Nader Shah (d. 1747) is often considered the last of the great (in the sense of “impressive,” not “good”) Central Asian conquerors, after Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane), and (depending on who’s compiling the list) assorted other figures like the first Mughal Emperor Babur. He also the man who kept Iran more or less intact after the collapse of the Safavid dynasty in the early 18th century. The Safavids were defeated and deposed in 1722 by a Ghilzai Afghan army under Mahmud Hotak (d. 1725), and it was Nader (Nader Khan at the time) who then defeated the Afghans and restored nominal Safavid rule in 1729. At the time Nader Khan was the leader of the Afshar, one of the Turkic tribes that made up the Safavids’ Qizilbash military force.
This (mostly for show) Safavid revival lasted all of seven years before Nader got tired of the charade and assumed the throne himself–here’s where he becomes Nader Shah–in 1736. At a time when Iran was at its most vulnerable, Nader’s commanding reign and considerable military prowess not only defended its territory from outside threats but actually increased its regional power. He had, for example, more military success against the Ottomans than any of his Safavid predecessors–though, to be fair, the Ottomans were a fair bit weaker in the 1730s than they were in, say, the 1550s.
Nader Shah played an important role in the demise of two of the three Islamic “Gunpowder Empires” of the early modern (16th-18th century) period. Obviously the Ottomans chugged along until World War I. But in addition to closing the book on the Safavids altogether, Nader Shah also hastened the downfall of India’s Mughal dynasty, and he did it in one dramatic and brutally violent invasion in the late 1730s. The Shiʿa Safavids and Sunni Mughals had been close allies at one time. Safavid military aid helped Babur found the Mughal dynasty in 1526 and helped Babur’s son, Humayun, return to the throne in 1555 after he’d been forced out of power several years earlier. But as the Safavids had waned and the Mughals had gotten stronger, the two empires began to feud over the cities of Kandahar and Kabul. Nader conquered Kandahar in 1738, as he was chasing the remnants of the Ghilzai Afghans out of Iran. When those Afghans sought refuge in Mughal territory, and the Mughals didn’t take any steps to prevent them from getting it, Nader decided to keep marching his army right on into northern India.
By 1738 the Mughals were in decline, just as the Safavids had been in 1722. The apex of Mughal power and success had come under Akbar (r. 1556-1605), Jahangir (r. 1605-1627), and Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1658), rulers who went to great lengths to treat India’s Hindu majority (“majority” doesn’t really do it justice; the Mughals were always vastly outnumbered from a religious perspective) with respect. Under Awrangzeb (r. 1658-1707), however, that pluralism was replaced by a heavy emphasis on Islam and the exclusion and even persecution of Hindus and Hinduism. Consequently, there was a major increase in Hindu revolts against Mughal rule and an overall weakening of Mughal authority. At the same time, their empire still controlled considerable wealth, due to its position as one of the eastern end points of the east-west global trade network. This combination of wealth and weakness may have been irresistible to the Iranians.
It took the Mughals, under Emperor Muhammad Shah (d. 1748), a while to get themselves together to meet Nader’s army, and in the meantime Nader kept taking cities–Kabul, Peshawar, Lahore. Finally, on February 24 1739, the two armies met at Karnal, just 75 miles north of the Mughal capital, Delhi. The Mughals had left Delhi in December, but their army was so large and immobile that it took two months just to get to Karnal and then it got stuck there. Sources say the Mughal army was 300,000 men strong, which sounds unrealistically large at first glance, but as a defensive force in a very large and very wealthy empire in 1739 it’s probably not that outrageous. Nader Shah certainly had far fewer men with him, probably 50,000-100,000 real fighting troops (as with any army on campaign, there would have been thousands more support personnel). Still, Nader’s army was better equipped, better trained, and had considerably more experience fighting together than Muhammad Shah’s army did. Muhammad Shah was also out of his depth as a commander–he didn’t seem to grasp the value of reconnaissance, for example, while Nader was constantly sending riders out to bring him new information.
Muhammad Shah had his army build large earthen works and stationed his heavy artillery (the Mughals had to bring big siege guns with them because they lacked nimbler and ultimately more useful field artillery) all around it. This made a formidable target for Nader, but unfortunately for the Mughals it was also an irrelevant target–Nader could simply march around it and continue on to Delhi. He decided to take a course through a plain to the east of the Mughal camp, reasoning that he would either draw Muhammad Shah out to fight him on the plain or–if the Mughals wouldn’t come out–simply keep marching on to the capital and the vast treasures contained therein.
As luck would have it, a column of maybe 30,000 men was heading to join the Mughal army from the east, under Saʿadat Khan. Nader saw this as a chance to have the battle he wanted on his terms, so after the bulk of Saʿadat Khan’s force had arrived at Karnal, the Iranians attacked his lagging supply train. Saʿadat impetuously turned around and led a few thousand of his men back out of Karnal to drive the Iranians off. Another force of several thousand Mughal cavalry rode out to support him. Nader sent out two units of his own cavalry to attack the two Mughal forces and then immediately retreat, which drew the Mughals toward two different points along the main Iranian line. Both Mughal columns were virtually wiped out by the main Iranian force, though Saʿadat Khan’s men put up quite a fight despite being vastly outnumbered.
That was the battle. Considering that the Mughal army may have been 300,000 strong, Karnal could have been a much bigger fight. As it was the Mughals lost in the neighborhood of 20,000 men (between 10,000 and 30,000 seems to be the range of estimates), compared to around 1000 lost by the Iranians. Muhammad Shah presented himself before Nader on February 26, and, after what appears to have been a very cordial meeting, surrendered his empire to the Iranian ruler, who magnanimously settled for being its “master” while leaving Muhammad Shah on the throne as his vassal. Still, Nader refused to allow the Mughal army to leave its encampment, and gradually it ran out of supplies and people began to starve. On March 7, Nader forced Muhammad Shah to pay him a massive tribute, then he disbanded the Mughal army after confiscating its artillery pieces and its officers.
Nader Shah’s India campaign wasn’t over. His army did march to Delhi, where it perpetrated a massacre that is notorious even by the standards of those Central Asian conquerors I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. But that’s a story for another time.