Nader Shah, a Rebellious Governor, and a Saint’s Intercessions

partly-colored-drawing-pasted-on-an-album-leaf-e2809ca-standing-dervish-e2809d-signed-muhsin-iran-isfahan-c-1650.jpg
Partly colored drawing pasted on an album leaf. “A Standing Dervish.” Signed Muhsin. Iran, Isfahan; c. 1650. Drawing: 15.1 × 7.6 cm David Collection Inv. no. 145/2006

One of the most remarkable and fascinating, as well as tumultuous and frequently traumatic, periods in the early modern history of Persia was the meteoric rise and success of Nader Shah (d. 1747), who not only established himself in the ruins of the Safavid dynasty, having expelled invading Afghans and rather handily deposed the resurgent Safavid claimant to the throne, but also embarked on a campaign of conquest in almost every direction that was redolent of the great conquerors of Inner Asia of days past. Nader Shah’s conquests and campaigns had an enormous impact on not just the societies of the former Safavid lands but also the many places touched by his forays, including the Ottoman and Mughal lands. In the Ottoman Empire, for instance, Nader’s campaigns gave rise to a new form of resolutely Sunni devotional regime, centered around the Ahl al-Badr, the early Muslims who fought alongside Muhammad at the pivotal battle of Badr, and whose names formed a litany of saintly intercession that soared in popularity after Nader’s eruption into the Ottoman world. Nader’s conquests and empire re-making drew in and impacted the numerous Armenian communities scattered across the central Islamicate lands, from the Mughal realms in India to the far western edges of the Ottoman domains and beyond into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As perhaps the most visible and deeply integrated- yet still distinctive and communally cohesive (for the most part)- minority group in these Muslim-majority lands, Armenians, whether Orthodox or Catholic, provide an important and fascinating vantage point for viewing events such as the rise of Nader Shah, with Armenians from different sides of the Ottoman-Iranian border providing markedly different perspectives.

The account below comes from an otherwise unknown chronicler of Nader’s rise and campaigns, one Abraham of Erevan, who, as the translator of his chronicle, George A. Bournoutian, notes, was probably either a military man or somehow involved in military affairs, perhaps on the logistics side, as he shows particular acumen in relating military operations and the intricacies of the various campaigns Nader carried out. He is throughout strikingly ‘pro-Nāder,’ even as he gives evidence of Armenians on the Ottoman side with quite different sentiments. The passage I have selected here (and I will perhaps follow up with more selections from Abraham’s chronicle and from other sources in a range of languages dealing with Nader Shah), has to do with, among other things, a Muslim saint, as seen by an Armenian chronicler, and his interactions with, on the one hand, Nader Shah, and, on the other, a rebellious provincial governor who had fled into the saint’s protection. In keeping with the theme of my recent previous set of postings, we see in Abraham’s account a sense of a shared economy of holiness, triply so: Abraham understands the Muslim saint as being in many ways similar to saints in his own tradition, and expects his audience to understand things in this way as well. It is also possible, if not likely, that the saint in question, dwelling on the Iranian littoral away from the centers of Persian Shi’ism, may have been Sunni, though there is no real indication one way or another. If he was, however, this story points to a continued shared economy of holiness between Shi’i and Sunnis in the former Safavid sphere; regardless, the markers of sainthood identified here would have been shared across boundaries. Finally, the story is a reminder of the limits of this economy of holiness- while the saint saves the life of the governor, it is not an unmitigated rescue, as we will see!

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After that, Nāder marched on Shiraz, whose governor, called Mohammad, had rebelled against him, even though Nāder had appointed him to control the disloyal Balūç. Instead of convincing the Balūç to become loyal to Nāder, Mohammad rose against Nāder, gathered an army, and planned to march on Isfahan. Meanwhile, he had gone to the Bandar region [on the Persian Gulf coast] and had killed those who refused to join him. He added the rest to his army, went to Shiraz and prepared to attach Isfahan.

Nāder was informed of Mohammad’s intentions and dispatched an envoy with a letter that stated, “What are you doing? You are my servant and have eaten my bread. I raised you above five or six other khans. What is the reason that you have rebelled, have become alienated, have raised you sword and men against me? Repent and change your evil ways.” Nāder sent similar messages three times, but the latter did not answer. After the fourth message, Mohammad Khan replied, “I risk my neck on my action. Let God decide between us. Be aware that either I or you shall lose our life.”

When Nāder heard this, he no longer communicated with Mohammad Khan. Instead, he gathered his army and marched on Shiraz. Mohammad Khan was informed of his approach and went out to meet him on the plain. During the battle Mohammad’s army took flight and many were killed. He himself barely escaped and took refuge in a fortress in the Bandar region caled ‘Avaẓ. The chief of the fortress, a certain Sheikh Jabbār, had an extraordinary knowledge of the supernatural and the Muslims of the region considered him a saint and believed his every word, for her had reportedly performed many miracles. Mohammad Khan thus went to the Sheikh, told him what had occurred, and begged him for God’s sake to intercede with Nāder, since the latter held the Sheikh in great reverence.

The Sheikh gave in to his request and sent a letter to Nāder stating, “For my sake, receive Mohammad Khan, who has repented and who wishes to return to your bosom. Have mercy on him, do not execute him, although he is not worthy of your generosity.” Nāder responded, “Let it be so. Because of your entreaties I shall not execute him. Send him to us.” The Sheikh showed Nāder’s letter to Mohammad Khan and the latter went to him. When he appeared before him, Nāder said, “Do you remember when I was in Baghdad and wrote to you not to go against me? You answered that God shall decide which one of us will remain alive. Well, God has placed you in my hands and it is just that I should kill you.” Mohammad Khan replied, “Do as you wish; I am here in your hands.” Nāder replied, “Although you deserve to die, for the sake of the Sheikh who begged that I spare your life, I shall spare you. But I shall give you a minor punishment.” He then ordered one of his slaves to remove Mohammad Khan’s eyes. Nāder then gave the blind khan one hundred tomans and said, “Go! Live on this sum and pray for me.” He then entrusted him to fifteen soldiers and sent him to Mashhad. [Nāder] then went to Isfahan to prepare the conquest of Shirvan and Shemakhi.

Abraham of Erevan, History of the Wars (1721-1738), translated by George A. Bournoutian (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1999), 83-38.

Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting

Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq_s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum” Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550
Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq’s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum”
Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550 (David Collection, Inv. no. 28/1997)
“Prayers in a Mosque” Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi) Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550
Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi)
Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550, David Collection, Inv. no. Isl 161

As any long-time reader of this blog will know, one of my primary areas of scholarly interest is the history of saints and sainthood in the Islamic world, primarily within Islamic traditions but also in Christian and Jewish traditions practiced within or in contact with Islamicate cultures. The very fact that ‘Muslims have saints’ often comes as a surprise, with the usual follow up question being something along the lines of ‘Just what is a Muslim saint like?’ The answer, of course, varies from place to place and time to time, with the usual caveats that Muslims saints ‘look’ both like and unlike saints in other religious traditions, and that some forms of Islam, especially in the modern world, largely reject sainthood (similar to some forms of Christianity after the Protestant Reformation).

One difference between Muslim modes of understanding and depicting saints and sainthood and those found in many other traditions such as Christianity and Buddhism is the relatively low-key role of visual depictions in describing saints and in venerating them or inscribing their memory. While it is not true to say that Islam across the board lacks iconographic traditions, explicit uses of icon-like depictions for veneration has historically tended to be limited to either to depictions of non-human items and places, described in last week’s post, or in a rather supplemental manner (for private devotions or in the context of a shrine), such as has become common in contemporary Shi’i devotion (though certainly not only Shi’i- for instance, see this example from resolutely Sunni Morocco). The two miniatures above fall into another category altogether: in both we have something quite rare, namely, artistic renderings of practiced devotion to saints. These two images, both of which were produced in Safavid Iran while it was still in the long process of transitioning from a Sunni polity to a Shi’i one, give us a pretty good visual idea of what tomb veneration looked like in an early modern context- while they come from the Persian world, we know from literary evidence that the practices and architectural elements depicted in them would have been shared with other regions, including the neighboring Ottoman lands. The images are hence worth a closer look. Continue reading “Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting”

Christmas on the Mughan Steppe, 1736

The first few decades of the eighteenth century were highly fraught ones for Safavid Persia. One of the handful of eyewitnesses to some of these events was one Catholicos Abraham of Crete, who found himself caught up in the Persian resurgence under Nādir Shāh Afshār. Nādir, of Turkoman background, had risen to prominence in the service of the presumptive Safavid heir Ṭahmāsp in the aftermath of the Afghan invasions earlier in the century. Nādir quickly proved himself an apt and ruthless commander- Abraham calls him a ‘second Alexander’- and soon deposed Ṭahmāsp, enthroned Ṭahmāsp’s son and set himself up as regent. He then resumed an already existing struggle against the Ottomans for control of what is now northwest Iran, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, which is where Abraham first encountered him. By Abraham’s account, Nādir was extremely courteous and respectful of the Armenian ecclesial leader and of Armenian interests generally (though not always); Abraham relates Nādir’s pious visit (using the Arabic loan zīyāret to describe the visit) to the holy Armenian see of Ējmiatsin.

In the waning days of 1735 Nādir summoned the notables of his domain to assemble on the Mughan Steppe near the confluence of the Kura and Aras Rivers, a region that lies in the modern nation of Azerbaijan. In the course of this long encampment, during which the elderly Abraham was forced to cope with cramped living quarters, snow and rain, and distance from home, Nādir was ‘voluntarily’ acclaimed as Shāh by the assembled notables and military men. The following account takes place in the days before Nādir’s arrival at the assembly; it describes the fortifications set up to protect the camp, and the rather somber, but ecumenical, Epiphany/Christmas celebration (both the Nativity and the Baptism are celebrated) in the Armenian quarter of the camp. As is the case throughout Abraham’s chronicle, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish words and titles are used extensively, reflecting the degree of inter-cultural interaction in contemporary Armenian life generally. The presence of Armenian Muslims is also notable, though not particularly surprising in light of the many interactions seen elsewhere in the chronicle.

Leaf from Ms. Ludwig II 7: Mesrop of Khizan (Armenian, active 1605 - 1651). Isfahan, Persia, 1615. Tempera on glazed paper
The Baptism of Christ. Leaf from Ms. Ludwig II 7: Mesrop of Khizan (Armenian, active 1605 – 1651). Isfahan, Persia, 1615. Tempera on glazed paper.

The deputy of the Great Khan, who supervised and kept watch over all the affairs of the troops in the camp, that is the nasaqçıbaşı ‘Abd ol-Ḥasan Beg, lodged us somewhat to the side of the camp, in cabins made of reeds. Over 500 cabins were prepared on the north bank of the Arax. The day of the Eve of Epiphany we went on an outing on horseback and saw the place were the Arax and the Kura meet. There were two bridges there: One over the Arax before the location of the confluence, and the other, over the Kura, after the confluence of the two rivers. There was a fortification built over small boats, which consisted of wooden launches that were placed on the water beside each other over the span of the river. Thick ropes tied the launches to each other from one end to the other. The ends of the ropes were attached on the top to chains and on the bottom with ropes which resembled the thick cables of the mooring of galleons. Thick logs and boards, attached by nails covered the launches so that people could cross the river. On both sides of the bridge across the Kura River, however, edifices and towers were constructed which resembled forts. They had installed artillery pieces in these forts so that the enemy could not attack unexpectedly and damage the bridge. In addition guards were stationed to protect the bridge day and night…

After visiting all of this, we returned to our quarters, which were an hour’s distance from the confluence of the Arax and the Kura Rivers, for the bridge across the Arax was located within the area were the army was stationed, while the bridge across the Kura was below the camp and we were stationed in the upper part of the camp.

Next day, on a Tuesday, we pitched a large tent, which we had brought from Holy Ējmiatsin and which resembled a church, having a cupola-like top and decorated with drawings, crosses and flowers. I ordered that all born to the faith of the Illuminator to gather there and those [Armenian soldiers] who were in the camp to come to my tent the next day [Christmas Day]. On Christmas Day they all came to my tent and we celebrated the feast of the birthday of Christ, Our Lord. We did so without an altar or liturgy, without any spiritual satisfaction, just like the ancient Israelites who hung their harps on willows. Thus with sad faces and broken hearts out people against my will dressed and taking the few church vessels and religious utensils we had brought with us, which were indispensable for a religious procession, I, together with priests, deacons, and lectors, dressed in robes, dressed in robes and carrying lit candles descended from the tent to the Arax.

There we performed the ceremony of the preparation of holy water by pouring the holy meṛon in the waters of the Arax. The kalantar of Erevan, Melikjan, Melik Hakobjan, Melik Mkrtum, Melik Ēgēn of Dizak were present. At my command he removed the cross from the water. In addition [there were] the kadḳodās of Erevan and the Ararat province, the Armenians in the army, the āqā of Erevan, and distinguished people, such as the sheikh ul-Islam, the qāẓī, and the Khan’s yüz-başı; altogether more than 300 Armenians and Muslims. The amazing thing was that the Persians took the water mixed with the meṛon and anointed their faces with it. I then left them and they went to their own places. We returned to our tent. There were some distinguished people with us whom we had invited to dine with us.

Patmut’iwn of Kat’oghikos Abraham Kretats’i, translated by George A. Bournoutian (Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 1999), 57-59.