Nadir Shah (1687-1747) ruled Persia for eleven years. He rose from abject poverty to become one of the most powerful monarchs of his time. This spectacular success was due, in great part, to his ability to manipulate people, applying the right proportion of flattery and brute force to reach his goals.
Born Nadir Kouli, the future monarch was born on October 22, 1687 a few miles southeast of Meshed, in the present-day nation of Iran. He was descended from the Afshars, a tribe of Tartars who were subservient to the indigenous high-ranking Persians. The Afshars were a nomadic community that made a living by raising farm animals, supplying horses and cattle to the Persians. Nadir's father made and sold caps and sheepskin coats, the clothing worn by common people. Nadir was brought up to be a shepherd.
At the age of 13, his father died and Nadir had to find a way to support himself and his mother. He had no source of income other than the sticks he gathered for firewood, which he transported to the market on an ass or camel. Many years later, when he was returning in triumph from his conquest of India, he led the army to his birthplace and made a speech to his generals about his early life of deprivation. He said, "You now see to what height it has pleased the Almighty to exalt me; from hence, learn not to despise men of low estate." Nadir's early experiences did not, however, make him particularly compassionate toward the poor. Throughout his career, he was only interested in his own advancement.
In 1704, when he was about 17, a band of marauding Uzbek Tartars invaded the province of Khorasan, where Nadir lived with his mother. They killed many peasants. Nadir and his mother were among those who were carried off into slavery. His mother died in captivity. Somehow, Nadir managed to escape and returned to the province of Khorasan in 1708. Living under the most desperate circumstances, he and his friends stole a flock of sheep and sold them in the market. With the money they made, they fled into the mountains.
Tiring of life as a fugitive, Nadir presented himself to a Baig, or nobleman. He was employed as a courier, to deliver important messages to the royal court at Isfahan in 1712. A second courier accompanied Nadir on these missions. On one of their journeys, he murdered his fellow-courier either because his companion was slowing him down or, as is more likely, because he wanted to be the sole carrier of messages to the royal court.
At the court of Sultan Shah Hussein in Isfahan, Nadir gave such a convincing account of the reasons he had been forced to kill his companion on the road that he was pardoned and sent back with presents and answers to the letters he had brought. However, upon his return he saw that his master was quite upset. By the look on his face, Nadir assumed that the Baig planned to kill him. He had also fallen in love with the Baig's daughter, but the master flatly refused to consider letting them marry. Because of his disappointment and in order to defend himself, Nadir killed the Baig and fled into the mountains with his daughter, where their first son, Riza Kouli Mirza, was born. Other servants of the Baig joined Nadir and they formed a gang of robbers operating in the province of Mazanderan.
About 1714, Nadir went to Babulu Khan, the governor of Khorasan, and asked for a job. Since Mazanderan was about 400 miles from Khorasan, he hoped that news of the plundering raids might not have reached Babulu Khan. Whatever doubts the governor may have had about Nadir, they were tempered by the fact that Tartar invasions plagued his administration. Any man showing military promise or bravado was welcomed into the fold. In the following weeks and months, Nadir carried himself so well in Babulu Khan's service that he won the affection of his new master.
In 1717, Nadir was placed in command of Babulu Khan's force of 6,000 men. Babulu Khan recognized that, at the age of 33, Nadir's military acumen was far keener than that of his more experienced officers. Nadir led these men to confront 10,000 Tartars on horseback. By choosing the right vantage point he scored his first military victory, killing 3,000 Tartars and reclaiming all the plunder and captives.
Nadir returned in triumph. Marching up to Babulu Khan, he demanded that he be made a general. Khan stalled, with the excuse that he would have to get permission from Shah Sultan Hussein, the Persian emperor. Either because royal permission was not granted or because Babulu Khan gave in to the growing jealousy among his army officers, Nadir was denied command of the forces. Instead, a much younger man, who was related to Babulu Khan and was also an officer without much experience, was appointed to the position. Wild with disappointment, Nadir charged that Babulu Khan had not acted as a man of honor. Such insolence from a protege was not easily tolerated in those days, and Nadir rapidly fell from grace. Babulu Khan had him whipped on the soles of his feet, one of the most painful punishments that can be endured.
After leaving in disgrace, Nadir turned for help to an uncle, an Afshar chieftain from the town of Kaelat. However, the uncle became suspicious of Nadir's ambitious nature and distanced himself from his nephew. Nadir resumed his life of crime, collecting a band of 800 men who would come down regularly from the mountains to loot villages in Khorasan province, or extorting regular contributions from villagers.
By 1722, the Afghans under King Mahmud were in control of Isfahan and Shah Sultan Hussein had been forced to give up his crown. However, they did not have control of the entire empire, and Shah Tehmas, fourth son of Sultan Hussein was considered the lawful king of Persia. Around 1727, one of Shah Tehmas's generals fled with 1500 of his men when he feared that some action would provoke the king's anger. This general joined forces with Nadir and his men, instantly increasing their numbers to 3000. Nadir's uncle grew alarmed because his nephew was within striking distance of Kaelat. The uncle wrote Nadir an ingratiating letter, promising to plead for royal pardon to Shah Tehmas so that Nadir and his followers could find legitimate employment in the army of Shah Tehmas. Nadir accepted his uncle's proposal and Shah Tehmas signed the royal pardon, being in need of soldiers for his army. Nadir went to Kaelat with a few of his men, to be welcomed enthusiastically by his uncle. The second night after his arrival, Nadir ordered that all the sentries be killed and shut the remaining 200 men in their barracks. He went into his uncle's chamber and murdered him. At a prearranged signal from Nadir, 500 more of his men moved in and quickly took control.
Nadir realized that he had to win favor with Shah Tehmas. The best way to accomplish this would be to win a battle against the hated Afghans, who had invaded and ruled portions of Persia for the last five years. With a garrison of 3000 men, he mounted an expedition against the neighboring city of Nichabur, which was controlled by the Afghans. Realizing that he and his men were not experienced in prolonged sieges, he planned a clever ruse to lure the forces out of the garrison. A smaller contingent of Nadir's forces massacred 600 men from the garrison. When the governor came out with the remainder of his forces, Nadir's men turned and fled toward the mountains, pursued hotly by the governor and his men. When the Afghan forces entered the narrow mountain passes, the remainder of Nadir's men easily slaughtered them. Nadir returned to Nichabur, where he claimed publicly that he had won that city for the glory of Shah Tehmas. He treated its inhabitants so well that 1000 men voluntarily enlisted in his army.
Nadir made his way to Shah Tehmas, whom he convinced with the greatest show of sincerity that everything he had done, including the murder of his uncle, had been for the glory of his sovereign. In the process, he obtained a royal pardon not only for himself, but for the general who had defected earlier from Tehmas' camp.
Nadir proceeded to connive the murder of Fateh Ali Khan Khajar, one of Shah Tehmas' generals, by convincing the gullible king of the general's supposedly subversive activities. Shah Tehmas, greatly troubled, told Nadir that he had sworn an oath never to harm Fateh Ali. In response, Nadir reportedly said "But I have not sworn any such oath," and offered to carry out this service as a loyal servant of Shah Tehmas. He killed the general and displayed his head on a spear to the troops, instructing his men to quickly subdue any murmurs of revolt or foul play. For this act, Nadir was given the title of "Khan" by Shah Tehmas.
Through 1728 and 1729 Nadir continued his military operations, consolidating his hold over provinces formerly controlled by the Afghans. He captured Isfahan, executing thousands of remaining Afghans. The former ruler of Isfahan retreated with his men to Shiraz after first murdering Shah Tehmas' father, Shah Sultan Hussein, and others of the Persian royal family.
Nadir's methods as a general have been contrasted with those of Alexander the Great, another warrior driven to expand the frontiers of his vast empire. While Alexander inspired unswerving loyalty from his troops, Nadir kept his army together through fear. He was adept at deciding which officers to promote and whom to discharge. He insured that soldiers were paid punctually and that they were well clothed. Jonas Hanway, an English trader who saw Nadir in camp wrote, "His voice was so strong and sonorous as to be audible at an incredible distance. The effect that it had upon his own soldiers as well as an enemy when he gave his commands in the field of battle, proved one great step in his advancement." According to Hanway, the battle-ax was Nadir's favorite weapon: "his blows carried inevitable death."
The future emperor of Persia, according to Hanway, had a remarkable memory for the names and faces of anyone he had ever met. He had a strong grasp of finances and knew the exact amount of revenue collected from each province. Nadir was about six feet tall, well built, with black hair and a tanned complexion. Not particularly introspective, he acted immediately on his impulses in any given situation and then moved on. Hanway wrote that Nadir drank wine and brandy quite freely in his earlier years, although this violates Islamic tenets. Later, he restricted himself to an occasional glass of wine. Though his dress was simple for a monarch, jewels held a particular fascination. Many were inlaid in his turban. He was said to have owned a large sapphire that he played with while conducting business in his tent. His harem, which accompanied him on many military campaigns, eventually grew to include some 33 women.
By 1730, Nadir managed to oust the Afghan leader Ashreff from Shiraz. A tribe of Baluchis eventually murdered the fleeing Ashreff. Being a peace-loving man like his father before him, Shah Tehmas urged Nadir to retire to Isfahan and let the country heal its wounds from years of war and external oppression. Nadir's reaction was to invite Shah Tehmas to a dinner, where he was drugged and placed under house arrest for, among other things, allegedly entering into a cowardly treaty with the Turks. Nadir installed the king's son, the six-month-old infant Abbas, and effectively began to function as king. In 1736, Abbas died and the ruling class had little choice but to elect Nadir as the new king of Persia. Two coins were released on the occasion, inscribed "Nadir King of Kings and Glory of the Age" and "Coins Proclaim Through the Earth the Reign of Nadir the King Who Conquers the World."
As Shah, Nadir used every means at his disposal to extract the maximum possible revenues from his provinces by any means necessary, including the threat of torture and death. Hanway quoted a merchant he met during his travels, who said "If the king goes on at this rate, in another year we must make money out of wood, for neither gold nor silver will appear except in his treasuries." Nadir needed a steady influx of revenues to sustain his army and support his military operations. His insatiable avarice stoked a new flame in his mind: the determination to march across Aghanistan through the narrow Khyber pass to sieze Delhi, and with it the enormous wealth of Moghul India.
By the end of December 1936, Nadir began a march to India with 80,000 men. Along the way, he won military victories at Khandahar and Kabul, and finally reached Peshawar in present-day Pakistan. Delhi, Nadir's ultimate prize, lay 450 miles away. Nadir's reputation preceded him, spreading an aura of fear. However, intrigues and infighting between two generals, Nizam al Muluck and Devran Khan, brought weakness to the Moghul side. Al Muluck struck up a correspondence with Nadir before the assault on Delhi, hoping to benefit from the spoils of victory, which he was sure would go to Nadir. Al Muluck had very little insight into Nadir's true intentions, because the wily emperor claimed to lack interest in conquering India. Nadir said that his men were exhausted by their campaigns and merely wished to partake of the Mughal ruler's hospitality and refresh themselves.
Nadir's forces crossed the broad crocodile-infested river Indus by means of pontoon bridges. These were constructed by laying boats on rows of iron chains floating on inflated animal skins. They finally confronted the imperial army of India consisting of 200,000 fighting men, and hundreds of elephants. Nadir knew the elephants were capable of causing major havoc, but he had a plan. He had built a number of wooden platforms, which were supported on either side by two camels. On these platforms he placed naphtha and other combustible materials, and at the proper time, had them ignited. When the camels approached, the elephants turned, trumpeting in terror and trampling upon their own troops. More than 17,000 Indian soldiers died in that battle. Nadir continued on to Delhi.
In March 1739, Nadir unleashed an unbridled massacre on the citizens of Delhi. Soldiers broke into homes, killing men, women and children. The slaughter lasted from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon; by a conservative estimate, 200,000 people were killed. This constituted a large majority of the population. Jewelers and goldsmiths' shops were plundered and many set on fire. Thousands of women were raped and thousands more threw themselves into wells in desperation. Nadir ordered the granaries of the city sealed, and imposed a curfew upon the city. Persian guards caught those who tried to escape, and cut off their ears or noses. The citizens of Delhi went to Nadir in a group and begged him to allow them to buy bread. He finally relented and allowed them to go to Faridabad for provisions.
The greatest prize that Nadir carried back to India at the end of his murderous rampage was the famed Peacock Throne. The throne, which took seven years to complete, was lavishly encrusted with jewels. Four legs of gold supported the seat; 12 pillars made of emeralds held up the jewelled canopy. Each pillar had two peacocks studded with gems, and between each peacock was a tree covered with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and pearls. The other priceless trophy he took back was the giant diamond he called "Kohinoor, "Persian for "Mountain of Light." In its original form, the diamond weighed over 191 metric carats. By the reckoning of historian, James Frazer, the total wealth plundered by Nadir Shah including jewels, gold, the Peacock Throne, cannons and other provisions was reckoned at not less than 85,500,000 English pounds as valued in the year 1753. In his retreat from India, Nadir also took with him 300 masons and builders, 200 smiths, 200 carpenters, and 100 stone-cutters with the objective of building himself a city like Delhi in Persia, to be called Nadir Abad, or City of Nadir.
Nadir's first son, Riza Kouli Mirza, had plans of his own. Realizing that an earlier rumor that his father had died in battle was false, he plotted to assassinate Nadir as the latter marched back in triumph from India. He enlisted an Afghan to do the job. Nadir was ambushed while he crossed a narrow pass in the company of his wives and eunuchs, but the Afghan missed and Nadir escaped with a bullet wound through his right arm. Upon mounting a full-scale inquisition and finding that his son was behind the plot, Nadir summoned him, hoping for an apology. Riza, a true son of his father, remained insolent, saying that Nadir was a tyrant and deserved to die. "The worst you can do is to kill me." Enraged, Nadir informed his son that that was not the worst fate that he could subject him to, and threatened to cut his eyes out. Riza responded to this with an obscenity. Nadir ordered that his son be blinded and castrated.
Nadir became a victim of his own bloodthirstiness in 1747, when he assembled his forces on Sultan Maidan, near Meshed. He had recently become aware that his nephew was conspiring against him. Fearing that the Persian members of his army might choose to align themselves with his nephew, he decided to launch a preemptive massacre. He secretly assembled some chiefs of the Uzbeks, Turkmans, and other Tartar factions of his army and, after swearing them to secrecy, ordered them to kill all the Persians in their camp later that night. Unfortunately for Nadir, a Georgian slave in his tent overheard the plot and told one of the Persian officers.
An officer called Salah Beg volunteered to assassinate Nadir earlier in the night before this plan could be implemented. That night Salah Beg burst into Nadir's tent with a few other officers, killing a eunuch and an old woman they encountered on the way to his inner chamber. Nadir greeted the men with his saber drawn. Salah Beg managed to wound him with a blow to the collarbone. Despite this, Nadir managed to kill two of the soldiers. He was tripped by one of the tent's cords as he attempted to flee and fatally wounded by Salah Beg. Nadir is said to have asked for mercy in exchange for forgiveness. "You have not shown any mercy, and therefore merit none," Salah Beg is said to have replied, before decapitating Nadir. At the age of 61, after a violent reign of 11 years and three months, Nadir Shah died on June 19, 1747.
Durant, Will, The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, Simon and Schuster, 1954
Hanway, Jonas Historical Account of British Trade Over the Caspian Sea; With the Particular History of the Great Usurper Nadir Kouli, T. Osborne, 1762.
The Sunday Tribune Online (India), June 27, 1999, http://www.tribuneindia.com/99jun27/Sunday/head4.htm (November 3, 1999).