Nadir Shah - Persian Conqueror

Nadir Shah

Nadir Shah (Nader Shah), often called the “Napoleon of Iran,” was the last of the Central Asian conquerors who made the region quake under the hoofbeats of his army. Like Genghis Khan, Babur the Tiger, and Timurlane before him, Nadir came from humble origins and rose to the pinnacle of power through a potent combination of great courage, implacable brutality, and shrewd wisdom.

Nadir was born in 1688 in Persia, five years after the defeat of Persia’s great enemy, the Ottoman Turks, at the gates of Vienna in 1683. He was an outsider in Persia, a member of one of the Turkomen tribes that had once swelled the ranks of the armies of Genghis Khan and Timurlane.

Much like Genghis Khan, known in early life as Temujin among the Mughals, Nadir was captured and taken into slavery by a rival Turkomen clan, the Ozbegs, while a boy.

The Ozbegs (modernday Uzbeks) had been powerful in Central Asia since the 14th century, even before the birth of Timurlane, in 1336. Nadir apparently managed to escape his slavery, although his mother, taken with him, seems to have died in captivity. Nadir went to the Afshar clan and sought service under one of their chieftains.

His ambitions proved too much for the Afshars, and he left to found a bandit army, which eventually reached the strength of 5,000 men, all hardened Turkomen warriors like him.

Nadir seemed destined to live out his life as a bandit until war erupted between Persia and Afghanistan in 1719. Prior to this date, the Safavid empire had been powerful in southern Afghanistan and claimed the loyalty of the powerful Ghilzai tribe.

The Safavids, however, were Shi’i Muslims, while the Ghilzais were Sunni. Safavid rulers had respected the different Ghizai beliefs until the Safavid sultan Hussein, who had been raised to the Persian throne in 1694, began a purge under the ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Majilesi, whose zeal in his religion would equal that of the ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini some 300 years later.

Nadir Shah with cavalry troops
Nadir Shah with cavalry troops

All Sunnis were persecuted, both in Iran and in Iranian-controlled regions of Afghanistan. Zoroastrians (Parsees), Jews, and Christians also suffered from this Shi’i inquisition.

In 1715, the Ghilzai leader Mir Wais died of natural causes, but his example kept the Ghilzai resistance alive. Even the Abdali tribe in Afghanistan, which had tried to maintain its neutrality, revolted against the Persians in the city of Herat, which would be contested by Afghans and Persians for decades.

When Mil Wais’s brother seemed willing to come to terms with the Persians, his son, Mahmoud, killed his uncle and in 1719 invaded Persia itself. In 1722, Mahmoud defeated Hussein and became ruler of Iran.

Then he unleashed a reign of terror among the Persians, which soon caused his own supporters to fear for their lives. Consequently in 1725, his Ghizais assassinated him in the Persian capital of Isfahan and his cousin Ashraf became shah, attempting to legitimize his rule by marrying a Safavid princess.

By this time the weakened Safavid Empire proved a tempting target for its enemies. In 1723, Ottoman Turkish troops of the sultan Ahmed III struck from the west, launching damaging raids as far as Hamadan.

At the same time, the Russian forces of Peter the Great, who had just won the Great Northern War (1700–1721), attacked Persia from the north. The once-powerful Safavid Empire was so weakened that it agreed to a peaceful settlement and dividing Iran’s northwestern provinces.

In the beginning of the Afghan invasion of Persia, Nadir had supported Mahmoud and the Ghilzais. But when they ceased paying him and his bandits, he changed loyalties to the son of the Safavid sultan Hussein, who had succeeded his father as Shah Tahmasp II. With Tahmasp II’s support, Nadir began what today would be called a war of national liberation to free the Persians from their foreign oppressors.

He began his revolt in his home province of Khousan, where he knew he could count upon the support of his clansmen. With a growing army he was able to expel Ashraf from Isfahan, but not before he massacred thousands of Persians in revenge. Nadir relentlessly pursued Ashraf, who was overtaken during his retreat and killed in 1730.


Nadir pursued a cautious attack strategy and concentrated his efforts on first removing the weakest of his enemies, the Ghilzais. However Tahmasp II foolishly attacked the Turks, losing Georgia and Armenia to them. Nadir, now the preeminent Safavid general, deposed Tahmasp and put upon the throne the young Abbas III.

Although careful to keep up the legitimacy of the Safavid dynasty, there was no doubt now that Nadir was the true ruler of Persia, although Abbas III was officially shah from 1732. In a series of lightning campaigns Nadir struck back at the Russians, now under the czarina Anna, and at the Turks.

The Turks were driven out of the territories they had conquered, and the Russians by 1735 had also been expelled from Persia. By this time, a successful warlord, Nadir overthrew Abbas III and became ruler of Persia in his own right, the first of the Afshar dynasty, in 1736.

Having consolidated his position at home, as Genghis Khan and Timurlane before him, Nadir embarked on a campaign of conquest that took him first into Afghanistan. His diplomatic cunning was shown at its greatest when, apparently with the promise of much booty, he was able in 1739 to enlist the Ghilzais and Abdalis into his army, only nine years after he had chased them out of Persia.

Moreover, in a show of bravura, he allowed the Afghans to join his personal bodyguard troops. Nadir swept aside any Afghan resistance at the cities of Kabul and Kandahar.

It was now that he revealed the real target of his invasion—the riches of the Mughal Empire of India. Nadir was able to enter the capital of the now-decrepit Delhi almost unopposed by the emperor Mohammed Shah. Nadir had already destroyed the main Mughal army at Karnal in the Punjab. On the pretext of an attack on the Persians, Nadir ordered the massacre of thousands of citizens of Delhi.

Some estimates put the number as high as 20,000. For 58 days, Nadir pillaged Delhi. When he finally grew tired, he took back with him a treasure trove of riches. He even took the priceless Koh-i-noor Diamond and the Mughal emperor’s own Peacock Throne.

Until the fall of the Persian (Iranian) monarchy in 1979, the Peacock Throne would be used by the reigning shahs of Persia. On his way back to Afghanistan and then Persia, Nadir was attacked at the Khyber Pass by the Pashtun tribes, either urged on by the Mughals or tempted by the sheer size of Nadir’s treasure train. The attack, however, was defeated by the Persian forces in a counter attack.

Undeterred by the attack in the Khyber Pass, Nadir resumed his campaigns of conquest by sweeping north over the Amu Darya and attacking the rich cities of the Silk Road that reached throughout Central Asia. Bokhara, Khiva, and Samarkand, the city of Timurlane, all fell before him.

However, in his later years, Nadir seems to have fallen victim to a form of dementia and began to think that his closest supporters were turning against him and coveting his power. Fearing that his own son, Reza Qouli, was plotting against him, Nadir had him blinded, presumably in the Persian way, with daggers thrust into both eyes.

Nadir’s end came in his camp at Quchan, when he ordered his Abdali guard to kill his army commanders. Apparently some of the Abdalis, perhaps Ahmad Shah himself, carried the news to the Persians. In June 1747, Nadir was assassinated and beheaded by his own troops.

Ahmad Shah was able to retreat to Afghanistan, where he founded the Durrani dynasty. In Iran, Nadir was succeeded by his nephew Adil Shah, who had most of Nadir’s offspring, including the unfortunate Reza Quoli, killed to assure his title to the throne. The Afshar dynasty would rule in Persia until Karim Khan seized control in the midst of anarchy, launching the Zand dynasty.