Persian-Afghan Wars

With the weakening of the Ṣafavid Empire during the seventeenth century, Afghan tribes under Persian occupation grew restive. Through a series of conflicts now known as the Persian-Afghan Wars, they asserted their independence and in 1722 decisively defeated the Persian army in the Battle of Gulnabad before seizing the capital city of Eşfahān.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Afghan population was wedged between two empires that had emerged in the early sixteenth century—the Ṣafavid rulers of Persia (1501-1786), and the Mughal Mughal India rulers of India (1526-1858). The two powers had long fought over the Afghan region of Qandahār, Qandah{amacr}r, Afghanistan[Qandahar] and by the early eighteenth century the weakened state of the Ṣafavid Dynasty encouraged Afghan groups to rebel against their occupation. The Ṣafavid Dynasty’s conversion to Shiism Shia-Sunni conflicts[Shia Sunni conflicts]
Shia Islam and its anti-Sunni Sunni Islam policies played a further role in instigating a series of revolts by Afghan tribes in the first half of the century. [kw]Persian-Afghan Wars (1709-1747)
[kw]Wars, Persian-Afghan (1709-1747)
[kw]Afghan Wars, Persian- (1709-1747)
{Ssubdot}afavid Empire[Safavid Empire]
Afghan independence
Persian-Afghan Wars (1709-1747)[Persian Afghan Wars]
[g]Afghanistan;1709-1747: Persian-Afghan Wars[0270]
[g]Iran;1709-1747: Persian-Afghan Wars[0270]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1709-1747: Persian-Afghan Wars[0270]
[c]Government and politics;1709-1747: Persian-Afghan Wars[0270]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;1709-1747: Persian-Afghan Wars[0270]
Mir Vays Khan Hotaki
Mahmud Ghilzai
Ḥusayn I
Aḥmad Shāh Durrānī
Nādir Shāh
Gurgan Khan

Mir Vays Khan Hotaki, a Ghilzai Pashtun and founder of the short-lived Hotaki Dynasty Hotaki Dynasty (1709-1738), was the first Afghan leader successfully to rebel against Persian domination. Ghilzai Afghans in Qandahār, who were effectively independent, had been kept in check by constant conflicts with another group of Afghan rebels, the Abdalis of Herat. They were also held at bay for some time by the region’s Ṣafavid governor, a capable Georgian general named Gurgān Khan. Mir Vays lived as a hostage at the court of theṢafavid ruler in Eşfahān while Gurgān Khan served as governor of Qandahār.

The situation changed when Mir Vays received permission to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. There he obtained a legal decision, or fatwa, Fatwa (legal opinion) authorizing revolt against the Ṣafavids’ Shia domination of western Afghanistan, which was largely Sunni. Upon his return to Qandahār, he used the fatwa to win the support of tribal chieftains, and in 1709 they staged a revolt against Gurgān Khan’s troops.

The rebellion was highly effective, in large part as a result of the Ṣafavid ruler Ḥusayn I’s failure to provide Gurgān Khan with adequate support. Mir Vays’s revolt laid the basis for the more significant Afghan invasion of Persia a decade later. By 1720, there was political unrest at several points on the periphery of the Ṣafavid Empire, including territories in the Caucasus, Kurdistan, and Khūzestān. While the government in the capital of Eşfahān fought off a threat from the imam of Oman on the Persian Gulf, and as danger continued to materialize in Afghan regions, the Persian chief minister FathՙAli Khan Dagistani and the governor LutfՙAli Khan were deposed by a court intrigue.

By this time, Mir Vays’s son Mahmud Ghilzai was in command of Qandahār. After an initial attempt in 1719, he set out for Eşfahān E{scedil}fah{amacr}n, Siege of (1722)[Esfahan] in 1721. Though he failed to take the cities of Kermān and Yazd along the way, he proceeded to march with his troops to the capital city. On March 8, 1722, he confronted the Ṣafavid army at Gulnabad Gulnabad, Battle of (1722) , east of Eşfahān. The Persian army was equipped with artillery and it largely outnumbered Mahmud’s forces; however, it lacked a unified command. Eventually, Mahmud’s army forced the Persian army to flee in the direction of Eşfahān, and after a few days they closed in and besieged the city.

The Siege of Eşfahān lasted for nearly seven months, causing many of the city’s inhabitants to die from starvation or disease. The destruction wreaked upon the city included large-scale looting and the demolition of the state archives in Zayandeh Rud. In October of 1722, Ḥusayn I surrendered and abdicated the throne, declaring Mahmud the shāh of Persia. The Afghans captured a number of Ṣafavid princes during the Siege of Eşfahān and imprisoned them together with the former shāh, Ḥusayn I. Later, Mahmud executed many of the princes, and in 1726 his successor ordered Ḥusayn’s execution.

Though they were able conquerors, the Ghilzais were not able to command an empire. After the fall of the Ṣafavid Dynasty, no one leader or group succeeded in maintaining stability in the land for decades. Soon, a Ṣafavid prince declared himself shāh in the northern region that the Afghans had not been able to occupy. At the same time, Russian forces seized the opportunity to march into the northwest of Persia, while the Ottomans moved in on the west, occupying the region of Hamadān and Kermānshāh.

In 1725, Mahmud Ghilzai was murdered and was succeeded as shāh by his nephew Ashraf. At the time, the primary region of Persia under Afghan rule was centered in Eşfahān. Ashraf’s hold on power was precarious, and he was not able to hold on to the Ghilzai base of Qandahār, where one of Mahmud’s sons was able to seize the throne. Ultimately, in 1729 Ashraf was overthrown by Nādir Shāh, and in 1730 he was assassinated. Ashraf would be the last Afghan shāh of Persia.

Upon formally taking the throne in 1736, Nādir Shāh worked to recover territories captured by the Ottomans and Russians before he marched against the Afghans in the northeast. In 1738, he reclaimed Qandahār for the Persian crown and then went on to seize Ghaznī, Kabul, and Peshawar. Nādir attempted to dissociate Twelver Shiism Twelver Shiism (IthnāՙAsharīyah) from the Persian national identity, proposing instead to integrate it into Sunni Islam in a form called the Jaՙfari faith. Ja{ayn}fari faith[Jafari] Some scholars have interpreted this move as an attempt to conciliate his army, which was composed largely of Sunni Afghans. The faith never took hold, however, and in the later years of his leadership, Nādir’s increasingly oppressive rule began to prompt revolts. Eventually a group of Kizilbash killed him in 1747.

After Nādir Shāh was assassinated in 1747, his army disbanded and the Afghans rose up again in revolt under the leadership of one of Nādir’s former Afghan lieutenants, Aḥmad Shāh Durrānī. He and his troops left Persia and returned home, taking control of Qandahār and beginning a new campaign to control the territory that is now Afghanistan. Since the Persians failed to mount any significant counterattack to Aḥmad Shāh’s rebellion, it marked the end of the Persian-Afghan Wars.

Although the wars with the Persian Empire were essentially over, Afghan military conflicts continued along most of the new kingdom’s borders. In the period from 1747 until his death in 1773, Aḥmad Shāh Durrānī defeated the Mughals in the territory west of the Indus River and expelled the Persians from Herāt. By the time of the Afghan king’s death, the Durrānī Empire extended from Central Asia to Delhi and from Kashmir to the Arabian Sea.


Although Ṣafavid princes lingered on for years in Persia as political pawns, the conquest of Eşfahān and the abdication of Ḥusayn I signaled the definitive end of the longest dynasty since the rise of Islam. Though the Afghan occupation of Eşfahān was short-lived, Mir Vays’s revolt against Persian occupation was a pivotal event in the history of the Afghan peoples. Thus, although Afghanistan was not officially recognized as a political entity until 1747, when Aḥmad Shāh Durrānī founded the Durrānī Dynasty Durr{amacr}n{imacr} Dynasty[Durrani] (1747-1973), Mir Vays is typically credited with the birth of the modern Afghan state.

Further Reading

  • Avery, Peter. “Nadir Shah and the Afsharid Legacy.” In From Nadir Shah to the Islamic Republic, edited by Peter Avery, G. Hambly, and C. Melville. Vol. 7 in The Cambridge History of Iran. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. The most comprehensive source on political developments in Iran during the fall of theṢafavid dynasty and the reign of Nādir Shāh. Contains plates, maps, and genealogical tables.
  • Daniel, Elton L. The History of Iran. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. A general survey that locates Nādir Shāh’s rule in the larger scope of Persia’s history. Contains maps, a glossary of terms, and a bibliographical essay.
  • Dickson, M. B. “The Fall of the Safavi Dynasty.” Journal of the Asiatic and Oriental Society 82 (1962): 503-517. Comprehensive review article on the decline of the dynasty in the early eighteenth century.
  • Dupree, Louise. Afghanistan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980. General survey of the country’s history, with a short introduction concerning events of the eighteenth century.
  • Ewans, Martin. Afghanistan: A Short History of Its Peoples and Politics. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. General history with opening chapters on the land’s premodern and early modern history.
  • Lockhart, Laurence. The Fall of the Safavi Dynasty and the Afghan Occupation of Persia. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1958. The study that laid out the historical framework of the lateṢafavid period, this source still offers unsurpassed information on the end of Ṣafavid rule and the rise of Nādir Shāh. Contains illustrations, maps, a genealogical table of the Ṣafavid dynasty, and a bibliography listing primary sources, including European travelers’ accounts.
  • _______. Nadir Shah: A Critical Study Based Mainly upon Contemporary Sources. London: Luzac, 1938. Bears detailed information on Nādir’s relationship with Afghan forces. Contains a genealogical table, maps, and bibliography of primary sources.
  • Perry, John R. “The Last Safavids, 1722-1793.” Iran 9 (1971): 59-69. Investigates the political upheaval of the early eighteenth century.

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