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.


An Arthurian warrior. Arthur was the first Romano-British war leader to use mounted warriors against the invading Saxons. Lightly armed, carrying a small round shield and with a cavalry lance, these horsemen were the prototype of the later medieval armoured knights.

The defences of Cadbury Camp. The steep ram- parts would have been additionally strengthened by having massive wooden defences built onto them, making them virtually impassable.

Night of the Long Knives. Vortigern, usurper of Britain, called the leaders of both Celtic and Roman factions to meet peacefully with the Saxons at Stonehenge. At the start of the council the Saxons rose up and massacred the Britons.

The mystery cults introduced by Rome still survived vestigially, side by side with vigorous native cults of gods who were the direct ancestors of some British royal families, and whose exploits were a matter off a milial pride in the relation of poetic genealogies.

These factors show that life – at least on the surface – continued much as it had always done in Britain. However, in areas like Wales, where Roman rule had always been most tenuous, a new generation of British chieftains was beginning to assert itself. Many were descendants of tribes which had been planted by Roman overlords along the old border country between Britain and the Pictish tribes (in much the same manner as Cromwell planted Presbyterian Scots in Northern Ireland in the seventeenth century). There they had grown strong, and some, like the famous Cunedda, had migrated to Wales, where they drove out the few settlements of Irish pirates and settled there, firmly entrenched behind the natural defence of mountain ranges like Snowdonia.

Once these petty kings understood that contact with Rome was finally severed, they began to come down from their mountain fastnesses and establish territories in the Midlands.

The resulting mayhem caused a ripple of panic which spread rapidly throughout the whole province. It was this which, together with the steady influx of the Picts and continued raids from Ireland, may have prompted the leaders of the Romano- British faction to call for help from a Gaulish magistrate and general named Aetius, whom Gildas calls ‘Agitus’. We learn of this from one of the few surviving sources of information we possess for this period. It comes in the writing of the British monk, Gildas, whose chronicle De Excidio Britonum (‘The Ruin of Britain’) is really a long diatribe against various native ‘tyrants’ – one of whom, though unnamed, is probably Arthur – and the general state of decay and ungodliness then rife in the island. The letter to Aetius begins thus:

To Agitus, thrice consul, the groans of the British. . .. The barbarians push us back to the sea; the sea throws us back to the barbarians; thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned.

But Aetius was unable to help. Under his not-inconsiderable leadership, the Gaulish Roman forces had been able to consolidate sufficiently to unite the warring tribes into a loose-knit confederacy which later drove back Atilla’s Huns. But this left him no opportunity to respond to ‘the groans of the British’ and the crumbling administration was left to organise its own defence against both the northern barbarians and the fast-growing strength of the native British tribes.

At is at this point that the first among a number of more or less discernible characters emerges from the darkness of post-Roman- Britain. This is the man usually known by the name Vortigern (though in fact this name may mean no more than chieftain) who bore a British name but claimed Roman parentage. His wife is believed to have been the daughter of the great Magnus Maximus (who proclaimed himself emperor in 383 and marched on Rome). Vortigern may also have been able to claim British descent, since he is later shown as (unsuccessfully) attempting to unite the opposing Roman and British factions against their common enemies from the north and west. Certainly by 441-2 he held high office among the administrative hierarchy, and when the still very Romanised nobility looked to Roman inspiration to aid them Vortigern seems to have been able to fit the bill.

At any rate, when no response was forthcoming from Gaul (it may have been Vortigern who sent the letter to Aetius) the Britons were forced to take action for themselves. They succeeded, possibly under the leadership of Vortigern, in putting an end for a time to the worst of the Irish raids, and in containing the Picts beyond the Wall. But this was a state which could not last, and the recurrent threat of attack from the native rulers of Britain was a continual nagging thorn in the side of the Roman administration.

It should be understood that Vortigern was almost certainly not a king in the general sense of the word, although he is called this by later writers who saw him as a paramount figure among the numerous petty rulers of the time. Like Ambrosius and Arthur, who followed him, he was an able administrator and leader of men who did his best to restore some semblance of order to his ravaged land.

Unfortunately, history has not served him well, and he is remembered as at worst a tyrant and at best a fool whose blunder caused the final breakdown of all that remained of Roman rule in Britain.

Whether this image is a true one is no longer easy to say with any certainty. For what happened next in the history of the war-torn island is crucial and at Vortigern’s door, one way or the other, the blame must be laid.

When the ‘call for help’ sent to Aetius elicited no response, Vortigern (or someone with similar responsibilities and authority) called in a group of Saxon federati to help. It is possible that these were already settled in part of southern Britain (probably Kent) or that they were a remnant of one of the old Roman legions recruited in Europe years before. Gildas as well as other sources speaks of three shiploads of men under the leadership of a chieftain named Hengist (‘Son of Wodan, “God forbid!” ‘) who were given lands in Kent and Essex as a reward for their services.

Initially, at least, they were active in aiding the Britons against the Picts, but having once seen the richness of the country they had come to defend (compared with their own sparse holdings along the coast of what is now Holland) they sought lands in which to settle more permanently.

Based on the evidence of Gildas, repeated in Nennius and Bede, we are able to establish a date ofc. 443-4 for the initial advent of Saxon settlers -though these were still confined to the areas ‘gifted’ to them by Vortigern or his like. By 449 they were well established along the western seaboard and Nennius tells us they had taken the Isle of Thanet and were seeking still larger holdings. Nennius also tells us that Hengist saw that he had only simple ‘savages’ to deal with (though the boot could well be said to be on the other foot) and brought another sixteen shiploads (keels) of men to Britain, along with his daughter, with whom Vortigern conveniently ‘fell in love’. In fact, it was probably an arranged deal sealed over several pots of wine. Octa and Ebissa, Hengist’s cousins, were given the whole area beyond the Wall, which they would have to secure for themselves, and this seems to have opened the way to more wide- spread colonization. The Saxons promptly took the Orkneys and attacked the Picts from the north, effectively calling a halt to their attack on Britain for some time to come.

However, it seemed that by inviting these men from across the sea the British administration had replaced one menace with another. As Bede’s account puts it:

It was not long before such hoards of these alien people vied together to crowd into the island that the natives who had invited them began to live in terror. Then all of a sudden the Angles made an alliance with the Picts, whom by this time they had driven some distance away, and began to turn their arms against their allies. They began by demanding a greater supply of provisions; then, seeking to provoke a quarrel, threatened that unless larger supplies were forthcoming, they would ravage the whole island.

When they did not get what they wanted (one suspects that Vortigern’s sup- porters baulked at the idea of giving anything more away) ‘they were not slow to carry out their threat’.

In desperation, with his military position weakened and his popularity waning, Vortigern sought to make a new treaty with his ‘allies’. A gathering was arranged at which a hundred British leaders were to meet a similar number of Saxon nobles. Somehow, Vortigern persuaded them to come unarmed as a gesture of good faith; he himself had by then agreed to marry Hengist’s daughter. The result was the terrible episode known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, in which the Saxons, having hidden knives in their boots, at a given signal rose up and massacred the Britons, presumably before Vortigern’s horrified gaze.

He himself managed to escape and, pursued by both Saxons and Britons, fled to Wales where he eventually met his death. With his going, any semblance of organisation crumbled almost to nothing. The Saxons were left to run free, marauding through the length and breadth of the land, only a few of the larger fortified towns being able to withstand their onslaught, hurriedly throwing up new defences and recruiting militia from the local areas. By 435 things looked bleak enough to merit the first entry in the Annates Cambriae – ‘days as dark as night’.

Post-Hyksos Egypt

With a military strategy that changed from defensive to offensive, increasingly ambitious pharaohs looked “to extend the frontiers of Egypt.” King Ahmose’s armies had chased the conquered Hyksos invaders into Palestine to quash any future threat. This campaign to liberate Egypt had strengthened and organized the pharaoh’s forces, and built up their arsenal. Chariots, horse-drawn and driven by an archer, led them into battle, volleying arrows into swarms of enemy combatants. With every victory, their capital of Thebes grew in power and wealth.

Pharaohs periodically engaged in battle with Libyans from the Western Desert, but most of their conflicts were with Nubians to the south and their Asiatic rivals northeast.

Conquering Nubia was no difficult feat for the Egyptians, who easily navigated the treacherous cataracts of the Nile, and seized crucial spoils of copper, gold, and semiprecious stones such as amethyst, as well as ivory and cattle. In defeat, the Nubians, more pliable than Egypt’s other neighbors, adopted Egyptian customs. A pharaoh-appointed regent – the King’s Son and Overseer of the Southern Countries – represented Egypt’s interests in Nubia during the eighteenth dynasty.

Egypt’s conquering armies faced stiffer challenges in Palestine and Syria, situated across hot desert sands and bodies of water in the western Asian territories, beyond which an even greater threat encroached. Assyrians, the Mitanni, and the Hittites pressed westward from Asia, challenging the Egyptians’ ambitious bid for world supremacy.

Borders were not clearly delineated. Loose groupings of city-states made up Palestine and Syria, inhabited by an assortment of Amorites, Canaanites, Phoenicians, and others who ceaselessly warred with one another. A climate of perpetual unrest was the result of contentious alliances, carelessly forged and easily broken.

Egypt’s conquests were not without great risk, although early on, many lesser monarchs submitted almost willingly, recognizing Egypt’s resurgence and new might, and heaping respect on the pharaoh. In the south, Amenhotep I, son and heir of Ahmose, looked to tighten Egypt’s grip on Nubia. The more ambitious Thutmose I next became pharaoh, by way of his marriage to a royal princess, Amenhotep I’s sister. His claim was tenuous, and he set out to bolster it with conquests.

A veteran admiral navigating the Nile with the king, described him as “raging like a panther,” recounting a tale in which Thutmose, armed with a bow and arrow, killed a Nubian chieftain, and displayed his corpse like a grisly trophy on his ship’s prow.

Such brutality was common. Stacks of dismembered hands frequent temple artwork, telling of the mutilations that often befell the Egyptians’ conquered foes. Just as common in wall carvings are portrayals of pharaohs, gripping enemies by the hair, the royal mace raised and ready to smash their skulls.

Thutmose followed up his brutal conquest in Nubia with an unprecedented 1,300-mile expedition to Syria, which crossed the Euphrates River – farther from Thebes than any other pharaoh had ever ventured. The king’s men took up arms against the Mitanni, invaders from the north. A stone marker planted on the field of battle claims a massive slaughter of Mitanni, and the taking of many more as prisoners.

The third generation of his family to claim the throne, Thutmose III was the only other pharaoh to go as far into hostile Asian territory, and finding his grandfather’s marker still in place, he put one of his own alongside it.

Treasure from conquered lands poured into the blossoming capital, funding new construction and more and elaborate temple art and adornments on the shores of the Nile.

A daughter, Hatshepsut was born to Thutmose I and great wife Ahmes; and a son, Thutmose, came from a secondary marriage. The half-siblings followed common royal practice and wed. When the old king died (he was the first pharaoh to be buried in the Valley of the Kings), they took the throne as King Thutmose II and great wife, though Hatshepsut – the daughter of a king who had taken his place in the afterlife alongside the gods, and now the new king’s wife and sister – quickly became a much more indomitable force than the pharaoh. Thutmose II’s early reign is mostly insignificant, the only record of which being a revolt in Nubia and skirmishes in Palestine. The pharaoh and his great wife did not produce a son, so at the time of his death, the son of a concubine named Iset was crowned Thutmose III. Rather than taking the throne outright, however, the young pharaoh faced a significant challenge from his stepmother-aunt, Hatshepsut.

Not satisfied for long serving as the new king’s regent, Hatshepsut believed her power and pure royal blood gave her the right to rule. Several years into Thutmose III’s reign, she wore the crowns of The Two Lands as co-ruler, while he faded into the background.

A female pharaoh presented unprecedented challenges, small and large. Depictions of Hatshepsut were clumsily adapted by inscribers and sculptors accustomed to the male form. In many, she appears without breasts, dressed in male garments and a false beard common among kings’ wardrobe, though the artists eventually got a better grasp for shapely figure and vestments. These small matters did nothing to tarnish a reign that was overall a prosperous success.

Hatshepsut surrounded herself with trusted and influential advisors. As her vizier, she chose Hapuseneb, a High Priest of Amon, who brought political prestige to her royal court. Closer to her was another remarkable man, an arrogant, industrious commoner named Senenmut.

Senenmut was arrogant and greedy – he amassed no fewer than eighty ranks in his royal capacity, including Steward of the God’s Wife and Steward of the King. He also presumed to be buried in a tomb alongside the queen, and in her temple, he had memorials to himself erected. Some Egyptologists have speculated that he was Hatshepsut’s lover.

Hatshepsut restored a number of temples that had fallen into disrepair while the invading Hyksos ruled Egypt, and made additions, including two obelisks, at Karnak. The most notable contribution to the landscape during her reign was the Senenmut-designed burial chamber at Deir el-Bahri, opposite Karnak. With considerable imagination, it sprang up on a cliff, in a natural amphitheater, only a small sliver of rock between it and the Valley of the Kings. Its steep walls were striped in soft pink and buff stone. King Mentuhotep was entombed on this site.

Higher and considerably grander in scale, Hatshepsut’s temple was three stories, framed with majestic columns. It is one of the most remarkable of Egypt’s structures, easily Thebes’ greatest marvel. Sphinxes once lined the ground leading up to its entrance, on two immense shallow terraces that ascend to the base of the cliff of al-Qurn. Vines and palm trees added a lush greenery to a courtyard beneath the foundation of the first terrace. Stunning buildings on the next level followed a long portico, where once twenty-six imposing statues of Hatshepsut once stood regally, depicting her as the god Osiris. Within the depths behind the portico, a great hall and sanctuaries surround the queen’s final resting place. The magnificent white limestone of the temple stands in stark contrast to the craggy cliffs into which it is hewn. The same material comprises the innermost sanctuary, the holy of holies.

Sanctuaries within paid tribute to the goddess Hathor (who took a cow’s form), the jackal Anubis, and sun god Ra. A number of reliefs amaze with scenes of enormous obelisks – nearly as long as the boats bearing them down the Nile from the island of Elephantine to Thebes. One of a quartet that once stood in the capital, reaching close to 100 feet into the sky – remains today in Amon’s temple at Karnak. A single huge slab of pink granite quarried at Aswan, was patiently and skillfully carved to form each obelisk.

The first terrace artwork features two distinctly different milestones for the queen. In one, she is molded on a potter’s wheel by the ram-headed god Khnum, as her mother, Ahmes, sits primly alongside the god Amon, who says: “Hatshepsut shall be the name of this my daughter whom I have placed in thy body. She shall exercise excellent kingship in this whole land.” This is meant to portray that Hatshepsut was of divine conception, a myth propagated by the queen.

Location of the Land of Punt for most scholars.

Another depicts the ambitious and lucrative expedition the queen dispatched to the trading center of Punt to enrich her treasury with African goods. About a half-dozen years into her reign, she ordered a Nubian named Nehery to lead the assembly from Qift, north of Thebes, across the desert to the Red Sea, where a pair of ships, laden with cheering sailors in the reliefs, would carry them down the coast to Punt. Here, people made their homes – round, high, domed huts with laddered entrances – among the palm groves. Nehery and his men were greeted by Punt’s queen, and “did not trouble to conceal their laughter,” the inscription reads, at her deformities, huge thighs and a harsh, strained face.

The people of Punt fell to the ground before an emblem of Hatshepsut: “They speak, praying for peace from Her Majesty: Hail to thee, king of Egypt, female sun who shines like the solar disk.” The pharaoh’s envoy Nehery set up camp, offering the natives a royal tribute of beer, fruit, meat, and wine.

A disproportionate bartering came after, in which the Egyptians got the better of the people of Punt, exchanging beads for baboons, ebony, gold, ivory, leopard skins, and myrrh trees (a prized commodity in Punt). Hatshepsut and Senenmut welcomed the company and its bounty back to the capital as the young Thutmose III burned incense at the foot of a massive statue of Amon.

Widely considered a military genius by historians, Thutmose III made 16 raids in 20 years. He was an active expansionist ruler, sometimes called Egypt’s greatest conqueror or “the Napoleon of Egypt.”

“The Napoleon of Egypt”

Until recently, conventional wisdom among Egyptologists held that Thutmose III resented Hatshepsut’s assumption to the throne, which postponed his reign for twenty-one years. After her death, there was a systematic effort to obliterate or deface her temples and monuments, along with those of Senenmut, which was taken as prima facie evidence of her nephew’s hostility. But the weight of the evidence has swung, and most scholars now agree that Hatshepsut and Thutmose III got along well.

One factor that points to a warm relationship: Hatshepsut never denied Thutmose III the title of pharaoh, even after she took the throne. What’s more, as he grew older, she gave him command of the Egyptian army – a sign of trust on her part. For his part, Thutmose made no effort to use the military to overthrow Hatshepsut, and he retained most of her officials after he succeeded her. He also married her daughter and placed his mortuary temple next to hers. Finally, the defacing of her monuments began twenty years after he was crowned – hardly a sign of hot-headed resentment.

The judgment now is that the vandalizing of Hatshepsut’s temples and statues was an effort by Thutmose III to erase doubts about his own claim to the throne as the son of a concubine, and thus reinforce the legitimacy of his son and heir, Amenhotep I. Thutmose also made Amenhotep his co-ruler in the last years of his reign, and it is possible that Amenhotep was behind the vandalism of Hatshepsut’s monuments.

Whatever the case, their co-reign came to an end with Hatshepsut’s death in 1482 B.C. Thutmose III ruled Egypt the next thirty years unassisted and unencumbered.

Five feet, four inches in height, the pharaoh and had a keen, alert face, dominated by his family’s protruding nose. Upon his coronation, he inherited prosperity and a full treasury, but Egypt’s empire in Asia was crumbling.

Egypt’s most formidable foes in Palestine and Syria had aligned behind the king of the city of Kadesh, where a mighty fortress stood on the Orontes River, in western Syria. The resurgent Mitanni added to this threat against the Egyptians.

In his second year as ruler, Thutmose III began his mission to “overthrow that vile enemy and to extend the borders of Egypt as commanded by his father, Amon,” according to a scribe accompanying the pharaoh on the campaign, who inscribed his reports in the temple of Amon.

Thutmose’s expedition traversed the modern-day Suez Canal, then a ten-day trek through the Sinai Peninsula, before finally capturing the Philistine city of Gaza. The pharaoh’s forces, acting on intelligence, moved quickly north to intercept the Kadesh coalition at Megiddo, where the plains stretched out beyond the hills of Mount Carmel. Three possible routes to Megiddo were debated by war strategists – dual options for low and open approaches were favored by generals, who argued against the tight, single-file passages that they would have to navigate on direct path over the hills. Thutmose, however, opted for the latter route, and his officers followed in step: “We are in the train of Your Majesty wherever Your Majesty will go. The servant will follow his master.”

A thin line of soldiers wound up through the desolate, scrub-filled valleys, the pharaoh atop his glimmering chariot, the bronze of his armored tunic shining like a fish’s scales. On his head sat the warrior’s crown, blue and etched with a golden cobra. Other chariots rattled and bumped in his wake, archers poised for battle. Some overturned. A sea of short, rounded shields – planks covered with cow or deer hides – represented thousands of foot soldiers, armed with bronze axes, daggers, and spears.

The feared ambush never happened. The Kadesh army had prepared an attack on the plain, expecting Thutmose’s forces to take the longer, flatter route to Megiddo. The pharaoh’s call proved to be the right one. Night was falling as the Egyptians descended the hills, so they set up camp. Thutmose told his soldiers to “prepare yourselves, make ready your weapons, for we will engage with that vile enemy in the morning.”

But the Egyptians delayed the attack, perhaps in anticipation of a new moon, considered good luck. The time finally right, Thutmose prayed to Amon, and unleashed his army. The soldiers set up north of Megiddo, and south of Kina brook, with the king in between. Thutmose and his men fought courageously, upending enemy chariots. The Kadesh allies fled on foot to Megiddo, where the gates were shuttered, forcing them to scale the walls.

The pharaoh’s greed led to a missed opportunity for a prompt end to the fight: “Would that the army of His Majesty had not set their hearts upon looting . . . for they would have captured Megiddo at that moment, while the vile enemy of Kadesh and the vile enemy of the town were being hoisted up.” Time and tactical advantage lost to plundering extended the battle many months, during which the Egyptians laid siege to Megiddo. The town’s defenses eventually succumbed, but by then the Kadesh king had escaped, living to bring the pharaoh more trouble in the future.

The Egyptians brought a tremendous load of plunder from Megiddo. According to the records, the spoils included: “. . . 340 living prisoners; 83 hands [cut off dead bodies]; 2,041 mares, 191 foals, 6 stallions; a chariot wrought with gold, as was its pole [property of the ruler of Kadesh]; a beautiful chariot wrought with gold [property of the ruler of Megiddo]; thirty chariots belonging to other chiefs plus 892 chariots belonging to his wretched army; a fine suit of bronze armor belonging to that enemy [the ruler of Kadesh] and 200 suits of armor belonging to his wretched army; 502 bows; seven poles wrought with silver to the tent of that foe; 1,929 large cattle, 2,000 small cattle, 20,500 white small cattle.”

The Megiddo campaign is the earliest full account of a decisive battle. In spite of later victories, Thutmose liked to celebrate this one, evidently feeling that the rest of his reign flowed from it. From then on, he consolidated his conquests as he pushed toward Mesopotamia. As he conquered each new city-state, he established a garrison and manned it with foreign mercenaries. To ensure future allegiance, he took the sons of conquered kings back to Egypt and trained them to be his lieutenants before he returned them to their homelands. Thutmose also took great pains to defend and provision ports on the Syrian coast in order to secure safe passage for his navy, which transported troops and supplies.

The pharaoh sculpted his army into a strong, efficient body – and among its vital components were chariot riders, infantry, naval operations, signals, accountancy, and supplies. Although he was formidable on the battlefield, Thutmose’s logistical and organizational skills most impressed later military historians.

The pharaoh’s fifth campaign crippled northern Syria’s wealthy seafaring cities. A year later, Kadesh’s imposing fortress at last fell to the Egyptian army. The year was 1471 B.C., and Thutmose was finally ready to confront the Mitanni, Egypt’s greatest hurdle to world domination. But to do that, his army would have to cross the Euphrates River. So, at Byblos, he ordered ships constructed of Lebanon’s famous cedar to be dragged along as the army marched.

The campaign was an unmitigated success. The Egyptians’ approach from the river was smooth, and caught the Mitanni off guard, with no defensive army in place to counter the attack. The pharaoh boasted he was out front for the victory, “the first of his army in seeking that vile enemy over the mountains of Mitanni, while [the enemy] fled before His Majesty to another far distant land.” To mark the conquering of his arch-enemies, Thutmose III erected his stela not far from his grandfather’s.

In another nod to Thutmose I, the pharaoh allowed himself an elephant-hunting diversion in the northern Syrian swamps of Niya. Although he had escaped the war without injury, he almost lost his life on the hunt. The quick reflexes of a general accompanying the pharaoh on the hunt put down a charging bull elephant before it could trample Thutmose. General Amenemhab leapt between the king and beast, severing the elephant’s “hand” – likely trunk – with his sword, saving both their lives.

While all pharaohs hunted, Thutmose’s genuine interest in wildlife extended beyond killing and mounting it. He often returned from conquests laden with species of plants and animals from distant lands in Asia – including, once, a rhinoceros from Nubia.

New buildings sprang up during Thutmose’s reign, including, in Karnak, a large pavilion, suitable for a Sed festival, and a monumental temple gate depicting him as a conqueror with mace raised over kneeling Asiatics. Similar to Hatshepsut, he had a fascination with obelisks – of the several he erected, two have withstood time; moved from their original home in Heliopolis to the Thames Embankment in London, and New York City’s Central Park.

Thutmose’s seventeen campaigns over a twenty-year period amassed enormous wealth for Egypt. His conquests expanded the country’s borders north of Syria to Niya, east beyond the Euphrates, and south to Nubia – earning his empire the distinction of being Egypt’s greatest, and him the nickname “the Napoleon of Egypt.” In tribute to the might of imperial Egypt, awed world leaders heaped gold and goods onto Thebes.

The age of conquest at its end, the capital basked in extravagance and luxury, which would peak during the long, peaceful reign of Thutmose’s great-grandson, Amenhotep III.

Mehmet Ali Introduces Modernization and Reforms

In the years following the departure of French forces from Egypt in 1801, an extremely capable and ruthless leader rose to power in Cairo in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Kavali Mehmet Ali Pasha (the Ottoman version of the name; also known as Muhammad Ali in Arabic form) is widely considered to be the father of modern Egypt, as he was instrumental in reforming the Ottoman-Mamluk system and laying the foundations for a modernization process in the industry and the military. Mehmet Ali (modern Turkish) sought to reform both the economy and the Egyptian military, including the navy, by crafting it along the lines of the European model. Economically, he seized control of all aspects of the nation’s economic life by monopolizing key sectors and demanding structural reforms. He also created new educational institutions in an attempt at transitioning Egyptian society from the medieval world of the Mamluks to the modern age. Militarily, he brought in French advisors and sent students to Europe to learn French in order to translate European military manuals into Arabic.

Mehmet was an ethnic Turk born into an Albanian merchant family on March 4, 1869, in the town of Kavala in Thrace (present-day Greece) and was eventually provided a position by his district military commander uncle with the rank of Bolukbasi (tax collector) in the Ottoman Eyalet of Rumelia. There he learned the nuances and craft of taxation, public administration, and leadership. Later, during Mehmet’s rise to power in Egypt, he positioned himself as a champion of the people striving to overcome the cronyism and corruption of the Ottoman-Mamluk centuries-old system. This tactic effectively forestalled any sizable, popular opposition until he was able to consolidate his power within Egypt. In addition to a deft and capable hand at public administration, he gained valuable experience in military affairs, serving as an officer in the Ottoman military and eventually commanding an army in an unsuccessful bid at driving Napoleon from Egypt in 1799.

After being recognized as Wali (governor) of Egypt by Constantinople in 1805 and backed by the French, Mehmet systematically dismantled what remained of Mamluk power within Egypt, including the confiscation of feudal farms of the Mamluk emirs, while simultaneously stripping Cairo’s religious institutions of some 600,000 acres of prime real estate holdings. Appearing to offer a gracious compromise to the then-reeling Mamluks, Mehmet invited their leaders to a feast in 1811 celebrating his son Tosu Pasha’s appointment to lead the army being sent against the Saud-Wahhabi rebellion in Arabia. However, once his guests had arrived within the compound (Cairo Citadel), Mehmet ordered the gates locked and all Mamluks in attendance killed.

The Egyptian-Ottoman military in the opening years of the nineteenth century consisted of a wide range of ethnicities, including Circassian Mamluks, Albanians, Kurds, Greeks, and Egyptians. Only the Mamluks, Albanians, Kurds, and Greeks received training as military commanders, as Egyptian cadets were trained as noncombatants. By the 1830s, Egyptians were selectively trained for combat assignments but were not allowed to rise above the rank of major. In similar fashion, when the Turks descended into Persia in the eleventh century, while they kept the educated and trained Persian bureaucrats in their administrations, they continued to rely on Turkish cavalry for military duty. Mehmet used educated Egyptians and imported European experts to establish schools and hospitals within Egypt, but he kept a wary eye on the Egyptian elite.

In the 1820s, Mehmet sent educational missions comprised of Egyptian students to Europe, resulting in the birth of the modern Arabic literary renaissance known as the al-Nahda. By 1835, Mehmet’s government had established the first indigenous printing press in the Arab world (the Bulaq Press), which disseminated the official newspaper of the Mehmet Ali government. Within the military, he instituted reforms that came to be known as Nizam-i Cedid (new system) and Nizam al-jadid (new organization), essentially being instituted and organized with assistance from French and Italian officers recruited from Europe. The new system included men, equipment, and doctrine trained in the early modern European profession of arms. These reforms included remaking the Mamluk arms industry. Mehmet also built factories in Cairo that manufactured cannon and small arms. By 1830, the Egyptian arms industry was producing 1,600 muskets per month.

For the growing Egyptian navy, Mehmet purchased finished warships from Italy and France, and they began arriving in Egypt in 1826. A shipyard was also established at Alexandria and, by 1830, had produced nine ships-of-the-line (100 guns each). During the same time period, Mehmet created a 100,000-man army, which, coupled with his growing naval capability, placed a relatively modern military and navy under his command—a military and naval capability that soon eclipsed that of the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople. These developments were closely monitored in capitals throughout the Middle East and North Africa, eventually becoming a concern in both Europe and Russia. Britain’s reliance on sea power, in particular, for defense as well as empire made the advancing capabilities of Mehmet’s fleet, combined with significant French support, a growing concern in London.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century in Arabia, an Islamic fundamentalist group derisively called “Wahhabis” by their detractors, in conjunction with the House of Saud, began moving against Ottoman interests on the Arabian Peninsula and captured Mecca in 1802. The Wahhabis then captured the Hejaz region in 1803, which eventually led to the Ottoman-Saudi War (1811–1818). The timing for the Wahhabi move against the Hejaz was propitious as the Ottoman Empire’s main army was engaged in the Balkans in Europe putting down a series of rebellions. As Mehmet had finished dispensing with the Mamluk leadership at the Cairo Citadel, Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II (ruled 1808–1839) directed the Egyptian leader to deploy forces to Arabia to deal with the upstart Wahhabis.

Subsequently, in 1811, Mehmet dispatched a 20,000-man army, including a cavalry force of 2,000, under his 16-year-old son Tosu into the Arabian Peninsula where the Egyptian expeditionary force met heavy resistance at the Pass of Jedeia near al-Safra and was forced to withdraw to Yanbu. Shortly thereafter, Mehmet reinforced the expeditionary army under Tosu, and at the end of 1811, the force conducted siege operations against Saud and his allies in Medina. After a successful, if not prolonged, conclusion at Medina, the Egyptian-Ottoman army proceeded to capture Jedda and Mecca and retook the Hejaz region from the House of Saud.

These campaigns, however, did not neutralize Saudi military capabilities, as they continued raiding and harassing Ottoman and Egyptian forces from the Central Nejd region. An irritated Mehmet dispatched another son, Ibrahim, who led an army into Arabia in the fall of 1816 and conducted a two-year campaign against the Saudis. These activities captured the Saudi capital of Diriyah in 1818, including most of the Saudi elite and their leader Abdullah ibn Saud, who was subsequently transferred to Constantinople and summarily executed.

After securing the Hejaz, Mehmet turned his attention to Africa and in 1820 dispatched an army of 5,000 troops under the command of his third son, Ismail (this time sending along a trusted military advisor, Abidin Bey), into the Sudan. These forces met fierce resistance from the warriors of the Shaigiya tribe. However, armed with modern weapons and tactics, Mehmet’s army outgunned and outmaneuvered the Shaigiya and secured the Sudan, which served in expanding his ability to project power and influence into Ethiopia and Uganda. From this outpost, Mehmet’s forces captured and made slaves of the inhabitants of the Nuba Mountains and western and southern Sudan. The defeated Shaigiya, in order to hold on to their lands, acquiesced as vassals and served in Mehmet’s infantry regiment, the Gihadiya (in Arabic, Jihadiya). Mehmet and subsequent Ottoman-Egyptian rulers have been recorded in Sudanese history as being particularly brutal and repressive regimes, which eventually gave rise to the independence struggle in 1881 that featured the self-proclaimed Mahdi (Muhammad Ahmad).

While Mehmet was expanding his power and influence in Arabia and Africa, the Sultan in Constantinople, Mahmud II, was experiencing upheaval across the empire, particularly in his European provinces in the Balkans, Greece, and Macedonia. Ottoman losses during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–1774 meant that the empire had ceded to Russia’s vast lands in the Black Sea region and extending as far south as the Caucasus. In its European provinces, the empire was facing ethnic rebellion.

In Greece, the problem was particularly acute. Greek nationalists in the Roman principalities, in the Peloponnese, and in the Aegean Islands commenced insurgency operations during the Greek War of Independence (1821–1830), with the aim of liberating Greece from four centuries of Ottoman domination. From the perspective of the Ottoman Sultanate, Greece was a key province not only for its strategic position in the Balkans and the Mediterranean but also because much of the empire’s shipping was Greek-owned and operated. Moreover, many of the key areas of the Ottoman Empire—Cyprus, Crete, western Anatolia, Macedonia, Thrace, and the city of Constantinople—had Greek majorities.

Sultan Mahmud II believed that Greece, being a conquered land, had been generously treated under the empire. He found it unconscionable that its inhabitants would now rise up in insurrection. In order to communicate his displeasure, in April 1821, he ordered Ottoman Janissaries (elite units within the Ottoman army) to seize the spiritual leader of the Greek Christian Orthodox Church whom he suspected of colluding with the rebels. As the patriarch of Constantinople (Gregory V) was leaving Easter Mass in full regalia, he was arrested and hanged on the spot from the cathedral gates and left there for three days. Following the third day, his body was dragged through the streets of Constantinople and flung into the Bosporus Straits.

While Mahmud was experiencing the slow unraveling of empire, by 1823 Mehmet’s Nizam-i Cedid developed into a force of 24,000 officers and men, comprising six infantry regiments with five battalions of 800 men each—all armed with French muskets and trained in French infantry tactics. Mehmet deployed the first regiment on the Arabian Peninsula, the second in the Sudan, and the remaining four under the command of his son, Ibrahim in Morea in 1825 (southern Greece), following the urgent directive from Sultan Mahmud II to help quell the uprising in the empire’s Greek territories now raging into their second year.

The Sultan’s Ottoman army had been unable to suppress the Greek rebellion and Mehmet, whose Egypt was technically an Eyalet (province) of the empire but had achieved practical autonomy, realized there would be gains to be made by coming to Constantinople’s aid. Sultan Mahmud II offered Mehmet the island of Crete in compensation for halting the rebellion and, in further negotiations, the Sultan also promised to grant the heartland of the insurgents, the Peloponnese, as a hereditary fief to Mehmet’s son, Ibrahim. Mehmet would later argue that he was led to believe that, given Egyptian intervention against the Greeks, the position of Wali (governor) of Syria would also be made available to Mehmet or an appointee of Mehmet’s choosing.

Consequently, in 1825, after receiving assurances of substantial reward, Mehmet sent four regiments (16,000 troops) aboard 100 transports escorted by 63 warships to quell the Greek rebellion. To the great consternation of the European powers, his Western trained and equipped army and navy had now been sent against the Orthodox Christian Greeks. In February 1825, the Egyptian ground forces, under the campaign commander, Ibrahim (Mehmet’s son), overran the western region of the Peloponnese but were unable to secure the East where the Greek rebels were based at Nafplio. By this time the rebels were being led by a contingent of British and French officers, including Major Sir Richard Church, Colonel C. Fabvier, Admiral Lord Cochrane, and Captain F. A. Hastings.

Moving across the Isthmus of Corinth, Ibrahim’s forces transited to the Greek mainland and captured the strategic stronghold of Missolonghi in April 1826. Greek forces then conducted guerrilla operations against the combined Ottoman-Egyptian armies, and Ibrahim turned to drastic measures such as burning crops and food supplies of the population in order to destroy the support and sustenance being provided to the insurgency. Ibrahim also brought Arab settlers into Greece in the attempt to dilute ethnic Greek influence while deporting hundreds of Greeks into slavery and sending them to work camps in Egypt.

Aligned against about 5,000 Greek fighters (whose partisan motto became “freedom or death”) were the 16,000 Egyptian-Ottoman troops and 25,000 regular Ottoman army troops. In June 1827, the Acropolis of Athens, the last Greek fortress on the mainland, was overrun by Ottoman forces. Britain, France, and Russia, concerned about the military might being brought to bear on the Greeks and the scorched earth policy being conducted by Ibrahim, gathered in Britain and, in discussions which led to the Treaty of London in July 1827, sought to impose an armistice on the Ottoman Empire.


Perhaps it was chance. Peter, at first, had no thought of building a city, much less a new capital, on the Neva. He wanted first a fort to guard the mouth of the river and then a port so that ships trading with Russia could avoid the long journey to Archangel. Perhaps if he had captured Riga first, St. Petersburg would never have been built—Riga was a flourishing port, already a great center for Russian trade, and it was free of ice for six weeks longer than the mouth of the Neva—but Riga did not fall into Peter’s hands until 1710. The site of St. Petersburg was the first spot where Peter set his foot on the Baltic coast. He did not wait; who knew what the future would bring? Seizing the moment, as he always did, he began to build.

Many things about St. Petersburg are unique. Other nations, in the flush of youth or a frenzy of reform, have created new national capitals on previously empty ground: Washington, Ankara and Brasilia are examples. But no other people has created a new capital city in time of war, on land still technically belonging to a powerful, undefeated enemy. Moreover, 1703 was late in the history of Europe for the founding of a major city. By then, large towns and cities had sprung up even in Europe’s American colonies: New York was already seventy-seven years old, Boston seventy-three, Philadelphia sixty. And St. Petersburg, for 200 years the capital of the Russian empire, now the second-largest city of the Soviet Union, is the northernmost of all the great metropolises of the world. Placing it at the same latitude on the North American continent would mean planting a city of three and a half million on the upper shores of Hudson Bay.

When Peter came down through the forests and emerged where the Neva meets the sea, he found himself in a wild, flat, empty marsh. At the mouth of the Neva, the broad river loops north in a backward S and then flows westward into the sea. In the last five miles, it divides into four branches which intersect with numerous streams flowing through the marshland to create more than a dozen islands overgrown with thickets and low forests. In 1703, the whole place was a bog, soggy with water. In the spring, thick mists from melting snow and ice hung over it. When strong southwest winds blew in from the Gulf of Finland, the river backed up and many of the islands simply disappeared underwater. Even traders who for centuries had used the Neva to reach the Russian interior had never built any kind of settlement there: It was too wild, too wet, too unhealthy, simply not a place for human habitation. In Finnish, the word “neva” means “swamp.”

The fort at Nyenskans was five miles upriver. Nearer the sea, on the left bank, a Finnish landowner had a small farm with a country house. On Hare Island in the center of the river were crude mud huts which a few Finnish fishermen used in the summer months; whenever the water rose, the fishermen abandoned them and retreated to higher ground. But in Peter’s eyes the river sweeping past in a swift and silent flood broader than the Thames at London was magnificent. It was here that Peter decided to build a new and larger fortification to defend the newly seized mouth of the river. The first digging began on May 16, 1703, the date of the foundation of the city of St. Petersburg.

The fortress, named after St. Peter and St. Paul, was to be large, covering the entire island, so that on all sides it would be surrounded by the Neva or its tributaries. The southern side was protected by the fast-flowing river, while the northern, eastern and western approaches were morass, crisscrossed with streams. As the island itself was low and marshy and sometimes covered by flood, the first stage of work was to bring in earth to raise the level of the island above the water’s reach. The Russian workers had no tools except crude pickaxes and shovels. Lacking wheelbarrows, they scraped dirt into their shirts or into rough bags and carried it with their hands to the site of the rising ramparts.

In spite of everything, within five months the fortress began to take shape. It was in the form of an oblong hexagon, with six great bastions, each constructed under the personal supervision of one of the Tsar’s closest friends and each named for its builder: the Menshikov, the Golovin, the Zotov, the Trubetskoy and the (Kyril) Naryshkin. The sixth bastion was supervised by Peter himself and named after him. The fortress was built of earth and timber; later, Peter ordered the ramparts rebuilt with higher, thicker walls of stone. They rose grim, brown, implacable, jutting up thirty feet from the Neva waves, commanded by rows of cannon. Near the end of Peter’s reign, Friedrich Weber, the Hanoverian ambassador, noted that, “On one of the bastions they hoist every day after the Dutch manner the great flag of the fortress on a great mast.… On festival days they display another huge yellow flag which represents the Russian eagle grasping with his claws the four seas which touch Russia’s borders, the White, the Black, the Caspian and the Baltic.”

Just outside the fortress was the small one-story log house in which Peter lived while the work progressed. Constructed by army carpenters between May 24 and 26, 1703, it was fifty-five feet long and twenty feet wide and had three rooms: a bedroom, a dining room and a study. There were no stoves or chimneys, as Peter meant to occupy it only in the summer months. Its most interesting feature is the effort that the Tsar made to hide the fact that it was a log cabin: the mica windows were large and latticed in the style of Holland, the shingles on the high-angled roof were laid and painted to imitate tiles, and the log walls were planed flat and painted with a grid of white lines to give the impression of brick. (The house, the oldest building in the city, has been surrounded by a series of outer shells for preservation. There it remains to this day.)

Battle of Systerbäck

Work on the fortress was intensive because in those early years Peter never knew when the Swedes would return. In fact, they returned every summer. In 1703, within a month of Peter’s occupation of the delta, a Swedish army of 4,000 approached from the north and camped on the north bank of the Neva. On July 7, Peter personally led six Russian regiments, four dragoon and two infantry—in all, a force of 7,000—against the Swedes, defeated them and forced them to retreat. The Tsar was constantly under fire, and Patkul, who was present, was forced to remind his tall patron that “he was also mortal like all men and that the bullet of a musketeer could upset the whole army and place the country in serious danger.” Throughout that first summer, too, the Swedish Admiral Nummers kept nine ships lying at anchor in the mouth of the Neva, blocking Russian access to the gulf and awaiting a chance to move against the growing Russian entrenchments upriver. Peter, meanwhile, had returned to the shipyards above Lake Ladoga to spur construction, and eventually a number of vessels, including the frigate Standard, arrived off the new fortress on the Neva. Unable to challenge Nummers’ stronger force, the ships waited here until the approach of cold weather forced him to withdraw. Then, Peter sailed the Standard out into the Gulf of Finland.

It was an historic moment, the first voyage of a Russian tsar on a Russian ship on the Baltic Sea. Although skim ice was already forming over the gray waves, Peter was eager to explore. On his right, as he sailed westward away from the Neva, he could see the rocky promontories of the coast of Karelia fading away northward toward Vyborg. On his left were the low, gently rolling hills of Ingria, stretching westward to Narva, beyond the horizon. Dead ahead, just over fifteen miles from the Neva delta, he saw the island which came to be called Kotlin by the Russians and which was to be the site of the fortress and naval base Kronstadt. Sailing around the island and measuring the depth of the water with a lead line in his own hand, Peter found that the water north of the island was too shallow for navigation. But south of the island was a channel which led all the way to the mouth of the river. To protect this passage and to install an outpost fortification for the larger work he was building on Kotlin Island, Peter ordered that a fort be constructed in the middle of the water at the edge of the channel. It was difficult work: Boxes filled with stones had to be dragged across the ice and then sunk beneath the waves to form a foundation. But by spring a small fort with fourteen cannon rose directly from the sea.

From the beginning, Peter had intended that his foothold on the Baltic would become a commercial port as well as a base for naval operations. At his instruction, Golovin wrote to Matveev in London to encourage commercial vessels to call on the new port. The first ship, a Dutch merchantman, arrived in November 1703, when the new port had been in Russian hands for only six months. Hearing of the ship’s arrival at the mouth of the river, Peter went to greet her and to pilot her upstream himself. The captain’s surprise at discovering the identity of his royal pilot was matched by Peter’s pleasure on learning that the cargo of wine and salt belonged to his old friend Cornelius Calf of Zaandam. Menshikov gave a banquet for the captain, who was also rewarded with 500 ducats. To further honor the occasion, the ship itself was renamed St. Petersburg, and was granted a permanent exclusion from all Russian tolls and customs duties. Similar rewards were promised to the next two vessels to arrive in the new port, and before long a Dutchman and an Englishman anchored to claim their prizes. Thereafter, Peter did everything possible to encourage use of St. Petersburg by foreign merchantmen. He reduced the tolls to less than half what the Swedes levied in the Baltic ports they controlled. He promised to send Russian products to England at very low prices, provided the English would pick them up in St. Petersburg rather than Archangel. Later, he was to use his power as tsar to divert vast portions of all Russian trade away from its traditional path to the Arctic and toward the new ports on the Baltic.

To strengthen his grip on his new possession, Peter also made great efforts to build new ships in the Lake Ladoga yards. On September 23, 1704, he wrote to Menshikov, “Here, thanks be to God, all goes fairly well. Tomorrow and the day after, three frigates, four snows, a packet-boat and a galliot will be launched.” But the Ladoga waters were stormy and treacherous, and too many of these ships were foundering or going aground on the southern shore as they approached the Schlüsselburg fortress at the Ladoga end of the Neva River. The remedy, Peter decided, was to move the main shipyard to St. Petersburg so that the Ladoga voyage could be avoided. In November 1704, he laid the foundation of a new construction yard on the left bank of the Neva, across the river and just downstream from the Peter and Paul Fortress. Originally, the Admiralty was only a simple shipyard. A large, open rectangle was established beside the river with one side on the water and the other three made up of rows of wooden sheds which served as workshops, forges, living quarters for the workmen and storehouses for ropes, sails, cannon and timber. From the central section, which was used for offices and eventually became the headquarters of the Russian fleet, rose a tall, thin wooden spire, surmounted by a weathervane in the form of a ship.* Beneath this spire, in the open space surrounded by the sheds, Peter’s ships were built. The sizable hulls were constructed beside the Neva, then slid into the river and towed to wharves for fitting out. Soon after its founding, Peter became concerned that the Admiralty was too exposed to possible Swedish attack and the three land sides were fortified with high stone ramparts, glissaded slopes and moats, giving the city a second bastion almost as powerful as the Peter and Paul Fortress.

In the years that followed, Swedish probing attacks and harassment of the new city continued, both by land and by sea. In 1705, the Russians drove tall stakes into the waters of the channel off Kotlin Island and tied ropes between them to keep Swedish craft from penetrating up toward St. Petersburg. An approaching Swedish squadron, seeing from a distance the mass of tall stakes and ropes, took them for the masts of a sizable Russian fleet and withdrew after an ineffectual long-range bombardment. In 1706, Peter himself, sailing far out in the gulf, sighted a Swedish squadron headed in his direction and returned immediately to report the news by agreed-on cannon signals to Vice Admiral Cruys, the Dutch officer in command of the Russian fleet. Cruys, however, refused to believe the Tsar’s report and was convinced only when he saw the Swedish ships with his own eyes. Some time after that, Peter touched on the episode with ironic humor. Cruys, reporting on naval matters, complained to Peter of the general ignorance and insubordination of his fleet officers, saying, “His Majesty, with his skill, knows the importance of perfect ‘subordination.’ ” Peter responded warmly, “The Vice Admiral [Cruys] is himself to blame for the want of skill of the naval officers as he himself engaged nearly all of them.… As concerns my skill, this compliment is not on a very firm footing. Not long ago, when I went to sea and saw the enemy’s ships from my yacht and signaled according to custom the number of ships, it was thought only to be amusement or the salute for a toast, and even when I myself came on board to the Vice Admiral, he was unwilling to believe until his sailors had seen them from the masthead. I must therefore beg him either to omit my name from the list of those whom he judges skillful, or in future cease from such raillery.”

With the passage of time, Peter’s vision of St. Petersburg grew broader. He began to see it as more than a fortress guarding the mouth of the Neva, or even a wharf and shipyard for commercial and naval vessels on the Baltic. He began to see it as a city. An Italian architect, Domenico Trezzini, who had built a handsome palace for King Frederick IV of Denmark, arrived in Russia at exactly this moment. His style, like that of most architects practicing then in Northern Europe, was heavily influenced by Holland, and it was this Dutch, Protestant, northern-baroque design which Trezzini brought to Russia. He had signed a contract on April 1, 1703, to become the Tsar’s Master of Building, Construction and Fortification, and Peter quickly brought him to the Neva to supervise all construction there. For nine years, as the first buildings were converted from simple log structures to brick and stone, Trezzini put his stamp on the city. While laborers were still toiling on the earth foundations of the fortress, Trezzini began to build a small and functional church within its walls. Lacking elegant materials to decorate its interior, Trezzini covered the walls with yellow stucco in imitation of marble. In 1713, Trezzini began construction of the baroque Peter and Paul Cathedral, which, with numerous modifications, still stands on the site today, its Germanic golden spire soaring 400 feet into the air.



The ceaseless building operations required an appalling amount of human labor. To drive the piles into the marshes, hew and haul the timbers, drag the stones, clear the forests, level the hills, lay out the streets, build docks and wharves, erect the fortress, houses and shipyards, dig the canals, soaked up human effort. To supply this manpower, Peter issued edicts year after year, summoning carpenters, stonecutters, masons and, above all, raw, unskilled peasant laborers to work in St. Petersburg. From all parts of his empire an unhappy stream of humanity—Cossacks, Siberians, Tatars, Finns—flowed into St. Petersburg. They were furnished with a traveling allowance and subsistence for six months, after which they were permitted, if they survived, to return home, their places to be taken by a new draft the following summer. Local officials and noblemen charged by Peter with recruiting and sending along these human levies protested to the Tsar that hundreds of villages were being ruined by the loss of their best men, but Peter would not listen.

The hardships were frightful. Workers lived on damp ground in rough, crowded, filthy huts. Scurvy, dysentery, malaria and other diseases scythed them down in droves. Wages were not paid regularly and desertion was chronic. The actual number who died building the city will never be known; in Peter’s day, it was estimated at 100,000. Later figures are much lower, perhaps 25,000 or 30,000, but no one disputes the grim saying that St. Petersburg was “a city built on bones.”

Along with human labor, the materials with which to build the city had to be imported. The flat, marshy country around the Neva delta had few large trees to supply wood and was almost devoid of rock. The first stones for the new city came from demolishing the Swedish fort and town of Nyenskans upriver and bringing its materials downstream. For years, every cart, every carriage and every Russian vessel coming into the city was required to bring a quota of stones along with its normal cargo. A special office was set up at the town wharves and gates to receive these stones, without which the vehicle was not allowed to enter the city. Sometimes, when these rocks were greatly in demand, it required a senior official to decide the fate of every stone. To conserve wood for building, it was forbidden to cut trees on the islands, and no one was allowed to heat his bath house more than once a week. Timbers were brought from the forests of Lake Ladoga and Novgorod, and newly constructed sawmills, turned by wind and water power, reduced the trunks to beams and planks. In 1714, when it developed that building in St. Petersburg was being delayed by a shortage of stonemasons, Peter decreed that until further notice, no stone house could be built in Moscow under “pain of confiscation of goods and exile.” Soon after, he extended this decree to the entire empire. Inevitably, stone and brick masons throughout Russia picked up their tools and headed for St. Petersburg in search of work.

The city needed a population. Few people chose voluntarily to live there; therefore, in this matter, too, Peter employed force. In March 1708, the Tsar “invited” his sister Natalya, his two half-sisters, the Tsarevnas Maria and Feodosia Alexeevna, the two Dowager Tsaritsas, Martha and Praskovaya, along with hundreds of noblemen, high officials and wealthy merchants, to join him in St. Petersburg during the spring and no one, according to Whitworth, “was allowed to excuse themselves by age, business, or indisposition.” They came unwillingly. Accustomed to an easy life in the countryside of Moscow where they had large houses and where all their provisions were brought from their own neighboring estates or bought cheaply in the flourishing Moscow markets, they were now obliged to build new houses at great expense in a Baltic marsh. They had to pay exorbitant prices for food imported from hundreds of miles away, and many calculated that they had lost two thirds of their wealth. As for amusements, they hated the water on which the Tsar doted, and none set foot in a boat except by compulsion. Nevertheless, having no choice, they came. The merchants and shopkeepers came with them and found solace in the fact that they could charge outrageous prices for their goods. Many laborers—Russian, Cossack and Kalmuck—having served the required time in building public works, stayed on, being unwilling or unable to walk the long distance home, and were engaged by noblemen in building the private houses commanded by the Tsar. Eventually, thousands of these laborers settled and built homes for themselves in Petersburg. Peter encouraged these efforts by coming, whenever invited, to lay the first stone of any new building and to drink a glass to the success of the owner.

Neither the location nor the design of these houses was left to free will or chance. Noble families were required to build houses with beams, lath and plaster “in the English style” along the left bank of the Neva (noblemen owning more than 500 peasants were required to build two-storied houses); a thousand merchants and traders were instructed to build wooden houses on the opposite side of the river. Built in haste by unwilling labor for unhappy owners, the new houses were often flawed by leaky roofs, cracking walls and sagging floors. Nevertheless, to add to the grandeur of the city, Peter ordered that all substantial citizens whose houses were only one story high must add a second story. To aid them, he instructed Trezzini to make available free plans of different-sized houses of suitable design.

Most of the new city was built of wood, and fires broke out almost every week. Attempting to contain the damage, the Tsar organized a system of constant surveillance. At night, while the city slept, watchmen sat in church towers looking out over the silent rooftops. At the first sign of fire, the watchman who spotted it rang a bell whose signal was immediately picked up and passed along by other watchmen throughout the city. The bells woke drummers, who turned out of bed and beat their drums. Soon the streets were filled with men, hatchets in hand, running to the fire. Soldiers who happened to be in the city also were expected to hurry to the scene. Eventually, every officer, civil or military, stationed in St. Petersburg was given a special fire-fighting assignment for which he was paid an extra monthly allowance; failure to appear brought swift punishment. Peter himself had such an assignment and received a salary along with the rest. “It is a common thing,” said a foreign observer “to see the Tsar among the workmen with a hatchet in his hand, climbing to the top of the houses that are all in flames, with such danger to him that the spectators tremble at the sight of it.” In the winter when water was frozen, hatchets and axes were the only tools that could be used to fight fires. If the houses standing next to the house in flames could be chopped apart and dragged away quickly enough, the fire could be isolated. Peter’s presence always had great effect. According to Just Juel, the Danish ambassador, “As his intelligence is extraordinarily quick, he sees at once what must be done to extinguish the fire; he goes up to the roof; he goes to all the worst danger points; he incites nobles as well as common people to help in the struggle and does not pause until the fire is put out. But when the sovereign is absent, things are very different. Then the people watch the fires with indifference and do nothing to help extinguish them. It is vain to lecture them or even to offer them money; they merely wait for a chance to steal something.”

The other looming natural danger was flood. Petersburg was built at sea level, and whenever the Neva River rose more than a few feet, the city was inundated. Peter wrote to Menshikov in 1706:

The day before yesterday the wind from west-southwest blew up such waters as, they say, have never been before. In my house, the water rose twenty-one inches above the floor; and in the garden and on the other side along the streets people went about freely in boats. However, the waters did not remain long—less than three hours. Here it was entertaining to watch how the people, not only the peasants but their women, too, sat on the roofs and in trees during the flood. Although the waters rose to a great height, they did not cause bad damage.

“On the 9th at midnight, there came out of the sea from the southwest so strong a wind that the town was completely under water,” wrote an English resident in January 1711. “Many people would have been surprised and drowned if the bells had not been rung to wake them and make them go up to the roofs of their houses. The greater part of their houses and livestock were destroyed.” Nearly every autumn, the Neva overflowed, cellars were swamped and provisions destroyed. So many building planks and beams drifted away that it became a capital crime to take such floating objects from the water before the owner could retrieve them. In November 1721, another tremendous southwest wind backed up the river again, carrying a two-masted schooner through the streets and leaving it stranded against the side of a house. “The damage is beyond words,” the French ambassador reported to Paris. “Not a single house is left that has not had its share. Losses are reckoned at two or three million roubles. [But] the Tsar, like Philip of Spain [after the loss of the Armada], made the greatness of his soul clear by his tranquility.”

Even fifteen years after its founding, as tall, windowed palaces were rising along the Neva embankments, and French gardeners were laying out formal, geometric flowerbeds, daily life in St. Petersburg remained, in one foreigner’s description, a “hazardous hand-to-mouth bivouacking.” One problem was that the region simply could not feed itself. The Neva delta, with its great stretches of water, forest and swamp, seldom produced good harvests, and sometimes, in wet years, crops rotted before they ripened. Wild nature was helpful; there were strawberries, blackberries and an abundance of mushrooms, which Russians ate as a great delicacy with only salt and vinegar. There were small hares, whose gray fur turned white in winter, which provided dry, tough meat, and wild geese and ducks. The rivers and lakes teemed with fish, but foreigners were chagrined to find that they could not buy it fresh; Russians preferred fish salted or pickled. But despite what could be gleaned from soil, forest and waters, St. Petersburg would have starved without provisions sent from outside. Thousands of carts traveled from Novgorod and even from Moscow during the warmer months bringing food to the city; in winter, the lifeline was maintained on a stream of sleds. If these supplies were even slightly delayed along the way, prices immediately soared in St. Petersburg and in the villages nearby, for, in reverse of the normal process, the town supplied its satellites with food.

In the forest around St. Petersburg, an endless horizon of scraggly birches, thin pines, bushes and swamps, the traveler who ventured off the road was quickly lost. The few farms in the region lay in clearings reached by unmarked paths. And in these thickets and groves roamed bears and wolves. The bears were less dangerous, for in summer they found enough to eat and in winter they slept. But wolves were plentiful in all seasons, and in winter they appeared in aggressive packs of thirty or forty. This was when hunger drove them to enter farmyards to catch dogs and even attack horses and men. In 1714, two soldiers standing guard in front of the central foundry in St. Petersburg were attacked by wolves; one was torn to pieces and eaten on the spot, the second crawled away but died soon after. In 1715, a woman was devoured in broad daylight on Vasilevsky Island, not far from Prince Menshikov’s palace.

Not surprisingly, few Russians chose to live in this wet, desolate and dangerous region. For a while, it was empty, as war and plague swept away most of the original Finnish-speaking inhabitants. Peter gave land to his noblemen and officers, and they brought families and even whole villages of peasants from the interior of Russia to settle here. These simple people, uprooted from the pleasant hills and meadows around Moscow, suffered greatly but did not complain. “It is surprising to see with what resignation and patience those people both high and low submit to such hardships,” wrote Weber. “The common sort say that life is but a burden to them. A Lutheran minister related to me that on occasion when he examined some simple Russian peasants about their belief and asked whether they knew what they ought to do in order to obtain eternal salvation, they answered that it was very uncertain even whether they should go to heaven at all, for they believed that everlasting happiness was reserved for the Tsar and his great boyars.”

It was not just the common people who hated St. Petersburg. Russian noblemen and foreign ambassadors grumbled and wondered how long the city would survive its founder. Tsarevna Maria declared, “Petersburg will not endure after our time. May it remain a desert.” Only a few saw more clearly. It was Menshikov who said that St. Petersburg would become another Venice, and that the day would come when foreigners would travel there purely out of curiosity and to enjoy its beauty.

The Swedes never understood Peter’s fierce attachment to this marshy site. The Tsar’s determination to keep the new city became the chief obstacle to making peace. When Russian fortunes in the war were low, Peter was willing to give up all he had conquered in Livonia and Estonia, but he would never agree to yield St. Petersburg and the mouth of the Neva. Few in Sweden understood that the Tsar had split the Swedish Baltic empire permanently, that the wedge driven between Sweden’s northern and southern Baltic provinces, interrupting the lines of communication across the Neva delta, presaged their eventual total loss. Most Swedes considered the loss to be relatively minor and only temporary and thought Peter a fool. Knowing how the winds driving up the gulf piled water into the Neva delta and flooded many of the marshy islands, they assumed that wind and water would quickly destroy the fledgling town. The new settlement became the butt of jokes. The attitude of Sweden was that of its supremely confident King: “Let the Tsar tire himself with founding new towns. We will keep for ourselves the honor of taking them.”

Peter called the new city St. Petersburg after his patron saint, and it became the glory of his reign, his “paradise,” his “Eden,” his “darling.” In April 1706, he began a letter to Menshikov, “I cannot help writing you from this paradise; truly we live here in heaven.” The city came to represent in brick and stone everything important in his life: his escape from the shadowy intrigue, the tiny windows and vaulted chambers of Moscow; his arrival on the sea; the opening to the technology and culture of Western Europe. Peter loved his new creation. He found endless pleasure in the great river flowing out to the Gulf, in the waves lapping under the fortress walls, in the salty breeze that filled the sails of his new ships. Construction of the city became his passion. No obstacle was great enough to prevent his carrying out his design. On it he lavished his energy, millions of roubles and thousands of lives. At first, fortification and defense were his highest considerations, but within less than a year he was writing to Tikhon Streshnev in Moscow asking for flowers to be sent from Ismailovo near Moscow, “especially those with scent. The peony plants have arrived in very good condition, but no balsam or mint. Send them.” By 1708, he had built an aviary and sent to Moscow for “8,000 singing birds of various sorts.”

After Peter, a succession of empresses and emperors would transform the early settlement of logs and mud into a dazzling city, its architecture more European than Russian, its culture and thought a blend of Russia and the West. A long line of majestic palaces and public buildings, yellow, light blue, pale green and red, would rise along the three-mile granite quay which fronted the south bank of the Neva. With its merging of wind and water and cloud, its 150 arching bridges linking the nineteen islands, its golden spires and domes, its granite columns and marble obelisks, St. Petersburg would be called the Babylon of the Snows and the Venice of the North. It would become a fountainhead of Russian literature, music and art, the home of Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky, of Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov, of Petipa, Diaghilev, Pavlova and Nijinsky. For two centuries, the city would also be the stage on which the political destinies of Russia were enacted as Russia’s sovereigns struggled to rule the empire from the city Peter had created. And in this city was played the final act of the drama in which Peter’s dynasty was overthrown. Even the name of the city would change as the new regime, seeking to honor its founder, decided to give Lenin “the best we had.” The new name, however, still sticks in the throats of many of the city’s citizens. To them, it remains simply “Peter.”

Nubian Pharaohs

Militarily the Kushites primary weapon was the bow. The Kushites used a composite longbow. Most composite bows are short, and make up for their small size by being more powerful due to the composite materials, and inversely most longbows are a single piece of wood and get their strength from their length. The Kushite bow was both, this made it extremely powerful, with a very long range. Though not all Kushites were archers, citizens would be levied into units of spearmen, and the rural citizens would fight like more traditional warriors. Cavalry wasn’t too common but still saw use, and war elephants were used as well. In general the Kushites were very light on armour, only the Royal Guard would use full armour, the majority would use no armour, and those wealthy enough would have simply scale armoured tops or front cuirasses, helmets were quite rare as well. Padded caps and clothing seem to have been moderately common. The swords which they used seem to have been inspired by Greek or Roman designs, but many of the less civilised Kushites would simply use wooden clubs. The throwing club was also a popular hunting weapon which could be used in warfare, taking the place of the javelin. The Kushite military was quite organised, citizens would be levied into spear or archer units, and an elite Royal guard of infantry and cavalry was maintained. Kushites from the rural less civilised areas were also raised to fight if needed. Beyond that, the Kushite influence extended south into the African interior, and they would have been able to recruit these much more primitive but fierce African warriors. Overall the real Kushite are a far cry from the simple topless tribal spearmen that are usually portrayed, and instead an organised civilised force with a rich cultural history.

The Third Intermediate Period (1069–664 BC) was a time when Egypt broke into smaller quarrelling kingdoms or succumbed to foreign invaders. Technically Egypt remained united under the Twenty-first Dynasty (1069–945 BC) with its capital at Tanis in the Delta. In reality, the priests of Amun-Ra in Thebes and various local rulers exercised independent control over Upper Egypt. During the latter part of the New Kingdom, many Libyans settled in the Delta and large numbers of Nubians moved into Upper Egypt. The previous ethnic homogeneity of Egyptian society ended even though the newcomers tended to assimilate themselves into the predominant Egyptian culture. Some of the Libyans in the Delta assimilated so well that they took control of Egypt from the Twenty-first Dynasty in 945 BC. The new Libyan king, Sheshonq I (945–924 BC), began the Twenty-second Dynasty (945–715 BC) and continued to use Tanis as his capital. Under Sheshonq I, the fortunes of Egypt briefly revived. The priests at Thebes found that their independence was curtailed. Even more dramatically, Sheshonq I invaded Palestine and restored Egyptian control over the region by defeating the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He was, in all probability, the Shishak of 1 Kings 14:25–8 and 2 Chronicles 12:1–12, who carried away treasure from Jerusalem during the reign of King Rehoboam of Judah. In popular culture, this would also make him the Shishak of the Indiana Jones adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), who supposedly carried off the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to his capital at Tanis (but who almost certainly did no such thing). Unfortunately for Egypt, the successors of Sheshonq I were nowhere near as capable. By 818 BC a rival Twenty-third Dynasty had arisen in a section of the Delta, along with eventually a very brief Twenty-fourth Dynasty and other regional rulers. Political authority had become so badly fragmented by 750 BC that Egypt was exceptionally vulnerable to foreign invasion.


The foreign invaders who established the Twenty-fifth Dynasty over Egypt were the kings of Kush in Nubia. King Piye of Kush (747–716 BC) invaded Egypt in about 728 BC, and reached as far north as Heliopolis but then withdrew without establishing permanent control. Shabaqo (716–702 BC) succeeded his brother Piye as king of Kush and proceeded to invade Egypt and make it part of his kingdom. The Nubian Twenty-fifth Dynasty was undoubtedly black. It made Memphis its Egyptian capital and, although they never completely stamped out all locally autonomous rulers in Egypt, the Nubian pharaohs attempted to extend Egypt’s control into Palestine and Syria as Sheshonq I had done. This action brought the Nubians into conflict with the Assyrian Empire at the height of its power. In 701 BC Shabitqo (702–690 BC), the nephew and successor of Shabaqo, attempted to thwart Sennacherib of Assyria’s invasion of Judah. He was defeated, and furthermore he managed to draw Assyrian attention to Egypt. A series of Assyrian attacks on Egypt began in 674 BC in which control of the country see-sawed back and forth between the Nubians and the Assyrians. Finally in 663 BC Ashurbanipal of Assyria invaded Egypt and sacked Thebes, ending Nubian authority in Egypt for good.

The Kushite state was originally centered around their capital of Napata in what is today the central Sudan, south of what is known as Nubia. In the late 8th c. B.C. the Kushite King Piye, fed up with the degeneracy he claimed was rampant in Egypt proper, led his army north against the disunited Egyptian princes. After several sieges (including amphibious operations) and battles he was able to take control of all of Egypt, founding the 25th dynasty. The Kushite state, especially under King Taharqa, intervened against Assyrian interests in the Levant. This led to several battles in the area of southern Israel. Eventually Taharqa’s forces were driven back into Egypt, and were eventually expelled from Egypt completely when Assyrian armies captured Thebes in 663 B.C. The kingdom of Kush was famous for its horses at this time.

“After capturing city after city along the Nile River in 730 B.C., troops commanded by King Piye of Nubia storm the great walled capital of Memphis with flaming arrows. Piye modeled himself after powerful pharaohs such as Ramses II, claiming to be the rightful ruler of Egypt. His triumph over the northern chiefs would unite all Egypt under Nubian rule for three-quarters of a century.”  Art by Gregory Manchess

The Kingdom of Kush

The Kingdom of Kush was Egypt’s powerful southern neighbor, located south of the Third Cataract of the Nile River in upper Nubia (present-day Sudan). The history of Kush spans more than 1,000 years (from approximately 1000 BCE to 350 CE) and is divided into two periods, the Napatan period (ca. 1000-310 BCE) and the Meroitic period (ca. 275 BCE-350 CE). Each period is sometimes called a dynasty, a kingdom, or an empire.

After the withdrawal of the ancient Egyptian administration, which had controlled most of Nubia during the New Kingdom (ca. 1540-1075 BCE), a local Nubian chiefdom emerged at the turn of the millennium. This new political power was centered at Napata, the city at the foot of the so-called Pure Mountain at Gebel Barkal near the Fourth Cataract. Very little is known of the formative years of the Kingdom of Kush. Archaeological evidence is scant and written documents nonexistent, because at the time the Nubians did not have a writing system of their own.

Around 785 BCE a local chief known as Alara united upper Nubia. He is acknowledged by later kings as the founder of the Napatan dynasty of Kush and is believed to be the one who restored the cult of the god Amun in Nubia at the sacred site of Gebel Barkal. The Kushites also adopted ancient Egyptian and the hieroglyphic writing system as the administrative and religious language of their kingdom. Kashta, Alara’s successor, united upper and lower Nubia into a single political entity, and he called himself “King of Upper and Lower Egypt,” as mentioned on his small stele at Elephantine.

However, it was Piye (formerly known as Piankhy) who actually conquered and took control of Egypt and annexed it to the Kingdom of Kush (747-716 BCE) during the third year of his reign. Piye founded the Kushite Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt, and his successor Shabaka (Shabaqo) established the capital at Memphis. The Kushite kings held sway over all of Egypt for almost a century, following traditions established by earlier Egyptian kings. In honor of the god who granted them kingship, they added new monuments to the architectural complex of the Temple of Amun at Karnak (Thebes), the religious center of this god in Egypt. The Kushites remained active in their homeland, erecting new temples to the god Amun and refurbishing ruined ones built by the Egyptians during the New Kingdom. The Kushite Twenty-fifth Dynasty was expelled from Egypt by the Assyrians, who sacked Thebes in 663 BCE. King Tawetamani had already taken refuge at Napata.

An Assyrian and a Kushite in combat, in one of many battles fought during the Assyrian invasion of the Levant and Egypt. Art by Angus McBride.

Most of what is known of the remainder of the Napatan period comes from Kushite royal documents, which were still written in Egyptian using hieroglyphs despite the fact that the Kushites had lost control over Egypt. These documents-stelae and wall inscriptions-come mostly from temples and royal burials and concern mostly the north of the kingdom. Very little else is known of this period, especially regarding the local general populace. Few village settlements dating to this period have been discovered and excavated by archaeologists. As for Meroe and the south of the kingdom, practically nothing is known. From what can be gleaned from the archaeological record and literary documents, the Kushites kings continued managing affairs of the state, building and renovating temples, and mounting military expeditions. The Kushites were defeated by the Egyptian king Psammetichus II, possibly during the reign of Aspelta (ca. 593 BCE) at a battle near the Third Cataract. However, beliefs that Psammetichus II reached the Fourth Cataract and sacked Napata are unsubstantiated. This might have encouraged the Kushites to move farther south.

Although there is archaeological evidence that Meroe had been occupied since at least the eighth century (notably as the Napatan royal residence since the fifth century), the focus of the Kushite kingdom had been until then on Napata and the north. The Meroitic period begins shortly after 300 BCE with the relocation of the royal cemetery from Nuri to Meroe, the first pyramid there being that of King Arkamani I (ca. 275-250 BCE).

From that moment on, Meroe became the center of the Kingdom of Kush. Important cultural changes occurred during the Meroitic period as the Kushites gave their own traditions and customs prominence over many borrowed from Egypt. The most significant change is that of the language. For the first time in Kushite history, the native language, Meroitic, became the official language of the kingdom, and a hieroglyphic alphabet derived from Egyptian signs was created to write it.

Napata in it’s full glory around the 1st century BC, infront of the holy mountain, Jebel Barkal. King after King commissioned restorations and new temples. Even after the move to Meroë, many kings continued to be crowned here. This illustration stays true to archaeological reports on the site. Art by Jean-Claude Golvin

Temples were built not only to the Egyptian god Amun but also to the indigenous lion-headed god Apedemak (the best known of the Kushite gods). The architecture favored for the lion temples is much simpler than Egyptian temples (although inspired by it) and generally consists of a single room with a large pylon (main gate). Even the relief decorations on temple and tomb chapel walls changed to suit the Meroitic idea of beauty, power, and fertility. The qore (Meroitic word designating the king as commander) and the kandake (ruling queen) wore a different royal costume, which was modified from that of Egyptian kings. The Kushites used centuries-old pharaonic influences and ideas from the Mediterranean world and incorporated them with their ancestral customs to create something different and truly their own: Meroitic culture.

Queen Amanirenas and Prince Akinidad, possibly her son, watch the burning of the fort housing the Roman garrison in 27 BCE, during their invasion of Upper Egypt. The inspiration for the attire of the royals being depicted was taken directly from various temple reliefs. Art from “Splendors of the Past: Lost Cities of the Ancient World, National Geographic Society, 1981.

At the time when Egypt had become a province of the Roman empire, the Meroitic Kingdom of Kush was a force to reckon with. The wrath of the Meroites was provoked when the Romans tried to take over Lower Nubia. Led by mighty leaders, the Kushites sacked Aswan, Elephantine, and Philae. The Romans retaliated by sacking Napata, but both parties eventually worked out an agreement. The great kandake who held strong against the Roman Army is believed to be Amanishakheto.

The Meroites still held power over lower and upper Nubia until the mid-fourth century CE. Military campaigns by Ethiopian rulers of the Kingdom of Aksum as well as the decline in wealth and political power of the royal family appear to have brought the Kingdom of Kush to an end.

Bibliography O’Connor, David. Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Shinnie, P. L. Ancient Nubia. London and New York: Kegan Paul International, 1996. Welsby, Derek A. The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. London: British Museum Press, 1996. Wildung, Dietrich, ed. Sudan Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile. Paris and New York: Flammarion, 1997

Hephthalite Huns

Asia in 500, showing the Hephthalite Khanate at its greatest extent. The peak of Hephthalite power came in 522, with territories from Dzyngaria to northern India, but the empire collapsed quickly after that. In 532 a coalition of Hindu peoples expelled them from India and the Hephthalites disappeared altogether after unsuccessful wars against the Sassanids that took place between 557 and 561.

The Hephthalite Huns were a people of shadowy origins who ruled much of Central Asia and northern India from about 450 to 550 C. E. The word Hephthalite means “valiant” or “courageous,” and the Sassanian rulers, who resisted the initial westward expansion of the Huns, rightly feared their prowess as mounted cavalry and archers. Their coins bore a Bactrian script, and they probably spoke an Iranian language. A description by the sixth-century historian Procopius of Caesarea noted that they were ruled by one king and resembled the Byzantine state in their legal system.

There is also evidence in their conflict with the Sassanian kings Yazgird II and Peroz that they had a powerful army and observed sealed treaties over fixed frontiers. They were engaged in three campaigns against the King Peroz, captured him on at least two occasions, and finally defeated and killed him in battle. Thereafter, the Sassanians paid tribute in COINAGE to the Hephthalites, largely to keep the peace on their eastern frontier, until the reign of Khusrau I in the mid-sixth century C. E. The Huns territory at this juncture included Tokharistan and much of Afghanistan. They seized SOGDIANA in 509 and extended their authority as far east as Urumqi in northeast China. Although successful in India from 520 to the mid-seventh century, the Hephthalites in Central Asia had to withstand a new threat from the northeast in the form of the Turks. The Huns’ king Gatfar was seriously defeated in 560 C. E. in the vicinity of Bukhara, and the Huns thereafter survived only in the form of small and remote principalities, whose leaders paid tribute to the Sassanians and the Turks.


As had many groups before them, the Huns then turned their imperial thoughts south into GANDHARA. By 520 they controlled this area and came up against the western frontiers of the GUPTA EMPIRE under King Bhuhagupta. Under their own king, Toramana, they seized the Punjab, Kashmir, and Rajputana, a policy continued vigorously under their next king, Mihirakula, who established his capital at Sakala (modern Sialkot in the Punjab, Pakistan). He was a Sivaite, and this was a period of devastation for the venerable Buddhist monasteries, many of which were sacked and destroyed. Sakala was visited in the seventh century by XUANZANG, the Chinese monk, who noted that the walls were dilapidated but still had strong foundations. He described the presence of an inner citadel and learned that several hundred years earlier the city had been the capital of Mihirakula, who ruled over India. Pravarasena reigned from about 530 C. E. His capital, near Srinagar in Kashmir, was named Pravarasenapura after him. He issued coins inscribed with his name. We also know the names of his successors, who formed a Hun dynasty ruling over much of northwestern India and Afghanistan until the mid-seventh century C. E. Increasingly, these rulers absorbed Indian ways, particularly in respect to religion. Thus King Gokarna founded and endowed a shrine to SIVA called Gokarnesvara. The last Hephthalite king, Yudhishthira, ruled until about 670, when he was replaced by the Turk Shahi dynasty. In Central Asia, one principality that persisted after the Turks overcame the Hephthalites was located in Chaganiyan, on the northern bank of the Surkhan Dar’ya River. Another was at Khuttal in the Vakhsh Valley. These places were described by Xuanzang, who noted the number of monasteries and monks, the system of writing, and the fact that people dressed in cot- ton and sometimes woolen clothing.


The historical sources for the Hephthalites are fragmentary and at times contradictory, but it seems that while some of the population continued the typically nomadic life on the steppes, the elite became increasingly sedentary and occupied permanent walled towns or cities. One report describes the king’s gold throne and magnificent dress. Their coinage reveals kings, but there also appear to have been regional rulers. Little archaeological research has been undertaken on the major settlements of the Hephthalite empire. BALKH (Afghanistan) is known to have been one of their centers, and Xuanzang described it as their capital. It was, he said, defended with strong walls but was not densely populated. TERMEZ, on the Amu Dar’ya River, and Budrach were other cities of this period. The latter incorporated a citadel and covered an area of about 50 hectares (125 acres).

KAFYR-KALA, in the Vaksh Valley of Tajikistan was a walled regional capital with a citadel and a palace. Kafyr-kala is one of the few sites providing evidence for the nature of a regional center of the HEPHTHALITE HUNS. The Hephthalites were a powerful Hun group who dominated Central Asia and northern India between about 450 and 550 C. E. While some segments of the community preserved their nomadic ways, the ruling elite adopted a sedentary urban life, minted coins, and administered a sophisticated system of justice. Kafyr-kala is located in the upper Vaksh Valley in Tajikistan and was surrounded by a wall incorporating defensive towers. A palace dominated the citadel, which is 360 meters square (432 sq. yds.), while the lower town included a central road flanked by residences, temples, and shops. The palace was strongly defended with two walls and towers at each corner. The Chinese pilgrim XUANZANG, who traveled through this area in the seventh century, observed monasteries and Buddhist monks in Hephthalite centers. At the palace of Kafyr-kala, a Buddhist sanctuary, the walls of which were embellished with paintings of the Buddha, has been revealed by excavation.

The life led in such centers is illustrated by the painted feasting scene at Balalyk-tepe in the upper valley of the Amu Dar’ya River in Uzbekistan, which shows aristocratic men and WOMEN shielded by servants holding umbrellas. A second elite feasting scene is depicted on a silver dish from Chilek, in which female dancers are entertaining royalty. In Afghanistan, the massive rock-cut images of the Buddha at BAMIYAN in Afghanistan, the largest such statues known before their destruction by the Taliban in 2001, probably date within the period of the Hephthalite empire.


After the war with Rome, the focus of the Sassanian Empire was forced to shift towards the east where there were invasions, first by the Kushans and then the Hephthalite Huns, for the rest of the fourth century. The first major invasion of Persian territory by the Huns occurred near the end of the century and the invaders managed to reach Mesopotamia before Sassanian forces defeated them in 395. The empire was also embroiled in several internal conflicts throughout this period, which continued to occur in the fifth century as well. The Sassanian Emperor WahrIm V (r. 420-438 AD) successfully managed to consolidate his power and end the internal strife within his empire, along with putting an end to the expansion of the new Hephthalite empire. However, when a new series of conflicts with the Huns erupted during the reign of Emperor Peroz I in the later half of the fifth century AD, the Sassanians suffered several major defeats. Accounts of these battles, as well as specific information about the wars with the Huns, is scarce, yet a possible reason for the sudden superiority of the Hunnic warriors over the Sassanians may have been due to a drastic increase in the effectiveness of their horse–archers because of the adoption of stirrups. With the revolutionary equestrian equipment, mounted archers gained a considerable amount of stability, which greatly improved the accuracy of their shots. Since their heavy armour already made them much less mobile than the Hunnic horse–archers, the protection became more of a hindrance for the elite clibanarii because the extensive armour was also unable to protect them nearly as much as it was against the archers of the Roman army. Furthermore, the ability of the horse-archers to outrun the Sassanian heavy horsemen almost completely removed the threat of their cavalry charges. Ultimately, the Sassanians were so overmatched against the superior Hunnic horsemanship and equestrian tactics that, in 484, Emperor Peroz died in combat against them. A major result of these disastrous wars, as well as other increasingly frequent conflicts with the Turko-Hunnic peoples of Central Asia, was that the Sassanian clibanarii gradually evolved into a much more composite type of cavalry with different arms and armour more influenced by Central Asian styles. At the same time, the overall preference for the lance began to decrease among the Sassanian heavy cavalrymen, as the bow became more important, even though the horsemen remained heavily armoured.