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Nader Shah’s conquest of Central Asia: the fall of Bukhara and Khiva

The 18th century saw the advent of a military genius who emerged from the ruins of Safavid Persia to conquer an empire that extended from the Caucasus to the Indus. Of Turcoman origin himself from the Afshar tribe, Nader Shah also led his armies further north, to the Central Asian khanates that in the past had threatened the Safavid state. Neither Bukhara nor Khiva could resist Nader Shah’s the drilled forces and succumbed to his superior firepower.  

Nader Shah (r. 1736-47) is one of those characters that rarely appear in a country’s history. From an obscure background, he rose through the ranks to become a generalissimo during the last years of Safavid rule before taking the crown (or the jiqe to be more accurate) for himself. He modernised and professionalised the army and lead it to great victories against numerically superior opponents, whether the Afghans, Ottomans or Moghuls.

Nader Shah

After extending Persia’s borders in the West, in detriment of the Ottoman Empire, and sacking the riches of Delhi, after which the Moghuls never recovered, Nader Shah turned his attention to Central Asia. The Sword of Persia was no stranger to the region. He hailed from Khorasan, near the modern Iranian-Turkmen border, and during his early career as an army official he had fought the Turkmen raiders in multiple occasions. In fact, it is said that during his youth he was once captured by Turkmen bandits but, whether it is true or not, he was freed after convincing the enslavers with promises of future collaboration. Furthermore, Nader Shah was of Turkic stock, a fact that was made apparent during his interactions with the Safavid and Moghul rulers, with whom he preferred to speak in Turkic rather than in Persian. His role model, at it later became apparent, was no other than Amir Timur (Tamerlane in the West).

In 1740, while at the peak of his power having recently defeated the Moghuls and taken Delhi, he set his sights on Turkestan.

Central Asia at the time of Nader Shah’s conquest

At the time of Nader Shah’s invasion, southern Central Asia had been for some time in a state of political fragmentation and decline.

The Khanate of Bukhara, the same state that under the Shaybanids threatened Safavid Persia and that still flourished during the early 17th century, had seen its fortunes dwindle. Such was the state of the khanate that in 1681 the neighbouring Khivans had managed to briefly occupy Bukhara. The Bukharan khans were unable to curtail the powers of their amirs, who were de facto independent and had no problems carrying out revolutions and murdering khans. Abu al-Fayz Khan (r. 1711-47) reached the throne after the assassination of his brother Ubaidullah and had to deal with an important rebellion that installed another puppet khan in Samarkand. By the time Nader invaded, the authority of Abu al-Fayz Khan barely extended outside his capital, and he was all but powerless.

The situation to the west, in the Khanate of Khiva was not much better. Although a certain degree of political stability had been attained after the period between 1703 and 1704 had seen up to five different khans in the throne, it was in no state to resist the military prowess and superiority of the Persian shah.  

An early warning

Even though it was in 1740 when Nader’s invasion took place, a few years earlier one of his son’s had already carried out an unsanctioned campaign across the Oxus River (modern Amu Darya). Back in 1736, Nader had instructed Reza Qoli, his eldest son, to put down a rebellion in Andkhoy and Balkh (modern Afghanistan). To ensure Reza Qoli would succeed, his father sent with him one of his most trusted commanders, Tahmasp Khan Jalayer.

Reza Qoli, who would later be blinded at the orders his own father

After accomplishing his mission south of the Oxus in 1737, Reza Qoli decided to cross the river with his army of 8,500 men and conquer new territories. Rather than stopping the impulsive youth, as Nader expected, Tahmasp Khan Jalayer supported the idea although this contradicted the shah’s orders. The Persians entered territory subject to the Khan of Bukhara, Abu al-Fayz Khan.

Reza Qoli then proceeded to lay siege to the town of Karshi (modern Uzbekistan), an important settlement in the Khanate of Bukhara. Alarmed, Abu al-Fayz Khan called upon support from across the region, from Khwarazm in the west to Tashkent in the east, from Samarkand to Khujand.  A battle ensued outside Karshi. An initial Uzbek charge pushed Reza Qoli’s forces back, but then the artillery, one of Nader Shah’s greatest military assets, intervened. Unaccustomed to the use of the cannons at such a scale, both men and beasts on the Uzbek side where shocked and many of them lost their lives. Overwhelmed, they retreated to Karshi.

Reza Qoli, back then only 19, had achieved a significant victory but his joy was short-lived. A messenger arrived from Nader ordering in no uncertain terms, threatening Tahmasp Khan Jalayer with his execution, to withdraw south of the Oxus. The young and the veteran had no choice but to comply. They lifted the siege and abandoned Transoxiana. Nader also sent a letter to the Bukharan khan, assuring him of his sovereignty. It would by Nader, and not his son, who would conquer the land of Timur when the time was right. He reserved such honour and glory for himself.

The capitulation of Bukhara

After defeating the Moghul Empire and annexing all territories west of the River Indus, the time was right for Nader to conquer Central Asia. In July 1740, after a team of craftsmen sent from India had built a bridge across the Oxus, a Persian detachment crossed the river and landed at Kelif (modern Turkmenistan). In the meantime, Nader Shah and the majority of the army marched downstream, reaching first Kerki and then Charjuy (modern Turkmenabat). It was at Charjuy where a new bridge was erected and where the main body of the army crossed to the northern shore on September 6.

Abu al-Fayz Khan having learnt of the invasion, sent his atalik (most senior advisor at court) Muhammad Hakim, a powerful figure in the khanate, to Nader to avoid a war. However, the conqueror requested for the sovereign himself to pay him homage. Abu al-Fayz Khan wanted to comply with Nader’s request but faced opposition within his court. An Uzbek force had assembled in Bukhara requesting the khan to fight and avenge their defeat in 1737 at the hands of Reza Qoli. War was the only option.

Ark of Bukhara, residence of the khans

The Bukharan khan awaited with his troops in Karakul, halfway between Charjuy and Bukhara. What followed is unclear. Some sources indicate a battle took place; others make no mention of any combat. According to Axworthy, it is possible that an actual skirmish happened in which some of the Uzbeks attacked but were repelled by the Persian artillery. That was enough for the Bukharans to realise any resistance was futile. Abu al-Fayz Khan capitulated.

The khan was allowed to keep his position as a tributary to Nader, who annexed the Bukharan territories south of the Oxus. The shah had coins struck in his name in Bukhara and had his name mentioned in the khutba in its mosques. However, Nader spared Bukhara from the pillage and sacking from his troops.

Resulting from Nader’s admiration of Timur, he ordered the removal of the jade slab that covered his tomb in Samarkand. He wanted to use it in his own tomb in his de facto capital of Mashhad. A symbolic gesture he came to regret at a later stage. The jade broke in two pieces and, when he arrived to Mashhad, he had the stone returned to Samarkand.

A family affair

The subjugation of Bukhara provided Nader with the possibility of incorporating Genghis Khan’s bloodline to his lineage. The Janid dynasty governing Bukhara at the time traced themselves back to Jochi, the Mongol conqueror’s eldest son. Abu al-Fayz Khan had no choice but to comply with Nader’s demands and gave two of his daughters in marriage. The eldest was destined for Reza Qoli and the youngest for Nader’s nephew, Ali Qoli. Having heard that the youngest daughter of the khan was prettier and cleverer, Reza Qoli, who competed in multiple occasions with his cousin, asked his father to change the arrangement. Nader rejected his son’s proposal and when Reza Qoli said he would not then marry her, his father took a Solomonic decision: he married the elder daughter instead of his son.

Nader and his family now had genealogical ties to both Genghis Khan and Timur, given that after the defeat of the Moghuls another of Nader’s son, Nasrollah, had married a Moghul emperor’s daughter.

The fall of Khwarezm

After taking over Bukhara, Nader set his sights on Khwarazm, where the khanate of Khiva stood. Its capital had a long tradition of slavery, with the Persians representing the majority of those enslaved by the Turkmen and sold in Khiva. Nader sent messengers to Ilbars II, khan of Khiva, requesting him to meet Nader and submit to him. If Ilbars had known the history of the region better, he would not have done what he did: he had the envoys killed. Five centuries earlier, the then mighty ruler of Khwarezm, the Anushteginid Ala ad-Din Muhammad II, had executed Genghis Khan’s emissaries. The Khwarezmshah lost his empire and life because of it. 

At the same time, the Persian heard rumours that a group of Uzbeks and Turkmens were riding towards Charjuy on Ilbar’s orders with the objective of destroying the bridge across the Oxus. With the energy that characterised him, Nader rode towards there immediately, at night, with a small cavalry force. The shah arrived in the early morning, before his enemies. When he saw them approaching, he ordered his men to charge. The Central Asians could not resist the attack and fled.

After resting for some days in Charjuy, Nader’s army marched towards Khwarezm following the course of the Oxus. When he reached Khivan territory, a number of skirmishes with the Yomut Turkmen followed but Ilbars avoided an open battle. Instead, he awaited within the walls of Hazarasp. Finding out that Ilbar’s family and treasure were around 30 kilometres away, in the town of Khangah (modern Khanka?), Nader bypassed Hazarsap and marched towards there. This is a tactic the Persian had used previously in other campaigns to lure enemies out of their fortresses and, as before, it also worked in Khwarezm.

Defeat of Ilbar II at the hands of Nader Shah

Ilbars abandoned the safety of Hazarasp and directed his troops to Khangah. An advance party of Turkmen from the Yomut and Tekke tribes threatened the Persian army. Nader led his guards in a charge that defeated the Turkmen. After this event, at the gates of Khangah, Ilbars gave Nader the battle the shah had been looking for. Ilbars was quickly defeated and took refuge within the fortress. Nader then laid siege to Khangah and days later, before a general assault took place, the garrison surrendered. Now it was the time to deal with the rebellious Ilbars.

The Khan of Khiva pleaded for his life but, at the protest of the families of those envoys Ilbars had executed, Nader sentenced him to death. The khan protested, the messengers had been killed by his men without him knowing, he said. “If you have not the abilities to govern the few subjects who inhabit your territories, you do not deserve to live,” replied the shah. He ordered Ilbars’s throat to be cut together with twenty or thirty of his followers known for their raids and slave trade.

Despite Ilbars death, Khiva would be the last town to surrender. In the khanate’s capital and its surroundings, Nader found large numbers of slaves, many of whom came from his native Khorasan. He freed them, gave them money, provisions and horses, and decreed the establishment of a new town for them, called Khivabad (modern Turkmenistan). He also encountered Russian slaves, some of whom had been captured during the failed Russian attempt to conquer Khwarezm in 1716. He also freed them and gave them the necessary equipment to make their way back to Russia.

The execution of Ilbars meant that the Khivan throne was vacant. Nader addressed this by placing Tahir Khan, a relative of Bukhara’s Abu al-Fayz Khan, as a ruler of Khwarezm. Nader then left Central Asia carrying with him 4,000 young Uzbeks to be incorporated to his army. Also with him was the son of the powerful atalik Muhammad Hakim, Muhammad Rahim, who joined the shah in his future campaigns commanding a force of 10,000 Central Asians. As we will see, Muhammad Rahim would end up playing a key role in Bukhara’s history.

Revolts and end of Afsharid rule in Central Asia

The conquests of Bukhara and Khiva did not mean the end of problems in Nader Shah’s northern borders. Khwarezm, rather than Bukhara, soon became the main source of problems in Turkestan for the Persian monarch.

In 1741, while Nader was campaigning in the Caucasus, the shah was notified that Khwarezm was up in arms. Tahir Khan had barely ruled for six months when the region’s population revolted dissatisfied with his submission to Nader Shah. He was executed. A Kazakh leader, Nuraly Khan, established himself as ruler of Khwarezm. After learning this, Nader sent troops to restore order. Nuraly then fled and the Persians decided to put Abu Muhammad, son of Ilbars, as ruler of Khwarezm. Trouble would emerge from the region in later occasions, with conflicts between the Uzbeks and Turkmen tribes. Nader’s own nephew, Ali Qoli, had to be sent to the region in 1745 to quell down the uprisings.

Bukhara too was victim of the turmoil that seized the khanate after the death of the powerful atalik Muhammad Hakim in 1743, who had been given ample powers by Nader Shah. The rebels even took the capital in 1745. The shah sent Muhammad Hakim’s son, Muhammad Rahim, with an army to supress the uprising. This he did, and he also established himself as the most powerful man in Bukhara, as his father had been in the past, with the khan being a mere figurehead.

Afsharid control of the region disappeared with Nader’s assassination in 1747 in his native Khorasan, near the Iranian-Turkmen border. The great conqueror had become a tyrant and had lost those abilities that had made him a great commander.

In Khiva, a new khan was established after Nader’s death. The Kazakh Kaip Khan was raised to throne and ruled the khanate until his ousting ten years later. What followed was a succession of weak khans that barely lasted a matter of months or years and were under the control of hereditary inaks or prime ministers that would give way to the Qungrat dynasty of khans in 1804.

In Bukhara, the powerful Muhammad Rahim took advantage of the power vacuum that followed Nader’s death and had Abu al-Fayz Khan and his 12-year son executed. He placed a younger son of the deceased khan, 9-year old son Abdulmumin (r. 1747-51), on the throne as a puppet. Muhammad Rahim would later establish the Manghit dynasty that would rule Bukhara until the Soviet conquest in 1920.

Although Nader Shah’s indirect rule of southern Central Asia did not even reach a decade, the impact of his conquest of the region would be felt in the decades and centuries to come. The actions brought by his invasion would eventually lead to the establishment of the two dynasties that would rule Bukhara and Khiva up to the beginning of the 20th century.


Further readings:

Axworthy, Michael (2006). The Sword of Persia: Nader Shah, from Tribal Warrior to Conquering Tyrant. New York: I.B. Tauris

Levi, Scott C. (2020). The Bukharan Crisis: A Connected History of 18th Century Central Asia. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press

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