Review: The Sword of Persia, Michael Axworthy

Rating: 5 out of 5

It is not to my credit that I had not heard of a figure as instrumental as Nader Shah until earlier this year. However, coming upon him in my research, I was keen to investigate further. Mr Axworthy’s book is one of the very few recent options—though it would deserve a read even if there were a dozen books on the time and period.

The story starts in the hinterlands of 18th century Iran. While following the growth of a boy, Tahmāsp Qoli Khan, into a man, the reader is brought to Ispahān of the Safavids where the decay of the imperial court brings dismay to the young commander. It doesn’t take long for the interminable civil wars and foreign conquerors to afford Tahmasp the moment to take over a small part of the country, and then to start on his own path of conquest.

It is this interminable rise—with due credit being given to the clever general’s military innovations which were ahead of contemporary Europe—that the author describes in most detail. The narrative’s emphasis is on military conquest and administrative themes are mentioned not quite in the same degree. This seems to follow Nader Shah’s interest who was keen to increase his tax intake though less keen to support the peasantry in other ways.

The Shah’s reign took him to defeat both the Ottomans and the Mughals in the field as well as to sack Delhi. Yet, up until personal tragedies conquered his mind, we can speak of a generally prudent ruler. However, it is in the later years of his life we see the old Shah turning into a cruel tormentor, suspicious of everyone. These character changes inspired many an uprising, and the end of Nader’s life came about at the hands of his own captain of the guard.

The strong points of this book are numerous. Firstly, it is rare to see a narrative history that flows as well. Secondly, Mr Axworthy is clear of many prejudices that might twist a book like this into a promotional cause—instead, this is more of an educational cover which brings Nader Shah’s story to a reader. Thirdly, many a point is proved wrong from the school which argues that European superiority at the time was guaranteed. Overall, well worth a read!

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