Some biographical subjects, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, are beyond the pale in terms of sympathy, the task one of excoriation and condemnation. This is a point made by an early nineteenth century historian of Persia, Sir John Malcolm, in describing Jonas Hanway, another historian of Nader whose favoured tone was a haughty combination of contempt, superiority and horror: “In describing eastern depots, there has often appeared to me a stronger desire to satisfy the public of the author’s attachment to freedom and his abhorrence, and despotic power under every shape, than to give a clear and just view of those characters whose history was the immediate object of his labours.” Nadir has been a fairly obscure area of study, despite his prominence in the eighteenth century, including the translation into French, under the auspices of the King of Denmark of the primary chronicle of his reign, by Mirza Mehdi Khan Astarabadi. The French, Russian, English, Dutch, as well as Nadir’s neighbours in India and the Ottoman Empire, were intensely interested in the energetic general and king; understandably so, as he had a tendency to invade their lands or demand money and supplies from their merchants.
Even so, the latest biography in English, aside from the one under review, was published in 1938 by Laurence Lockhart, one of the most famous Orientalists of his time, and the former driving force behind Cambridge’s History of Iran. His biography wasn’t bad, actually, nor was his other book The Fall of the Safavi Dynasty and the Afghan Occupation of Persia; I’ve had the opportunity to read both, voluminous, with impressive numbers of sources. But as Iranian history scholar Rudi Matthee points out in a recent article, the sources have improved since these books, with new Dutch, Russian, Armenian and Persian sources recovered from the letters of travellers and archives of trading companies and diplomats. The methodology of Lockhart’s work has also been supplanted: his histories were replete with details and anecdotes, a stock in trade of many an Orientalist biography, but short on analysis and altogether too focused on the morality and personality (or lack thereof) of his subjects; from Lockhart, a reader new to Iranian history might get the impression that a lack of initiative, sexual proclivity and love of drink, in one man, caused the destruction of an entire empire.
Micheal Axworthy’s The Sword of Persia is a corrective, of sorts. His biography makes use of the newest sources made available by scholars like Willem Floor and Mansur Sefatgol, and much more ‘modern’ interpretation of the rise and fall of Nadir Shah’s empire. His work is still a biography, so it does descend into attempts to dissect the guilt, obsessions and angers, loves and desires of its subject; luckily, they rarely dwell on them, except for Nadir’s (not his first name, either, but an assumed name in Persian, meaning ‘rarity’ or ‘dear’) admiration of Timur and conscious attempts to emulate that bloody conqueror, including dragging off the top of Timur’s tomb as a prize of war, Nader’s tendency to react badly to an event and then regret what he had done in response, his love of family and yet his lack of sympathy for any betrayal, even from his children, and a contempt for elites of wealth and lineage and for the pageant of the court. Axworthy avoids excessively dwelling on Nader’s reputed insanity or madness at the end of his reign, his almost paranoid sense of being betrayed constantly, and avoid, generally, dwelling too much on what in his life may have led to the towers of skulls at the end of his reign. Luckily, there isn’t much in the way of moral disapproval, nor the fawning infatuation of many a biographer with his subject. His portrait of Nader, as a vigorous, talented, demanding, stern, dangerous and sometimes ruthless man, is not particularly original, and his book is, with some important exceptions, a rather standard history of the man, and one that occasionally manages to repeat some of Lockhart’s assertions about the singular importance of the Shah’s personal qualities and failings in the rise and fall of empires.
Why read Axworthy’s book, besides its more accessible style, aimed at people with little knowledge of Iran’s history as much as at academics, if it doesn’t say much new? I mentioned that Sword of Persia is a corrective, and as biography it certainly isn’t, but as analysis and as an argument for Nader’s importance to Iranian modernity, its central arguments are nearly as compelling as the narrative itself. The details of his career are easily available online, so I won’t summarize them here, but it was the career of a self-made man, of rare talent, who rose from obscure poverty to be one of the most powerful warlords of the eighteenth century. Sounds like a fantastic novel, and indeed, that was often how Nader’s career was treated until recently, by Lockhart and others as noteworthy because of the heights to which he rose and the depths of his fall. It was a fascination divorced from context, in which Nader was another Alexander, another Timur a bright flash across the tapestry of lethargic Oriental despots; he was a despot for sure, but imbued with the tragic force of a Lear or Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (and Axworthy unfortunately repeats some of these conceits). It was Shakespearean, but Nader Shah was unique, an aberration, a story interesting in the same way that, say, Augustus the Strong or Attila the Hun was and is, but not really crucial enough to really study deeply or apply to an understanding of history deeper than historical drama and lively personality. Axworthy’s Nader Shah lives up to his (very) posthumous honour as the ‘Napoleon of Iran’, not just for the similarities in their career, (again, well suited to our peculiar meta-narratives) but as a man who left a lasting impact on the world, not so much by what he left behind, but by the depth of his shadow across the history of Iran.
Axworthy`s argument for Nader`s importance lays upon a counterfactual, that is, a what might have been. He concedes that the chaos after Nader`s death, when his sons and grandsons, all fairly capable as warriors and administrators, murdered each other in internecine struggle and governors and tribal groups threw off their forced submission under Nader (modern Afghanistan was born in these chaotic days) destroyed what little Nader had implemented as `reform` in administration and army. And what was Persia under Nader Shah but a tremendous war machine, a single engine with Nader its director supplying and equipping a massive army of cavalry and infantry of hundreds of thousands (this from a population of maybe 10 million at the time). Nader `streamlined` the administration of the entire empire, removed the distinction between royal and tribal lands, cut out as many `feudal` middle men as possible between the peasants, cities and merchants that owed taxes, and enforced (lethally) honesty and efficiency on his tax collectors. And what tax collectors, what envy they must seem to our modern day officials, who do not and cannot beat, maim, terrorize and execute those recalcitrant to `share` their wealth (and Nader made no distinction between rich and poor, indeed enjoyed humilitiating the wealthy and privileged, especially those who had gained it through birth alone…I myself wouldn`t mind seeing the Fortune 500 being whipped and beaten in the streets by Turkoman shepherds). Axworthy conjectures, though there is little literary or archeological evidence for it, that manufacturing, especially of linens and guns, must have increased tremendously in order to supply the army, and that standardized, high quality work became typical of Persian firearms. Though technically not as sophisticated as European guns and cannons, the guns of Persia, especially the jezzails, heavy, large bore muskets that had to be fired from a prone or kneeling position, and used by the jazayerchis, mounted infantry that provided the backbone of Nader`s army (or the zamburak, the small swivel cannons mounted on the back of camels used in massive numbers by the Persians). The size and quality of his cannons also increased, indicating again that considerable technical and industrial skill was being concentrated in Nader`s empire.
And for what Conquest, but not for glory, though perhaps to outdue even Timur. For loot. The wealth brought out from India was enough to warrant three years of tax remissions and adorn everything in diamonds, pay for the army for further campaigns against the Turks, the Uzbeks, the Russians The Cambridge History Of Iran argues that Nadir was the last of the great Asiatic conquerors (whatever those are) but Axworthy places Nader squarely in a European tradition, leading unintentionally (it was never any ruler`s intention, of course) some kind of superheated, hothouse Iranian military-fiscal revolution, a la Geoffrey Parker. And indeed, what really separates Louis Quartozze from Nader Shah, from an administrative, fiscal, state centred analysis A state directed to war, being bled white for foreign conquests that never entirely redeem their value in loot, a massive reorientation of society and industry under pressure for war to support that war, and an autocrat mistrustful of nobility and dependent on middling but talented men to run the bureaucratic administration whose main goal is to ensure that taxes are moved directly from the shit of some to the mouths of others. Axworthy`s analysis depends upon the work of men like Michael Black and Jos Gommans, who have done much in their own field of military history to combat Eurocentrism and assumptions of the static primitiveness and degeneracy of military affairs, that technical innovation in arms or social innovation in training and drill were somehow foreign to the non-European world. Most interesting is the comparison Axworthy makes between Nader`s military tactics and the innovations in European forces after the French revolution; unintentionally, and unconsciously, the use of skirmishers, light infantry, mobile artillery, mounted infantry, a reluctance to engage in sieges, all prefigure the war of movements and columns that the French pioneered during their revolution.
I don`t want to risk misrepresenting Axworthy`s argument, or stretching the available evidence for such a military revolution in eighteenth century Iran. The point is that the possibility was where, and the edges of the kind of bureaucratic-fiscal-military complex by the 1740`s typical of Europe were visible enough in Nader Shah`s Persia. Axworthy opines that Nadr, if only things had happened a little differently, if he had lived longer, or died sooner and let his capable but less militarist sons rule, or been less paranoid, then perhaps Nader would have been remembered as a Peter the Great or something. From an academic standpoint, a lot of work remains to be done, as it always does, about eighteenth century Persia: how much continuity, for instance, was their between Nader`s reign and those that followed `Did the regime of Khan Karim Zand, a tribal confederacy whose wealth was based on trade, represent another kind of Iranian modernity, as compared to Nader Shah`s bloody military-fiscal autocratic empireÉ reading Axworthy`s book is worth it, if only for the speculation his arguments cause; his biography of Nader is compelling reading, it isn`t grating as biography, and eighteenth century Iran is hardly the time or place one expects to find an accessible history written about.