Ahmad Shah and the Durrani Empire
From the death of Nadir Shah in 1747 until the communist coup of April 1978, Afghanistan was governed-at least nominally- by Pashtun rulers of the Abdali tribe. Indeed, it was under the leadership of the first Pashtun ruler, Ahmad Shah, that the nation of Afghanistan began to take shape after centuries of fragmentation and rule by invaders. Even before the death of Nadir Shah, the tribes of the Hindu Kush area had been growing stronger and were beginning to take advantage of the waning power of their distant rulers.
The Ghilzai Pashtuns had risen in rebellion against Iranian
rule early in the eighteenth century, but they had been subdued
Although the names of Timur, Genghis Khan, and Mahmud
of Ghazni are well-known for the destruction they
wrought in South and Central Asia, the name of the founder of
the Afghan nation-state is relatively unknown to Westerners,
though Ahmad Shah created an Afghan empire that, at its largest
in the 176Os, extended from Central Asia to Delhi and from
Ahmad was the second son of the chief of the Sadozai, which although small was the most honored of the Abdali lineages. Along with his brother, he had risen in rebellion against Nadir Shah and had been jailed by the Ghilzai in Kandahar.
Finally released by Nadir Shah in 1738 when he took the city
from the Ghilzai, Ahmad rose in the personal service of the
Ahmad and his Abdali horsemen rode past Herat and southeastward, joining the chiefs of the Abdali tribes and clans at a shrine near Kandahar to choose a paramount chief. Although his rivals for the post included Haji Jamal Khan-chief of the Muhammadzai, chief branch, of the Barakzai, which would be the other royal branch of the Abdali-and although only 23, Ahmad was finally chosen after more than a week of discussion and debate.
Despite being younger than other claimants, Ahmad had
several factors in his favor. He was a direct descendant of Sado,
One of Ahmad’s first acts as chief was to adopt the title“Durr-i-Durran” (meaning “pearl of pearls” or “pearl of the
Even his first days as paramount chief were blessed with good fortune. Just before arriving in Kandahar, where some resistance was expected, Ahmad encountered a caravan bound for the Iranian court laden with treasure. The new ruler seized it, used it to pay his cavalry and to bribe hostile chiefs, and invited its Qizilbash (Turkmen Shia who served as palace guards for many Afghan and Iranian rulers) escort to join his service.
Ahmad Shah began by taking Ghazni from the Ghilzai
Pashtuns and then wrested Kabul from a local ruler. In 1749
the Mughal ruler, to save his capital from Afghan attack, ceded
to Ahmad Shah sovereignty over Sind province and over the
Stopping by Meshed to remind the rebellious Shah Bukh of his subservient position, Ahmad next sent an army to subdue the areas north of the Hindu Kush. In short order the army brought under control the Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik, and Hazara tribes of northern Afghanistan. Ahmad invaded India a third, and then a fourth time, taking control of the Punjab, Kashmir, and the city of Lahore. Early in 1757 he sacked Delhi, but he permitted the attenuated Mughal Dynasty to remain in nominal control as long as the ruler acknowledged Ahmad’s suzerainty over the Punjab, Sind, and Kashmir. Leaving his second son Timur (whom Ahmad married to a Mughal princess) in charge, Ahmad left India to return to Afghanistan, Like Babur, he preferred his homeland to any of his other domains. Dupree quotes an Afghan writer’s translation of one of Ahmad Shah’s poems:
Whatever contries i conquer in the world. I would never forget your beautiful gardens. When i remember the summits of your beautiful mountains i forget the greatness of the Delhi throne.
The collapse of Mughal control in India, however, also facilitated the rise of rulers other than Ahmad Shah. In the Punjab the Sikhs were becoming a potent force, and from their capital at Poona the Marathas, who were Hindus, controlled much of western and central India and were beginning to look northward to the decaying Mughal empire, which Ahmad Shah now claimed by conquest. After Ahmad returned to Kandahar in 1757, he was faced not only with uprisings in Baluch areas and in Herat hut also with attacks by the Marathas on his domains in India, which succeeded in ousting Timur and his court. Herat was quickly brought under control, and the Baluch revolt was quelled by a combination of siege and compromise, but the campaign against the Marathas was a more substantial operation.
Ahmad called for Islamic holy war against the Marathas,
and warriors from the various Pashtun tribes, as well as other
The victory at Panipat was the high point of Ahmad Shah’ and Afghan-power. Afterward, even before his death, the empire began to unravel. Ahmad Shah was less fit to cope with insurrection because he suffered from severe ulceration of the face, an ailment that was probably cancer. Even before the end of 1761 the Sikhs had risen and taken control of much of the Punjab. In 1762 Ahmad Shah crossed the passes from Afghanistan for the sixth time to subdue the Sikhs. He assaulted Lahore, and when he had taken the Sikh holy city of Amritsar, he massacred thousands of its Sikh inhabitants, destroyed their temples, and desecrated their holy places with cow blood.
The Sikhs rebelled again within two years, but Ahmad Shah’s efforts to put down the uprising of 1764 were not as successful. Again in 1767 he crossed the mountain passes. Although much harassed by Sikh guerrilla warfare, Ahmad Shah took Lahore and again laid waste to Amritsar, killing many of its inhabitants. After this attempt Ahmad Shah tried two more times to subjugate the Sikhs permanently, but he failed. By the time of his death, he had lost all but nominal control of the Punjab to the Sikhs, who remained in control until defeated by the British in 1849.
It was not only the fierce Sikhs who rebelled against the
rule of Ahmad Shah. His empire was being seriously eroded in
In 1772 Ahmad Shah retired to his home, the mountains
east of Kandahar, where he died. He was buried in Kandahar,
where his epitaph, recalling his early connection with the Iranian
monarchy, calls him a ruler equal to Emperor Cyrus.
© 2012 Afghanan Dot Net