The History of slavery in Iran (Persia) during various ancient, medieval, and modern periods is sparsely catalogued. Slavery was abolished in Iran in 1929.

Slavery in Pre-Achaemenid Iran

Slaves are attested[1] in the cuneiform record of the ancient Elamites, a non-Persian people who inhabited modern southwestern Iran, including the ancient cities of Anshan and Susa, and who were eventually incorporated into the Achaemenid Empire. Because of their participation in cuneiform culture, the Elamites are one of the few pre-Achaemenid civilizations of Iran to leave written attestations of slavery, and details of slavery among the Gutians, Kassites, Medes, Mannaeans, and other preliterate peoples of Bronze Age Iran are largely unrecorded.

Classical Antiquity

Slavery in the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550–330 BC)

Slavery was an existing institution in Egypt, Media and Babylonia before the rise of the Achaemenid empire.

The most common word used to designate a slave in the Achaemenid was bandaka-, which was also used to express general dependence. In his writing, Darius I uses this word to refer to his satraps and generals. Greek writers of the time expressed that all Persian people were slaves to their king. Other terms used to describe slaves within the empire could also have other meanings; such as "kurtaš" and "māniya-", which could mean hired or indentured workers in some contexts.[2]

Herodotus has mentioned enslavement with regards to rebels of the Lydians who revolted against Achaemenid rule and captured Sardis.[3] He has also mentioned slavery after the rebellion of Egypt in the city of Barce[4] during the time of Cambyses and the assassination of Persian Satrap in Egypt. He also mentions the defeat of Ionians, and their allies Eretria who supported the Ionians and subsequent enslavement of the rebels and supporting population.[5]

Xenophon at his work Anabasis mention slaves in the Persian Empire. For example, he writes about the slaves of Asidates when he is describing a night raid .[6]

Persian aristocrats in Babylonia and other conquered states were major slave owners under the Achaemenid dynasty.[2] These defeated peoples supplied them with a sizable portion of their domestic slaves.[2] Every year, the Babylonians had to provide a tribute of five hundred boys.[2] Information on privately owned slaves is scarce, but there are surviving cuneiform documents from Babylonia and the Persepolis Administrative Archives which record slave sales and contracts.[2]

According to Muhammad A. Dandamayev:[2]

On the whole, in the [[Achaemenid]] empire, there was only small number of slaves in relation to the number of free persons and slave labor was in no position to supplant free labor. The basis of agriculture was the labor of free farmers and tenants and in handicrafts the labor of free artisans, whose occupation was usually inherited within the family, likewise predominated. In these countries of the empire, slavery had already undergone important changes by the time of the emergence of the Persian state. Debt slavery was no longer common. The practice of pledging one's person for debt, not to mention self-sale, had totally disappeared by the Persian period. In the case of nonpayment of a debt by the appointed deadline, the creditor could turn the children of the debtor into slaves. A creditor could arrest an insolvent debtor and confine him to debtor's prison. However, the creditor could not sell a debtor into slavery to a third party. Usually the debtor paid off the loan by free work for the creditor, thereby retaining his freedom.

Slavery in Hellenistic Iran (c. 330–c. 150s BC)

This section needs expansion with: sourced information on slavery in Hellenistic Iran. You can help by adding to it. (October 2020)

Slavery in Parthian Iran (c. 150s BC–224 AD)

According to Plutarch, there were many slaves in the army of the Parthian general Surena.[7] The meaning of the term "slaves" (doûloi, servi) mentioned in this context is disputed, as it may be pejorative rather than literal.[8]

Plutarch also mentions that after the Romans were defeated in the Battle of Carrhae all the surviving Roman legionnaires were enslaved by the Parthians.

Slavery in Sasanian Iran (c. 224–642 AD)

Under this period Roman prisoners of war were used in farming in Babylonia, Shush, and Persis.[9]

Sasanian Laws of Slavery

Some of the laws governing the ownership and treatment of slaves can be found in the legal compilation called the Matigan-i Hazar Datistan, a collection of rulings by Sasanian judges.[10] Principles that can be inferred from the laws include:

To free a slave (irrespective of his or her faith) was considered a good deed.[11] Slaves had some rights including keeping gifts from the owner and at least three days of rest in the month.[11]

Medieval Iran

Further information: History of slavery in the Muslim world

Slavery under the Umayyads, Abbasids, and Persianate Muslim dynasties (c. 642–1220 AD)

Further information: Slavery in the Umayyad Caliphate and Slavery in the Abbasid Caliphate

After the Islamic conquest of Iran, slavery and slave trade came to be similar to those conducted in other Muslim regions, and were directed toward non-Muslims. The slaves were provided to Iran and from Iran to slavery in the Abbasid Caliphate from four directions; domestic slave trade of non-Muslims within Iran; the slave trade from Central Asia; the slave trade from the Volga trade route via the Samanid slave trade; the and Caucasus via the Black Sea slave trade; and the Indian Ocean slave trade.

According to Islamic practice of slavery and slave trade, non-Muslims were free to be enslaved, and since many parts of Iran remained Zoroastrian the first centuries after conquest, some non-Muslim "infidel territory" were exposed to Muslim slave raids, particularly Daylam in northwestern Iran and the Pagan mountainous region of Ḡūr in central Afghanistan.[8] Persian-Zoroastrian slaves became common in the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphate, and many of the mothers, concubines, and slave qiyan musicians are identified as originally Persian Zoroastrians.[8]

The slave trade of the Samanid Empire in Central Asia, the Samanid slave trade, was a major provider of slaves to Iran and the Middle East through northeastern Iran.[8] The major part of slaves from Central Asia were Turkic, captured through raids, or sold by their families or as war prisoners by other Turkic tribes, and Turkic slaves came to be the most popular ethnicity for slaves in Iran.[8]

A third slave route through northwestern via Azerbaijan and Caucasus a came via the Kazars consisting of Turkish slaves, as well as non­-Turkish peoples of the Caucasus and eastern Europeans such as the Alans, the Rūs, and the saqaliba (Europeans), in turn including Slavs and Finno-Ugrian peoples like the Burṭās or Mordvins [12][13]; the slave trade from Caucasus (and the Black Sea slave trade) would also have included Greeks, Armenians and Georgians.[13] The Muslim invasion of northern India also resulted in a slave route of Hindu Indians through warfare and slave raids.[8]

The slaves were used in Iran itself, particular in the households of the Muslim governors, but Iran was also a great transfer area of the slave trade to the Abbasid Caliphate.[8] The use of domestic slaves was of the kind common in Islamic regions. Enslaved women were used as concubines of the harems or female slaves to serve them, and male slaves were castrated to become eunuchs who guarded them, and black men were preferred as eunuchs because they were regarded to be unattractive.[8] Slaves were also employed as entertainers and for secretarial and financial duties, as musicians, as soldiers, as tenders of farm animals and horses, and as domestics and cooks. There would also have been agricultural slave workers in Iran, but the information about them are insufficient.[8]

Slavery under Mongol and Turkoman rule (c. 1220–1502 AD)

This section needs expansion with: sourced information on slavery in Iran in the Mongol and Turkoman periods. You can help by adding to it. (October 2020)

Slaves were procured through warfare, slave raids, by purchase or as gifts.

Both male and female slaves were used for domestic service and sexual objects. The use of slaves for military service, ghilman, initially disappeared during the Mongol period, but it was revived and became important again during the reign of Ghazan (r. 1295–1304).[8] Timur Lenk "had as many as a thousand captives, who were skillful workmen, and laboured all the year round at making head pieces, and bows and arrows".[14]

Early Modern Iran

Slavery in Safavid Iran (c. 1502–1736 AD)

This section needs expansion with: sourced information on slavery in Safavid Iran. You can help by adding to it. (October 2020)

Slavery was a common institution in Safavid Iran, with slaves employed in many levels of society. African slaves were imported by the East African slave trade across the Indian Ocean, and white slaves were mainly provided from the Caucasus area or the Caspian Sea through warfare and slave trade.[14]

Slave trade

Slaves were procured through warfare, slave raids, by purchase or as gifts. Prisoners of war (asīr) could be ransomed but were otherwise enslaved, and rebellions and upheavals such as the Afghan occupation (1722–1730) resulted in the enslavement of thousands; in these cases, the usual custom of only enslaving people of a different religion were overlooked.[14] Slave raids were conducted through which people were enslaved, and these were often directed toward Christians in the Caucasus region.[14] Slaves were imported from East Africa as well as from India via the Indian Ocean slave trade.[14] Finally, slaves were given as gifts: until 1780, the Christian Armenians were forced to regularly provide girls and male youths as tributes to the Safavid ruler; the Shah also gave slaves away, as diplomatic gifts to foreign ambassadors and to the ulema.[14]

Slave market

Male slaves were referred to as ḡolām (in Arabic lit. a youth) or zar-ḵarīd (lit. bought by gold) or if they were black as kākā sīāh, while female slaves were referred to as kanīz(ak).[14] Male slaves were used for military services as ghilman, or castrated and used as eunuch servants, while female slaves were used as domestics or as concubines for sexual service.[14] Both male and female slaves were employed by their masters as entertainers, dancing, playing music, serving [15] and by giving sexual services by prostitution at private parties.[16]

Safavid harem

One of the biggest slavery institutions in Safavid Iran was the royal Safavid harem and court. Shah Sultan Hossain's (r. 1694–1722) court has been estimated to include five thousand slaves; male and female, black and white, of which one hundred were black eunuchs.[17] The monarchs of the Safavid dynasty preferred to procreate through slave concubines, which would neutralize potential ambitions from relatives and other inlaws and protect patrimony.[18] The slave concubines (and later mothers) of the Shah's mainly consisted of enslaved Caucasian, Georgian and Armenian women, captured as war booty, bought at the slave market or received as gifts from local potentates.[18] The slave concubines were sometimes forced to convert to shia islam upon entering the harem, and referred to as kaniz.[19][20] Slave eunuchs performed various tasks in many levels of the harem as well as the general court. Eunuchs had offices in the general court, such as in the royal treasury and as the tutors and adoptive fathers of non-castrated slaves selected to be slave soldiers (ghilman), as well as inside the harem, and served as a channel between the secluded harem women and the outside court and world.[18]

Slavery under Nader Shah and his successors (c. 1736–1796 AD)

This section needs expansion with: sourced information on slavery in Iran under Nader Shah & co.. You can help by adding to it. (October 2020)
A Qajar-era aristocratic family with their slaves standing behind them

Slavery in Qajar Iran (c. 1796–1925 AD)

Slave trade and supply

At the beginning of the 19th century both white and black, as well as indigenous, slaves were traded in Iran. Slaves were mainly obtained either through sale or warfare. Children were sometimes sold into slavery by their poor families, often in Armenia, Southern Iran and Kurdistan.

White slaves were mainly provided from the Caucasus area or the Caspian Sea through warfare and slave trade (mainly the Circassian slave trade). White slaves were often provided through warfare such as the Russo-Iranian wars, tribal incursions, slave raids and punitive expeditions in Caucasus and Northern Iran, which provided for Christian Armenian, Georgian and Circassians, and for Muslim Iranians capture in slave raids by the Turkmens.[14]

Inside Iran, non-Muslims, often Jewish women, were kidnapped from their homes, and Muslim tribespeople were kidnapped or taken as war prisoners during tribal warfare, often by Turkoman slave traders.[21] Normally, white and light skinned slaves were used for concubinage, while black slaves were used domestics (maids, nannies and eunuchs).[21] In southeast Iran, slave raids were conducted by slavers, often local chieftains, as late as around 1900.[14] Muslim Iranian slaves were mainly sold to Arabia and Afghanistan, and it was said; "most of the slave girls employed as domestics in the houses of the gentry at Kandahar were brought from the outlying districts of Ghayn."[14]

African slaves were provided from East Africa via the Indian Ocean slave trade, but also increasingly through the Persian Gulf by Arab and Persian traders, or by land by pilgrims returning from Mecca (Red Sea slave trade), which caused Iranian to call the slaves haji.[14] Three categories of black slaves existed: "Bambassees, Nubees, and Habeshees." The origin of the term "Bambassee" being mispronunciation of "Mombassa," the port from which many of these slaves originated. The Nubees, or Nubians, were slaves from Nubia and were known for their darker complexion compared to Ethiopian slaves.[22][23] The Habeshees were sourced from the southern Abyssinian kingdom of Shoa engaged in conflicts with the Galla peoples along its borders, resulting in the capture of slaves. The trade routes stemming from these hostilities extended through Shoa, reaching the Red Sea coast at Roheita in the north and Tajura. Muslim Somalis actively participated in raiding Galla and Habesha groups, making significant contributions to the slave population, they utilized the ports of Zeila and Berbera for these endeavors. In contrast, slaves or supplies drawn by the northern Abyssinian Kingdom of Tigre were obtained through conflicts or wars with neighboring Gondar and Shoa, for its supply of slaves and primarily conducted its export trade through the port of Massowa.[24]

Employment of slaves

As in previous times, slaves were used as eunuchs, domestic servants and concubines in the harems; as military men, administrative staff, or field laborers; it was considered a matter of status to have slaves in the household.[14] Visiting Europeans could also have slaves in their household during their stay, however their slaves could leave any moment they wished with the claim that as Muslims, they were not compelled to serve Christians.[14] Slaves owned by the Turkmen tribes were used to herd their flocks and till their land, and in southeast Iran slaves were almost exclusively held for agricultural labor.[14] The British consul reported that "in Beluchistan there are several hamlets inhabited by slaves, who till the Government's property around Bampūr", and in Sīstān "the cultivators of the soil are, for the most part, Slaves both black and white."[14]

The domestic slave pattern was similar in regard to the royal Qajar harem. The wives and slave concubines of shah Fath-Ali Shah Qajar came from the harems of the vanquished houses of Zand and Afšār; from the Georgian and Armenian campaigns; as well as from the slave markets, and presented as gifts to the shah from the provinces.[25][8] The slave concubines of the harem were mainly white, dominantly Turkmen and Kurdish captives under the supervision of female chief called aqal (aḡūl).[14] Young slave boys below puberty (ḡolām-bačča) served as servants and playmates in the harem.[14] Eunuchs were mainly African slaves.[14] During the Qajar dynasty, slave soldiers, ghilman, were used for the royal guard, and they were mainly white slaves from Caucasus.[14] Female slaves had in some aspects more freedom than free Muslim women, as they were allowed to move about alone outside of the harem without veils and mingle with men, and were less harshly punished for voluntarily extramarital sexual relationships.[26] Slaves were well-integrated into Iranian society. They intermarried with Persians, spoke Persian and adopted Islam. British traveler Ella Sykes wrote that Iran was the "Paradise" for slaves.[27]


The 1828 war with Russia put an end to the import of white slaves from the Russian Empire borderlands as it undermined the trade in Circassians and Georgians, which both Iran and neighboring Turkey had been practicing for quite some time. When the number of white slaves diminished, free Iranian men were employed for the royal guards rather than the previous white ghilmans.[14] At the same time and under various pressures, the British Empire decided to curb the slave trade through the Indian Ocean.[14] "In 1848, Mohammad Shah Qajar banned the importation of slaves by sea."[28] Consequently, by 1870 the trade in African slaves to Iran through the Indian Ocean had been significantly diminished. It is noted that the position of the formerly powerful eunuchs of the royal harem diminished in this period because of their shrinking numbers.[14]

Although the diplomatic efforts of the Russians and the British did result in a decline in the trade, slavery was still common in Iran under the Qajar dynasty, and it was not until the first half of twentieth century that slavery would be officially abolished in Iran under Reza Shah Pahlavi.[29] It is noted that poor parents still sold their children in to slavery, and that slave raids by chieftains were still conducted in the early 20th-century.[14]

Modern Period

Abolition of slavery (1929 AD)

What ultimately led to the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of slaves in Iran were internal pressures for reform.[29] On February 7, 1929 the Iranian National Parliament ratified an anti-slavery bill that outlawed the slave trade or any other claim of ownership over human beings. The bill also empowered the government to take immediate action for the emancipation of all slaves.[30]

Original text of Iranian Slavery Abolition Act of 1929 is as follows:[30]

"Single Article" – In Iran, no one shall be recognized as slave and every slave will be emancipated upon arrival at Iran's territorial soil or waters. Every person who purchases or vends a human as slave or treats with a human in another ownership manner or acts as an intermediary in trading or transit of slaves, shall be sentenced to one to three years of correctional imprisonment. Indication – Having been informed about or referring of someone who has been subjected to trading or treatment as a slave, every official is obligated to provide him with means of liberation, immediately, and to inform the district court for guilt's prosecution.

Slavery after abolition

Main article: Human trafficking in Iran

See also


  1. ^ Zadok, Ran (1994). "Elamites and Other Peoples from Iran and the Persian Gulf Region in Early Mesopotamian Sources". Iran. 32: 39 and 43. doi:10.2307/4299904. JSTOR 4299904. Retrieved 9 September 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e f M. A. Dandamayev, BARDA and BARDADĀRĪ in Encyclopedia Iranica
  3. ^ Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander, 1195 pp., Eisenbrauns Publishers, 2006, ISBN 1-57506-120-1, ISBN 978-1-57506-120-7, p.37
  4. ^ J. D. Fage, R. A. Oliver, The Cambridge History of Africa: From C.500 BC to AD1050, 858 pp., Cambridge University Press, 1979, ISBN 0-521-21592-7, ISBN 978-0-521-21592-3 (see page 112)
  5. ^ David Sansone, Ancient Greek Civilization , 226 pp., Blackwell Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0-631-23236-2, ISBN 978-0-631-23236-0 (see page 85)
  6. ^ Xenophon, Anabasis, 7.8
  7. ^ Ehsan Yar-Shater, W. B. Fisher, The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods , 1488 pp., Cambridge University Press, 1983, ISBN 0-521-24693-8, ISBN 978-0-521-24693-4 (see p.635)
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Foundation, Encyclopaedia Iranica. "Welcome to Encyclopaedia Iranica".
  9. ^ Evgeniĭ Aleksandrovich Beliyayev, Arabs, Islam and the Arab Caliphate in the Early Middle Ages, 264 pp., Praeger Publishers, 1969 (see p.13)
  10. ^ K. D. Irani, Morris Silver, Social Justice in the Ancient World , 224 pp., Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995, ISBN 0-313-29144-6, ISBN 978-0-313-29144-9 (see p.87)
  11. ^ a b K. D. Irani, Morris Silver, Social Justice in the Ancient World , 224 pp., Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995, ISBN 0-313-29144-6, ISBN 978-0-313-29144-9 (see p.87)
  12. ^ A. Z. V. Togan, “Die Schwerter der Germanen, nach arabischen Berichten des 9-11. Jts.,” ZDMG 90, 1936, p. 22
  13. ^ a b Cite error: The named reference barda-iii was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x BARDA and BARDA-DĀRI iv. From the Mongols to the abolition of slavery
  15. ^ Figueroa, Don Garcia. 1984. Travelogue of Don Garcia De Sila Figueroa. Translated by Gholamreza Samii. Tehran: Nashre No. (In Farsi
  16. ^ Sherley, Anthony, Robert Sherley, and Thomas Sherley. 1983. The Travelogue of the Sherley Brothers. Translated by Avans. Tehran: Negah. (In Farsi)
  17. ^ Ricks, Thomas. 2001. Slaves and slave trading in Shi’i Iran, AD 1500–1900. Journal of Asian and African Studies 36: 407–18
  18. ^ a b c Sussan Babaie, Kathryn Babayan, Ina Baghdiantz-MacCabe, Mussumeh Farhad: Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavid Iran, Bloomsbury Academic, 2004
  19. ^ Foran, John. “"The Long Fall of the Safavid Dynasty: Moving beyond the Standard Views." International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, 1992, pp. 281–304. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.
  20. ^ Taheri, Abolghasem. 1970. Political and Social History of Iran from Teymur’s Death until the Death of Shah Abbas II. Tehran: Habibi. (In Farsi)
  21. ^ a b Janet Afary: Sexual Politics in Modern Iran
  22. ^ Sheil, Lady (1856). Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia. London. p. 243.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  23. ^ Polak, J. E. (1865). Persien, das Land und seine Bewohner. Vol. 2. Leipzig. p. 248.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  24. ^ Kelly, J. B. (1968). Britain and the Persian Gulf. London. p. 417.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  25. ^ Solṭān-Aḥmad Mirzā ʿĀżod-al-Dawla, Tāriḵ-e ʿażodi, ed. ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Navāʾi, Tehran, 1376 Š./1997.p 336
  26. ^ Afary, Janet (April 9, 2009). Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107394353 – via Google Books.
  27. ^ Floor, Willem (2000). "BARDA and BARDA-DĀRI iv. From the Mongols to the abolition of slavery". Encyclopædia Iranica. Vol. III. pp. 768–774.
  28. ^ Mirzai, Behnaz A. (2017), A history of slavery and emancipation in Iran, 1800-1929, Austin: University of Texas Press. page 145
  29. ^ a b Mirzai, Behnaz A (2004). Slavery, the abolition of the slave trade, and the emancipation of slaves in Iran (1828-1928) (Ph.D.). York University. OCLC 66890745.
  30. ^ a b Law for prohibition of slave trade and liberation of slaves at the point of entry, 1 Iranian National Parliament 7, Page 156 (1929).

Further reading

Last number(s) indicate pages:

A. Perikhanian (1983). "Iranian Society and Law". In Ehsan Yar-Shater; William Bayne Fisher; Ilya Gershevitch (eds.). The Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 5: Institutions. Cambridge University Press. pp. 634–640. ISBN 9780521246934.

Anthony A. Lee, "Enslaved African Women in Nineteenth-Century Iran: The Life of Fezzeh Khanom of Shiraz," Iranian Studies (May 2012).

Amir H. Mehryar, F. Mostafavi, & Homa Agha (2001-07-05). "Men and Family Planning in Iran" (PDF). The IUSSP XXIVth General Population Conference in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, August 18–24, 2001. p. 4.((cite conference)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)