A Persian would have expressed similar relief on returning to his native land after a sojourn in Christendom, or even in Ottoman Islam. Until the fall of the Safavid dynasty (1736) an educated Persian would probably have ranked Iranian civilization as superior to any contemporary culture except possibly the Chinese. He would have deprecated Christianity as a reversion to popular polytheism. He might have admitted the superiority of Christendom in science, commerce, and war, but he would have preferred art to science and handicrafts to mechanized industry.
The eighteenth was a bitter century for Persia. Conquered by Afghans from the southeast, harassed by slave-gathering raids from the Uzbeks in the northeast, attacked by Russian depredations in the north, repeatedly overrun by vast Turkish armies in the west, impoverished by the taxgathering tyranny of its own spectacular Nadir Shah, and dismembered by the brutal conflict of rival families for the Persian throne—how could Iran continue, in this turbulence, the great traditions of Persian literature and art?
In the sixteenth century the land now called Afghanistan was divided by three governments: Kabul under Indian rule, Balkh under the Uzbeks, and Herat and Kandahar under the Persians. In 1706-08 the Afghans of Kandahar rose under Mir (Amir) Vais and expelled the Persians. His son Mir Mahmud invaded Persia, deposed the Safavid ruler Husein, and made himself shah. Religion strengthened his arms, for the Afghans followed the Sunni, or orthodox, form of Mohammedanism, and considered the Shi‘a Persians to be damned infidels. Mahmud put to death in hot blood three thousand of Husein’s bodyguard, three hundred Persian nobles, and some two hundred children suspected of resenting the murder of their fathers. After a long rest Mahmud in one day (February 7, 1725) slaughtered all the surviving members of the royal family except Husein and two of his younger children. Then Mahmud went insane, and was killed, aged twenty-seven, by his cousin Ashraf (April 22, 1725), who proclaimed himself shah. So began the bloodletting that devitalized Persia in that century.
Tahmasp, son of Husein, appealed to Russia and Turkey for help; they responded by agreeing to partition Persia between them (1725). A Turkish army entered Persia and took Hamadan, Kazvin, and Maragha, but was defeated by Ashraf near Kermanshah. The Turkish troops lacked fervor; why, they asked, should they fight their fellow Sunnis, the Afghans, to restore the heretical Shi’a Safavids? The Turks made peace with Ashraf, but retained the provinces they had conquered (1727).
Ashraf now seemed secure, but a year later his usurped and alien power was challenged by the rise of an obscure Persian who swept in a few years through a military career as brilliant and bloody as any in history. Nadir Kuli (i.e., “Slave of the Wonderful”—i.e., of Allah) was born in a tent in northeastern Iran (1686). He helped his father to tend their flocks of sheep and goats; he had no schooling but a hard and adventurous life. When he was eighteen, and had succeeded his dead father as head of the family, he and his mother were carried off by Uzbek raiders to Khiva and were sold as slaves. The mother died in bondage, but Nadir escaped, became the head of a robber band, captured Kalat, Nishapur, and Meshed, declared himself and these cities loyal to Shah Tahmasp, and undertook to drive the Afghans out of Persia and restore Tahmasp to the Persian throne. He accomplished this in swift campaigns (1729-30); Tahmasp was reinstated, and made Nadir “sultan” of Khurasan, Seistan, Kerman, and Mazanderan.
The victorious general soon set out to recover the provinces that Turkey had seized. By decisively defeating the Turks at Hamadan (1731) he brought Iraq and Azerbaijan under Persian rule. Hearing of a rebellion in Khurasan, he raised the siege of Erivan and marched fourteen hundred miles across Iraq and Iran to invest Herat—a march that dwarfs the famous crossings of Germany by Frederick the Great in the Seven Years’ War. Meanwhile Tahmasp in person took the field against the Turks, lost all that Nadir had won, and ceded Georgia and Armenia to Turkey on promise of Turkish help against Russia (1732). Nadir rushed back from the east, denounced the treaty, deposed and imprisoned Tahmasp, set up Tahmasp’s six-month-old son as Shah Abbas III, proclaimed himself regent, and sent Turkey a declaration of war.
Having raised, by persuasion or conscription, an army of eighty thousand men, he marched against the Turks. Near Samarra he encountered a vast Turkish force led by Topal Osman, who, maimed in both legs, commanded from a litter. Nadir twice had horses shot under him; his standard-bearer fled, thinking him slain; an Arab contingent on whose aid he had relied turned against him; the Persian rout was complete (July 18, 1733). He assembled the remnants at Hamadan, recruited, armed, and fed new thousands, marched again to meet the Turks, and overwhelmed them at Leilan in a holocaust in which Topal Osman was killed. Another revolt having broken out in southeastern Persia, Nadir again crossed from west to east, and overcame the rebel leader, who committed suicide. Marching back across Persia and Iraq, he met eighty thousand Turks at Baghavand (1735), and so thoroughly defeated them that Turkey signed a peace ceding Tiflis, Gandzha, and Erivan to Persia.
Nadir had not forgotten that Peter the Great had attacked Persia in 1722-23, appropriating the Caspian provinces of Gilan, Astarabad, and Mazanderan, and the cities of Derbent and Baku. Russia, busy on other fronts, had restored the three provinces to Persia (1732). Now (1735) Nadir threatened that unless Russia withdrew from Derbent and Baku he would ally himself with Turkey against Russia. The two cities were surrendered, and Nadir entered Isfahan as the triumphant rebuilder of Persian power. When the child Abbas III died (1736), ending the Safavid dynasty, Nadir wedded reality to form, and made himself Nadir Shah.
Believing that the religious differences between Turkey and Persia made for repeated wars, he declared that henceforth Persia would abandon its Shi‘a heresy and accept the orthodoxy of Sunni Islam. When the head of the Shi‘a sect condemned this move Nadir had him strangled as quietly as possible. He confiscated the religious endowments of Kazvin to meet the expenses of his army, saying that Persia owed more to its army than to its religion.22 Then, lonesome for war, he appointed his son Riza Kuli regent, and led 100,000 men to the conquest of Afghanistan and India.
For a year he besieged Kandahar. When it surrendered (1738) he treated its defenders so leniently that a troop of Afghans enlisted under his standard and remained faithful to him till his death. He marched on to Kabul, the key to the Khyber Pass; there the captured booty enabled him to keep his army in good spirits. Mohammed Shah, Mogul emperor of India, had refused to believe a Persian invasion possible; one of his governors had killed Nadir’s envoy; now Nadir crossed the Himalayas, took Peshawar, crossed the Indus, and advanced to within sixty miles of Delhi before Mohammed’s army resisted him. On the plain of Karnal the immense hordes met in battle (1739); the Indians relied on their elephants, the Persians attacked these patient animals with fireballs; the elephants turned and fled, throwing the Indian army into disorder; ten thousand Indians were slain, more were captured; Mohammed Shah came as a suppliant for mercy “to our heavenly presence,” Nadir reported.23 The victor exacted from him the surrender of Delhi and of nearly all its portable wealth, amounting to £87,500,000, and including the famous Peacock Throne, which had been made (1628-35) for Shah Jehan at the zenith of Mogul power. A riot among the populace killed some of Nadir’s soldiers; he avenged them by allowing his army to massacre 100,000 natives in seven hours. He apologized for this by giving his son Nasrulla in marriage to Mohammed’s daughter. Then he marched unimpeded back to Persia, having established himself as the greatest conqueror since Timur.
It was his fatality that if he disbanded his army it might create havoc and rebellion; if he kept it in force it would have to be clothed and fed; his conclusion was that war would be cheaper than peace if the war could be fought on foreign soil. Whom should he attack next? He remembered the Uzbek raids on northeast Persia, and his own enslavement, and his mother’s death in slavery. In 1740 he led his troops into Uzbekistan. The Emir of Bokhara had no force or stomach to dispute Nadir’s advance; he submitted, paid a huge indemnity, and agreed that the River Oxus should, as of old, be the boundary between Uzbekistan and Persia. The Khan of Khiva had put Nadir’s emissary to death; Nadir slew the Khan, and released thousands of Persian and Russian slaves (1740).
Nadir was all soldier, with no mind left for statesmanship. Peace became for him an intolerable bore. His spoils made him avaricious instead of generous. Enriched by Indian treasure, he declared a three years’ moratorium on taxes in Persia; then he changed his mind and ordered the accustomed payments; his tax collectors impoverished Persia as if it had been a conquered land. He suspected his son of plotting to depose him; he had him blinded. “It is not my eyes that you have put out,” said Riza Kuli, “but the eyes of Persia.”24 The Persians began to hate their savior, as the Russians had learned to hate Peter the Great. The religious leaders roused against him the resentment of a nation offended in its religious faith. He tried to suppress the rising rebellion by wholesale executions; he built pyramids from the skulls of the victims. On June 20, 1747, four members of his own bodyguard entered his tent and attacked him; he killed two of them; the others cut him down. All Persia breathed a sigh of relief.
After him the country fell into worse disorder than under the Afghan domination. Several provincial khans claimed the throne; a contest of assassination ensued. Ahmed Khan Durani contented himself with founding the modern kingdom of Afghanistan; Shah Rukh—handsome, amiable, humane—was blinded shortly after his accession, and retired to rule Khurasan till 1796. Karim Khan emerged victorious from the contest, and established (1750) the Zand dynasty, which held power till 1794. Karim made Shiraz his capital, adorned it with handsome buildings, and gave South Persia twenty-nine years of moderate order and peace. Upon his death the scramble for power took again the form of civil war, and chaos was restored.
With the overthrow of the Safavid dynasty by the Afghans, Persia ended the last of her great periods in art, and only some minor productions graced this century. The Madrasa-i-Shah-Husein (1714) at Isfahan, a college for training scholars and lawyers, was described by Lord Curzon as “one of the stateliest ruins in Persia”;25 Sir Percy Sykes marveled at its “exquisite tiles … and lovely stenciling.”26 The tilemakers were still the ablest in the world, but the impoverishment of the upper classes by protracted warsdestroyed the market for excellence, and compelled the potters to lower their art into an industry. Splendid book covers were made of lacquered papier mâché. Textile workers produced brocades and embroidery of consummate finesse. Persian rugs, though they had seen their last supremacy under Shah Abbas I, were still woven for the fortunate of many nations. Especially at Joshagan, Herat, Kerman, and Shiraz, the weavers produced carpets that “suffer only by comparison with their classical predecessors.”27
The Afghan conquest broke the heart of Persian poetry, and left it almost voiceless through the ensuing servitude. Lutf ‘Ali Beg Adar, about 1750, compiled a biographical dictionary of Persian poets, concluding with sixty contemporaries; despite this apparent abundance, he deplored what seemed to him the dearth of good writers in his time, and ascribed it to the prevalent chaos and misery, “which have reached such a point that no one has the heart to read poetry, let alone compose it.”28 Typical was the experience of Shaykh ‘Ali Hazin, who wrote four diwans (collections) of verse, but was caught in the siege of Isfahan by the Afghans; all the dwellers in his household died then except himself; he recovered, fled from the ruins of the once beautiful city, and spent the last thirty-three years of his life in India. In his Memoirs (1742) he commemorated a hundred Persian poets of his time. Accounted greatest of these was Sayyid Ahmad Hatif of Isfahan; probably the most praised of his poems was an ecstatic reaffirmation of faith in God despite doubt and desolation:
In the church I said to a Christian charmer of hearts, “O thou in whose net the heart is held captive!
O thou to the warp of whose girdle each hair tip of mine is separately bound!
How long wilt thou miss the way to the Divine Unity?
How long wilt thou impose upon the One the shame of the Trinity?
How can it be right to name the One True God “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”?
She parted her sweet lips and said to me, while with sweet laughter she poured sugar from her lips:
“If thou art aware of the secret of the Divine Unity, do not cast upon me the stigma of infidelity!
In three mirrors the Eternal Beauty casts a ray from His effulgent countenance.” . . .
Whilst we were so speaking, this chant rose up beside us from the church bell:
“He is One and there is naught but He;
There is no God save Him alone!” . . .
In the heart of each atom which thou cleavest thou wilt behold a sun in the midst.
If thou givest whatever thou hast to love, may I be accounted an infidel if thou shouldst suffer a grain of loss! . . .
Thou wilt pass beyond the narrow straits of dimensions, and wilt behold the spacious realms of the Placeless;
Thou shalt hear what ear hath not heard, and shalt see what eye hath not seen;
Until they shall bring thee to a place where, of the world and its people, thou shalt behold One alone.
To that One thou shalt give love with heart and soul, until with the eye of certainty thou shalt clearly see that
“He is One and there is naught but he;
There is no God save Him alone!”29