Zill al-Sultan was the notorious Qajar prince who ruled Isfahan, Iran's former capital during the Safavid era, as governor from 1874 to 1907. He is remembered as a Qajar anti-hero - even a villain - to this day, based largely on his apparent exercise of absolute power and pursuit of intrigue to further his own political interests. But late 19th-century Iran was a complex place: the Anglo-Russian great power rivalry, the assertive Shi'ite militancy of leading clerics, the growing power of the merchant classes, the entrenched and jealously guarded control of the landowners and tribal leaders, the halting attempts to reach out to modernity - all of these helped to create a climate of instability through which Zill al-Sultan navigated with almost Machiavellian skills and deft ruthlessness. Heidi Walcher has produced the first, extraordinarily important study which is both a biography of one of the most colourful individuals in the history of modern Iran and a study of the social and political circumstances of late 19th-century Iran.
In the process, she examines the difficult relationships between the secular and Islamic elites, the impact on Isfahan of the pivotal Tobacco Protests in 1890-92, the open trade wars against the British, suspicion of the Jews, the persecution of local Babis and Bahais, the confontation with European missionaries and the events leading up to the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. This book is a major contribution to a proper understanding of modern Iran.