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28 HISTORY •• Invaders From the Steppes

‘With one stroke a world which billowed with fertility was laid desolate, and the regions thereof

became a desert.’



As the Ghorids settled into what they thought would be a long and prosperous rule, they had no way of knowing that the greatest storm in Afghan history was about to break over them. Thunderheads were gathering in far Mongolia, in the shape of the armies of Genghis Khan. A brilliant tactician and proponent of total war, Genghis Khan swept through central Asia in 1219 after his emmissaries were killed by unwise rulers far to the north of Afghanistan. As one historian put it, Genghis was ‘the atom bomb of his day’. Having levelled Samarkand, Bukhara and Merv, the Mongols tore into Afghanistan. Balkh and Herat were dispatched without mercy, leaving little more than barking dogs as wit- nesses. The south, with its green gardens, orchards and canals was utterly destroyed, a disaster that it arguably has yet to recover from. In Bamiyan, the fate of Shahr-e Gholghola (the ‘City of Screams’) continues to burn in the folk memory of the locals. The Mongols didn’t gallop into the sunset, but incorporated the ruins into their empire. Genghis’ son Chagatai ruled Afghanistan and most of central Asia. But although the Chagatai dynasty soon converted to Islam, it was never strong. Within decades of Genghis Khan’s death the Turkic peoples of the northern steppe began to reassert themselves. Their vehicle was Timur (‘the Lame’, or Tamerlane), an Uzbek from near Samarkand. As a tyrant and military leader, Timur was the equal of Genghis (from whom he claimed ancestry), but he was also a man of the arts and loved building cities as much as destroying them and slaughter- ing their inhabitants. In the 1390s he went on a rampage that landed him an empire from Syria to north India. The great Timurid cities were richly endowed by captured artisans and painters. Timur died in 1405 and was succeeded by his son Shah Rukh, who

When Timur captured Andkhoi he sought omens from the local saint, who threw a sheep’s breastbone at the conqueror – inspiring Timur to conquer Herat and Khorasan, the breastbone of the known world.

moved the empire’s capital from Samarkand to Herat, sparking one of Afghanistan’s greatest cultural flowerings. Shah Rukh and his formid- able wife Gowhar Shad were tremendous patrons of the arts. His court produced poetry that is still widely read in the Persian world, while the painted books from Herat would go on to form the bedrock for both the Persian and Indian style of miniatures. Scientists and philosophers were as highly regarded. The Timurid Renaissance lasted just a century, until a surfeit of wine

and poetry turned it flabby and decadent. Warring Uzbek tribes nibbled at its edges until they were strong enough to bite off Samarkand and (in 1507) Herat itself. To the west, the Safavid shahs of Persia were also beginning to covet Afghan territories. At the start of the 16th century, the balance of power was on a knife-edge.


The man to resurrect Afghanistan was Zahiruddin Babur, a teenage claimant to the Samarkand throne from the Ferghana Valley. Despite repeated attempts to capture and hold his birthright, the Uzbek khan Shaybani kept beating him back until he gave up and looked for a new kingdom to the south. Kabul fit the bill perfectly, and in 1504 its inhabit- ants welcomed him with open arms for evicting its Kandahari warlord ruler. He visited his Timurid relations in Herat months before it fell to


Ghorid sultan Ghiyassudin erects the Minaret of Jam


Genghis Khan invades and devastates Afghanistan

HISTORY •• Shah Shuja, Dost Mohammed & the British 29

the hated Uzbeks, and captured Kandahar in a thrice. In that city he left a monument to his achievements – the Forty Steps (Chihil Zina) – directly above the edicts carved by Ashoka 18 centuries before. On Shaybani’s death Babur made one last failed attempt to take Sa- markand, before returning to consolidate his Afghan kingdom, laying out palaces and gardens in Kabul, and always writing his memoirs, The Baburnama. In 1525 he followed the well-trodden path of the Ghaz- anavids, Ghorids and Timur and invaded India. He settled in Delhi and Agra, only returning to Kabul in death, but gave birth to the Mughal empire that held sway in India until the arrival of the British. Kabul was a favourite of Babur’s son Humayun, but he held little of his father’s gift for politics. Over the next 200 years, the Mughal sphere of Afghanistan was squeezed back until it comprised little more than Kabul and Kandahar. The Safavids pushed far past Herat and into the south, while the Uzbeks continued to hold sway north of the Hindu Kush. In the early 1700s, the Safavid empire had begun its slow decline, but still managed to capture and hold Kandahar. In 1709 the Ghilzai Pashtun mayor of Kandahar, Mir Wais Khotak sparked a revolt and defeated a Persian army sent to punish him. Not only that, his son Mahmoud marched on the Safavid capital Esfahan and sacked it before the Persians could regain their senses. In retaliation, the Persian leader Nadir Shah tried to play off the Pashtun tribes against each other, supporting the Abdalis against the Ghilzais – a tactic that would be repeated in later centuries, with similar unforseen consequences. Nadir Shah appointed the Abdali Ahmad Khan as commander of his Afghan forces and the royal treasury. The Abdalis were proven fighters, smashing Ghilzai power in Kanda- har, capturing Kabul and pushing far enough into India to thump the Mughals and loot the fabled Peacock Throne and Koh-i Noor Diamond. But just as Ahmad Khan thought the status quo was restored, Nadir Shah was assassinated. Khan quickly realised the opportunity before him. Rich with the Persian treasury, he drew together the Abdalis and made his bid for power. A jirga (council) named him Ahmad Shah, Dur-i Durran (‘Pearl of Pearls’) and crowned him with a garland of wheat sheafs. The Abdalis were renamed the Durrani in his honour. From his new capital at Kandahar, Ahmad Shah Durrani set about laying the borders now recognisable as modern Afghanistan. Herat, Balkh and Badakhshan all fell under his sway in just a few years, and the kingdom extended as far as Srinagar, Delhi and Mashhad. He died of cancer in 1772, and is still remembered as Ahmad Shah ‘Baba’, the Father of Afghanistan.


Inevitably Ahmad Shah Durrani’s empire started to contract as soon as he was laid to rest. His son Timur Shah moved the capital to Kabul in 1776, but pretty soon the kingdom descended into fights for succession and tribal revolts. Herat again resurrected itself as an independent city-state and Bukhara resumed its influence over the northern cities. Kabul became a cauldron of rivalries between the Barakzai and Sadozai Durranis, compet- ing for the throne. Of these, history primarily remembers the cruel and

15th century

Timurid empire ruled from Herat


Babur captures Kabul, sowing the first seeds of the Mughal Empire

‘Whatever countries 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.’

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