The Siege of Herat 1837-1838
By: John Carl Nelson, 1976
Chapter 1: Herat and the formation of Persia and Afghanistan 1500 - 1800
Herat had withstood many sieges during its troubled history and had fallen to many conquerors. In the early fifteenth century it was the capital of a wide empire ruled by the son of Tamerlane, but his successors allowed this empire to dwindle until in 1506 Herat fell to the Uzbegs, fresh invaders from Central Asia. Four years later the Uzbegs were pushed aside by Shah Ismail Safavi, the founder of a revitalized Persian empire, and Herat, along with the cities of Mashad, Merv, and Kandahar became one of the Governor-generalships of the eastern Safavid province of Khorasan.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were times of great empires in Western Asia. Safavid Persia coexisted with the Mogul empire of India, the Uzbeg Khanate of Bukhara, the Ottoman empire, and the emerging empire of Russia. There were fluctuations in the borders between them, and occasionally bitter wars, but on the whole these empires gave a good measure of stability to Western Asia for 200 years. The collapse of this stability in the mid-eighteenth century opened the way to the intervention of outside powers in the area.
Safavid Persia reached its peak in power and prosperity under Shah Abbas (1586-1628). Abbas' conquests and reforms gave the empire a hundred years of peace but there also began a process of internal decay. As the Safavid empire declined, its control over the border areas weakened. A revolt of the Ghilzai tribe at Kandahar in 1709 culminated in their sack of Isfahan, the Safavid capital, and the deposition of the Safavi dynasty. Chaos ensued as Afghans, Turks, and Russians descended upon the land. Persia was occupied and partitioned.
One of the Safavid generals, Nadir Kuli, was able to provide the leadership that the last Safavid Shahs had lacked. In 1729 he led an army that by 1735 delivered central Persia from the invaders and in that year he proclaimed himself Shah. After careful preparation he next conducted a great campaign in the east. From 1737 to 1740 he marched to Kandahar, Delhi, and Bukhara, crushing the Ghilzais and dealing the Mogul and Uzbeg empires crippling blows from which they never recovered. The assassination of Nadir in 1747 however, was the signal for renewed anarchy.
The destruction of Safavid Persia allowed tribal forces there to gain control and in the process a lasting division of Persia was created. While Nadir's heirs clung precariously to Mashad, the Zand and Kajar tribes battled for control of the western provinces and the Durrani tribe gained possession of the east. The land was devastated. Khorasan especially became a battlefield; there were invasions from both east and west as well as Uzbeg raids from the north. Within forty years following 1719, Herat changed hands five times and was under siege for a total of 24 months.
The Zand tribe gained a brief ascendancy in the west under Karim Khan, but after his death in 1778 the tribe fell apart in bitter civil wars. Aga Mohammed Khan took advantage of this situation to lead his Kajar tribe to victory and although he was assassinated in 1797 he left a fairly stable throne in Persia to his successor. 5 In the east after Nadir's assassination, Ahmad Shah of the Durrani tribe gained control of Khorasan, including Herat, but his main effort was against India where he brought the entire Indus river basin under Afghan rule.
The end result was that by 1800 what had been a relatively stable situation in which great empires coexisted was replaced by a highly unstable composition of tribal states. The Kajar rulers of Persia considered themselves the successors of the Safavids, and consciously tried to restore the outward appearance of that empire, but their efforts were to be less than successful. The Afghan dominion lacked this tradition to fall back on since it encompassed the border areas of three empires. The Mogul empire had vanished in all but name. The Uzbeg Khanate had broken up. The Ottoman empire had lost control of many out-lying areas. Russia, however, had grown strong and its power was being increasingly felt in the neighboring areas
Herat was a microcosm of conditions in Iran at this time. Geographically, Iran was a land of contrasts. High mountains gave way to flat plains and fertile river valleys existed next to sterile deserts. Mountains and deserts restricted travel and communications to certain well-defined routes. The most important one ran from the west through Tabriz, Mashad, Herat, and Kandahar to India. This route was an important artery of trade since ancient times and the only way from east to west that was practical for large armies with heavy artillery. Major cities along the way had great strategic value. Herat was especially important since it was also a crossroads for routes going north to Bukhara and Central Asia. It functioned as the chief point of trade and communications for all Khorasan and beyond.
The city of Herat was situated in a fertile river valley with mountains on the north and east, and deserts to the west and south. Although it had a population of 100,000 and was the second largest city in Iran in 1800, its former prosperity was gone. Ruined suburbs surrounded the city and large areas within the walls lay abandoned. The walls themselves were neglected and many sections had collapsed. In the countryside, irrigation works were in disrepair and although two crops were harvested a year, the produce was barely sufficient for local needs. The peasants of the district and most of the city dwellers were Persian in both language and tradition but numerous Turkish and Afghan nomad tribes lived in the surrounding mountains and deserts, and they dominated the settled population.
Two fundamental problems in Iran at this time were drastic depopulation and the collapse of the urban economy. There are no hard statistics but the population of Iran seems to have declined by as much as half during the eighteenth century. European visitors were particularly struck by the desolate aspects of the cities and the ruined suburbs that surrounded them. One reason for this was the continual wars of the period. Almost every district was devastated at least once, some many times. The second important reason was the withering away of the transcontinental trade that had nourished Iranian cities since ancient times. Trade routes had shifted to the sea and the interior cities sank to little more than centers for local production and marketing.
As a result of this economic situation, governments could no longer draw enough wealth from the cities to sustain themselves and the tribal elements emerged in a dominant position. According to some estimates, the nomads comprised at least half the population in 1800. The tribal leaders owed their positions to tribal custom, not to the state, and the state was forced to rely on their independent military forces. The greatest problem the Kajar and Durrani rulers faced was how to bring the tribes under their control. The early Kajars followed a policy of divide and rule with some success but the Durranis faced more difficult problems and were less successful.
Notes to Chapter 1
- Minorsky, trans., Tadhkirat al-Mulk a Manual of Safavid Administration, Translated and Explained (Cambridge, England: Luzac and Co., 1943), p. 168.
- Lawrence Lockhart, The Fall of the Safavi Dynasty and the Afghan Occupation of Persia (Cambridge, England: University Press, 1950), pp. 1-34.
- Lockhart, The Fall of the Safavi Dynasty and the Afghan Occupation of Persia, pp. 89-297.
- Lawrence Lockhart, Nadir Shah. A Critical Study Based Mainly on Contemporary Sources (London: Luzac and Co., 1938), p. 1 ff.
- Gavin Hambly, "Aqa Mohammed Khan and the Establishment of the Qajar Dynasty," Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, I, Part 1 (April, 1963).
- Ganda Singh, Ahmad Shah Durrani. Father of Modern Afghanistan (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1959), pp. 24 ff.
- Ann K. S. Lambton, "Persian Society Under the Qajars," Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, XLVIII (1961), 125-28; Rouhollah K. Ramazani, The Foreign Policy of Iran; A Developing Nation in World Affairs (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1966), p.62.
- lran will be used to refer to this geographical area. Persia and Afghanistan will refer only to the Political units.
- Gavin Hambly, "An Introduction to the Economic Organization of Early Qajar Iran," Iran, II (1964), 79.
- Aurthur Conolly, Journey to the North of India Overland from England, Through Russia, Persia, and Affghaunistan, II (London: Richard Bently, 1838), pp. 1-5; Vartan Gregorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan (Stanford, California: Stanford Uniiversity, 1969), pp. 53-55, 424n; Hambly, "Economic Organization of Early Qajar Iran," 70, 79.
- Hambly, "Economic Organization," 70-71; Gregorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, pp. 22, 52-58.
- Mountstuart Elphinstone, Account of the Kingdom of Caubul and its Dependencies in Persia, Tartary, and India London (Longman etc., 1815), p 231; Hambly, "Economic Organization," 70.
- Elphinstone, Account of the Kingdom of Caubul pp. 210-17; Ann K. S. Lambton, Persia, "The Breakdown of a Society," The Central Islamic Lands, P. M. Holt et. al. eds., Vol. I of The Cambridge History of Islam (Cambridge, England: University Press, 1970), p. 434.