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  • James Houser

March 22, 1739 - Nader Shah, the Persian Conqueror's Sack of Delhi

Updated: Jun 4, 2021

March 22, 1739. The last great central Asian conqueror, Nader Shah, leads his Persian army into the center of Delhi. At a prearranged signal, he raises his sword and his soldiers commence the great sack of Delhi. The Napoleon of Persia stands quiet as his soldiers strike the final death blow to India's last great native Empire.

Popular conceptions of history – that is, history for us Americans – tends to ignore most of the Asian continent until the Europeans “discover” it. The common narrative taught in school is that there were Persians, and then they fought the Greeks, and then Alexander conquered them, and that’s the end. As far as what happened to the lands of Iran after that, it goes down the memory hole. Why would we talk about that when we could rehash the Tudors or the American Civil War for the fiftieth time?

I admit, I don’t discuss it on here as much as I should. One of the main reasons is that I’ve gotten a grasp of what people like and what actually gets people reading my posts, and it’s not obscure Uzbek warlords or Chinese Emperors that no one has ever heard of. There were people that shook the foundations of the world, though, in ways very few people can process, and one of those people was Nader Shah.

From 1501, Persia had been under the rule of the Safavids, a Shi’a Muslim Iranian dynasty that had overthrown the old Mongol warlords and restored native rule to the lands of Persia. The Safavid Persian Empire contained modern-day Iran, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and most of Central Asia. It was a cultural and literary powerhouse, an economic stronghold, and contained an efficient bureaucracy built on a system of checks and balances. It also boasted a powerful army with well-trained musketmen, excellent light cavalry, and a decent artillery train.

The peak of the Safavids had been under Shah Abbas the Great, who ruled from 1571 to 1629. Abbas had led the Empire to its military apex, defeating its old nemesis the Ottomans in a series of great battles and conquering modern-day Iraq as well. Those days, though, were long past by 1700. The Safavid Empire was declining after a series of failures and incompetent Shahs, and in 1694 Shah Husayn, an alcoholic obsessed with his harem, ascended to the throne. In 1722, Husayn was overthrown by a band of Afghan tribesmen, and the empire immediately split into warring factions. Only one of Husayn’s sons – Tahmasp II – fled into the hills, the rest being slaughtered.

When the Safavids abruptly collapsed, the Ottomans, Russians and Afghans all sought to split away territory. With Tahmasp wandering through the hills, he may have wondered if he’d even have an empire to retake. It was on his aimless travels that he met a local bandit and Oghuz Turk tribal leader named Nader. Nader quickly wormed his way into Tahmasp’s confidence and proved himself not only a charismatic and ruthless man, but a brilliant military leader as well.

Contemporary painting of Nader Shah, date unknown

Together, Shah Tahmasp and his general Nader blitzed through northern Iran and Afghanistan, and the more victories Nader won the more his fame grew. In 1729, Nader overthrew the Afghans and recaptured the capital city of Isfahan. He harried the Afghan tribes nearly to their deaths, and destroyed the ancient city of Kandahar. Nader was brilliant, but utterly ruthless and used to suffering. His father had died of illness, and he and his mother had been sold into slavery where she later died. He had no tolerance for weakness.

In 1730, Nader took Persia to war with the Ottomans to reclaim the lost territories. Shah Tahmasp, growing jealous of his general, decided to lead one campaign himself, and suffered a humiliating defeat, losing much of what Nader had reconquered. Nader took the opportunity to ease Tahmasp out of power, replaced him with the Shah’s infant son Abbas III, and had himself appointed as regent. It was clear who was really in charge.

With brilliant victories at Nahavand, Kirkuk, and Yeghevard, Nader defeated multiple larger Ottoman armies and reconquered Armenia and Georgia. Any of these battles, virtually unknown in the west, was the equivalent of Napoleon or Lee in their tactical brilliance. He also defeated the Russians and drove them back across the Caucasus. He had restored Persia’s borders, reunified the Empire, and settled multiple religious questions that had plagued the land. With all this behind him, Nader finally shoved young Abbas aside and took the title himself. Finally Nader the Shah, he had bigger fish to fry.

Nader decided to invade India. The once-powerful Mughal Empire of Delhi, formerly the strongest state in the subcontinent, had lost its luster and was fragmenting. Its ruler Muhammad Shah was powerless to stop it. He had given some of Nader’s old Afghan enemies after their defeat, and Nader found this a useful pretext to invade the Mughal lands. India was fabulously, famously rich, and Nader saw a lot to gain from a successful invasion of India.

Iranian painting of Nader as Shah

In 1739, Nader led his army through Afghanistan and found an enemy army blocking his way at the Khyber Pass, the only route through the Hindu Kush that has traditionally linked Afghanistan with the Indian subcontinent. This could have been a Thermopylae, with the Indians playing the Greeks and the Persians playing…well, the Persians – but Nader Shah was not Xerxes. He personally led a small detachment of his troops through a grueling mountain march over nearly impassable goat tracks and utterly destroyed his opponent besides being beaten two to one.

Muhammad Shah mustered an enormous army – nearly 300,000 men – to counter Nader’s 50,000. The Persian Shah was outnumbered six to one, but his men were well-drilled and battle-hardened. The Mughal Indian artillery was too heavy to be maneuvered around the battlefield, but Nader had light guns aplenty that could keep up with his infantry. The Mughals had over 3,000 artillery pieces and 2,000 war elephants, but the days when war elephants were useful had long passed. The Mughal cavalry was a swarm of spear-armed tribal raiders rather than a coherent force, and Nader’s Persians were elite light cavalry who fought with sword and trained to shoot muskets from horseback.

They met at Karnal, on February 24, 1739, and I don’t need to tell you what happened. Outnumbered 6 to 1, Nader Shah fought his greatest battle, led his enemies into a trap, and demolished the army of Mughal India.

Battle of Karnal, from a Persian rug

Nader entered Delhi with Muhammad, captured at the battle, following behind him as a vassal. He levied a massive tribute, even though he planned to keep Muhammad on the throne as a puppet. His troops maintained strict military discipline, though, and did not harass any civilians or loot any buildings. That is, not without orders.

On March 22, a rumor spread throughout Delhi that Nader had been assassinated. The citizens of Delhi decided to rise up against the Persian soldiers, and a few were killed and fired at. Nader Shah had never brooked insolence or weakness, and he had not changed his ways now. He led his entire army out into the streets, where he raised his sword. The message was obvious: do what you want.

"Nadir Shah at the Sack of Delhi" possibly by Muhammad Ali ign Ali Quli Jabbadar

Until dawn the next day, the Persian army commenced a terrible sack of the jewel of India, the center of Mughal authority and power. Nader followed along, witnessing the massacre with a faraway look, silent as the grave. Huge numbers of civilians were massacred, with mass quantities beheaded at the Yamuna River. Soldiers ransacked houses, killed anyone they found, and set the whole structure afire. The senseless sounds of suffering and rage echoed through the streets as Nader’s army put the city to the sword. Some 30,000 people died in the sack of Delhi.

The loot Nader’s army carried back to Persia was the rough equivalent of $9,500,000,000 in today’s dollars. Nader refused to collect taxes for three years from his country, he was so awash in money and loot from the pillaging of India. When Nader marched back over the Khyber Pass to return to his kingdom, he left India a spoiled wreck.

Nader’s last years were a descent into madness and paranoia. Even as he continued to win devastating victories over the Ottomans and Uzbeks, he began seeing plots all around him. He had the former Shah Tahmasp and his nine-year-old son murdered, had his own son’s eyes put out and brought to him on a platter, and began to descend into general lashing out and murder. His desire to extort more and more taxes to pay for his wars, ruthless crushing of revolts, and increasing ill health made him too dangerous to be around. In 1747, his nobles had him assassinated.

The “Napoleon of the East,” as one historian called him, was brilliant and murderous, as competent as he was brutal and malevolent. A Kashmiri historian has described him as “the horror of Asia, the savior of his country.” That’s reasonable, though he was a horror to his own people as well. He nearly equaled Napoleon in brilliance but vastly exceeded him in cruelty. His true nature is reflected by his admirers – one of whom, Joseph Stalin, credited him as a great teacher along with Ivan the Terrible.

Statue of Nader Shah in Mashhad, Iran

Nader, though, left his own permanent mark on the history of the world in one significant way. His defeat and desolation of the Mughal Empire permanently crippled the major great power of India. The Mughals had not been doing well, but they still might have pulled out of their tailspin; Nader put a permanent end to that notion. The destruction of Delhi and the pillaging of northern India left a vast power vacuum in the subcontinent.

The country that would benefit the most from that vacuum, Great Britain, was the farthest thing from Nader Shah’s mind, but he kicked down the door for them. The true winner of Karnal, the true beneficiary of the sack of Delhi, were the merchants and capitalists of the East India Trading Company. The wealth they would amass was something Nader could never even begin to fathom.

This is Nader Shah’s legacy, in the end: death, destruction, and conquest. Not exactly a role model. But somehow we still praise Columbus, so who the heck are we to judge?

Book Recommendations: There is actually a really excellent biography of Nader Shah by a leading scholar on Iranian military history - see Michael Axworthy, The Sword of Persia: Nader Shah, from Tribal Warrior to Conquering Tyrant (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006). For a more general Iranian history, see the same author's Iran: Empire of the Mind: A History from Zoroaster to the Present Day (London: Penguin, 2008).

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