Essays on the history of the Karabakh khanate

Essays on the history of the Karabakh khanate

Anna Demchenko exclusively for Vestnik Kavkaza

The early history of the Karabakh khanate as an independent state falls in the era of the decline of the Persian Safavid dynasty. One of the most powerful khanates in the Caucasus was born amidst the chaos of war and interchanging dynasties.

The Safavid state was weakened by raids of Uzbek khans that the Persian forces were unable to hold back, as well as dynastic rulers with talent - Abbas II (1642-1666), Suleiman (1666-1694) and Hussein (1694-1722). Corruption, which brought devastation to the treasury, favoritism and the influence of groups of peoples were corroding the once strong state from within. Separatist tendencies were becoming more distinct and in 1711 the head of the Afghan Ghilzai tribe, Mir Wais Khan, killed Gugren Khan, the beylerbey of Kandahar, which was then part of the Safavid state, and seized power in the city. Despite repeated attempts, the Safavid troops failed to recapture the city and the surrounding area. 1711 was marked by unrest in Dagestan and Azerbaijan. In 1716, in an uprising of the Abdal tribe, the Safavids lost Herat. Mirza Adigezal Bek, the author of Karabag-name, wrote that Iranian regions were invaded by nameless rebels who resembled pawns and every insignificant pawn on the board turned the Iranian cavalry masters into clowns for the whole world. After becoming a queen, each pawn attempted to take the Iranian throne and checkmated state dignitaries and members of the Safavid dynasty.

But the worst was yet to come. 1722 for the dynasty was marked by a terrible disaster, when the Afghan army led by Mir Mahmud Khan, the son of Mir Wais Khan, took Kirman and besieged the capital, Isfahan, defeating the army of the Shah, which was 2.5 times bigger. After 9 months besiegement, during which Isfahan was exhausted by famine, Shah Hussain surrendered the city to Mir Mahmud and abdicated from the throne in his favor. The new Shah proved his ability to govern, since shortly he was able to unite most of the country under his command. To consolidate his power and to reduce the likelihood of future revolts and conspiracies, in 1725 Mir Mahmud ordered the execution of all the 39 remaining members of the Safavid dynasty, who had been his prisoners since the capture of the city in 1722. Only Housein was executed a year later. However, Mir Mahmud failed to destroy all his potential rivals. One representative of the dynasty seemed to survive - Prince Tahmasip Mirza, who fled to Mazandaran during the siege of Isfahan, where he planned to raise an army. In 1722, the prince declared himself Shah.

Mir Mahmud was not the only enemy of Tahmasp II. The lands remaining in the hands of the last representative of the dynasty were attacked by an even more powerful and dangerous neighbor. In 1722-1723 Russian troops were capturing one Caucasian city after another. They managed to capture such important cities as Derbent, Baku, Rasht and Anzali. At the same time, the Turks captured Tbilisi and the north-western part of Iran. It seemed that the Safavids and their state were doomed to sink into oblivion. Tahmasp II was rescued by a miracle in the face of talented commander - Nadir Quli, who entered his service in 1726.

Nadir Quli, the son of a Turkic Afshar tribe member who specialized in sewing lambskin casings, was born in 1688 in Khorasan. His brilliant career began when he entered the service of Tahmasp II. The new commander of the shah defeated Malik Mahmud and captured Mashhad. From 1727-1728 Nadir Khan conquered Khorasan, in 1729 defeated the Afghan Abdali tribe, captured Herat and won a series of victories over Ashraf, the successor to Mir Mahmud. As a result, the troops of Ashraf were forced to leave Isfahan, retreat to Shiraz, later to Lar, and then to Balochistan, where the former ruler was killed by one of the local khans in 1730. Tahmasp II triumphantly entered Isfahan and ascended to the throne of his ancestors. However, the Shah turned into a pawn in the hands of his victorious warlord.

Tahmasp II ordered Nadir Khan to cease hostilities, but the military ceased to obey the Shah. He led the troops to the residence of the ruler and forced the Shah to give him great powers. Nadir Khan even ordered to mint coins with his name for Khorasan. Tahmasp II also granted Nadir Khan the four richest key areas: Khorasan, Mazandaran, Sistan and Kerman.

The heir of the ancient dynasty was not satisfied with this situation and looked for support among the army and the population. Tahmasp II chose victories as the simplest way to their hearts. Thus, while Nadir Shah fought against the Afghans, the Shah headed the army and went to war against the Turks to recapture Nakhichevan and Yerevan. Being inexperienced in military affairs, the ruler let his troops be defeated. However, he escaped captivity.

As a result of the ill-fated initiative of Tahmasp, the cities of Tabriz, Kermanshah, Hamadan and several others fell into the hands of the Turks. They also invaded Khuzestan. Tahmasp had to agree on a shameful peace. In 1732, he concluded a treaty with the Turks, according to which all the territory north of the Arax River became part of the Turkish domain. After learning about what had happened in his absence, Nadir Shah became furious. He demanded that the Turks return all the territory. The commander also issued a proclamation against the Shah. In August 1732, Nadir Shah took Isfahan and deposed Tahmasp II, sending him into exile in Khorasan.

Nadir Shah became the actual ruler of the empire, but did not ascend to the throne formally. When he was asked to take the throne, he indignantly rejected the proposal, saying that while there was at least one male successor of the Safavid dynasty, the throne could not belong to anyone else. There were 2 possible contenders to the throne at the time: Tahmasp and his son Abbas Mirza (according to one source, he was 8 months old at the time, other sources claim he was 4 years old). Nadir Shah was the regent of the latter. To clarify the situation with the successor, in 1736, Nadir Shah convened a kurultay, a meeting of military, tribal and administrative elite on the Mugan steppe and asked them to choose the ruler.

Nadir Shah was chosen ruler almost unanimously at the meeting. Abbas Mirza was sent into exile to join his father, where after a while they were both killed.

The only ones who supported the Safavids at the kurultay were the khans of Ganja Ziyad-oglu. They were Qajar, Turkic peoples, who, according to legend, had come to Iran in the 13th century together with the Mongol army, which established the Ilkhanid dynasty. Abbas I (1571-1629) of the Qajar settled them in three areas: in Karabakh, along the Gorgan River in Astrabad (northeastern Iran) and around Merv (Turkmenistan).

The border of the Ganja Khanate with Gurjistan (Georgia) ran along Synyk-Kerpu, today's Red Bridge on the River Khram, and the Khudaaferi Bridge in Southern Azerbaijan. The two places are 288 km apart. The vast khanate included part of Ganja, Karabakh and sometimes extended to Tbilisi. So no wonder Nadir Khan was worried about such a powerful dynasty in control of a huge territory leaving him without support.

Nadir Khan deprived them of power over territories. They were in control over the ilats of Kazakh and Boshchalu (Borchalov), subjugated by Gurjistan emirs with their khans and vali. Javanshir, Otuziki and Kebirli, being part of the Karabakh ilats, was moved to Sarakhs in the Khorasan Velayat. As a mark of respect towards the old and respected dynasty, no other punishments were given to them. Five meliks of Karabakh were ordered to obey Nadir-Shah. Meliks were descendants of local nobles, mostly Azerbaijani and sometimes Armenian. Although meliks were almost fully exterminated in southern Azerbaijan and Armenia and replaced with Kyzylbash and Kurdish elites, the institution of meliks remains in Karabakh, especially in Shirvan. Meliks were obliged to send militia and serve in the army. That is how Karabakh became a territory put under direct control, making it peculiar among many other territories.

In the late 1730s, Nadir-Shah formed good relations with the man who would rule the vast empire. Panah-Khan belonged to an influential family living in Karabakh. His grandfather, Panah-Ali-Bek, a native of Saryjaly, got a high position serving the Ganja khans, the dominating power. Pride and refusal to serve anyone made Panah-Ali move to the Javanshir Aymak of the Karabakh Region, where he settled, became rich, and created a family.

His first son Ali (better known as Sarija-Ali, meaning "light-haired Ali"), was a natural leader and had the talent of convincing people, he was respected and adored by all. Sarija-Ali died, leaving his estate to Ibrahim-Halil-Aghe.
Nadir-Shah, building his forces in Karabakh, promoted his older son Ibrahim-Halil-Aghe to naib (royal functionaries). When the young man was killed, his post was taken by his younger brother Panah-Ali. Ibrahim-Ali had no other successors. When hard-working Panah-Ali figured that Nadir-Shah, who had overshadowed and taken down his master, did not like royal servants distinguishing themselves, he fled to save his life. He managed to make it to Karabakh and form an army with the help of his relatives. They traveled around the country together, so that Nadir-Shah would not capture the escaped servant. The Shah was sending many orders to Azerbaijani and Shirvan khans to capture Panah-Ali, to no avail, however. Panah-Ali was uncatchable, his fame was only rising among the people. No wonder Nadir-Shah was killed in a coup organized by his servants in 1747. Panah-Ali managed to return to his native land and get a very warm reception. Ali-Kuli-Khan, known as Adil-Shah, became the new ruler, Panah-Ali's life was no longer in danger.

When the populations of Javanshir, Kebirili, Otuziki and the Gurjistan ilat came back from exile, Panah-Ali helped them to settle. He also managed to find more supporters. The fame of Panah-Ali reached Amir-Aslan-Khan, a vicar of the new shah. He arrived specially for a meeting with the man of such authority in Karabakh and promoted him to sultan, then to khan in exchange for recognition of the new Shah's order. Panah-Ali agreed. In exchange, he was given control over Karabakh.

Panah-Ali understood that he was living in complicated times of constant change of rulers, so he was ready for a new war. He built the Bayat Fortress with fortifications around it.

Panah-Ali's intuition served him well, Adil-Shah's power did not last long. In 1749, he was ousted and executed by Nadir-Shah's grandson, Shahrukh-Mirza. Panah-Ali's ally Amir-Aslan-Khan was arrested.

Panah-Ali's worries did not end there: the construction of the Bayat Fortress provoked the previously friendly population of Otuziki and Javanshir. They united against the khan with the meliks of Karabakh and Haji-Chalabi of Sheki. The Karabakh Khanate was on the road through the furnace of war.

To be continued