Mughal-Safavid Rivalry, ca. 1500-1747

Afghanistan Table of Contents

Early in the sixteenth century, Babur, who was descended from Timur on his father's side and from Genghis Khan on his mother's, was driven out of his father's kingdom in the Ferghana Valley (which straddles contemporary Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) by the Shaybani Uzbeks, who had wrested Samarkand from the Timurids. After several unsuccessful attempts to regain Ferghana and Samarkand, Babur crossed the Amu Darya and captured Kabul from the last of its Mongol rulers in 1504. In his invasion of India in 1526, Babur's army of 12,000 defeated a less mobile force of 100,000 at the First Battle of Panipat, about forty-five kilometers northwest of Delhi. Although the seat of the great Mughal Empire he founded was in India, Babur's memoirs stressed his love for Kabul--both as a commercial strategic center as well as a beautiful highland 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's great-great-great-grandson, Aurangzeb in 1707. The Mughals originally had come from Central Asia, but once they had taken India, the area that is now Afghanistan was relegated to a mere outpost of the empire. Indeed, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most of the Hindu Kush area was hotly contested between the Mughals of India and the powerful Safavids of Iran. Just as Kabul dominates the high road from Central Asia into India, Qandahar commands the only approach to India that skirts the Hindu Kush. The strategically important Kabul-Qandahar axis was the primary forces of competition between the Mughals and the Safavids, and Qandahar itself changed hands several times during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Safavids and the Mughals were not the only contenders, however. Less powerful but closer at hand were the Uzbeks of Central Asia, who fought for control of Herat in western Afghanistan and for the northern regions as well where neither the Mughals nor the Safavids were in strength.

The Mughals sought not only to block the historical western invasion routes into India but also to control the fiercely independent tribes who accepted only nominal control from Delhi in their mountain strongholds between the Kabul-Qandahar axis and the Indus River--especially in the Pashtun area of the Suleiman mountain range. As the area around Qandahar changed hands back and forth between the two great empires on either side, the local Pashtun tribes exploited the situation to their advantage by extracting concessions from both sides. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Mughals had abandoned the Hindu Kush north of Kabul to the Uzbeks, and in 1748 they lost Qandahar to the Safavids for the third and final time.

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

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

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress