Look at that bling – who was he?
Hailed by historians as ‘a second Alexander’ and ‘the Napoleon of the East’, Nader Shah was Shah (monarch) of Persia from 1736 to 1747. He was a gifted military commander and used his prowess to build a huge empire that included Iran, Afghanistan, the North Caucasus, northern India, and much of central Asia. But, despite his military successes, Nader became increasingly cruel in his old age, and was assassinated by his own officers.
Yikes! Was he destined for greatness?
Not exactly. By the early 18th century, the Safavid dynasty had ruled Persia for over 200 years. But their empire began to disintegrate under Sultan Hussayn, due to internal rebellions, and Russian and Ottoman invasions.
Nader was not a member of the ruling Safavid elite. The ambitious son of a peasant herdsman, his early years were turbulent: his father died when he was 13, after which Nader and his mother were captured and forced into slavery. Nader escaped and lived for a while as a robber, before developing his skills as a soldier under a local tribal leader.
When Sultan Hussayn was forced to abdicate, rival factions emerged fighting for control of imperial territories. Nader proved his courage and leadership skills to Tahmasp II, Sultan Hussayn’s son, when he led an uprising against one of Tahmasp’s rivals. He was soon appointed commander of Tahmasp’s forces, and won a number of significant victories.
But how did the soldier become Shah?
Although Nader recaptured swathes of lost Safavid territory for the Shah, Tahmasp grew increasingly jealous of his commander’s military vigour.
Keen to best his underling, Tahmasp launched his own offensive against the Ottomans at Yerevan in 1731. The siege of the city was a resounding failure, and the Persians lost many of Nader’s recent gains in the resulting peace treaty. Tahmasp’s reputation was severely damaged, and he was deposed in favour of his baby son Abbas in 1732, for whom Nader was regent. Nader proclaimed himself Shah in 1736.
What was his most impressive victory?
There are almost too many to choose from. Zealous in his campaigns, Nader pursued and conquered lands from local rebel groups, Ottomans, Russians, and Mughals, among others, accumulating land, troops, and riches as he went.
He led a particularly strong force against the Mughal Empire at the Battle of Karnal in February 1739, where he defeated a 300,000-strong army despite being outnumbered six to one.
But perhaps his most tactically brilliant manoeuvre was his use of a hidden contingent of troops to outflank the Ottomans at the Battle of Yeghevārd in June 1735, during the Ottoman-Persian War (1730-1735). Commandeering enemy artillery, Nader’s forces launched a devastating attack on the Ottomans and won a decisive victory.
So why hadn’t I heard of him?
Despite his military genius, strategic brilliance, and daring conquests, Nader Shah has been overshadowed in Western literature by near-contemporaries such as Napoleon.
Historian Michael Axworthy has suggested that Victorian scholars neglected Nader as they sought to claim Western superiority and justify Western colonialism in the ‘backward’ and ‘barbaric’ East. So Nader has been largely overlooked in the European historical tradition, and even today there are only a handful of studies in English dedicated to his life and military career.
This article was published in issue 70 of Military History Monthly.