different times of the year.  The migration cycle is closely connected with the life cycle of sheep and goats.  Lambs and kids are born during a period when there is normally enough grass to enable the mothers to produce milk and allow the young to graze a few weeks after birth.  With fresh grass they will be strong enough to stand the migration shortly after they are weaned (cf. Amanolahi-Baharvand, 1975, pp. 56 ff.). 

The migration of pastoral nomads, which, seen from the outside, might look like random wanderings looking for good pastures reflects in fact a very well-organized system.  The tribes had their own recognized grazing areas and rights of passage through “foreign” territory.  The areas might be smaller or larger, according to the power and prestige of the tribe, and they might change over time according to tribal political situations.  But only in the case of dire need and emergency would a tribe graze its flocks in another tribe’s territory, and at the risk of a war.  Fredrik Barth has described this system very graphically, when he compares it to a railroad schedule:  each train has a “right” to follow a certain route and to stop at certain stations for a specified length of time.  Some routes cross, and some schedules permit different trains to use the same tracks at various times (Barth, p. 5).

This pattern of pastoral nomadism has been described by Frank Hole as an enclosed system, practiced by nomads who encounter settled people as they migrate through their territory (Hole, pp. 155 ff.).  In the 20th century only enclosed nomadism has been practiced in Luristan.  It has taken place in an area where agriculture was possible and where the nomads were in contact with farmers. 

Today all these people are engaged in farming, and the majority of the former nomads are now settled in villages or small towns (cf. Black-Michaud, pp. 29-39, 164 ff.).  This change of lifestyle for the nomads from annual migrations to being settled as herders and farmers in small villages was abruptly imposed upon the population by Reżā Shah (r. 1304-20/1925-41) as a result of the so-called “Luristan War” (Amanolahi-Baharvand, pp. 34-36, 50-52; Halliday, pp. 21-28; Inge Mortensen, 2010, pp. 10 ff.).  

When the Persian army arrived in Luristan in 1922, it was with the aim of subduing the tribes and forcing them to settle down.  Fighting broke out between the tribes and the army.  The war dragged on until 1933, but already from 1929, due to the fall of the line of wāli governors, no migration was permitted.  The black goat-hair tents used by the nomads were collected by the army, burned, and replaced by ordinary white tents.  Crucial mountain passes were simply blocked, and people were forced to remain either in their warm zones or cold zones (see GARMSĪR AND SARDSĪR) throughout the year with a sharp increase in human mortality and enormous losses of herds as a result.  The registration of land began, and government offices were established to control tribal affairs (Amanolahi Baharvand, p. 36). 

During World War II, when Iran was invaded by the British and Russian forces, which caused Reżā Shah to abdicate and leave the country, many of the tribal leaders were released from prison and returned to Luristan.  Some of them resumed their migratory life, but during the war epidemics cost many lives and many people starved.  From 1950, the people began to settle, and their sedentarization, be it voluntarily or forced, has been accompanied by tremendous social and administrative changes.   


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Fredrik Barth, “The Land Use Patterns of Migratory Tribes of South Persia,” Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift 17, 1959-60, pp. 1-11.

Jacob Black-Michaud, Sheep and Land: The Economics of Power in a Tribal Society, Cambridge and New York, 1986.

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Peder Mortensen, “A Survey of Prehistoric Settlements in Northern Luristan,” Acta Arcaeologica 45, 1974, pp. 1-47. 

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Hyacinth Louis Rabino, Les tribus du Louristan: Médailles des Qadjars, Paris, 1916.

Henry Cresswicke Rawlinson, “Notes on a March from Zoháb at the Foot of the Zagros, along the Mountains to Khúzistán (Susiana), and from Thence through the Province of Luristan to Kirmánsháh, in the Year 1836,” JRGS 9, 1839, pp. 26-116.

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(Inge Demant Mortensen and Peder Mortensen)

Originally Published: August 26, 2014

Last Updated: August 26, 2014

Cite this entry:

Inge Demant Mortensen and Peder Mortensen, "LURISTAN iv. The Origin of Nomadism,"  Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2014, available at (accessed on 26 August 2014).