Mohammad Hasan Amin al-Zarb, Visionary Entrepreneur

This article is a short account of the life and travels of Haj Mohmmad Hasan Amin al-Zarb, the first major Iranian entrepreneur. It is based primarily on his family archives in Tehran and some of his unpublished letters. He was a self-made man who, in his late twenties, had begun the most extensive commercial enterprise and became the richest and most influential merchant in Qajar Iran in the latter part of the nineteenth century. His business agents were active in all major Iranian cities and in a number of European capitals. He imported luxury items for the Qajar royal family and the Iranian aristocracy, invested heavily in industry and was engaged in agricultural and mining projects. It was, however, his penchant for constructing a railway line in northern Iran that took him to Europe where he was struck not by the dazzling displays of a libertarian life style but by the byproducts of the industrial age and signs of a civil and democratic society. In his numerous letters written during his European travels, Amin al-Zarb compares the sorry state of affairs in his homeland with the advanced and orderly life of the Europeans.

Amin al-Zarb was both a financial genius and a visionary who grasped the fast-changing economic conditions in Iran and the outside world and saw both the need and the opportunity to involve his country in the post-industrial revolution in Europe. However, circumstances mitigated against him. He lived in an era of foreign concessions, British and Russian rivalries and bewildered but well-meaning Qajar Shahs who were no match for their European counterparts. Thus, a combination of court intrigue and foreign intervention prevented many of his projects from reaching fruition.

Shireen Mahdavi
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