KHAN (ḵān), a Turkish high title indicating nobility. Its meaning and designation, however, depends upon the historical and social contexts in which it is used. Context is critical, and the meaning of the title varied greatly depending upon place and time period.  For instance, in the Mongol period, the title was restricted to the ruling elite family as an attribute of rulership and descent within the Chingizid family (see ČENGĪZ KHAN; while, under the Safavids, it was a designation of the governor (lower than beglarbegi); in the late Qajar period, when there was a proliferation and debasement of titles, the use of khan ranged from tribal leaders to individuals in authority or to simply a feign attempt at ingratiation, and in contemporary time in Iran it may be affixed to the name of anybody as a sign of respect.  It can be used consequently as a title, an office, a form of address, or as part of a place name; for example, Khanbaliq (Dadu or Beijing), Kublai Khan’s capital, or Ḵānābād in Afghanistan.

From the Mongol period down through the nineteenth century, khan was commonly used from Mongolia across Central Asia and Iran through much of the Ottoman empire; today it continues to be used in Central Asia, North India, and Pakistan, but much less so in Iran and Turkey.  It is seldom used in Arabic save as a place name.

The most frequent usage of khan in Iran is associated in particular with tribally-organized nomads in the central and southern Zagros mountains among the Lurs, Baḵtiāri, and Qašqāʾi, but also among the Šāhsevan, Turkmen, and others.  A synonym for khan among other tribally-organized groups would be āḡā/āqā and shaikh in the case of the Kurds, and shaikh among the Arabs.  In the earlier usage, however, even in the early twentieth century, khan identified tribal leadership and descent in chiefly lineages, especially when it was a royally assigned rank.

The etymology of khan is probably Turkic, although there is a possible link with Korean and ultimately with Chinese, or even proto-Mongolian and then with Chinese. Besides, in the Byzantine empire, khan was used among the Avars and, like that of Mongol usage, is linked with the title ḵāqān (Persian), hākān (Turkish), qagan or khagan (Mongolian), which designated a holder of the highest ruling position such as the great khan (emperor; Krader, pp. 21-22).  The thirteenth-century Secret History of the Mongols makes the distinction between rulers of nomadic confederations, khans, and the emperor of China, ḵāqān.  Ögedey (r. 1229-41), son and successor of Čengiz Khan (d. 1227), was first titled khan and then ḵāqān, or great khan analogous to universal ruler/emperor, which became the form for successors in the Ghingizid lineage.  Furthermore, the Mongols called Peking Khanbaliq, city of the khan in Turkish, after they moved there from Qaraqorum. Consequently in Mongol usage, khan signified a title, an office, a form of address, membership in the ruling Mongol lineage and successor states, and thus an attribute of universal rulership that passed to subsequent rulers and tribal leaders in Iran.

Khan is commonly found in Il-khanid and post-Il-khanid sources in Persian, with the plural form “ḵavānin,” an Arabic broken-plural pattern, rather than ḵānān, which would have been in accordance with the plural form of live entities in Persian (i.e., with the plural suffix -ān).  In colloquial Persian, the plural form ḵānhā with the plural suffix - is also noticed. The historical and social contexts of usage, again, are important. Among the Baḵtīāris, in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ḵavānin designated membership in the three leading descent groups, while “ḵānhā” seems to have been used for leading males outside those families (Garthwaite).

Ḵāqān was one of the titles used by Fatḥ-ʿAli Shah Qājār (r. 1797-1834), and late in the nineteenth century was even appropriated by Ḥosayn-qoli Khan Baḵtiāri (d. 1882), the first Baḵtiāri il-ḵāni (the title was awarded him in 1867 by Nāṣer-al-Din Shah), a variant of khan indicating the paramount tribal leader of the Baḵtiāri confederation (Garthwaite, p. 82).  The notion of universal lordship embedded in ḵāqān, was followed by the Ottomans and the Safavids, Afsharids, and Qajars of Iran and it seems even in later instances by nomads tribally organized in Central Asia and Iran.  Khan followed the Ottoman sultan’s name in his ṭoḡrā, the imperial monogram, on official documents, and Ottoman sultans often styled themselves as ḵāqān al-barrayn wa’l-baḥrayn (ruler of the two lands and the two seas (Bosworth, p. 628). For rulers in all of these dynasties, the use of khan identified them with a tribally-organized nomadic past and ultimately with the Mongol tradition of rule and constituted an element in their legitimacy.

In Safavid Iran, khan designated a governor of lesser rank than the beglerbegi (governor-general) but higher than solṭān (deputy governor), and in Mogul India its use was limited to nobles and courtiers.  In eighteenth-century Iran, khan was a rank that could be bestowed by the shah on administrators, military, and tribal leaders.  The bestowed title awarded the holder administrative and bureaucratic roles, besides it was also applied as an honorific and form of address.  In the case of Karim Khan Zand (r. 1750-79), founder of the Zand Dynasty who never assumed the title of shah, khan can even be construed as a substitution for shah, although he used the title wakil (regent) as the ruler.  In the Baḵtiāri confederation, khan displaced the earlier usage of āqā (elder, leader) as a general male honorific gradually in the nineteenth century, and by the early twentieth century khan was no longer even restricted to those descended in the ruling Baḵtiāri lineage. While the military title sardār was sometimes used as an honorific for notable Baḵtiāri women, khan seems never to have been so used.

Increasingly in the Pahlavi period with the assertion of centralization of power and the concomitance of greatly diminished roles for tribal confederations, khan as an honorific and form of address gradually fell from general use except among tribal people, and, after the 1979 Revolution and the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, its use even in the tribal context, with the implications of hierarchy and subordination, was discouraged.  In Pakistan, however, the use of khan as an honorific or form of address has survived as a widely used surname.  Khan continues today in its earliest sense as part of the title for the Ismaʿili spiritual leader, the Āḡā/Āqā Khan, almost similar to ḵāqān (universal rulership) in meaning.

See also KHAGAN.

Bibliography:  C. Edmund Bosworth, “Laḳab,” in EI2, V, pp. 618-31.

Francis W. Cleaves, tr., The Secret History of the Mongols, Cambridge, Mass., 1982.

Gerhard Doerfer, Türkische und mongolischen Elemente in Neupersischen, 4 vols., Wiesbaden, 1963-76, III, pp. 141-79.

Gene R. Garthwaite, Khans and Shahs: A Documentary Analysis of the Bakhtiyari in Iran, Cambridge, 1983.

Linda Komaroff and Stefano Carboni, eds., The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353, New York, 2002. 

Lawrence Krader, “Qan-Qagan and the Beginnings of Mongol Kingship,” Central Asiatic Journal 1, 1955, pp. 17-35.

David Morgan, The Mongols, Oxford, 2007.  Denis Sinor, “Qapqan,” JRAS, 1954, 174-84.

Samuel M. Stern, ed., Documents from Islamic Chanceries, Oxford, 1965.

Richard Tapper and Jon Thompson, The Nomadic Peoples of Iran, London, 2002.

(Gene R. Garthwaite)

Originally Published: August 25, 2017

Last Updated: August 25, 2017

Cite this entry:

Gene R. Garthwaite, “KHAN,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2017, available at (accessed on 25 August 2017).