Mughal-Safavid Rivalry, Ca. 1500-1747

Mughal-Safavid Rivalry, Ca. 1500-1747

Early in the sixteenth century, Babur, who was descended from Timur on hisfather's side and from Genghis Khan on his mother's, was driven out of hisfather's kingdom in the Ferghana Valley (which straddles contemporaryUzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) by the Shaybani Uzbeks, who had wrestedSamarkand from the Timurids. After several unsuccessful attempts to regainFerghana and Samarkand, Babur crossed the Amu Darya and captured Kabul from thelast of its Mongol rulers in 1504. In his invasion of India in 1526, Babur'sarmy of 12,000 defeated a less mobile force of 100,000 at the First Battle ofPanipat, about forty-five kilometers northwest of Delhi. Although the seat ofthe great Mughal Empire he founded was in India, Babur's memoirs stressed hislove for Kabul--both as a commercial strategic center as well as a beautifulhighland city with an "extremely delightful" climate.

Although Indian Mughal rule technically lasted until the nineteenth century,its days of power extended from 1526 until the death of Babur'sgreat-great-great-grandson, Aurangzeb in 1707. The Mughals originally had comefrom Central Asia, but once they had taken India, the area that is nowAfghanistan was relegated to a mere outpost of the empire. Indeed, during thesixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most of the Hindu Kush area was hotlycontested between the Mughals of India and the powerful Safavids of Iran. Justas Kabul dominates the high road from Central Asia into India, Qandahar commandsthe only approach to India that skirts the Hindu Kush. The strategicallyimportant Kabul-Qandahar axis was the primary forces of competition between theMughals and the Safavids, and Qandahar itself changed hands several times duringthe sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Safavids and the Mughals were notthe only contenders, however. Less powerful but closer at hand were the Uzbeksof Central Asia, who fought for control of Herat in western Afghanistan and forthe northern regions as well where neither the Mughals nor the Safavids were instrength.

The Mughals sought not only to block the historical western invasion routesinto India but also to control the fiercely independent tribes who accepted onlynominal control from Delhi in their mountain strongholds between theKabul-Qandahar axis and the Indus River--especially in the Pashtun area of theSuleiman mountain range. As the area around Qandahar changed hands back andforth between the two great empires on either side, the local Pashtun tribesexploited the situation to their advantage by extracting concessions from bothsides. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Mughals had abandoned theHindu Kush north of Kabul to the Uzbeks, and in 1748 they lost Qandahar to theSafavids for the third and final time.

Toward the end of the seventeenth century, as the power of both the Safavidsand the Mughals waned, new groups began to assert themselves in the Hindu Kusharea. Early in the eighteenth century, one of the Pashtun tribes, the Hotaki,seized Qandahar from the Safavids, and a group of Ghilzai Pashtuns subsequentlymade greater inroads into Safavid territory. The Ghilzai Pashtuns (see_____, ch.2) even managed briefly to hold the Safavid capital of Isfahan, and two membersof this tribe ascended the throne before the Ghilzai were evicted from Iran by awarrior, Nadir Shah, who became known as the "Persian Napoleon."

Nadir Shah conquered Qandahar and Kabul in 1738 along with defeating a greatMughal army in India, plundering Delhi, and massacring thousands of its people.He returned home with vast treasures, including the Peacock Throne, whichthereafter served as a symbol of Iranian imperial might.

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