Basseri of Iran: Past and Present Jonathan Hixon ANT101 Instructor Brown-Warren February 24, 2013 When the Achamenian emperors of ancient Persia built their capital at Persepolis, in a valley of the Zagros, they did so with strategy in mind. Persepolis was placed in a common “bottleneck” in the annual migration routes of several tribes from the warm coastal plains to the cool summer pastures in the north. Twice a year, several whole confederations of tribes had to pass by Persepolis with all of their wealth in sheep, goats, and horses, and he who ruled Persepolis ruled what then was Persia.
One of the tribes that still use this route today is the Basseri of Iran. (Coon, 1962) The Basseri of Iran was a nomadic pastoralist society from the beginning of their existence. The Basseri are located in southwest Iran and were housed in tents. Each tent housed a nuclear family and many tents made up a camp for the Basseri. An independent household occupied every tent in a camp. The tents were arranged in groups of smaller groups that usually would put all of their flocks of animals into one unit that was taken care of by one shepherd.
A shepherd was usually a younger boy or girl from different tents that took care of the smaller camp’s flocks. Some families would hire a shepherd from other tents if they did not have the means to provide a qualified shepherd of their own. Nomadic pastoralists had no permanent settlements; instead, complete households shift location with the herd. House structures were highly moveable, such as a tent or yurt, a portable, felt-covered, wood lattice-framed dwelling structure used in the steppes of Central Asia among Kazakh and Kirghiz pastoralists.
Pastoralists moved for a number of reasons other than following water and forage for their herds. Herders also moved to avoid neighboring peoples and government control, thus reducing disease, insects, and competition for resources, while abstaining from taxation and circumscription into military service. (Nowak & Laird, 2010) In the past, the Basseri of Iran were nomadic pastoralists, but the Basseri have started to come into a culture of a more advanced technological culture in today’s time. The Basseri have now become more dvanced in their culture with the world we all live in today while respecting the culture they came from in decades past. The social organization of the Basseri is clearly simple, but effective as a organized system of leadership. The Basseri chief is the head of a very strongly centralized political system and has immense authority over all the members of the Basseri tribe. The chief, in his dealing with the headmen, draws on their power and influence but does not delegate any of his own power back to them.
Some material goods – mostly gifts of some economic and prestige value, such as riding horses and weapons – flow from the chief to the headmen. A headman is in a politically convenient position: he can communicate much more freely with the chief than can ordinary tribesmen, and thus can bring up cases that are to his own advantage and, to some extent, block or delay the discussion of matters detrimental to his own interests. Nonetheless, the political power that a headman derives from the chief is very limited. Johnson, 1996) The Basseri as noted are divided into camps of tents, which may or may not have a headman present in a particular camp. If a camp does not have a headman present, then that camp will usually have an informal leader who were recognized by the other headmen, but had no formal recognition by the Basseri chief. For this reason (not being formally recognized by the Basseri chief) the informal leaders still usually answered to an “official” headman in another camp which could bring things up before the chief if something needed to be addressed.
The head of the household (or tent) would be the person responsible for bringing things up to an informal leader or a headman for discussion with the chief when things needed to be brought to the attention of the chief for social or political discussion. This political organization is not so hard to grasp as one of a huge population like we see in the United States. In summary, one could see that there are tents that housed families, a head of household for that tent, an informal leader or headman and finally the chief (who would be over many different camps and tents within those camps).
This political organization would be closely compared to, for instance, a police department chain of command in where you have the chief, then the captains (compared to the headmen), then sergeants (informal leaders), corporals (heads of households), and finally the troops (members of the individual households). This was a way I could compare and understand the political organization of the Basseri people easily. The economic function of the Basseri was that of true importance to the tents/households ability to sustain themselves.
The economic function of the Basseri lies in the occupancy of pastures throughout the migratory fashion of the Basseri. Tents are the basic element of the economic unit in the Basseri community. As much as they are social units, tents are also the basic units of production and consumption. In the summer, there might have been as many as thirty or forty tents that made up a camp; however in the winter months, camps were reduced down to approximately two to five tents and were separated from other camps by three or four kilometers.
The Basseri keep a variety of domesticated animals, but sheep and goats have the greatest economic importance. Other domesticated animals include donkeys for transport and riding (mainly by women and children), horses for riding only (predominately by men), camels for heavy transport and wool, and dogs for keeping watch in camp. (Johnson, 1996) Their products obtained from their flocks sustain the Basseri community. The Basseris’ most important products for trade included milk, lambskins, and wool, in that order.
The Basseri spins, weave wool and goat-hair, and make their own tent poles, pack-saddles, and cordage. The rest of their equipment is bought from townsmen and gypsies, their vegetable food from villagers. Some of the Basseri own village lands from which they receive shares of the crops. (Coon, 1962) Community members trade in their milk, hides and other animal products at bazaars in surrounding towns and use this money to purchase other types of food such as vegetables, clothing and other necessities.
As John Dowling argues, it is informative to contrast the Basseri with another pastoral people, the Turkana of Tanganyika. Both the Basseri and the Turkana are nomadic, both have productive organizations that are family based, both pasture their animals on tribally owned lands to which all individuals have usufruct rights, and in both societies animals are culturally ascribed to individuals property. But the orientation of the Turkana pastoralist is vastly different than that of the Basseri.
The Turkana pastoralist produces primarily for consumption, the Basseri for sale. (Dowling, 1975) Dowling goes on to say that the Basseri go frequently to the market, buying material for women’s clothing, men’s ready made clothing, goods of tanned leather (shoes, saddles, etc. ), wheat flour (a staple), sugar, tea, dates, fruits, vegetables, glass ware, china, metal articles (cooking utensils, etc. ), narcotics, luxury goods such as women’s jewelry and carpets, and, for those who are able, land.
The Turkana could live without external trade; they are self-sufficient subsistence producers. The Basseri are market dependent. (Dowling, 1975) Gender roles of the Basseri were clearly defined and adhered to by the members of the Basseri camps and tents. The gender roles of the Basseri are clearly defined by the community. When it comes to the tent, all authority lies with the husband (head of household). The husband was the decision-making person in the household and all were expected to adhere to the decisions made by the husband.
Women had less significant power and were generally their roles were to take care of the day-to-day domestic operations of the tent or household. Women were also considered part of a man’s wealth and it was quite common for a wealthy man to marry more than one wife. Daughters had no rights in choosing a marriage partner as this decision was solely made by the husband/father and the father of the boy the daughter was to marry.
Most families viewed the girl children as a means of gaining wealth since they understood that the girl would attract a certain amount of bride wealth into the family. The boy child was of more use to the community as a whole. The boys could look after the herds (even though there were cases that I read where girls were allowed to do shepherding duties as well) and protect and help the communities in the struggle between other communities.
Marriage among the Basseri was arranged and it was not possible for a girl of the tent to have much of a say in who she would marry. As stated before, the Basseri of Iran have households that are referred to as tents; within a tent, there were nuclear families that had members of households headed by the husband who was considered head of his tent or household. The husband or head of the tent was the one who made all arrangements for marriages of his sons and daughters under their tents.
The husbands would discuss with members of other tents who show interests in his sons or daughters and together, they would arrange marriages between the sons and daughters of other tents or households. The parties that were to get married usually had very little options but to accept what had been decided for them and accepted the marriage. The father of the bride would have to pay the bride price in the form of livestock and would also be expected to give a share of his animals to the new couple as a form of inheritance. This inheritance ould form the means of subsistence for the newly married couple/family. A married man may arrange subsequent marriages for himself, whereas all women and unmarried boys are subject to the authority of a marriage guardian, who is the head of their household. The marriage contract is often drawn up and written by a nontribal ritual specialist, or holy man. It stipulates certain bride-payments for the girl and the domestic equipment she is expected to bring, and the divorce or widow’s insurance, which is a prearranged share of the husband’s estate, payable upon divorce or in the event of his death. Johnson, 1996) Basseri are slowly becoming more and more settled in todays society and some are moving away from the traditional nomadic pastoralist ways of culture and moving towards a more modern approach to life. While there are still nomadic pastoralists today among the Basseri, many of the Basseri have begun to settle down and become a more settled culture. Poverty and debt lead a household to consume their capital in livestock; this makes them poorer, which makes it harder to make ends meet.
More capital is consumed, and with no alternative sources of wealth available, settlement is inevitable. (Bradburd, 1989) Successful Basseri build up their herds, accumulating hundreds or thousands of animals. Fearful of losing their wealth to disease and the vulnerabilities of nature, herders convert this capital into an alternative form of wealth, such as land in local villages. The land is cultivated by villagers as tenant farmers, including unsuccessful Basseri who lost their herds and ended up as agricultural laborers. Nowak & Laird, 2010) Bradburd argues that not only poor Basseri settled; wealthy Basseri were driven to settle both by the risks of pastoralism, which threatened them with a return to poverty, and by the fact that the economic realities of their situation did not provide a return commensurate with their risk. (Bradburd, 1989) With increased modernization, many of the Basseri have learned of other subsistence means that are more profitable and have shifted away from the traditional Basseri culture or pastoralists.
Traditionally, the Basseri of south western Iran are nomadic pastoralists and they continue to be that way in today’s time, but the number of traditional nomadic pastoralists among the Basseri people a very few. Most Basseri have begun to move towards a more modern approach in living and have settled down in villages or even more urban areas to obtain jobs that sustain life easier than their ancestors had in previous years. In the past, the Basseri of Iran were nomadic pastoralists, but the Basseri have started to come into a culture of a more advanced technological culture in today’s time.
The Basseri have now become more advanced in their culture with the world we all live in today while respecting the culture they came from in decades past. Most texts agree that many of the settled people in the southwestern area of Iran either were Basseri or are descendants of Basseri. Even though there are still traditional nomadic pastoralist Basseri in the region, they have become small in number; but the one’s that exist today, value their lifestyle and don’t want to change the way they have been living for many years.