Nader Shah II

The Battle of Yeghevārd was one of Nader’s most tactically impressive triumphs in his military career.

The flank march of Nader’s army at Battle of Khyber pass has been called a “military masterpiece” by the Russian general & historian Kishmishev.

At the Battle of Karnal, Nader crushed an enormous Mughal army six times greater than his own.

The Battle of Kars (1745) was the last major field battle Nader fought in his spectacular military career

With a characteristic blend of threat and diplomacy, Nader stripped the Moghul Emperor of a vast treasure of jewels, gold and silver, and accepted the gift of all the Moghul territories west of the Indus river. The treasure was worth as much as perhaps 700 million rupees. To put this sum in some kind of context, it has been calculated that the total cost to the French government of the Seven Years War (1756–1763), including subsidies paid to the Austrian government as well as all the costs of the fighting on land and sea, was about 1.8 billion livres tournois. This was equivalent to about £90 million sterling at the time: close to the rough estimate of £87.5 million sterling for the value of Nader’s haul from Delhi. Some of the jewels he took away—the largest, most impressive ones, like the Kuh-e Nur, the Darya-ye Nur and the Taj-e Mah—had a complex and often bloody history of their own in the following decades.

Nader did not attempt to annex the Moghul Empire outright. His purpose in conquering Delhi had been to secure the cash necessary to continue his wars of conquest in the west, for which the wealth of Persia alone had, by the time of his coronation, begun to prove inadequate.

Nader’s campaigns are a reminder of the centrality of Persia to events in the region, in ways that have parallels today. A list of some of Nader’s sieges—Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul, has a familiar ring to it after the events of the first years of the twenty-first century. It is worth recalling that Persians were not strangers in any of the lands in which Nader campaigned. Although he and his Safavid predecessors were of Turkic origin and spoke a Turkic language at court, the cultural influence of Persian was such that the language of the court and administration in Delhi and across northern India was Persian, and diplomatic correspondence from the Ottoman court in Istanbul was normally in Persian too. Persian hegemony from Delhi to Istanbul would in some ways have been a natural thing for many of the inhabitants of the region, echoing the Persian character of earlier empires, and the all-pervasive influence of Persian literary, religious and artistic culture.

Nader’s annexation of Moghul territory west of the Indus, removing the geographical barrier of the Afghan mountains, was one indicator that, had his regime endured, it might have expanded further into India. Other pointers in the same direction include his construction of a fleet in the Persian Gulf, which would have greatly facilitated communications between the different parts of such an empire, and his adoption of a new currency, designed to be interchangeable with the rupee. If this had happened (especially if the trade route through to Basra, Baghdad and beyond had been opened up), and had been managed wisely, there could have been a release of trade and economic energy comparable to that under the Abbasids, a thousand years before. But that was not to happen.

On his return from India, Nader discovered that his son, Reza Qoli, who had been made viceroy in his absence, had executed the former Safavid Shahs Tahmasp and Abbas. Nader’s displeasure at this was increased by his dislike of the magnificent entourage Reza Qoli had built up while Nader had been in India. Nader took away his son’s viceroyship and humiliated him. From this point their relationship deteriorated, and he came to believe that Reza Qoli was plotting to supplant him.

From India Nader made a successful campaign in Turkestan, and went on to subdue the rebellious Lezges of Daghestan, but there he was unlucky. The Lezges avoided open battle and carried out a guerrilla war of ambush and attacks on supply convoys. Nader’s troops suffered from lack of food. Nader himself was troubled by illness, probably liver disease caused originally by malaria and exacerbated by heavy drinking. The sickness grew worse after his return from India, and was accompanied by great rages that became more ungovernable and insane as time went on. While he was in Daghestan in the summer of 1742 he was told that Reza Qoli had instigated an assassination attempt against him in the forests of the Savad Kuh in May 1741. Reza Qoli denied his guilt, but Nader did not believe him, and had him blinded, to prevent him ever taking the throne.

His failure in Daghestan, his illness, and above all his terrible remorse over the blinding of his son, brought about a crisis in Nader, a kind of breakdown, from which he never recovered. Perhaps because of the poverty and humiliations of his childhood, Nader’s family were of central importance to him, and loyalty within the family had up to that time been unquestioned, one of the fixed points on which he had constructed his regime. Now that foundation had given way, his actions no longer showed his former energy and drive to succeed, and he underwent a drastic mental and physical decline. He withdrew from Daghestan, in terrible weather conditions, without having subdued the Lezge tribes, and (according to plans laid months and years before) called new forces together for another campaign in Ottoman Iraq.

When they gathered his army numbered some 375,000 men—larger than the combined forces of Austria and Prussia, the main protagonists in the European theatre of the Seven Years War, when that conflict began thirteen years later. This was the most powerful single military force in the world at that time—an enormous and in the long term insupportable number for a state the size of Persia (no Iranian army would reach that size again until the Iran/Iraq war of 1980-88). It has been estimated that whereas there were around 30 million people in the Ottoman territories in the eighteenth century, and perhaps 150 million in the Moghul Empire, Persia’s population was perhaps as low as 6 million, having fallen from 9 million before the Afghan revolt. Over the same period the economy collapsed, as a result of invasion, war and exactions to pay for war.

The army, and the taxation to pay for it, are recurring themes in Nader’s story. Was this army a nomad host, or a modern military force? This points to the wider question of whether Nader’s style of rule looked backward or forward. It is an extreme mixture. Nader himself repeatedly compared himself with Timur, stressing his Turkic origin and Timurid precedents in many of his public statements. He named his grandson Shahrokh after Timur’s son and successor, and at one point removed Timur’s tombstone from Samarkand for his own mausoleum, only to return it later (unfortunately, it got broken in half in the process). On several occasions he described himself as the instrument of God’s wrath on a sinful people, after the manner of earlier Asiatic conquerors, and his brutal conduct of government, particularly after his return from India, has as much in common with that of nomad warlord as that of a modern statesman.

But he was not in any simple sense a tribal leader, and in many ways remained an outsider throughout his life, in successive milieus. He was not born into the leadership of the Afshar tribe to which he belonged, and some of his determined enemies throughout his career were fellow-Afshars. From the beginning his followers were diverse, including especially Kurds and Jalayir tribesmen. Later he repudiated his Shi‘a heritage, turned Sunni (at least for public consumption) and depended most heavily on his Afghan troops. Like other Persian leaders (and Napoleon), he was close to his immediate family and promoted them politically; but in his wider connections he was an opportunist, and the term ‘Afsharid’ that is applied to him and his dynasty is misleading. The name Nader means rarity or prodigy: it is appropriate. He was sui generis, a parvenu.

Nader used government cleverly, began an important and thorough reform of taxation, and had a strong administrative grip. His religious policy was novel and tolerant in spirit. One should not overstate it, but some contemporaries remarked upon his unusually considerate treatment of women. In military matters he was wholly modern. He established the beginnings of a navy, and it now seems plain that something very like a Military Revolution, as described in the European context by Geoffrey Parker, was brought about in Persia by Nader Shah. It was under him that the majority of troops in the army were equipped with firearms for the first time, necessitating a greater emphasis on drill and training; characteristic of developments that had taken place in Europe in the previous century. The army increased greatly in size and cost, and Nader was forced to make improvements in his capability for siege warfare. He began to reshape state administration to make structures more efficient. These are all elements that have been shown to be typical of the Military Revolution in Europe.

If Nader had reigned longer and more wisely, and had passed on his rule to a competent successor, the drive to pay for his successful army could have transformed the Persian state administration and ultimately the economy, as happened in Europe, as Parker and others have argued. It could have brought about in Iran a modernising state capable of resisting colonial intervention in the following century. If that had happened, Nader might today be remembered in the history of Iran and the Middle East as a figure comparable with Peter the Great in Russia: as a ruthless, militaristic reformer who set his country on a new path. In the early 1740s he seemed set for great things—contemporaries held their breath to see whether he could succeed in taking Ottoman Iraq and establish his supremacy through the Islamic world as a whole. He had already achieved a large part of that task. Unfortunately, Nader’s derangement in the last five years of his life meant that the expense of his military innovations turned Persia into a desert rather than developing the country. His insatiable demands for cash brought about his downfall and the downfall of his dynasty.

Nader’s troops invaded Ottoman Iraq in 1743 and rapidly overran most of the province, except the major cities. Baghdad and Basra were blockaded. Nader brought up a new array of siege cannon and mortars to bombard Kirkuk, which quickly surrendered, but the defence of Mosul was conducted more resolutely. Nader’s new siege artillery pounded the walls and devastated the interior of the city, but a lot of his men were killed in unsuccessful assaults, and he no longer had the will or patience to sustain a long siege. In October 1743 he withdrew, sending peace proposals to the Ottomans. Mosul marked the end of his ambition to subdue the Ottoman Sultan and demonstrate his pre-eminence in the Islamic world. It was another important turning-point.

The latest round of forced contributions and requisitioning, to make good the losses in Daghestan and provide for the campaign of 1743, had caused great distress and resentment across Persia. Revolts broke out in Astarabad (led by Mohammad Hasan Khan Qajar, whose son was to found the Qajar dynasty later in the century), Shiraz and elsewhere. Early in 1744 Nader withdrew to a camp near Hamadan, in order to be closer to the troubles and coordinate action against them. The insurrections were put down with great severity. Shiraz and Astarabad were devastated, and in each place two white towers were erected, studded with niches which held the heads of hundreds of executed men.

At length Nader realised that the Ottomans were not going to accept his peace proposals, and learned that new Ottoman armies were advancing toward his frontiers. His son Nasrollah defeated one of these, and Nader achieved victory over the other, near Yerevan, in the summer of 1745. This was his last great victory, and it was followed by a treaty with the Ottomans in the following year. But by this time new revolts had broken out, driven by Nader’s oppressive practices: each place he visited was ransacked by his troops and tax collectors, as if they were plundering enemies. His demands for money reached insane levels, and cruel beatings, mutilations and killings became commonplace. His illness recurred and irritated further his mental instability. By the winter of 1746-1747 his crazy demands for money extended even to his inner circle of family and close advisers, and no-one could feel safe. His nephew, Ali Qoli, joined a revolt in Sistan and refused to return to obedience. Unlike previous rebels, Ali Qoli and his companions had contacts among Nader’s closest attendants. In June 1747 Nader was assassinated by officers of his own bodyguard near Mashhad; they burst into his tent in the harem while he was sleeping. One of the assassins cut off his arm as he raised his sword to defend himself, and then another sliced off his head.

The short-lived nature of Nader’s achievements is one explanation for why he has not been better known outside Iran, but it is not a sufficient one. With a few exceptions Nader, having excited much interest and writing in Europe among his eigtheenth-century contemporaries, was largely ignored in the nineteenth.

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