History

 

 

 

Nader Shah Afshar

By the end of the Safavid reign, the mighty empire that Ismail I had founded by force of the sword and by bravery had fallen to an incredible decline—the very empire that Abbas the Great had elevated to utmost power by resolve and wisdom. The weakness of will and ineptitude of Sultan Husayn, the last of Safavid kings, and his attention to matters of no relevance to the governance of the vast Persian realm had brought turmoil and disorder upon the country. From circa 1732 to 1755, the year of the Afghan invasion of Iran, many parts of the kingdom were engulfed in flames of revolt and menace; not many provinces across the Persian land were safe from the fire of rebellion and violence.

It was in such a state when one of the brightest stars of Persian patriotism and progress shone enthrallingly in the eyes of Tahmasp II—who was searching for a competent and powerful figure to help him claim the throne—and came to his aid as one of the strongest military officers and statesmen of his day. This glorious figure of Persian culture and rule was none other than Nader Qoli Afshar, who went on to be known as Nader Shah and establish the Afsharid dynasty.

Nader Shah Afshar (born in 1688 in Dargaz County – murdered in 1747 in Quchan), known as Nader Qoli before his coronation and nicknamed Tahmasp Qoli Khan, came from Khorasan’s Afshar tribe and reigned over Iran from 1736 to 1747[1], as the founder of the Afsharid dynasty. He rose to great fame by suppressing Afghan rebels, driving Ottoman and Russian forces out of Iran, recovering the country’s independence, conquering Delhi and Turkestan, and his victorious wars.

 

Nader’s origins, ancestry, and times

According to Mirza Mehdi Khan Astarabadi (Nader Shah’s secretary and the author of Jahangusha-i Naderi and Darra-i Nader), a child, who would be named Nader Qoli, was born in about 1688 near the village of Dastgerd (in modern Dargaz County, Razavi Khorasan Province, Iran), into the Qereqlu clan of the Kurdish tribe of Afshar. The Afshars were supporters of the Safavid dynasty, and had friendly connections with Safi ad-Din Ardabili’s children since the reign of Ismail I. Nader Qoli’s father, Imam Qoli, had to raise his son through the hardships of poverty, the severity of which forced Nader Qoli to spend his childhood as a shepherd.

The father died when Nader was still young, leaving his son a widowed mother as a legacy. Poverty and its ills became the greatest motivation for Nader to find a new way of life and seek power. He joined the Persian army and soon drew the admiration of the Afshar tribe chief for his competence as a fighter. After a while, Nader married the tribe chief’s daughter, who would later bear his first son, Reza Qoli Mirza. When the chief died, Nader was forced to leave his tribe and wander Khorasan for some time in search of his destiny. Little did his fellow tribespeople, who lived on the plain of Abiward,[2] recognize his authority, and a part of his father-in-law’s possessions was all Nader inherited from him.

In 1722, Afghan forces, led by Mahmud Hotak, captured Isfahan and killed Sultan Husayn. With the capital fallen and the king dead, Sultan Husayn’s son, Tahmasp II, who had fled Isfahan for Qazvin, declared himself King of Persia, only to be refused recognition as such by local rulers.

Commandership

Mahmud Hotak, who only ruled over Isfahan and its outskirts, was murdered by his cousin, Ashraf Hotak, three years later, in 1725. Meanwhile, Nader, aware of the Safavid influence over Iranians, joined Tahmasp II, and became a commander in his army in 1726. Nader later went on to capture Khorasan.

Although the ruler of Sistan, Malik Mahmud Sistani, somewhat hindered Nader’s rise to power, Nader won the support of Tahmasp II and Fath-Ali Khan Qajar (the son of Shah Qoli Khan Qajar and the grandfather of Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar) and managed to defeat Malik Mahmud in 1725 and install the Safavid prince as king in Khorasan. In return, Tahmasp II appointed Nader Qoli governor of Khorasan, after which Nader changed his name to Tahmasp Qoli. The next year, Nader gained complete control of Khorasan after suppressing the rebellion of several Turkic and Kurdish tribes.

Subsequently, Nader waged war on the Afghans to further establish the shah’s power. In 1729, he defeated Ashraf Hotak, now the ruler of the Afghans, once in the Battle of Mehmandoost near the city of Damghan, then in the Battle of Murche-Khort near Isfahan, and for a third time in the Battle of Zarghan near Shiraz. Trying to capture a fleeing Ashraf, Nader then took over Afghanistan and subjugated the Afghan tribes, thereby ending the seven-year reign of the Ghilji tribe in 1729.

Nader then went on to fight foreign enemies and drove Russian forces out of northern Iran. However, when in a war against the Ottomans occupying western Iran, he learned about a revolt in the east and left the war abruptly, heading eastwards. Seeing Nader’s increasing power and fame, and wishing to assert himself, Tahmasp II resumed Nader’s war with the Ottomans in the hope of recapturing Yerevan, only to suffer a heavy defeat.

Regency

In 1730, following Iran’s defeat, Georgia and Armenia were ceded to the Ottoman Empire in exchange for Tabriz by a treaty between Tahmasp II and the Ottomans. Having previously recaptured those regions himself, Nader quickly returned to Isfahan upon learning about the cession. Using the peace treaty as an excuse, he deposed Tahmasp II; appointed the shah’s infant son, Abbas III, in his place on September 4, 1732; and declared himself regent to secure his power. Nader then resumed his military campaigns against the Ottomans. After a decisive victory, in the process of which he led several campaigns to suppress rebellions in Fars and Baluchistan, Nader signed a new treaty with Ahmad Pasha, the Ottoman ruler of Baghdad, in December 1733. This hinted at an attempt to revive the Ottoman–Safavid Treaty of Zuhab (Qasr-e Shirin), as the new treaty required the Ottoman Empire to return certain Persian territories, exchange prisoners with Iran, and ensure the safety of all Iranian Hajj pilgrims.

The Ottoman sultan at the time did not approve of the accord because disputes over some Caucasian territories still persisted and battles raged continuously. After a series of Ottoman–Persian battles in the Caucasus, Nader besieged and then captured Ganja with the help of Russian military engineers. Later, on March 10, 1735, Iran and the Russian Empire signed a defense pact in Ganja, which came to be known as the Treaty of Ganja and by which the Russians agreed to return most of the territories they had conquered the previous decade. The treaty directed the regional diplomatic focus to the Russo–Ottoman confrontation over the control of the Black Sea, buying Nader relief from conflict in the western borders.[3]

Kingship

By the end of 1735, Nader had built a strong reputation and stabilized conflicts through a series of victories. Near the Nowruz of 1736, he gathered the tribe chiefs and village headmen from Safavid-controlled territories in a large resort in the Mugan Plain. There, he asked the assembly to choose him or a member of the Safavid dynasty to be King of Persia.[4] After a few days of deliberation, the great council of Mugan pronounced Nader Qoli legitimate king. The newly-appointed shah gave a speech to show his recognition of the council’s approval. He also announced that once he is enthroned, his subjects will have to abandon the religious customs that were introduced by Ismail I and had thrown the country into disarray; customs such as sabb (execrating the first three Rashidun caliphs—Abu Bakr, Omar, and Uthman—who are recognized by the Sunnis as legitimate caliphs, along with Ali) and rafz (denouncing the first three caliphs’ right to rule the Muslim community).

All the participants in the Mugan assembly were required to sign a letter to confirm that they agreed with Nader’s decisions. In addition, Mirza Abu Torab, a great-grandfather of Mohammad-Ali Foroughi, represented Isfahan in the assembly. Just before his deposal of Abbas III and coronation on March 8, 1736, Nader set five conditions for peace with the Ottoman Empire, most of which he demanded within the next ten years.

Nader’s reign

The Afghan enemies of Nader had fled Kandahar for Delhi after it was conquered by him. However, it became a routine for the Afghan marauders to return to the city every time the Persian forces were withdrawn and flee back to India when the troops were redeployed. Nader Shah urged the Indian emperor Muhammad Shah three times to surrender Ashraf Hotak’s fighters (about 800) to Iran. Initially, the Persian king sent Muhammad Shah a courteous letter, along with offerings, explaining the situation, but the letter received no response. In his second attempt, he had a high-ranking courtier, rather than a courier, deliver his follow-up letter, yet the emperor again ignored his letter for long while, leaving him with no answers.

Nader then sent a Qollar-aghasi, who was also a close acquaintance, to request the emperor to take either of three courses of action: closing the Indian borders to the marauders, surrendering them to Iran in case of their entrance to India, or authorizing Persian border patrols to chase them into the Indian soil. However, the messenger was held, in a civil manner, in confinement for months in India. Finally, to show his persistence in getting an answer, Nader sent Muhammad Khan Turkman, one of his bravest commanders, to repeat the same request, only for Muhammad Khan to be killed by the Indians. Nader demanded an explanation and one million naderi’s (the currency of Persia at the time) in blood money for his murder, which also went ignored. Killing his envoy was not the kind of sin the shah would forgive.

At Nader’s order, the Persian army crossed the Indus River into India and, after a victory in the Battle of Karnal (February 24, 1739), proceeded to capture Delhi. Despite leading a small army against a larger and elephant-riding Indian army, Nader managed to win the battle by employing novel military tactics. Helpless, Muhammad Shah asked for Nader’s mercy. The shah agreed to withdraw his forces in exchange for the key to the Indian royal treasury and spared the emperor to remain on the throne. Nader returned home with an immense quantity of plunder, the value of which is assessed to be ten times more than the highest annual national income of Iran in the Safavid era. The most famous of the treasures were the Koh-i-Noor, Daria-i-Noor, and the Peacock Throne. The plunder was so rich that Nader suspended taxation in Iran for three years.[5]

A closer look at the plunder

By an agreement signed by the victor Nader Shah and the defeated Muhammad Shah on May 12, 1739:

  1. Most of the items in the Indian royal treasury, which included jewelry and had been stored there for centuries, were surrendered to Nader Shah.
  2. The Persian king left Muhammad Shah on the throne of India in return; because not only did Nader not wish to conquer any neighboring countries, but also such a vast and faraway land would have been impossible to control even with an army of one million, let alone Nader’s 100,000-man army.
  3. The territories west of the rivers of Attock, Indus, and Nala-Sangra (a distributary of the Indus), namely Peshawar, Kabul, Ghazni, Kohistan, and Tata Province, were ceded to Iran, expanding its eastern border farther than its Sassanid-era limits.
  4. The Lehri Castle and the territories east of the three aforementioned rivers remained in Indian possession.

The quantity of the plunder taken in the Indian campaign was virtually beyond counting. In addition to the royal jewelry and the Peacock Throne, nine splendid jeweled thrones were among the seized riches. Following celebration and feasting in Delhi, Muhammad Shah submitted the keys to all his treasuries and chambers to Nader Shah. He also ordered the gilding of all the items in the royal kitchen, servants’ quarters, and even stable—from buckets to horse tie-up nails and sledgehammers. The gilt objects, which took a total of 30,000 kilograms of gold to prepare, were offered to Nader Shah. The Persian king then had some of his trusted chroniclers and treasurers send to Iran as many of the Indian treasures as 30,000 camels could carry. Bactrian camels owned by Khorasan Kurds transported the plunder to Khorasan, with each carrying a load of 300–350 kilograms.

Death

In 1747, when Nader had gone to Khorasan to quash a revolt against high taxes, a group of his commanders, led by Ali Qoli Khan, raided his tent one night and assassinated him.[6] According to the surviving accounts, upon his arrival from Kerman to Mashhad on around May 20, 1747, Nader was informed that his nephew, Ali Qoli Khan, had instigated a rebellion. The news worried the king more than the uprising of the Quchan Kurds, because it was now his closest kin to rebel against him. Nader, who loved Ali Qoli immensely and even favored him over his own son, Reza Qoli Mirza, was surprised at such ungratefulness. This could have given anyone the audacity to betray him. When leaving Mashhad for Quchan, Nader sent his family and jewelry to the city of Kalāt, as he foresaw a grim future ahead.

On June 19, 1747, he set up a camp about three kilometers from Quchan. Led by Muhammad Husayn Khan Ilkhani, Nader’s brother-in-law, and Shahverdi Khan Sheikhkanloo, the Kurdish rebels had raised fortifications in defense against Nader’s army. The Kurds had also sent the women, children, and elderly men away into the nearby mountains so that the fighters could engage in battle without them getting in the way. For the rebels, it was either fighting to the last man or bringing Nader, the man who had given them power, to his end.

The great crime took place two hours past the midnight of June 20, 1747, a Sunday, on the Fathabad Hill, about six kilometers east of the old city of Quchan—or, according to another account, on the Morvarid Hill, on the northern bank of the Atrek River. The assassination put an end to the powerful Naderian empire and destroyed so many things for Iran that the nation is still suffering the consequences cascading from that foul night. The gold-rich lands of the Caucasus, Erzurum, Bahrain, Khwarazm, Khorasan, and others were lost forever, and the Qajar kings, who came later, brought only disgrace upon Iran, turning the country into what it was before Nader. Following the murder of Nader Shah, one of the noblest men the world has ever seen, commotion and chaos took over the camp, and everyone went about looting the royal property.

At night, rested a head on his body, a crown on his head
By dawn, no head on the body, nor a crown on the head
With a turn of the heavens when fate conspired
There remained no Nader, nor his empire

Tomb

Nader Shah had ordered a small tomb to be built for him in Mashhad’s Bala-Khiaban neighborhood. The tomb was built in adobe in 1733, next to the Chahar-Bagh royal garden and across from the Imam Reza Shrine. In the late Qajar era, in 1917 to be exact, Ahmad Qavam built a new tomb on the location of an older, ruined tomb of Nader, and transferred the king’s bones from Tehran to the new tomb. This new building stood for a while until the Society for the National Heritage of Iran (SNH) decided in 1956 to build a new tomb on the same spot as the Qavam-built structure; one that would do better justice to the greatness of Nader Shah. The project started in 1957 and finished in 1963.

Designed by Houshang Seyhoun, the 1963 tomb was built in the Naderi Museum Garden and comprises a central chamber, which is where the shah is buried, and two museum halls—one hall dedicated to weaponry from different periods of Persian history, and the other showcasing weaponry and other objects from the Afsharid era. The opening ceremony for the new tomb was held on April 2, 1963, by the SNH and attended by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Successors

After Nader Shah’s death, Karim Khan, one of his commanders from the Zand tribe, rose to power. The realm of the Afsharid dynasty was reduced to Khorasan, which Karim Khan let the king’s successors retain out of respect for Nader, whom he viewed as his master. With the king dead, his commanders each claimed sovereignty over one or more Iranian territories: Karim Khan Zand the “Vakil ol-Ro’aya” took Shiraz, Ahmad Khan Abdali took Afghanistan, Fath-Ali Khan Afshar took Azerbaijan and Urmia,[7] Hassan-Ali Khan Ardalan took Kurdistan, and Mohammad-Hasan Khan Qajar took Mazandaran.

Meanwhile, in Khorasan, Ali Qoli Khan Afshar, Nader’s nephew, massacred the late king’s family and began his rule, under the self-given title of “Adel Shah” (“the just king”). A bloodthirsty and dissolute man, he defeated Mohammad-Hasan Khan Qajar and castrated his son, Agha Mohammad Khan. However, he was eventually blinded and then killed by his own brother, Ibrahim Khan.

The elders of the Afshar tribe installed Nader’s grandson, Shahrokh Mirza, on the throne. He was deposed and blinded a year later but managed to reclaim the throne, only to be overthrown by Suleiman II, a member of the Safavid dynasty who was revered by the public. The blind Shahrokh reigned for 48 years, but only over Khorasan. Following Karim Khan’s death, Agha Mohammad Khan took power, conquered Khorasan, and killed Shahrokh after much torture. Shahrokh’s son, Nader Mirza, left his old blind father to Agha Mohammad Khan and fled to Afghanistan. Later, during the reign of Fath-Ali Shah, he claimed his right to the throne and thus was arrested, blinded, had his tongue cut off, and eventually killed. His murder ended the line of those from the Afsharid dynasty who laid claim to the throne.

Persia under Nader Shah

In a time when the Safavid empire had dissolved as a result of Afghan revolts and Iran was turned into a scene of pillage and bloodshed by domestic and foreign enemies—the Ottomans from the west, the Russians from the north, the Arabs from the south, and the Turkmens from the east—it was Nader who restored order in the land. During his reign, he crushed the invaders and rebels, and helped the country recover some of its past stability by improving border control and establishing a powerful central government. As a result, the Turkmens and Uzbeks retreated to Transoxiana. The structures built in Khorasan at Nader’s order, such as the Kalāt Palace (Sun Palace), are among the important landmarks from the era. During Nader’s reign, it was crucial for the country to form and maintain a powerful national army; therefore, Nader united ethnic groups and tribes from all across Iran under one flag, making the nation the most powerful in Asia once again.

Nader was one of the last rulers to expand the Persian territory to the natural limits of the Iranian Plateau. He also employed enormous warships in an effort to establish Iran’s historical rightful sovereignty over the waters north and south of the country. In 1742, despite obstructions by the Russian and British governments, Nader recruited British sea captain John Elton, who lived in Saint Petersburg at the time, to build warships for Iran. Serving as a vice admiral, Elton was appointed the head of the shipbuilding unit of the Persian army and given the nickname Jamal Beyg in January 1743. Notwithstanding all practical and political difficulties, the first Iranian warship, equipped with twenty cannons and named “Nader Shah,” was launched in Gilan Province, thanks to Nader’s support and the efforts of Elton. Thereafter, the king issued a decree requiring all Russian vessels to salute the flag of the new warship.[8]

Nader’s coronation was pivotal in that it put an end to the system in which being descended from an Imam of Twelver Shia Islam established the legitimacy of a king’s rule—a system instituted by the Safavids, who claimed descent from the seventh Imam, Musa al-Kadhim. The vast empire of the Iranian Plateau, the peoples of which had finally united under one flag after a long while, dissolved with the decline of the Afsharid dynasty.

Nader Shah’s characteristics and innovations

Without a doubt, Nader Shah’s actions, ideas, and life constitute him one of the most laudable and intelligent Iranian leaders and a man whose every effort was to bring about progress and freedom of thought in his country. Here, we will take a look at one of such efforts.

Nader Shah and freedom of thought and religion

By all historical accounts, Nader was in no way a religious hypocrite or zealot. He understood very well that one thing contributing to the plight of Iranians was the religious fanaticism and wars encouraged by Islamic fundamentalist clerics of the Safavid court and those from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and the Ottoman Empire; religious leaders who declared other denominations heretical and proclaimed it a religious duty to wage war on their followers—to kill the men, enslave the women and children, and loot their property. The enslavement of Nader’s mother and, later, him and his brother early in Nader’s life was completely motivated by religious beliefs propagated by court clerics who saw their power and survival to be dependent on the elimination of their opponents, took advantage of religion to stay in power, and issued unjustified fatwas. During his time as a slave with his mother, Nader would reflect on the subject and decide that he must eradicate that source of evil.

When Nader became king, he made it illegal for the Shia to insult and harass Sunny religious leaders, a practice that was allowed in the Safavid era. To even things out, he also made it illegal for Sunny clerics and religious leaders to treat Shias as heretics and issue fatwas calling for their massacre and enslavement. The rationale behind this decision was that because both denominations followed Islam and believed in the same prophet and god, disagreements about minor principles and practices should not lead to all the unjustified bloodshed that was happening at the time. For the same reason, in the pronouncement that was made at the Mugan Plain assembly and formalized his kingship, Nader explicitly addressed this particular cause of conflict between the Persian and Ottoman nations, calling for the Ottoman emperor and Sunni religious leaders to allow the Shia the same privileges in the Hajj that the Sunni enjoyed.

Muhammad Hussayn Khan Ilkhani, a Khorasan Kurd and Nader’s brother-in-law, was one of the greatest contributors to the Astan Quds Razavi Library, donating a collection of Qurans and other books in 1742. Nader’s role in the development of Mashhad, including commissioning minarets and the Ismail Tala stone basin for the Imam Reza Shrine, attest to his open-mindedness. As a king, he never forced a specific religion on his people.

Nader Shah Bible

One of the notable expressions of Nader’s belief in freedom of religion and religious toleration was his respect and appreciation for Christianity. In addition to supporting his own religion, he paid special attention to the Christian faith, insofar as he commissioned and oversaw the translation of the Bible into Persian, which came to be known as the “Nader Shah Bible.” In the 18th century, the four canonical Gospels, the Quran, and the Torah were translated into Persian at Nader Shah’s order. Overseen by Catholic priests living in Iran, the translation of the Bible used an Arabic version as the source text and was done by Mirza Mehdi Khan Astarabadi, with the assistance of Mir Muhammad Khatoun-Abadi and his son, Mir Abdul-Qani Khatoun-Abadi. “The translation of the rest of the books, including the Acts of the Apostles, has been completed with the help of the Armenians of Isfahan. The translation began in Safar 1153 AH/May 1740 CE and finished in 1154 AH/1741 CE, with Mirza Mehdi and his two Muslim, four Jewish, and eight Christian assistants working on the job for a year in Isfahan.”[9]

Nader Shah should be regarded to have had, in some ways, an inquisitive character—the same quality that is attributed to the Mughal emperor Akbar and Abbas the Great. Despite being occupied with political and military duties, not only did Nader try to find ways to bring Islamic denominations together, but he also tried to help produce an easy-to-read and complete translation of the Scripture. Moreover, he was well aware of the power of Christian Europe and the frequency of missionaries sent to different parts of the Muslim world. Whether driven by personal curiosity or greater causes, he wished to have a flawless and complete translation of the Bible.

Restoration and redefinition of Persian identity under Nader Shah

From the very beginning of his reign, Nader sought consultation with nobles from all across the country, who were traditionally seasoned statesmen from Persian landowning and bureaucratic families. Some of Nader’s most prominent political advisors were Mirza Ali-Akbar Mollabashi, from Khorasan; Mirza Abul-Qasem Shaykh al-Islam, from Kashan; Mirza Zaki, from Kermanshah; Abdul-Baghi Khan, from the Zangana tribe; Hassan-Ali Khan Mo’ayyer ol-Mamalek, who was of Georgian descent; Ahmad Khan Marvi; and Mirza Mehdi Khan Astarabadi.[10]

The word Iran had a very significant place in the formal language of the Afsharid court. The words Iran and Iran Zamin (“land of Iran”) are collectively used more than 180 times in the three volumes of Ālam-Āra-ye Nāderi, and 25 times in Jahangusha-i Naderi. Based on textual sources, what Nader was trying to achieve by the movement he started was “saving Iran” from chaos and destruction. Thus, “Iran” is arguably an underlying theme in texts from the era. In the “Events of the year 1732” chapter of his book, Mirza Mehdi Astarabadi writes: “…for friends and foes saw His Majesty’s very nature as the force that fortified and upheld the government of Persia.”[11]

In Jahangusha-i Naderi, “Iran” is mostly discussed as a “country.” Nader’s condition for accepting kingship, which he announced at the Mugan Plain assembly, was the abandonment of the traditions of sabb and rafz so that the rivalry with the Ottoman Empire could be ended. Recounting the announcement, Nader says:

At the grand council of the Mugan desert, when the good commoners and nobles of Iran beseeched my royal person to take the throne, I said unto them that their request should be granted on condition that they refrain from sabb and rafz, which had grown commonplace amongst the people of Iran since the arrival of Shah Ismail.[12]

According to Astarabadi, Nader Shah used the phrase “Iran or Iranians” 13 times, to refer to the country and its subjects, in his speech at the Mugan Plain assembly. At the gathering, Nader shows his appreciation for the wish of the “people of Iran” for his kingship, eventually saying, “Should the people of Iran wish for my ascension to the throne and for peace in their lives.” In another part of his book, Astarabadi writes:

[U]ntil in the year of 1148 [AH/1736 CE], at the grand council, they summoned the peasants and nobles of Iran and formed a deliberative assembly in order for that party to elect as king whomever they wished and thereby shape their future. The people of Iran pleaded and said…[13]

Apart from direct mentions of “Iran,” all of Nader’s honorary titles and nicknames display Persian nationalism: Khadeev Jahān Khosrow (“the king of the world”), Khosrow Nāmdār (“the famed king”), Khosrow Fereydun Eghbāl (“the king who is as blessed as Fereydun”), Sultan Fereydun Heshmat (“the sultan who is as noble as Fereydun”), Khosrow Fereydun-Far (“the king who possesses as much ‘divine royal glory’ as Fereydun”). Used tens of times in the sources mentioned so far, Nader Shah’s most frequently used title was Dārā-ye Zamān (“the Darius of our times”), a phrase that shows Nader’s wish to be compared to the last Achaemenid King of Kings, Darius III. An instance of its use can be found in the second book of Ālam-Āra-ye Nāderi, where the preparation for Nader’s coronation is described: “Those words pleased Dārā-ye Zamān very much.”[14]

Not to be overlooked is Nader’s famous coinage as another manifestation of “Iranism” during the Afsharid era. Nader introduced a new coin, mohur ashrafi, which matched the value of the Mughal coin mohur used in India at the time. In 1768, a mohur ashrafi coin weighing 11.016 grams was worth 10,000 silver dinars. Nader did not continue the Safavid tradition regarding the content of coin inscriptions. To please the Sunni community and help resolve the conflict between them and the Shia, he ordered the Islamic oath Shahada, the Shia phrase Ali-un wali Allah (“Ali is the vicegerent of God”), and the names of the twelve Imams of Shia to be dropped from coinage, and the neutral phrase khallad Allah-u mulkah (“may Allah eternalize his empire”) to be inscribed on some coins—that is, the obverse was to bear the name of the city and date of coinage, and verses of poetry and phrases celebrating the glory of Iran and of Nader’s rule were to be inscribed on the reverse. This well-known verse adorns the reverse of many Afsharid coins:

The empire was made known to the world, on coins of gold
By Nader of Iran, the world-conquering lord

 

Comprehensive military improvements

 

1-Naval fleet[15]The first efforts to build warships and modernize the Persian naval fleet were made in the Safavid era to drive Portuguese forces out of Hormuz Island and, in general, the Persian Gulf. However, these efforts ultimately failed due to British interventions, and Iran’s first modern navy was eventually created by Nader Shah Afshar, who purchased several ships from England and the Netherlands for that purpose. Regarding this, British diplomat and author Harford Jones-Brydges writes: “When I arrived in Bushehr in 1784, three of Nader’s ships were remaining, with each capable of carrying 500 tons.”[16] 

Nader very well understood that without a powerful navy, it would be impossible to continue his military campaigns and maintain national territories in the long run. Nonetheless, since Iranians had no experience in building warships and seamanship for centuries, he had no other option than to seek help from other countries—though, as a prudent ruler, he also had the idea to eventually localize Iran’s shipbuilding industry. Nader’s wars in each side of the Caspian Sea, with northern Khorasan Turkmen tribes and Dagestan Lezgins, taught him that having a powerful navy in the Caspian Sea was no less important than having one in the south. Meanwhile, the Russian government began to do everything in its power to pose obstacles, as it realized that Nader was soon to become too powerful to contain and that Russia could not afford to allow Iran to form a naval fleet on its doorstep.

However, fate favored Nader when an English merchant and shipbuilder traveled to Gilan to trade textile and was welcomed by Nader’s son, Gilan’s provincial ruler. Once his skills were discovered, the Englishman was recruited by Nader and very soon found a pivotal role in executing the king’s plans in the Caspian Sea. The Russians complained to the British ambassador about the Englishman’s impactful presence in Iran. Highly valuing their trade relations with Russia, the British worked hard to discourage him from continuing working for Iran, but he was too royal and industrious to quit.

1.1. Who was John Elton?

In 1734, British merchants of the Muscovy Company were granted permission to transit through Russia for trade with Persia and to cross the Caspian Sea by Russian ships. Captain John Elton was a British merchant, seaman, and shipbuilder who had lived in Russia for years and traded with parts of Turkestan. He first traveled to Rasht in 1739—when Nader ruled as regent and his eldest son Reza Qoli Mirza was the governor of Gilan—to a warm welcome. He sold his stock of broadcloth in Gilan and bought Gilan silk, which had found new popularity at the time. Moreover, Reza Qoli granted him permission to do trade in Iran, which made his trip doubly productive. Elton then returned to Saint Petersburg, reported to British merchants about the bright future of trading with Iran, and tried to encourage others to do business in Gilan.

He also wrote a letter to the British ambassador to Russia, detailing his plans to do trade with Iran. He believed that transporting British wool products through Russia would cost much less than through India or the Ottoman Empire and that trading Gilan silk would be highly profitable. Additionally, Elton advised that in order for trade through Russia to work, it was essential for British merchants to have their own ships in the Volga and the Caspian Sea. Elton’s words about the trade advantages were so compelling that they garnered the support of the majority of British merchants, insofar as it drew complaints from other British trade companies, such as the Levant Company and the East India Company.

1.2. Appointment as Vice Admiral

On his way back to Iran in 1742, John Elton built two ships in the Russian city of Kazan and used them to transport his merchandise to Gilan. The news reached Nader, who had had the idea to form a naval fleet in the Caspian Sea for some time, and he decided to hire Elton to build him ships in that region. Elton accepted Nader’s offer, converted to Islam, and changed his name to Jamal Beyg. Starting his job upon appointment as Vice Admiral by Nader Bajed, he opened two shipyards in Gilan—one in Chamkhaleh, Langarud County, and another in Mashhadsar (current Babolsar)—and recruited Russian, Indian, and native workers. Despite the vast stretches of jungle bordering the Caspian Sea to the south, shipbuilding in the region had never developed into an industry and had remained limited only to the construction of small boats used for local rivers and marshes, as well as for parts of the sea that were near the coast. Drawing on the account of Jonas Hanway, an English merchant and traveler and a contemporary of Nader Shah, English author and geographer Sir Percy Sykes writes:

John Elton set up his headquarters in Langarud and set out determinedly to eradicate all the problems. He felled jungle trees and transported the timber to the shore. He wove sails of cotton and ropes of flax. Failing to find anchors in the area, he searched elsewhere and obtained some. Working with no pay, the native workers were mighty fed up with the forced labor, but Elton eventually managed to build and launch a ship equipped with 23 cannons.

Named “Nader” in honor of the king, the vessel outcompeted even Russian ships in quality. Nader Shah issued a decree requiring the Russian ships in the Caspian Sea to salute the flag of the Persian warship. Still, Elton had greater plans in mind: he aspired to build at least thirty other warships. He had also started training Persian workers and stockpiling ammunition and military equipment. He obtained 15 tons of tin for the royal arsenal with the help of a merchant named Mungo Graham, and identified strategic sites for military operations along the coast of the Caspian Sea after scouting the area. In addition to these efforts, Elton remarkably sent two ships carrying a load of rice over to the Persian soldiers stationed on the coast of Baku and, shortly after, at Nader’s order and with the help of a fellow Englishman called Thomas Woodroofe, mapped the southeastern coast of the Caspian Sea. Keeping a worried, angry eye on Elton’s work and Persia’s rise to power in the Caspian Sea, Russia put a lot of pressure on the Muscovy Company and the British government to discourage Elton from continuing to work for Iran.

At the time, Britain had not yet found an opportunity to reveal its exploitative, cruel colonialist character. In fact, the British were still newcomer merchants in the region who, despite their many complaints, found no option but to carry the goods of Persian and Indian ambassadors for free. Stuck in this vulnerable position, the British had set it their main policy in the region to appease kings and local rulers and to completely avoid any activity that would lose the trust of the local powers and cost Britain its business reputation. The British tried, as part of this policy, not to interfere with Nader Shah’s plans to form a powerful naval fleet because such a fleet could, on the one hand, drive a business competition against Britain in the not too distant future and, on the other, arouse the hostility of the Ottoman Empire and Russia, two of Britain’s allies in the region.

British statesmen and merchants found their trade in Russia placed in jeopardy when Nader started building ships and forming a navy in the Caspian Sea with Elton’s assistance and when Russia consequently began pressuring and threatening Britain. Thus, they first sent Jonas Hanway to Iran to investigate Elton’s activities, and tried to talk Elton out of continuing his work by making him promises. Hanway found Elton’s efforts immensely detrimental to the future of British trade and tried to persuade him to stop working for Nader.

When Hanway’s attempts failed and Elton proved unyielding, the British ambassador in Saint Petersburg saw it a serious possibility that the Russians might retaliate by stripping away Britain’s trade privileges in Russia. Therefore, he asked Elton to leave Iran in exchange for a large sum of money or a position in the Royal Navy, but the adventurous and careless Englishman stubbornly continued his service. Well aware of the pressures on Elton, Nader issued a decree that showed his gratitude for the Englishman’s efforts: “The most honorable man is not to leave Iran, for he must appear in my court next Nowruz and methodically organize the affairs of my fleet.” The decree somewhat relieved Elton of the pressures and accusations, as it enabled him to pretend that he was compelled to serve Nader Shah.

2.The zamburak gun: a game changer on the battlefield

The zamburak (or zambureh) was a small muzzle-loading, self-propelled cannon often mounted on the back of certain ungulates, mostly camels. It was a commonly used weapon in Iran from the Safavid era to the Qajar era, as well as in India and the Ottoman Empire. While the gun was originally developed in its basic form in the Safavid era, it was Nader’s army that finalized it and, by using it extensively in warfare, changed the battlefield forever.

The Safavid army lacked artillery until Abbas the Great ascended the throne, and deemed the use of guns in battles unfair during the reign of Ismail I. As a result, it was outcompeted by the gun-equipped, well-organized army of Persia’s main regional rival, the Ottoman Empire, and even had to suffer a number of heavy defeats. Eventually, however, Persian soldiers began using swords, spears, and muskets in battle under Tahmasp I. “Persian soldiers are tall and strong men who often use swords and spears and muskets in the battlefield . . . Persian musketeers are equipped with rifles of mostly six-span [approx. 137 cm] barrels.”

Zanburaks played a key role in Nader Shah’s conquest of India and thus demonstrated their unique function once again. Similarly, the powerful artillery of Nader’s army was one of the main reasons for the king’s victory over the Afghan rebels.

Halfway between a cannon and a musket, the zamburak had a roughly 78 centimeter-long barrel that tapered from the rear to the opening. It stood on a tripod that allowed it to be mounted on the ground and the back of a camel. Each zamburak ball was the size of a walnut. Zamburaks were often mounted sideways on the backs of camels, with a saddlebag carrying gunpowder and other materials. The gun was fired from the camelback, a method also used by Nader Shah in his Indian campaign. Nader formed a powerful artillery unit as part of his reconstruction of the Persian army.

2.1. Using camels to carry zamburaks

Countless sources contain pictures of zamburaks, which show us how they were carried and used. In the pictures, zamburaks are carried using camels, whose ability to endure thirst and harsh weathers made them suitable for carrying military equipment, especially in deserts. Nader’s army was first to use camels to carry zamburaks and also first to build zamburak depots (zamburak-khaneh).[17]

Naderian architecture: the Kalāt Palace

Every historical period has its own defining style of art and architecture, and the Afsharid era is no exception. However, architecture during the reign of Nader in particular is among the more significant and intriguing periods of Persian art. One excellent example of Naderian architecture is the Kalāt Palace, also known as the Sun Palace, located in the city of Kalāt, in northeastern Razavi Khorasan Province. The building was registered on the Iran National Heritage List on February 10, 1940, with the registration number 329.

The Kalāt Palace was built in Kalāt in 1738, at the order of Nader Shah, as a resort and treasury. The word kalāt means “castle” or “fortress” (in pre-Islamic Persia, almost every city was fortified and followed the prevailing social stratification in its design. There were originally three social classes, which later developed into four: military commanders, mobads, farmers, and craftsmen. Each class was designated a district in cities). The construction of the building started sometime in the early years of Nader’s rule, and continued throughout his reign, not finishing until the year of his death, 1747—a date given in a splendid Thuluth inscription of the Quranic surah “An-Naba” that encircles the dome.

The palace is located in the middle of a large garden and has three floors. Originally about 25 meters, its height is currently no more than 20 meters due to the partial destruction of the third floor. The ground floor is octagonal and sits on a platform up to which four steps lead on all sides. One in each wall, eight entrances lead to the main chamber. The palace has 12 rooms, each decorated with paintings and stuccos. Until a few decades ago, the decorations also included pictures of Afsharid princes. A cylindrical, two-story tower rises from the middle of the octagonal structure’s top, and was intended to accommodate the king and his family. The palace owes its magnificence mostly to its merlon-adorned exterior, which displays Mughal architecture influences. The palace rooms are ornamented with paintings and stuccos, and a round, reeded tower sits at the center of the roof. The Great Museum of Khorasan in Mashhad’s Kooh-Sangi Park is influenced in its design by the Kalāt Palace.

 

[1] Marvi, Mohammad Kazem (1985). Ālam-Āra-ye Nāderi (Riahi, Mohammad Amin, Ed.). 1st edn. Tehran: Zawwar. p. Introduction.

[2] Formerly also called Abaward, Baward, and Khavaran, and presently known as Dargaz County, it is an ancient city in Iran, located in northern Razavi Khorasan Province, on the northern foothills of the Hezar Masjed Mountains.

[3] Encyclopædia Iranica. “NĀDER SHAH”. Originally published August 15, 2006, accessed January 6, 2015. Retrieved from https://iranicaonline.org/articles/nader-shah.

[4] Āsef, Mohammad Hashem. Rostam ol-Tavārikh. p. 203; Mahdavi, Seyyed Mosleh ol-Ddin (1992). Khāndān-e Sheikh ol-Islam Isfahan. Isfahan: Golbahar. p. 131.

[5] This section: Axworthy. pp. 1–16, 175–210.

[6] Marvi, Mohammad Kazem (1985). Ālam-Āra-ye Nāderi (Riahi, Mohammad Amin, Ed.). 1st edn. Tehran: Zawwar. p. Introduction.

[7] Adib ol-Sho’ara, Mirza Rashid (1967). Tarikh-e Afshar. p. 138.

[8] Haghshenas, Ali (2010). Iran Historical Sovereignty over the Tunbs and BuMusa Islands. Tehran: Sana. p. 24.

[9] Astarabadi, Mirza Mehdi Khan (2009). Nader Shah Bible (Jafarian, Rasul, Ed.). Tehran: Elmi.

[10] Dorosti, Ahmad (2012). Structural Transformation of Government in Pre-Modern Iran. Tehran: Mizan. p. 223.

[11] Astarabadi, 1998: 182.

[12] Ibid.: 373

[13] Ibid.: 390

[14] Marvi, 1995: 447

[15] The sources for this subsection are:

  • Fraser, James Baillie. Nadir Shah Afshar (Naser al-Molk, Abolqasem, Trans.; Daniya, Mohammad-Taghi, Ed.).
  • Lockhart, Laurence. Nadir Shah (Hamadani, Moshfegh, Trans. & Ed.).
  • Lockhart, Laurence. Nadir Shah: The Last Asian Conqueror (Afshar Naderi, Ismail, Trans.)
  • Sykes, Sir Percy. A History of Persia – Vol. 2 (Fakhr Da’ee, Seyyed Mohammad-Taghi, Trans.). Tehran: Donya-ye Ketab.

[16] Nourizadeh Bushehri, Ismail (1945). An Overview of Iran and the Persian Gulf. Hodud Publishers.

[17] Marvi. Volume 1. p. 74, pp. 93–97.