Nader Shah I

Painting of Nader Shah, he was Shah of Iran from 1736 to 1747, he created the Afsharid dynasty which was an Iranian empire of Turkic origin.

By this time a young warlord called Nader Qoli, from the old Afshar Qezelbash tribe, had risen from obscure beginnings through the chaos and disorder of the times to become a local power in the province of Khorasan in the north-east. Contemporaries described him as tall and handsome, with intelligent dark eyes; he was ruthless with his enemies, but magnanimous to those who submitted, and capable of charming those he needed to impress, when necessary. He was energetic and always happiest in the saddle; a fine horseman who loved horses. He had a prodigiously loud voice (he was once credited with putting an army of rebels to flight by the sound of his voice alone—until the rebels heard him giving orders for the attack, they believed they were only confronting a subordinate).6 The Safavid cause regained some impetus in the autumn of 1726 when this stentorian commander joined forces with Tahmasp (the son of Shah Sultan Hosein, who been named Shah by his supporters but had been chased up and down northern Iran by the Afghans and Ottomans) and reconquered Mashhad, the capital of Khorasan. In recognition of his services, Tahmasp named Nader Tahmasp Qoli Khan, which means ‘the slave of Tahmasp’. It was an honour to be given the name of royalty in this way, but Tahmasp Qoli Khan was to prove an over-mighty servant. By contrast with Nader, Tahmasp combined the faults of his father and grandfather; he was an ineffectual, lazy, vindictive alcoholic. The usual upbringing had taken its usual effect. One of Tahmasp’s courtiers commented at this time that he would never make a success of his reign because he was always drunk and no-one was in a position to correct him.7 After consolidating his position by making a punitive campaign to cow the Abdali Afghans of Herat, and having established his dominance at Tahmasp’s court, by the autumn of 1729 Nader was finally ready to attack the Afghan forces that were occupying Isfahan. An eyewitness account from this time, from the Greek merchant and traveller Basile Vatatzes, gives a vivid impression of the daily exercises Nader had imposed on the army, to prepare them for battle. We know that he made these routine for his troops throughout his career, but no other source describes the exercises in such detail.

Vatatzes wrote that Nader would enter the exercise area on his horse, and would nod in greeting to his officers. He would halt his horse and sit silently for some time, examining the assembled troops. Finally he would turn to the officers and ask what battle formations or weapons the troops would practise with that day. Then the exercises would begin:

And they would attack from various positions, and they would do wheels and counter-wheels, and close up formation, and charges, and disperse formation, and then close up again on the same spot; and flights; and in these flights they would make counterattacks, quickly rallying together the dispersed troops… And they exercised all sorts of military manoeuvres on horseback, and they would use real weapons, but with great care so as not to wound their companions.

As well as practising movement in formation, the horsemen also showed their skill with individual weapons: lance, sword, shield and bow. As a target for their arrows a glass ball was put at the top of a pole, and the men would ride toward it at the gallop, and try to hit it. Few could, but when Nader performed the exercise he would gallop along, opening and closing his arms like wings as he handled the bow and the quiver, and hit the target two or three times in three or four attempts, looking ‘like an eagle’. The cavalry exercises lasted three hours. The infantry also exercised together:

the infantry—I mean those that carried muskets—would get together in their own units and they would shoot their guns at a target and exercise continuously. If [Nader] saw an ordinary soldier consistently on top form he would promote him to be a leader of 100 men or a leader of 50 men. He encouraged all the soldiers toward bravery, ability and experience, and in simple words he himself gave an example of strong character and military virtue.

Vatatzes’ description dwells on cavalry manoeuvres and the display of individual weapon skills because these were dramatic, but his description of infantry training and the expenditure of costly powder and ball in exercises is significant, showing Nader’s concern to maximise the firepower of his troops, which was to prove crucial. This passage also makes plain the care he took with the selection of good officers, and their promotion by merit. For the army to act quickly, intelligently and flexibly under his orders, it was essential to have good officers to transmit them. Three hours a day of manoeuvres, over time, brought Nader’s men to a high standard of control and discipline, so that on the battlefield they moved and fought almost as extensions of his own mind. Vatatzes shows the way Nader impressed on the men what they had to do by personal example: a principle he followed in battle too. Training, firepower, discipline, control and personal example were part of the key to his success in war. Nader’s transformation of the army was already well advanced.

By the end of 1729 Nader’s army had defeated the Afghans in three battles, and had retaken Isfahan. Tahmasp was reinstalled in the old capital as Shah. But before Nader agreed to pursue the defeated Afghans, he forced Tahmasp to concede the right to collect taxes to support the army. The right to levy taxes enabled Nader to establish a state within the state, based on the army.

Nader duly finished off the remnants of the Afghan occupying force. He went on to throw the Ottoman Turks out of western Persia, before turning rapidly east to conquer Herat. In all these campaigns, his modernised forces, strong in gunpowder weapons, outclassed their opponents, showing themselves able to overcome the ferocity of the Afghan cavalry charges and the attacks of the provincial Ottoman troops. But while he was in Herat, he learned that Tahmasp, in his absence, had renewed the war with the Ottomans, had allowed himself to be defeated, and had then concluded a humiliating peace with the Ottomans. Nader issued a manifesto repudiating the treaty, and marched west. It is striking that he declared himself publicly in this way and sought popular support for his action—a modern moment which argues against those who deny the existence of any but local and dynastic loyalties in this period.

Arriving at length in Isfahan in the late summer of 1732, having prepared what was to come with typical care, Nader fooled Tahmasp into a false sense of security and got him drunk. He then displayed the Safavid Shah in this disreputable state to the Shi‘a courtiers and army officers. The assembled notables, prompted by Nader, declared Tahmasp unfit to rule, and elevated his infant son Abbas to the throne instead. Nader continued as generalissimo to this infant, and announced at the coronation his intention to ‘throw reins around the necks of the rulers of Kandahar, Bokhara, Delhi and Istanbul’ on his behalf. Those present may have thought this to be vain boasting, but events were to prove them wrong.

Nader’s first priority was to attack the Ottomans again and restore the traditional frontiers of Persia in the west and north. In his first campaign in Ottoman Iraq he met a setback; a powerful army including some of the best troops held centrally by the Ottoman state marched east to relieve Baghdad under an experienced commander. This was warfare of a different order to that Nader had experienced up to that time. He was overconfident, divided his army outside Baghdad in an attempt to prevent supplies getting through to the besieged city, and suffered a serious defeat. He withdrew, but within a few months, replacing lost men and equipment with a ruthless efficiency that caused much suffering among the hapless peasants and townspeople that had to pay for it, Nader renewed the Turkish war, and defeated the Ottoman forces near Kirkuk. Moving north, he then inflicted a devastating defeat on a new Ottoman army near Yerevan in June 1735. In the negotiations that followed a truce was agreed on the basis of the old frontiers that had existed before 1722, and the Ottomans withdrew. The Russians, who had made an alliance with Nader against the Ottomans, were satisfied with the performance of their ally and had already withdrawn from the Persian lands along the Caspian coast (their regiments having lost many men to disease in the humid climate of Gilan).

With the exception of Kandahar, Nader had now restored control over all the traditional territories of Safavid Persia. He decided the time was right to make himself Shah, and did so by means of an acclamation by all the great nobles, tribal chiefs and senior clerics of Persia at an assembly on the Moghan plain. There was little dissent; but the chief mullah was overheard to have spoken privately in favour of the continuation of Safavid rule, and was strangled. The infant Abbas was deposed, and the rule of the Safavid dynasty at last came to an end. It is noteworthy that despite Nader’s later reputation for tyrannical cruelty, and with the exception of the unfortunate chief mullah (whose execution carried its own political message), he achieved his rise to power almost without the use of political violence, unlike many of those who preceded him and came after him. He brought about the deposition of Tahmasp and the coronation at the Moghan not by assassination, but by careful preparation, propaganda, cunning manouevre and the presence of overbearing military force; above all by the prestige of his military successes.

Some other significant events occurred at the Moghan. Nader made it a condition of his acceptance of the throne that the Persian people accepted the cessation of Shi‘a practices offensive to Sunni Muslims (especially the ritual cursing of the first three caliphs). Nader’s religious policy served a variety of purposes. The reorientation toward Sunnism helped to reinforce the loyalty of the large Sunni contingent in his army, which he had built up in order to avoid too great a dependence on the traditionalist Shi‘a element, who tended to be pro-Safavid. But the new policy was not aggressively dogmatic. Religious minorities were treated with greater tolerance; he was generous to the Armenians, and his reign was regarded later by the Jews as one of relief from persecution9 (though minorities suffered as much as anyone else from his violent oppression and heavy taxation, especially in later years). The religious policy made it easier for Nader to make a grab for the endowments of Shi‘a mosques and shrines, an important extra source of cash to pay his troops. Within Persia, Nader sought only to amend religious practices—not to impose Sunnism wholesale. But outside Persia he presented himself and the country as converts to Sunnism—which enabled Nader to set himself up as a potential rival to the Ottoman Sultan for supremacy over Islam as a whole, something that would have been impossible if he and his state had remained orthodox Shi‘a.

The religious policy also served to distinguish Nader’s regime and its principles from those of the Safavids. He did this in other ways too, notably with his policy toward minorities, and by giving his sons governorships rather than penning them up in the harem. He also showed moderation in the size of his harem, and issued decrees forbidding the abduction of women, which again was probably directed, at least in part, at pointing up the contrast between his rule and that of the last Safavids.

Crowned Shah, with his western frontiers secure and in undisputed control of the central lands of Persia, Nader set off eastwards to conquer Kandahar. The exactions to pay for this new campaign caused great suffering and in many parts of the country brought the economy almost to a standstill. Nader took Kandahar after a long siege, but he did not stop there. Using the excuse that the Moghul authorities had given refuge to Afghan fugitives, Nader crossed the old frontier between the Persian and Moghul Empires, took Kabul and marched on towards Delhi. North of Delhi, at Karnal, the Persian army encountered the army of the Moghul Emperor, Mohammad Shah. The Persians were much inferior in number to the Moghul forces, yet thanks to the better training and firepower of his soldiers, and rivalry and disunity among the Moghul commanders, Nader defeated them. He was helped by the fact that the Moghul commanders were mounted on elephants, which proved vulnerable to firearms and liable to run wild and uncontrollable, to the dismay of their distinguished riders and anyone who happened to be in their path.

From the battlefield of Karnal Nader went on to Delhi, where he arrived in March 1739. Shortly after his arrival rioting broke out and some Persian soldiers were killed. So far from home, and with the wealth of the Moghul Empire at stake, Nader could not afford to lose control. He ordered a ruthless massacre in which an estimated 30,000 people died, mostly innocent civilians. Prior to this point, Nader had generally (at least away from the battlefield) achieved his ends without excessive bloodshed. But after Delhi, he may have decided that his previous scruples had become redundant.


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