The Persian Factor I

The Battle of Ganja or Elisavetpol (also Elizabethpol, Yelisavetpol, &c.) took place on 26 September 1826, during the Russo-Persian War of 1826-1828.

Crown prince and commander-in-chief Abbas Mirza had launched a successful campaign in the summer of 1826, which resulted in the recapture of many of the territories that were lost to the Russians by virtue of the Treaty of Gulistan (1813). Noticing the approach of the Iranian army, many of the locals that had recently come under formal Russian jurisdiction, quickly switched sides. Amongst the swiftly recaptured territories by the Iranians were the important cities of Baku, Lankaran and Quba.

Then Russian commander-in-chief in the Caucasus, Aleksey Yermolov, convinced that he had insufficient resources to battle the Iranians, ordered for the withdrawal from Elisavetpol (Ganja), which was thus retaken as well.

Yermolov’s replacement, Ivan Paskevich, now with additional resources, started the counteroffensive. At Ganja, in late September 1826, the Iranian and Russian armies met, and Abbas Mirza and his men were defeated. As a result, the Iranian army was forced to retreat across the Aras river.

The only great schism in Islam – between Sunnis and Shiites which followed the death of the Prophet – led to a prolonged struggle for dominance in the Muslim world between the two branches of the religion. For some four centuries it was possible or even probable that Shia Islam would prevail, and it reached the height of its power in about AD 1000. But first the Seljuk Turks who came to dominate the Islamic heartlands in the eleventh century and then their Ottoman successors four hundred years later were fiercely Sunni. Shiism continued to survive and flourish in Persia and Mesopotamia, but henceforth it constituted a declining minority of the Islamic umma

There is no great doctrinal difference between Sunni and Shiite Islam: they agree on the absolute centrality of the Prophet in the religion and on most of the historical details of his life; there are no major differences in ritual; and on theological matters there is a broad consensus. The division is historical and political. The Shiites believe that the Prophet should have been succeeded by his cousin and son-in-law Ali and that the succession was then reserved for the direct descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali. The successor, or imam, who was also the infallible interpreter of Islam, was generally nominated by the previous imam from among his sons. Most Shiites believe that there were twelve imams – Ali, his sons Hassan and Hussein, and nine in line of descent from Hussein. The last was Muhammad, born in 873, who disappeared mysteriously or went into occultation. The ‘Twelver’ Shiites, who in the twentieth century form the great majority of Shiites in the world, believe that Imam Muhammad is only hidden and will reappear as the Mahdi or ‘Rightly Guided One’ to restore the golden age. (Another Shiite sect, the Zaydis, is confined to Yemen, while offshoots of Shiism, such as the Druze, Alawites and Ismailis, are numerically small although they may have strong local political importance.)

Shah Ismail I of Persia, who ruled from 1501 to 1524 and founded the Safavid dynasty (1501–1736), established Shiism as the state religion. It is probable that a majority of his subjects were Sunnis, but he skilfully used the new faith to bind his disparate peoples together. Shia Islam became the foundation of a proud and even xenophobic Persian nationalism which still flourishes in the modern age, as for the past four centuries Persia (renamed Iran in 1935) has been the only nation-state of significance in which Shiism is the official religion.

Ismail had wider aspirations for his religion, and when the ardently Sunni Ottoman sultan Selim I persecuted his Shiite subjects, he attempted to come to their aid. His ill-trained troops were no match for the Ottoman Janissaries and he was defeated, but he was able to prevent the Turks from seizing any of his territory and he even held on to the districts of Mosul and Baghdad which he had won in earlier campaigns. He also held off the Sunni Uzbeks in Turkestan to the north-east. Persia was on the defensive, but the menace of Sunni enemies helped the process of welding the nation together.

The struggle between the rival Sunni Ottoman and Shiite Persian Empires lasted more than two centuries along their common frontier which stretched for some 1,500 miles from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf. The battle for Mesopotamia wavered back and forth and was finally decided in the Ottoman favour only at the end of the seventeenth century. Even then, Mesopotamia was far from secure from Persian attack. Persia’s western frontiers have remained roughly unchanged until the present day.

The need to guard against the hostile Persian presence on the Ottoman Empire’s eastern borders acted as a brake to Turkish western expansion, earning Persia the gratitude of the Christian states of Europe. Equally, the Ottoman Empire served to isolate the Persian Empire from the West.

Except for relatively brief periods of recovery, the Safavid dynasty went into a long secular decline on the death of its founder. The apogee of the dynasty was the reign (1587–1629) of Shah Abbas the Great. With the help of the English adventurer Sir Robert Sherley, he carried out much-needed reforms of his army, establishing an élite cavalry corps which was comparable to the Turkish Janissaries, and his reign was a period when the stuggle went against the Ottomans. He was a capable administrator, and a builder of genius. He made his capital the city of Isfahan, which became one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture. He fostered trade and industry and, although an ardent Shiite Muslim, encouraged Christian Armenians to inhabit a quarter of the capital. Isfahan grew until his English visitors noted that it rivalled London in size.

When Shah Abbas died, he left his country immeasurably stronger than when he had come to the throne at the age of sixteen. European penetration of the Persian Empire had hardly begun. With the help of the fleet of the British East India Company in the Gulf, he was able to evict the Portuguese, who, a century earlier, in the time of Shah Ismail, had obtained a foothold on the island of Hormuz and on the adjoining mainland. In return for its help, he granted the Company valuable privileges at the port of Bandar Abbas, which was named after him. But British domination of the Gulf still lay well in the future.

Envoys of the European powers to Abbas’s court were politely received but he resisted their suggestions that he form an alliance with them against the Ottoman Turks – Persia’s isolation from the West was the best guarantee of its empire’s integrity.

Abbas left his country one fatal legacy: he instituted the practice, which closely resembled that in the Ottoman court, of immuring the heir apparent and other royal princes in the harem, for purposes of security. The result was that the heir and princes were physically weakened and totally inexperienced in the art of government. His successors were not only cruel and despotic but also incompetent, and the court eunuchs secured excessive power and influence.

In 1709 the Sunni Afghans rose in rebellion, and, repeatedly defeating the badly led Persian forces sent against them, succeeded in capturing Isfahan and forcing the shah to flee. The Afghans controlled only part of the country, and a majority of the people remained loyal to the Safavids.

Persia was in a gravely weakened condition. Tsar Peter the Great of Russia had for long been seeking ways of establishing a trade route to India across the Caspian Sea and beyond. Using as a pretext the attacks on some Russian merchants in northern Persia during a tribal uprising, he invaded the country in 1722. His action alarmed the Ottoman Turks, who now also invaded Persia, to prevent Russia from gaining control over territories on their borders. War between Russia and Turkey was avoided by the settlement of 1724, under which the two powers agreed to partition northern and western Persia between them, leaving the rest to the Afghan usurpers in the centre and the Safavids in the east. Russian pressure was henceforth a permanent feature of Persia’s existence.

In 1729 the Safavids were restored to the throne. However, this was accomplished only with the help of Nadir Quli Beg, a member of the Asfar tribe, who had formerly been a leader of a gang of robbers but turned out to be a brilliant general. In 1736 he deposed the young Shah Abbas III, bringing the Safavid dynasty to an end, and placed himself on the throne with the title of Nadir Shah.

Before he ascended the throne, Nadir Shah’s military skill had already succeeded in forcing both the Ottoman Turks and the Russians to relinquish their conquests. He recaptured Kandahar from the Afghans and thus restored Persia’s previous borders. But this enormously ambitious man was not content with this. He turned eastwards with his armies to invade India, which, under the Mogul dynasty, was sunk in corruption and decline but still vastly wealthy. Bypassing the well-defended Khyber Pass, he defeated the Mogul emperor Mohammed Shah and in March 1739 entered Delhi in triumph. The booty was on a gigantic scale. An Indian historian remarked that ‘the accumulated wealth of 348 years changed owners in a moment.’ One captured item was the Peacock Throne, which Nadir removed to Persia where it served for the coronation of future shahs.

Nadir had succeeded where Alexander the Great had failed. However, he did not attempt to hold India but restored the bulk of Mohammed Shah’s lands to him, while keeping the provinces on the southern banks of the River Indus which had belonged to the Persian Empire of Darius the Great.

His appetite for conquest was still unsatisfied. He turned against the Uzbek states of Turkestan to the north-east and captured Samarkand and Bokhara. He drove into the Caucasus to hold back the advancing Russians. By 1740 he had not only restored and extended the borders of Persia but also established the country as a great military power. However, his genius was purely military; he had no concern with the just and efficient administration of the empire. He was a Persian Bonaparte without a Code Napoléon. Harsh, cruel and suspicious, he came to be hated by his subjects, and in 1747 his murder by a group of his own officers was little mourned. Some fifty years of relative chaos ensued as the throne was disputed between rival claimants. In 1794 Agha Mohammed of the Qajar tribes defeated his enemies and made himself shah. Although a eunuch (he had been made one when taken captive as a youth), he was the founder of the Qajar dynasty, which lasted until 1925. After capturing the city of Tehran he made it his capital. On his assassination in 1797, Agha Mohammed was succeeded by his nephew Fath Ali, who reigned until 1834.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century Persia’s long isolation from the West had come to an end. The Ottoman Empire, which though hostile had acted as a barrier of protection from the West, was in irreversible decline. Britain was in possession of India, and its navy controlled the waters of the Gulf. The Russian Empire was continuing the great colonial expansion eastwards into Asia that had begun under Peter the Great. Throughout the nineteenth century Persia was caught in the pincer-like pressure of these two powers.

However, it was France – and specifically the remarkable ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte – which was instrumental in bringing Persia into the orbit of European politics. Having failed in his attempt to use Egypt as a springboard for an attack on the British in India, in 1800 Napoleon planned an invasion of India via Afghanistan in alliance with Tsar Paul of Russia. The plan may have been wholly impractical, but it thoroughly alarmed the British rulers of India. It was aborted by the assassination of Tsar Paul in 1801, but the French menace remained. When the advancing Russians annexed two provinces of Georgia and in 1805 declared war on Persia, seizing Derbent and Baku, the Persian shah Fath Ali turned to France for help. By the Franco-Persian Treaty of Finkenstein in 1807, Bonaparte undertook to recover the territories Russia had seized. But Bonaparte almost immediately made peace with Tsar Alexander, and Persia was left to face Russia alone.

By the 1813 Treaty of Golestan, which ended a hopeless war, Persia ceded Georgia, Baku and other territories to Russia. But the struggle was not ended: three frontier districts remained in dispute, and when Russia arbitrarily occupied them in 1827 the shah was compelled by outraged public opinion to declare war. After initial successes, this war also ended in disaster for Persia, mainly because the shah refused to pay his troops during the winter. Under the humiliating Treaty of Torkaman in 1828, Persia not only gave up all claims to Georgia and other territories lost in the earlier war but also paid a heavy indemnity and granted extraterritorial rights (similar to the Ottoman Capitulations) to Russian citizens on Persian soil. This and a simultaneous commercial treaty providing for free trade between Russia and Persia provided the basis for future relations between Persia and other European powers.

Britain’s principal concern in the region in the early nineteenth century was to maintain Afghanistan as a barrier to French and Russian ambitions towards India. In 1800 Britain sent a mission to Persia, the first since the time of King Charles II. Headed by a young Scots officer, Captain Malcolm, it aimed to persuade the shah to bring the ambitious Afghan emir of Kabul under control to counteract any possible designs of the French or Russians and to sign a political and commercial treaty. The mission was successful, but the treaty lapsed in 1807 when Britain refused to provide help against Russian aggression on Persia’s north-western borders. The British interest remained, however, and in 1814 another treaty was signed whereby the shah agreed not to sign treaties or co-operate militarily with countries hostile to Britain; in return, Persia was to receive a subsidy of £150,000 a year which would lapse if Persia engaged in any war of aggression. The subsidy was withdrawn in 1827, when Persia was technically the aggressor in its second disastrous war with Russia.

When Fath Ali died, he was succeeded by his grandson Mohammed Shah (1834–48). The young shah was determined to win fame by recovering some of Persia’s lost territories. He was wise enough to see he could do nothing to stem the Russian colonizing drive through Turkestan which, only temporarily halted by the Crimean War, was pursued relentlessly throughout the mid nineteenth century. Instead, with Russian encouragement, he turned eastwards to try to conquer the province of Herat in north-western Afghanistan and territories beyond. Britain was instantly alarmed. France was no longer a threat to India, but expansionist Russia seemed highly dangerous. The Persian–Russian treaty of 1828 gave the Russians the right to appoint consuls throughout Persian territory. Britain gave help to the Afghan rulers of Herat and exerted pressure on the shah by occupying Kharg Island in the Gulf. Mohammed Shah was forced to abandon his siege of Herat.

Nasir al-Din Shah, who succeeded his father Mohammed in 1848 at the age of seventeen and reigned for forty-eight years, pursued the same policy of attempting to recover territories to the east, with Russian encouragement. Britain protested and imposed a treaty on Persia under which the shah undertook to refrain from any further interference in Afghanistan. When, despite the treaty, in 1856 Nasir al-Din obtained control of Herat through an Afghan nominee, Britain again seized Kharg Island and, near Bushire, landed troops which advanced inland to defeat a strong Persian force. The British then withdrew and sailed up the Shatt al-Arab waterway at the head of the Gulf to capture the port of Mohammereh. Under a treaty concluded in Paris in 1857, Persia then agreed to withdraw from Herat and to recognize the kingdom of Afghanistan.

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