Agha Mohammad Khan (ca. 1742-1797) was the founder of the Qajar dynasty that ruled Persia until 1924. The memory of this vengeful ruler is universally execrated; yet he did keep Persia intact at a time of struggle.
Following the death of Nader Shah in 1747, many tribal chiefs rose in revolt in the hope of taking over the leadership of the country. In the melee Mohammad Hoseyn Khan, the head of the Qajar tribe, was killed, and his son Mohammad, 5 years old, was castrated by order of Adel Shah, the nephew of Nader Shah. Henceforth, the boy's name was prefixed by "Agha," a title used in Persia for eunuchs. This cruel deed was perhaps one of the chief causes of the evil in Agha Mohammad's character and behavior. He became a misanthrope and hostile to everyone.
After years of warfare among the rivals for the throne of Nader Shah, Karim Khan Zand became the undisputed ruler in 1750. He married Agha Mohammad's sister and ordered his young brother-in-law to live in Shiraz, his capital, as a hostage. Agha Mohammad was quite free in Shiraz and was even permitted to venture out of the city for hunting. But his hatred was so strong that whenever he was in Karim Khan's presence he would secretly cut the rug on which he was sitting.
In 1779, when Karim Khan was at the point of death, Agha Mohammad found excuses to remain out of the city. By prearrangement his sister notified him when Karim Khan had died. Agha Mohammad immediately galloped toward the north and reached Esfahan, a distance of 316 miles, in less than 3 days. From there he hurried to the southern shores of the Caspian Sea and was welcomed by his tribesmen. While he was busy uniting and strengthening the Qajars, the Zands were torn by fratricide and a bitter struggle for succession.
In the end, the two protagonists for the throne of Persia were Lotf-Ali Khan Zand, a grandnephew of Karim Khan, and Agha Mohammad Khan. These two were of opposite character. The cruelty and treachery of Agha Mohammad were matched against the nobility and gallantry of Lotf-Ali. Agha Mohammad won the contest in 1794, aided by the treachery of Haji Ebrahim, a counselor of Lotf-Ali Khan. The young prince was blinded and strangled, and the province of Kerman, which had aided Lotf-Ali, was devastated and its population savaged.
Agha Mohammad Khan chose Tehran as his capital and from there solidified his rule and expanded his domain. His main foreign foe was Catherine the Great of Russia, and their dispute was over Georgia, whose governor, Heraclius, had renounced his allegiance to Persia and had accepted Russia's protection. In the ensuing struggle Catherine, who had her hands full in Europe, did not come to her protégé's aid. As a result, Agha Mohammad captured Tiflis and put the population to the sword. On his return he was crowned shah of Persia in March 1796.
Catherine sent a punitive expedition which reached as far south as Baku, but she died and her son Paul reversed her orders. Agha Mohammad, delighted at the news, decided to go to the Caucasus and capture Shisha, the one city which had resisted him the previous year. The city surrendered without a struggle, but three days later in June 1797 three of his servants killed Agha Mohammad Shah.
Sir John Malcolm, a British representative at the time, in his History of Persia describes the eunuch shah's character: "The person of that monarch was so slender that at a distance he appeared like a youth of fourteen or fifteen. His beardless and shrivelled face resembled that of an aged and wrinkled woman; and the expression of his countenance, at no times pleasant, was horrible when clouded, as it very often was, with indignation. … The first passion of his mind was power; the second avarice; and the third revenge. In all these he indulged in excess, and they administered to each other. … His knowledge of the character and feelings of others was wonderful; and it is to this knowledge, and his talent of concealing from all the secret purpose of his soul, that we must refer his extraordinary success in subduing his enemies."
The best account of Agha Mohammad Khan's life in English is in Sir John Malcolm, History of Persia (2 vols., 1815; rev. ed. 1829). Sketches of his life are in E. G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia (2 vols., 1902-1906; new ed., 4 vols., 1953-1956), and in Percy Sykes, History of Persia (2 vols., 1915; 3d ed. 1930). More modern studies include W. B. Fisher, ed., The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 1 (1968), and Hamid Algar, Religion and State in Iran: 1785-1906 (1969).