When one digs deep enough into world history, it is impossible not to find Black people as the first inhabitants of most parts of the world. Although the Persians, who have always occupied the territory today known as Iran, were initially Black people, Persia was to be later overtaken by an Arab population. After the takeover of the Persian area by Arabs, another wave of Africans would reach Iran through slavery.
When slavery is discussed, many scholars pay great attention to the enslavement of Africans that occurred in America and Europe, leaving the enslavement of Africans in the Arab world unmentioned or omitted.
Several historians have stated that the amount of Africans that were captured, sold and enslaved in the Arab world numbered in their millions.
The historian Paul Lovejoy in his accounts, estimates that about 9.85 million Africans were shipped out as slaves to Arabia, and in small numbers, to the Indian subcontinent. He broke the figure down as follows:
An average of 5,000 Africans was shipped out daily by the Arabs, between AD 650 and 1600. And this brings the number to a rough total of 7.25 million Africans. Then another 1.4 million Africans were shipped out between 1600 and 1800. The 19th century defined the peak of the Arabian slave trade, where 12,000 Africans were shipped out every year. The 19th century alone accounted for 1.2 million slaves shipped to Arabia.
The Arabic slave trade with an estimate of 9.85 million African slaves, falls closely behind the Atlantic slave trade with nearly 12 million Africans shipped out. Although some African historians argue that 12 million is too low and conservative. They suggest that over 50 million Africans were shipped out during the Atlantic trade alone.
The enslaved Black people in Iran were assimilated into various services. Some were Eunuchs, who were mainly assigned to the armies of the Qajar elites. There were a few of the slaves who could father their own children. Although that was not the case for many others – the Iranians, just like others in the region did not want the enslaved Africans to reproduce and have a large population.
Other enslaved Africans were used as bodyguards, soldiers, and also servants to wealthy households. They continued to be enslaved up till 1928 when slavery was abolished in Iran. After the abolishment of slavery, many of the Africans (Afro-Iranians) were reported to have moved to the Southern region of Iran.
To date, the topic of slavery in Iran is swept under the rug or in many cases rejected as an event that never took place. The lack of research or adequate documentation of the long span of the enslavement of Africans, also adds to the reason for the unawareness in Iran and the world.
According to anthropologist Pedram Khosronejad, at Oklahoma State University, “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 been 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.”
Till today, Iran has a significant Black population, which is called Afro-Iranians. The Anthropologist, Khosronejad said that he had collected about 400 pictures which showed the presence and roles of the African slaves and servants in Iran. He plans on compiling a book which would contain these pictures.
Other professionals who are passionate about telling the stories of the Black people of Iran have also stepped in to add credence to their existence and lives. One of such people is an Iranian-German photographer, Mahdi Ehsaei, who has used beautiful photographs in painting a picture of the Black community. A photo-book which he published is called “Afro-Iran – a historical and cultural exploration of the African presence in Iran.
In a reflection on his project and photo-book, Mahdi Ehsaei said that: “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.”
“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.”
The news about Iran these days is that of war, as America prepares to go to war with Iran, after the killing of Qassem Suleimani. While the world focuses on the tensions in the Middle East and Iran in particular, it is important that the Black population of Iran is remembered.