The Career of Nādir Shāh – Afsharid Persia

Battle of Mehmandust (1729)

The Ghilzai Afghans who, as it were by chance, had overthrown the Ṣafawid empire in 1134–5/1722 did not retain control of Persia for very long. In fact, they did not control a good deal of the country at all. They did have possession of the person of the last fully fledged Ṣafawid shāh, Sulṭān Ḥusayn; and he had indeed acknowledged, albeit under duress, Maḥmūd Ghilzai as his successor. The Afghans had also seized a number of other Ṣafawid princes when they took Iṣfahān. These were imprisoned together with the former shāh, who was for the moment well treated. But later Maḥmūd killed many of the princes, some of them with his own hands; and in the following year (1139/1726) his successor had Sulṭān Ḥusayn executed.

The last, however, had not been heard of the Ṣafawids, though no representative of that house was ever again to recover real power. The dynasty had reigned over Persia for the quite unusually long period of two and a quarter centuries. It was difficult for Persians to accustom themselves to the idea that the rule of the descendants of Shāh Ismāʿīl and Shāh ʿAbbās was no more. Despite the decay and degeneracy of the last decades of Ṣafawid rule, the prestige of the dynasty which had not only proved so long-lasting but had been responsible for the introduction of the now firmly established state religion did not evaporate overnight. For some time to come, many of those who were struggling for power in Persia claimed to be acting on behalf of the “rightful” Ṣafawid claimant, and kept tame Ṣafawids at their courts for purposes of display and to lend legitimacy to their ambitions.

Soon after the fall of Iṣfahān a Ṣafawid prince declared himself shāh in the north of the country, which the Afghans had not succeeded in occupying. Other external enemies of Persia had not missed their chance: Russian forces had marched into the north-west of the country, and the Ottomans had seized much of the west, reaching as far as the region of Hamadān and Kirmānshāh.

Maḥmūd Ghilzai was murdered in 1137/1725 and was succeeded as shāh of the parts of Persia under Afghan rule, an area centred on Iṣfahān, by his nephew Ashraf. But Ashraf’s power was precarious, for he failed to hold the Ghilzai home base of Qandahār, where a son of Maḥmūd was able to seize the throne. In 1142/1729 Ashraf was overthrown by Nādir Khān Afshār, and in 1142–3/1730 the second and last Afghan shāh, too, was murdered. The short-lived period of Ghilzai government, or misgovernment, in Persia was at an end.

Nādir Khān, who now moved into prominence, was a member of one of the great Qizilbash tribes, the Afshār. An able general, he assembled an army in the north of Persia and after rallying to the support of the Ṣafawid claimant in the north, Ṭahmāsp II, he overthrew his principal rival, Fatḥ ʿAlī Khān of the Qājār Qizilbash tribe. He adopted the name Ṭahmāsp-qulī, the slave of Ṭahmāsp. Nādir’s was a singularly unservile form of slavery, but he did acknowledge Ṭahmāsp II as shāh, at least in name, until 1145/1732, and thereafter for the next four years he recognized Ṭahmāsp’s infant son, who was called ʿAbbās III.

But by 1148/1736 Nādir evidently felt that his own position had been established so firmly that he no longer needed to hide behind a nominal Ṣafawid shāh. He therefore held an assembly, called by the Mongol term quriltai, at Mūghān in Āẕarbāyjān. The notables present at the quriltai – military commanders, officials, ʿulamāʾ – did what was expected of them and declared Nādir the first shāh of the Afshār dynasty. He had already embarked on what was to prove a spectacular career of military conquest.

He had turned his attention first to the Ottomans. In 1142–3/1730 he reconquered western and northern Persia from them, as far as Tabrīz. In 1145/1732–3 he besieged Baghdad – without success, but the threat was enough to persuade the Ottomans to agree to return to the Perso-Ottoman frontier as it had been in 1049/1639. This agreement was not immediately ratified by the government in Constantinople, but it was finally accepted after there had been further fighting in the north in 1148–9/1736. There was no clash with the Russians, who were still in occupation of parts of north Persia. They withdrew when it became clear that the areas they had held would not be taken by the Ottomans but would fall to Nādir, who seemed to them to be less of a threat.

Next Nādir marched against the Afghans. Initially his aim was the recovery of Qandahār for the Persian crown, but when this was achieved (1150/1738) he went on to take Ghazna, Kābul and Peshawar. These advances pointed him in the direction of the legendary riches of India. There the Mughal Empire was past its peak, and Nādir was able to take Lahore, then marching on to meet and defeat the Mughal forces at Karnāl (1151/1739). He seized and sacked Delhi, the Mughal capital, and marched home with a prodigious quantity of loot, including the famous Peacock Throne of the Mughal emperors. He made no attempt to remain and rule India: this was simply a plundering expedition on a massive scale, like Temür’s in 801/1398.

In 1153/1740 Nādir attacked that traditional enemy of the shāhs of Persia, the Özbegs of Transoxania. He took the cities of Bukhārā and Khīva, leaving the Khān of Bukhārā as a subject ruler. But the lands up to the Oxus River he annexed to Persia. Lastly, Nādir’s troops occupied ʿUmān between 1149/1736 and 1157/1744. The result of the conquests was to move the centre of gravity of the Persian empire substantially to the east, where Nādir reset-tled considerable numbers of tribespeople from western Persia. He decided, therefore, to transfer the capital to Mashhad, in Khurāsān. The new capital also had the advantage for Nādir that it was conveniently close to his favou-rite refuge, the formidable mountain fortress known as Kalāt-i Nādirī.

Despite the fact that the capital was now situated in a city whose greatest pride – indeed, whose reason for existence – was the presence of the tomb of the eighth Shīʿī imām, Riḍā, Nādir Shāh made a last attempt to move Persia away from state-sponsored Twelver Shīʿism. What he tried to have accepted was a little more subtle than a mere abandonment of Shīʿism in favour of Sunnism: the approach he favoured was that of integrating Shīʿism into Sunnism as a fifth madhhab (school of law) to add to the four Sunnī schools. It would be called Jaʿfarī, after the generally respected sixth Shīʿī imām, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq. This involved, at the very least, the abandonment on the part of the Shīʿīs of some of their practices which were most offensive to the Sunnīs, notably sabb and rafḍ (vilification of the first three caliphs and the denial of their legitimacy).

Nādir’s scheme was exceedingly ill-received in Persia, and no one in the Sunnī world would have anything to do with it except, temporarily, the religious authorities in Iraq, who under duress during Nādir’s invasion agreed to accept the Twelvers as a fifth madhhab. Ultimately the plan came to nothing, and it is not easy to say with certainty what Nādir’s motives in trying to half-reverse the Ṣafawid religious settlement may have been. Nādir himself, as a member of a leading Qizilbash tribe, was from as Shīʿī a background as anyone. It has been suggested that he was attempting to reduce the religious prestige of the Ṣafawid dynasty which he had displaced; or that he felt the “legitimation” of Persian Shīʿism to be a necessary preliminary to a general conquest and unification of the Muslim world under his leadership. There is also the consideration that many of Nādir’s soldiers, especially the Afghans, were Sunnīs; it may perhaps have been thought politic to conciliate them in this way.

Nādir Shāh had succeeded in welding together an impressive and highly successful army of Shīʿī Persians and Sunnī Afghans. There can be no dispute about the very high degree of competence he possessed as a military leader. But in no other respect is it possible to find much that is positive to say about him. He showed little if any concern for the general welfare of the country or his subjects. He made enormous demands for taxation on a land much of which was devastated, imposing the death penalty on those who failed to pay. He concentrated all power in his own hands, in this way accentuating a decline in the efficiency of the traditional Persian bureaucracy.

In Nādir’s later years, revolts began to break out against his oppressive rule. He became gradually less sane and more cruel. Towards the end, even his own tribesmen felt that he was too dangerous a man to be near. A group of Qizilbash murdered him in 1160/1747. There was now nothing to keep his army together. One of the Afghan leaders, Aḥmad Khān, left Persia and returned home, where he founded the Durrānī empire: he has some claim to be regarded as the founder of modern Afghanistan. Nādir’s family proved unable to maintain the Afshār dynasty as rulers of Persia; but one of them, the blind Shāh Rukh, did manage to keep hold of the capital, Mashhad, and of the province of Khurāsān, for nearly fifty years.

Nader Shah’s Second Invasion of the Ottoman Empire​

Nader’s campaigns in Central Asia had been somewhat less dramatic than his campaign in India. However, the ramifications of his success in dealing with the Uzbeks and other nomadic confederations in the region were significant, especially for the inhabitants of Nader’s power base in Khorasan. During the long decline of the Safavids, Uzbek slave raiders operated from Tashkent, praying on settled peoples in Persia and Central Asia. This activity had made Tashkent a hub for the slave trade. Although Nader had relatively little sympathy for the troubles of settled people when compared to the Safavids and his own successors, he nevertheless recognized that nomadic slavers were detrimental to the wealth and stability of his burgeoning empire. Furthermore his campaigns in Central Asia further reinforced his goal of emulating Tamerlane. By the winter of 1742, Nader had received the submission of most Uzbek Khans, and had established garrisons as far as the Aral Sea. With the use of similar techniques to the Russians and the Chinese, Nader left his nephew Ali Qoli as viceroy in Central Asia to weaken the power of the nomads there.

Nader was by no mean sated by the conquests he had embarked on so far, and now looked west toward the Ottoman Empire. He considered himself as having “unfinished business” with the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud, and desired a number of concessions from the Ottoman Empire, which included the ceding of Mesopotamia and much of the Armenian Highlands. In addition to this, he wanted official recognition of the Jafari’ madhhab and a recognized position of primacy in the Islamic World. The last concession was ambitious to the point of folly, as it would essentially render the Ottoman Sultan’s title of Caliph hollow. Nader’s ambitions in his last war with the Ottomans would be every bit as ambitious as his wars in India and Central Asia, even if he was aiming for less than the complete conquest of the Ottoman Empire.

The preparations for the war were no less ambitious. A total of 250,000 troops would be mobilized for the war, which was such a significant expenditure that despite the windfall from India, taxes still had to be raised. The taxes were resented, though not quite to the ruinous level that had been seen in the waning years of the Safavids, which minimized the unrest which Nader faced due to the taxes. The few rebellions which did arise were easily dispatch by Nader’s armies. As well as these other preparations, the question of a regent in Persia needed to be settled. Nader’s crown prince, Reza Qoli, had performed admirably as regent during Nader’s invasion of India. However, Nader had taken exception to the rather ostentatious manner that Reza had taken up as regent, and his reported arbitrary cruelty reported reminded Nader too much of the Safavids. After careful consideration, Nader decided to take Reza Qoli with him on his invasion of the Ottoman Empire, leaving his trusted lieutenant Taqi Khan as regent in Persia instead.

Nader seemed to have hoped that he could personally influence Reza, drawing him away from the kind of luxury that he had hated about the Safavids, and imparting what Nader saw as good, Turkic values of clean and simple living. The fact that the supposedly decadent Safavid dynasty which he had overthrown had Turkic origins as well was clearly forgotten. Judging by the later rule of Reza Qoli, it appeared that Nader’s attempt at persuading Reza to embrace his Turkic roots were not too successful, though to some extent the taste for luxury seemed to have moderated following the invasion of the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, it allowed Reza a chance to prove his military finesse once again, as he was chosen to head the Persian Northern army, given the task of taking Kars while Nader invaded Mesopotamia.

The Persian invasion of the Ottoman Empire began quite well. Nader’s siege train had improved considerably since the last war, and he was now able to take the fortresses that had eluded him in the last war with the Ottomans. After a fierce but quick assault, Mosul fell after just two weeks of siege. To the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud, this was deeply disturbing news, and he began preparing to march out to his eastern borders in order to meet the Persian threat. Although disturbed by the Persian invasion, Mahmud had previously defeated the Austrians, and was confident that his forces would be able to contain the Persians. What he had not counted on was the military revolution that had taken place within Persia. Nader now commanded perhaps the most finely drilled, effectively administered and professional force outside of Europe. Morale was high following success in India, Central Asia and the Caucasus, and the prospect of success and booty was enough to ensure that Nader did not have to resort to levies of peasants. The Persian army was now the harbinger of the “Military Revolution” in the Middle East. Though the unreformed Ottoman armies fought bravely, they were completely outclassed.

While the Ottoman forces at this point were not as decrepit as is popularly imagined, they had not made the jump to a modern method of army administration as the Persians had. Ottoman troops were not always paid on time, and some of those who were did not serve upon the request of the Sultan. The Janissaries had become a nuisance as early as the early 17th century, when they had murdered the young Sultan Osman II who had planned to replace them with a more effective fighting force. Now, the Janissaries had turned into a group that resembled an organized criminal organization as much as an army. Many continued to draw salaries from the Sultan, but supplemented this income through racketeering and their own ties to guilds. In a situation that had mirrored Japan’s, many of the supposed military class undertook other occupations. Far fewer of the Janissaries joined Sultan Mahmud than hoped, which left the Ottoman army with fewer men then had been expected.

Nader gradually took all the fortresses and cities of Iraq, capturing Baghdad in the spring of 1746 and crushing the army of Ahmad Pasha. Now he was able to join with his son Reza Qoli and advance through Anatolia on Constantinople. The Ottoman Sultan Mahmud was in Konya, hoping to block the way, but as he received news that the Persians were closing his position, he pulled back his forces to Constantinople, fearing a repeat of the Battle of Karnal. His dreams of smashing the Persians and regaining some of the lands that had been lost were now abandoned, and his thoughts turned to leveraging his existing power to protect his own empire rather than rolling the dice. He was well aware of the threats that Austria and Russia now presented to the weakened Ottoman Empire. He appealed to Nader’s own self image as a Turkic warrior, and offered to settle their differences at a Qoroltai [1]. Keen to see if he could secure his reward without a potentially bloody battle, Nader accepted the Ottoman Sultan’s proposal.

The two men met, reportedly exchanging warm welcomes as fellow Turkmen and Muslims, though beneath the cordial surface, there was a lot of tension between the two men. Mahmud was under intense pressure from the Sheikh-ul-Islam and the Ottoman religious establishment to deny recognition of the Jafari’ Madhab. Nader wanted territorial concessions, as well as a recognition of Persia’s status as a member of the Sunni Muslim world. These would be bitter pills to swallow, though Mahmud was aware that he would risk much be denying Nader his wishes. He did try to balance this with a settlement that would secure the Ottoman Empire’s security, and with a mixture of flattery and appeals to their shared religion, attempted to persuade Nader into acting as a Ghazi for the Islamic faith, turning his sword against non-Muslim powers. After several days of meetings that involved Nader, his son and numerous Ottoman dignitaries including the later Sultan Mustafa, the Treaty of Constantinople was agreed upon by both parties.

The treaty itself was a near-revolutionary document. It announced the Ottoman Caliph’s recognition of the Jafari’ Madhab as the fifth school of Sunni Islam, and congratulated Persia on its rejection of heresy (which of course, produced suitable amounts of outrage amongst the Ottoman Ulema). It gave Mesopotamia and a swathe of Eastern Anatolia to Iran, including the Black Sea port of Batumi, which was the largest territorial concession that the Ottoman Empire had made in her history. The Ottomans gave a significant indemnity to Nader worth around £10 million pounds sterling at the time, which while not being anywhere near the sum that Nader had wrested from India, marked a significant windfall for the Persian government. In return, Persia was to swear off any further aggressive actions toward the Ottoman Empire, and was obligated to aid the Ottomans in future wars with the Russians rather than allying with Russia as she had done in the 1730s. Nader was pleased by the treatment of Persia as an equal rather than a less powerful state, and agreed to the treaty.

Nader had achieved much in his invasion. He had brought the Persian Empire to its territorial apex, stretching from the deserts of Arabia to the borders of China, and from the Black Sea to the Arabian Sea. Despite his high taxes, unorthodox religious policies and disregard for the previous Safavid ruling family, Nader’s success had secured his position among the people of Persia. He had restored internal security, defeated her neighbours and endowed her army with glory. However, economically little had changed in Persia. Although there was some economic recovery with the restoration of political stability, Nader saw the cities and farmlands of Persia as a resource to be exploited when needed rather than nurtured. However, this suited Persian peasants, who preferred organization in their own corporate structures rather than heavy government intervention. In the later years of his reign, there was a growing rift between himself and Reza Qoli, whose priorities were becoming more closely entwined with the Persian majority in the Empire, rather than with the Turkmen as his fathers were.

Note on Dates

The Muslim era opens with the Hijra (sometimes spelt Hegira), i.e. the Flight or Emigration of the Prophet Muḥammad from Mecca to Medina in AD 622. Muslim years are therefore indicated by the abbreviation AH (Anno Hegirae). The Muslim year consists of twelve lunar months and is therefore approximately eleven days shorter than the solar year of the Western (Julian or Gregorian) calendar. To find the Western (AD) equivalent to Muslim (AH) dates and vice versa, conversion tables are necessary. A useful compendium is G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville, The Muslim and Christian Calendars, London 1963. It should be noted that the Muslim day begins at sunset and thus straddles part of two Western days.

Other peoples who appear in this article had their own ways of calculating the date: e.g. the Mongols used a twelve-year cycle (borrowed from the Chinese) in which each year was named after an animal. Hence if we are told that Chingiz Khān was born in the Year of the Pig, this may refer either to AD 1155 or to AD 1167. In this article dates are usually given in both AH and AD forms, in that order, e.g. 656/1258. In some cases the AH date is inappropriate, and a single date is always an AD one. To avoid unnecessary clumsiness, decades (e.g. “the 1250s”) and centuries (e.g. “the thirteenth century”) are given only in AD form.

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