The Afsharids

The origins of the founder of the Afsharid Dynasty, Nader Shah, also known as Tahmasb-Qoli Khan, is shrouded in rag-to-riches legends. Apparently the son of a simple fur-coat tailor, he was nonetheless a member of the Afshar tribe, a strong component of the Qizilbash confederacy in the early Safavid period. However, the Afshar’s were forcefully relocated to Khorasan, in eastern Iran, by Shah Abbas I, in his attempt to curb the power of the Qizilbash commanders. Nader Khan was born into the Qaraqlu tribe of the Afshars and probably spent his childhood and youth under the threat of the Uzbek attacks from the northeast, and at one point, evolved into a charismatic commander himself. Marrying the daughters of a local Afshar chief, Baba-Ali Beg, he became a warlord in Khorasan and lives as a brigand.

However, the early decades of the 18th century witnessed the increasing weakening of the Safavid state and its final demise at the hands of the Ghilzai Afghan warlord, Mahmoud in 1722. Nader, along with a few other warlord, including Fathali Khan Qajar, started rallying around Prince Tahmasb, the son of the deposed Safavid king, Sultan Hossein, trying to restore the Safavids to the throne. By 1729, Nader had defeated Ashraf Khan (Mahmoud’s successor) and had installed Tahmasb on the throne in Isfahan, himself acting as his commander-in-chief while Fathali Khan Qajar was appointed as the chancellor. At this point, Nader took the honorary title of Tahmasb-Qoli (Slave of Tahmasb) to show his devotion to the restored Safavid monarch.

A few years later, in 1732, the actions of Tahmasb in dealing with the Ottomans and allowing the control parts of Iran allowed Nader to remove him and appoint his young son, Abbas III, on the throne. By this time, however, Nader had also managed to remove Fathali Khan Qajar from his position of power and kept complete control of the throne. So, while campaigning in the Caucasus in 1736, Nader had it arranged to be crowned king in his own right in an assembly at the Mughan Plain in Azarbaijan.

Nader then shifted the seat of his power to Mashhad, by this time the largest city in Khorasan, and close to his own place of birth. However, the official capital remained in Isfahan, which allowed for much political problems, as various Bakhtiari commanders living near Isfahan had already formed their own designs for the capture of the Safavid throne. Nader, however, was concentrating his efforts in conquering the Afghan territories and making his way into India. Largely driven by chronic financial shortcomings and emptiness of his treasury, Nader perceived the only way of filling the coffers in gaining access to the treasures of India.

In 1738, two years after being crowned king, Nader invaded north-western India, ran over Lahore, and entered Delhi, the capital of the Mughal Emperor, Mohammad Shah. There, Nader is reputed to have killed tens of thousands of Mughal soldiers and have ransacked the Mughal treasury, even forcing Mohammad Shah to give one of his daughters in marriage to Nader’s son. Legends about this conquest spread in both the Indian and Iranian milieu, with Nader as the last Iranian conqueror of India establishing the last episode of Iranian greatness, while in India, he is seen as a marauder who took many treasures, including the valuable Darya-ye-Nour and Koh-i-Nour diamonds, from India. In fact, however, Nader did weaken the Mughal power to the point of it having to submit to the demands of the British East India Company, and thus causing the eventual downfall of the Mughals and colonization of India.

During Nader Shah’s absence, his son, Reza Qoli Mirza, as the regent of the kingdom, had proceeded to execute Tahmasb II and his son Abbas III who lived in captivity. His reasons for this action were unexplained, although he claimed that he feared their rebellion in face of rumours that Nader had been assassinated in India. In reality, Reza Qoli Mirza might have been planning a take-over of the throne for himself, which is how his actions were indeed interpreted. Upon his return from India, Nader removed Reza Qoli from his viceroyship and started running his empire from Mashhad. He built a formidable fortress near Darregaz, called Kalat, and reputedly stored all of his Indian treasures there, thus removing them from the main economic circulation. The initial inflow of gold from the Indian expedition resulted in a high number of gold coin minting, although this does no seem to have affected the economy of the Afsharid state greatly. Nader Shah, instead, relied on heavy taxation to run the state economy, while the deteriorating agricultural production was contributing to a deep economic downfall. Nader in the meantime greatly mismanaged the state by using almost all of the taxation income in further wars of conquest, in the meantime restoring all of the western Iranian lands from the Ottoman control, as well as taking over the Persian Gulf region and exerting direct influence over the Hindu Kush region.

However, the growing tyranny of Nader Shah’s rule caused deep political problems in his court. In 1742, Nader blinded his son Reza Qoli Mirza and thus removed him from succession to the throne. He then marginalised all his other sons by exiling them or confining them, thus creating a succession crisis. In 1747, while he was on his way to crush a rebellion in the Caucasus, he was assassinated by his own attendants in Daghestan, thus putting an end to the life of a brilliant military commander, although a weak statesman.

The politics of the court in Mashhad at this time was determined by a group of courtiers, including a former confident of Tahmasb II named Hossein Ali Khan Mo’ayyer. Heading the faction that supported the succession of one of Nader’s son, the Mo’ayyer group was quickly circumnavigated through a coup d’etat conducted by Nader Shah’s nephew, Ali Khan. Ali Khan quickly corned himself Ali Shah (and then Adel Shah “the Just King”) before summarily executing all of Nader’s direct descendents, except a teenage son of Reza Qoli Mirza, named Shahrokh Mirza, who was dying of small-pox.

At the same time, the chaos created by Nader’s assassination had resulted in a power take-over in the actual capital of Isfahan, where a Bakhtiari commander named Ali Mardan Khan had allied himself with another Bakhtiari khan, Abolfath Khan, as well as the leader of the Zand tribe, Karim Khan. The triumvirate of the Lur tribal leaders elevated a certain Ismail, a female-line descendent of Sultan Hossein Safavi, onto the throne as Ismail III. Feeling the threat of the new opposition from Isfahan, Adel Shah sent his brother, Ebrahim Khan, to quash the rebellion. Instead, Ebrahim Khan himself rebelled against his brother, conquered Mashhad, and removed him from the throne in early 1748. At this point, both Adel Shah and Ebrahim had to deal with the rising threat of Ahmad Khan Durrani Abdali, Nader Shah’s formed commander, who had now promoted himself to the position of the king of the Abdalis and had declared the foundation of the independent kingdom of Afghanistan.

Ebrahim soon was killed, in September 1748, and he was succeeded on the throne by his cousin, the same Shahrokh Mirza who had escaped the small-pox and was not the only remaining member of the Afshar dynasty. Shahrokh’s young age initially allowed him to be a toy in the hands of the court, and he was even removed for a period of a year soon after gaining the throne (in 1749) in favour of a female-line descendant of Suleyman I Safavi, who ruled under the title of Soleiman II, but he then was restored on the throne and remained there until 1796. He was in fact one of the longest ruling kings of Iran, although his territory was largely confined to Khorasan. The Afsharid state quickly became a bureaucratic local principality of Khorasan, managing to admirably keep enemies such as the Zand Dynasty and the rising Qajars at bay, while using the sacred status of Mashhad, and the remains of the Indian treasures, to run a relatively smooth state. Although Shahrokh slowly lost part of his territories, including Azarbaijan and Mazandaran, to his rivals, his rule of Khorasan was effective, mediated by his vizier, the aforementioned Mo’ayyer, and one could claim that Khorasan under his rule was the most stable, and prosperous, part of the Iranian territories.

Toward the end of his reign, and upon the demise of a fierce but kind enemy like Karim Khan, Shahrokh Shah was faced with the threat of Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar, the chief of the Qajar tribe and the rising power of the Iranian Plateau. Agha Mohammad Khan attacked Shahrokh’s capital in 1796, captured and tortured the aged monarch in order for him to reveal the place Nader’s Indian treasures (which probably was all spent by this time) and finally put him to death. The story of the Afshar dynasty was decisively closed when Agha Mohammad Khan also killed Shahrokh’s son and successor, Nader Mirza, thus annexing Khorasan to the rest of his empire.

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