Barakzi/Barakzai :: Khyber.ORG

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Daniel Balland

Encyclopaedia Iranica

Family Tree of the Barakzai's
Family Tree of the Barakzai Emperor's
Family Tree of Barakzai Ruler Dost Muhammad Khan
Family Tree of Barakzai Ruler Sultan Ahmad Khan

Barakzi (singular: Barakzai), an ethnic name common in the entire eastern portion of Iran and Afghanistan, where it is found both among the Pashtun of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Baluch of south-eastern Iran (in the region of Bampur). It is formed on a common classical model: the name of an eponymous ancestor, Barak, plus the suffix -zi (the plural of Pashto zay "descendant").

In the detailed Pashtun genealogies there are no fewer than seven instances of the ethnic name Barakzi, at very different levels of tribal segmentation. Six of them designate simple lineages within six different tribes located in the Solayman mountains or adjacent lands: the Barek (Hayat Khan, p. 81), the Jamand of Hashtnagar (Sher Mohammad Khan, p. 199), the Kakar (idem, p. 241), the Khattak (idem, p. 183; Rose, II, p. 527), the Musakhel (Dictionary of the Pathan Tribes, p.34), and the Sherani (ibid.; Rose, III, p.408). The seventh instance, on the other hand, designates one of the most important Pashtun tribes in numbers and historic role, part of the Zirak branch of the Durrani confederation. The presence of Barakzi of indeterminate ethnic identity has also been reported in the Panjsher valley northeast of Kabul (Adamec, Gazetteer VI, p. 93, forty houses; Balland and Benoist, thirty semi-nomadic families).

Other ethnic names derived from Barak also occur among the Taraki (Barak Khel; Sher Mohammad Khan, p. 216) and the Wazir Otmanzi (Barak Khel; idem, p. 252), as well as in less clearly identifiable forms among the Khogyani (idem, p. 249), the Lodhi (idem, p. 224), and the Mohmand (Hayat Khan, p. 132).

The homonymy of these different groups is naturally not sufficient to establish any relationship among them. Nevertheless, some Baluch authors use it as an arguement for claiming a Pashtun origin for the Baluch Barakzi of Bampur (Sardar Khan Baluch, n.d., p. 82). In the absence of the slightest historical confirmation, it is preferable to interpret these homonyms as an instance of anosmatic convergence linked to the wide diffusion of the personal name Barak. In fact, other examples of such ethnonymic convergence abound among the Pashtun and the Baluch, though they generally involve tribal names derived from personal names of Arabic origin (Mohammad, Ahmad, Ali, Hasan, and the like), the spread of which followed the path of Islamicization. That is not the case with Barak. Furthermore, as the word is not attested in Pashto except in ethnic names (and a modern borrowing of English "barrack"), its origin is puzzling. The theory of H. W. Bellew (p. 163), who attempted to derive it from Baraki/Barki, the vernacular name of the Ormur, is unacceptable for philological reasons. More convincing is the connection that can be established with Turkish baraq/barak ("very furry, hairy"; also the name of a breed of long-haired dog, an excellent courser and hunter), which is found both as a personal name, notably in the princely genealogies of the Jengizids (Eh I, p. 1031, Bosworth, pp. 146, 153), and as an ethnic name from the fifth century (name of a tribe of the Tabghaq confederation in northern China, according to Bazin, p.272) down to our own time (among the Uzbeks on both banks of the Amu Darya; Jarring, pp. 23, 57; Karmysheva, pp. 90, 105; in Anatolia: Tanyol).

Of all the groups having a Barak as eponymous ancestor, the Barakzay tribe of the Durrani confederation is the only one about which there is ample, though not always precise, information. That is true, for example, of its numbers, for which the following estimates are available; at least 30,000 families at the beginning of the nineteenth century (Elphinstone, p. 398), 50,000 families a century later under the reign of Amanullah (Hayat Khan, p. 122), 300,000 individuals in the middle of the twentieth century (Aslanov, p. 57; Aslanov et al., p. 14). There is thus agreement among the authors that the tribe is one of the two principal components of the Durrani confederation and apparently has been so since the formation of the latter.

Genealogical traditions, as reported in learned Afghan historiography, suggest that in this instance the eponymous ancestor Barak could have lived in the eighth/fourteenth century and perhaps could have been a contemporary of Tamerlane (according to Fofalzay, tables between pp. 9-10 and 242-43). The name of the tribe itself is attested only from the Safavid period, when one of its notables, Mohammad Khan (not Ahmad, as Malcolm, II, p. 410, erroneously reported), was sent on a mission to the court of Shah Abbas I (Ferrier, 1858, p. 68). Mohammad Khan is the eponymous ancestor of the Mohammadzay section of the Barakzay tribe, which has played a leading role in the modern history of Afghanistan. It was almost at the same period that the Ghilzai tribes took over the Abdali (that is, the Durrani) tribes' control of the Qandahar region and obliged the latter to retreat westward into eastern Khorasan and the Herat region (Lockhart, p. 95). Only after the re-conquest of Qandahar by Nader Shah Afsar, with whom they were allied, in 1150/1738 were they able to regain a foothold in that part of Afghanistan (Bokhari, p. 15). In the allotment of lands that ensued the Barakzi were awarded extensive tracts in the lower Argestan valley on the southern perimeter of the Qandahar oasis (Singh, p. 18; Rawlinson, p. 825).

Since the emergence of Afghanistan as an independent state (1160/1747), the Barakzi have played a major political role. At first they entered the service of the young Sadozai dynasty, which their sardars had helped to place on the throne and to whose army they furnished a contingent of 907 cavalry in Ahmad Shah's time (Elphinstone, p. 398; Rawlinson, p. 826). But this alliance did not survive the test of time. Superior in numbers, led by ambitious chiefs, and encouraged by the internal decay of Sadozay power, the Barakzi were not slow to aspire to political primacy within the Durrani confederation and thus within Afghanistan.

After 1235/1819 the real power passed to their most influential section the Mohammadzi.


Here it must be noted that the new Barakzay dynasty was in its turn rapidly weakened by internal rivalries. Two Mohammadzay lineages thus succeeded each other on the throne at Kabul. Following the usage of English authors of the nineteenth century, they are commonly designated by the respective names of the cities where they had risen to power. The lineage of the sardars of Kabul, descended from the first Barakzay amir, Dost Mohammad Khan, reigned from 1235/1819 to 1307/1929, with a brief interruption during the Sadozay restoration in 1255-59/1839-43. The rival sardars of Peshawar, descended from Sultan Mohammad "Tilayi", half-brother of Dost Mohammad, were known also by the neologism Mosaheban because of the favored position (mosaheb-e khass) that its chiefs occupied at the court of the Ameer Habibullah Khan; it succeeded the Kabul branch in 1308/1929, lasting until 1352/1973, and managed to keep control of power after the fall of the monarchy throughout the span of the first Afghan republic (1352-57/1973-78).

The political hegemony of the Barakzi thus lasted a total of a century and a half. In this period, characterized from beginning to end by the practice of systematic tribal nepotism, the entire tribe, and more particularly its Mohammadzay section, occupied a privileged position in the high civil and military administration of the Afghan state (examples are given in Kakar, pp. 24, 113, and Schinasi, pp. 111 ff.; cf. Adamec, Who's Who). As a result, important modifications occurred in the geographical distribution of the Barakzi, notably the establishment of important colonies at Kabul and in the principal provincial seats of power.

The present geographical distribution of the Barakzi is not well known in detail, being characterized by broad diffusion. Following the pattern of most Durrani tribes, they can be divided schematically into three major settlement areas.

  1. The oldest is situated in western Afghanistan between Herat and the approaches to the Helmand valley. It was there that the tribe retreated in the Safavid period, but some elements may have been established there several centuries earlier (Stack, pp. 51ff). Today the Barakzay population there is residual and very scattered. Any attempt at sketching the whole must be based on the punctilious observations made at the end of the nineteenth century, which, though very precise, are filled with gaps (see Records of Intelligence Party I, preferable to the much more summary information in Adamec, Gazetteer II, pp. 35, 237, 300, and III, p. 49). In 1885 the number of Barakzi in the province of Herat alone was put at 1,264 families, of which 845 were in the nine boluks into which the Herat oasis itself was divided and 150 (probably an underestimate) were nomadic (Mohammad Takki Khan). Nomadism was still common among this population in 1978. The Afghan Nomad Survey counted 696 Barakzay nomad families, scattered among fourteen different winter camps dotted along the Harirud valley between Obe and Gorian, around Adraskan, and along the middle Farah Rud. The majority of these nomads summered in the mountains of southern Ghor. Those on the Harirud nevertheless stood somewhat apart because of their extreme poverty, which severely limited their mobility, and because of their general shift from the Pashto to the Persian language.
  2. The second area of Barakzay population encompasses the two large oases of Qandahar and the middle Helmand, on either side of its confluence with the Arghandab. This was the great tribal resettlement area in the eighteenth century, and it is still today the principal Barakzay centre. Estimated at 21 percent of the sedentary population, between 70,000 and 100,000 people, the Barakzi were thus the most important tribal group in Helmand province at the end of the 1970s. They predominated in extensive areas around Gereshk and Lashkargah, as well as in the modern irrigation area of Samalan, on the right bank of the Helmand, accounting for almost half the population of each of these three districts, whereas their relative importance did not surpass 11 percent in the Nowzad district north of Gereshk and they were very lightly represented in the rest of the province (according to a 1975 census based on a random sample of 4 per cent of families, USAID., pp. 18ff.; see also Scott, 1980, pp.4ff., which, though based on the same data, gives slightly different estimates). The importance of the tribe in the composition of the Qandahari population, though apparent in the fact that a central quarter of the old city bears its name (Wiebe, p. 142), cannot be established exactly, except by returning to nineteenth-century estimates, according to which it constituted between 10 and 25 percent of the total population of the city (according to Bellew, cited in MacGregor, p.493, and Ferrier, 1857, p. 321, respectively). The Barakzi of the Qandahar oasis, especially numerous in the southern part, are today entirely settled, though it seems they were still largely nomadic at the beginning of the nineteenth century (Elphinstone, p. 398). On the other hand, a small nucleus of Barakzay nomads (eighty-five families in 1978) still exists in Helmand province.
  3. The third area of Barakzay diffusion encompasses all of northern Afghanistan. The tribe entered this region at the end of the nineteenth century as a result of the transfer of nomadic groups from the south, which was intended to populate the territory along the northern frontier. The Barakzi who were thus established in the Golran region in 1886 (Tapper, p. 65; repr., p. 243) seem to have left. On the contrary, those who arrived in Badghis during the summer of the same year and encountered there the hostility of the Firozkohi (Kakar, p. 132) gave rise to the most important Barakzay colony in all of Afghan Turkestan. The principal settlements at present are located north of Bala Morghab, as well as to the west and north of Maymana, around Qaysar and Jalayer (see Adamec, Gazetteer IV, pp. 289ff.), for the Barakzi of the Qaysar woloswali. Many of these newcomers have preserved a pastoral way of life: 330 nomadic families and 840 semi-nomadic families were counted there in 1978, but, of this total of 1,170 families, a quarter (30 and 260 families respectively) no longer made more than a short migration in spring and were mainly engaged in agriculture. The majority (880 families in all) still passed the summers in the mountain pastures of the Safedkoh and Band-e Turkestan; ten families from Jalayer even summered on the distant pastures of western Hazarajat. A secondary center of Barakzay population exists in the Qatagan, where in 1978 fourteen semi-nomadic families were counted east of Kondoz (Nawabad), whereas ten nomadic and eighty semi-nomadic families were recorded northeast of Baghlan (Dast-e Bay Saqal). The summer pastures of the first group are located in the Dast-e Sewa (Badakhshan); the second group migrates to the mountain pastures of the upper Andarab and Fereng (central Hindu Kush). Finally, one more northern center, consisting of only twenty semi-nomadic families, is located in the region of the middle Baikal. There was thus a total of 1,294 Barakzay families, both nomadic and semi-nomadic, living in northern Afghanistan in 1978, that is, a number larger than that of their nomadic fellow tribesmen living in the southwestern part of the country. An indeterminate number of settled families must undoubtedly be added.

According to Sher Mohammad Khan (p. 183), the genealogical structure of the Barakzi is articulated in five major subtribes: the Abdullahzi, the Bayezi, the Nusratzi (Naserzi), the Nurudinzi, & the Ruknudinzi. The Nurudinzi seem to be the most important of them, for it is from their midst that both the Mohammadzay clan - thus the most recent of the reigning Afghan dynasties - and the Achakzi tribe sprang; all the historical traditions of the latter point to its being an old Barakzay section that was elevated to the status of an independent tribe by Ahmad Shah in the eighteenth century (Elphinstone, p. 398). A total of seventeen names of living lineages was collected by R. B. Scott (1971, p. 8) and the 1978 Afghan Nomad Survey. The fact that several of them (Kanozi, Shakarzi) are common to other Durrani  tribes, especially the Alikozi, is an argument supporting the thesis of the instability of tribal configurations within a confederation of this type.

In Iranian Baluchistan the name Barakzay is borne by one of the numerous hakomzat lineages, which shared in political power within traditional Baluch society (Spooner). It controlled the Bampur oasis and the region around it. Virtually independent of the central government during the Qajar period, it gradually extended its political influence over a great part of southeastern Persia and the neighboring regions of Indian Baluchistan, seeking to establish there a true Baluch confederation. It was in order to break this burgeoning regional power that Reza Shah Pahlavi launched a two-pronged military offensive on land and in the air in 1307/1928, followed by savage repression, the principal victim of which was Dost Mohammad Khan, the Barakzay hakom (i.e., hakem, governor) of Bampur, who was hanged at Tehran and is regarded today as a martyr in the cause of Baluch nationalism (Jahanbani; Sardar Khan Baluch, 1977, pp. 260ff., where the name of the lineage has unfortunately been distorted). This episode ended with the effective incorporation of the region into the territory of Iran; nevertheless a Baluch nationalist movement still exists, and the Barakzay lineage continues to play an important role within it (Harrison, pp. 17, 118f.).


Despite its wide geographic distribution, the Barakzay tribe has not been the object of a specific study. Its historical importance is such, however, that all general works and a number of regional studies of Afghanistan treat it to a greater or lesser extent. Cited here are those that provide basic data. All information relating to nomadism among the Barakzi has been taken from Balland and Benoist.

  1. Afghan Nomad Survey, 1978, unpublished.
  2. L.W. ADAMEC., Gazetteer of Afghanistan, 6 vols., Graz, 1973-85.
    Idem, Historical and Political Who's Who of Afghanistan, Graz, 1975.
  3. M.G. ASLANOV, Afgantsy, in N.A. KISLYAKOV and A.I. PERSHITS, Narody Perednei Azii, Moscow, 1957.
    Idem et al., Ethnography of Afghanistan, in G. GRASSMUCK, L.W. ADAMEC, and F.H. IRWIN, eds., Afghanistan. Some New Approaches, Ann Arbor, 1969 (a partial and sometimes defective translation of Aslanov, 1957).
  4. D. BALLAND and A. de BENOIST, Nomades et semi-nomades d'Afghanistan, forthcoming.
  5. L. BAZIN, Recherches sur les parlers t'o-pa, Toung Pao 39/4-5, 1950, pp. 228-329.
  6. H.W. BELLEW, An Inquiry into the Ethnography of Afghanistan, Woking, 1981, repr. Graz, 1973.
  7. ABDUL KARIM BOKHARI., C.E. BOSWORTH., The Islamic Dynasties, Edinburgh, 1967.
  8. R. DANKOFF, Baraq and Buraq, Central Asiatic Journal 15/2, 1971, pp. 102-17
  9. A Dictionary of the Pathan Tribes on the North-West Frontier of India, Calcutta, 1899.
  10. M. ELPHINSTONE, An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul and Its Dependencies in Persia, Tartary, and India, London, 1815, repr. Graz, 1969.
  11. J.P. FERRIER, Caravan Journeys and Wanderings in Persia, Afghanistan, Turkistan, and Baluchistan, London, 1857, repr. West-mead, 1971.
    Idem, History of the Afghans, London, 1858.
  12. A. WAKILI FOFALZAY., Dorrat al-Zaman fi Tarikh Shah Zaman, Kabul, 1337/1958.
  13. S.S. HARRISON., In Afghanistan's Shadow, Baluch Nationalism and Soviet Temptations, New York, 1981.
  14. M. HAYAT KHAN., Hayat-e Afghan, tr. H. PRIESTLEY., Afghanistan and Its Inhabitants, Lahore, 1874, repr. 1981.
  15. HAYATULLAH KHAN., Joghrafia-e Afghanistan, Kabul, n.d. A. JAHANBANI, Amaliyat-e qosun dar Baluchistan az Moe-dad ta Bahman 1307 Hijri, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1336/1957.
  16. G. JARRING., On the Distribution of Turk Tribes in Afghanistan, Lunds Universities Arsskrift,
  17. H.K. KAKAR., Government and Society in Afghanistan: The Reign of Amir Abdul Rahman Khan, Austin, 1979.
  18. B.K. KARMYSHEVA., Ocherki etnicheskoi istorii yuzhny khraionov Tadzhikistana i Uzbekistana, Moscow, 1976.
  19. L. LOCKHART., The Fall of the Safavid Dynasty and the Afghan Occupation of Persia, Cambridge, 1958.
  20. C.M. McGREGOR., Central Asia, pt. 2: A Contribution Towards the Better Knowledge of the Topography, Ethnology, Resources, and History of Afghanistan, Calcutta, 1871.
  21. J. MALCOLM., Histoire de la Perse depuis les Temps les Plus Anciens Jusqu'a l'Epoque Actuelle, 4 vols., Paris, 1821.
  22. H.C. RAWLINSON., Report on the Durrani Tribes Dated 19th April 1841, in McGregor, 1871, pp. 823-69 (a fundamental text; it is better to consult this version than the very defective new edition published in Adamec, Gazetteer V, pp. 509-77).
  23. Records of Intelligence Party, Afghan Boundary Commission I: Diary of Major Maitland, Simla, 1888.
  24. H.A. ROSE, A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province, Lahore, 1919, repr. 1978.
  25. M. SARDAR KHAN BALOCH., The Great Baluch, Quetta, n.d.
    Idem, History of Baluch Race and Baluchistan, 2nd ed., Quetta, 1977.
  26. M. SCHINASI., Afghanistan at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, Naples, 1979.
  27. R.B. SCOTT., The North Shamalan: A Survey of Land and People, USAID., Kabul, 1971.
    Idem, Tribal and Ethnic Groups in the Helmand Valley, Occasional Paper of the Afghanistan Council of the Asia Society 21, New York, 1980.
  28. SHER MUHAMMAD KHAN., Tawarikh-e Khorshid-e Jahan, Lahore, 1311/1894.
  29. GANDA SINGH., Ahmed Shah Durrani, Father of Modern Afghanistan, Bombay, 1959, repr. Quetta, 1977.
  30. B. SPOONER., Politics, Kinship, and Ecology in Southeast Persia, Ethnology 8/2, 1969, pp. 139-52.
  31. S.C. STACK., Herat: A Political and Social Study, PhD dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1975.
  32. MIRZA M. TAKKI KHAN., Report on the City and Province of Herat, tr. by W.R.H. MERK., London, n.d. (ca. 1886), ms. in India Office records;
  33. C. TANYOL., Baraklarda orf ve adet arastimalari, Sosyologi dergisi 7, 1952, pp. 71-108; 8, 1953, pp. 126-35; 9, 1954, pp. 67-96.
  34. N. TAPPER., The Advent of Pashtun Maldars in North-Western Afghanistan, BSOAS 36/I, 1973, pp. 55-79,
    reprinted with emendations as "Abdul Rahman's North West Frontier: The Pashtun Colonisation of Afghan Turkistan"
    in R. TAPPER, ed., The Conflict of Tribe and State in Iran and Afghanistan, London, 1983, pp. 233-61. USAID., 1975 Farm Economic Survey of the Helmand Valley, Kabul, 1978.
  35. D. WIEBE., Die raumliche Gestalt der Altstadt von Kandahar, Afghanistan Journal 3/4, 1975, pp. 132-46.