The location of Afghanistan astride the land routes between the Indian subcontinent, Iran, and central Asia has enticed conquerors throughout history

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In 637 A.D., only five years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Arab Muslims shattered the might of the Iranian Sassanians at the battle of Qadisiya, and the invaders began to reach into the lands east of Iran. By the middle of the eighth century, the rising Abbasid Dynasty was able to subdue the Arab invasion, putting an end to the prolonged struggle. Peace prevailed under the rule of the caliph Harun al Rashid (785-809) and his son, and learning flourished in such Central Asian cities as Samarkand. From the seventh through the ninth centuries, most inhabitants of what is present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, southern parts of the former Soviet Union, and areas of northern India were converted to Sunni Islam.

In the eighth and ninth centuries ancestors of many of today's Turkic-speaking Afghans settled in the Hindu Kush area (partly to obtain better grazing land) and began to assimilate much of the culture and language of the Pashtun tribes already present there (see Ethnic Groups, ch. 2).

By the middle of the ninth century, Abbasid rule had faltered, and semi-independent states began to emerge throughout the empire. In the Hindu Kush area, three short-lived, local dynasties ascended to power. The best known of the three, the Samanid, extended its rule from Bukhara as far south as India and west as Iran. Although Arab Muslim intellectual life still was centered in Baghdad, Iranian Muslim scholarship, that is, Shia Islam, predominated in the Samanid areas at this time. By the mid-tenth century, the Samanid Dynasty had crumbled in the face of attacks from Turkish tribes to the north and from the Ghaznavids, a rising dynasty to the south.

Ghaznavid and Ghorid Rule

Out of the Samanid Dynasty came the first great Islamic empire in Afghanistan, the Ghaznavid, whose warriors, raiding deep into the Indian subcontinent, assured the domination of Sunni Islam in what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of India. The most renowned of the dynasty's rulers was Mahmud, who consolidated control over the areas south of the Amu Darya then carried out devastating raids into India--looting Hindu temples and seeking converts to Islam. With his booty from India, he built a great capital at Ghazni, founded universities, and patronized scholars. Mahmud was recognized by the caliph in Baghdad as the temporal heir of the Samanids. By the time of his death, Mahmud ruled the entire Hindu Kush region as far east as the Punjab as well as territories far north of the Amu Darya. However, as occurred so often in this region, the demise in 1130 of this military genius who had expanded the empire to its farthest reaches was the death knell of the dynasty itself. The rulers of the Kingdom of Ghor, southeast of Herat, captured and burned Ghazni, just as the Ghaznavids had once conquered Ghor. Not until 1186, however, was the last representative of the Ghaznavids uprooted by the Ghorids from his holdout in the Punjab.

The Ghorids controlled most of what is now Afghanistan, eastern Iran, and Pakistan, while parts of central and western Iran were ruled by the Seljuk Turks. Around 1200, most Ghorid lands came into the hands of the Khwarazm Turks who had invaded from Central Asia across the Amu Darya.

Mongol Rule, 1220-1506

In 1220, the Islamic lands of Central Asia were overrun by the armies of the Mongol invader Genghis Khan (ca. 1155-1227), who laid waste to many civilizations and created an empire that stretched from China to the Caspian Sea. But he failed to destroy the strength of Islam in Central Asia. In fact, by the end of the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan's descendants had themselves become Muslims. From the death of Genghis Khan in 1227 until the rise of Timur (Tamerlane) in the 1380s, Central Asia went through a period of fragmentation.

A product of both Turkish and Mongol descent, Timur claimed Genghis Khan as an ancestor. From his capital of Samarkand, Timur created an empire that, by the late fourteenth century, extended from India to Turkey. The turn of the sixteenth century brought an end to Timurid Empire when another Mongol-Turkish ruler overwhelmed the weak Timurid ruler in Herat. Muhammad Shaybani (also a descendant of Genghis Khan) and his successors ruled the area around the Amu Darya for about a century, while to the south and west of what is now Afghanistan two powerful dynasties began to compete for influence.

Mughal-Safavid Rivalry, ca. 1500-1747

Early in the sixteenth century, Babur, who was descended from Timur on his father's side and from Genghis Khan on his mother's, was driven out of his father's kingdom in the Ferghana Valley (which straddles contemporary Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) by the Shaybani Uzbeks, who had wrested Samarkand from the Timurids. After several unsuccessful attempts to regain Ferghana and Samarkand, Babur crossed the Amu Darya and captured Kabul from the last of its Mongol rulers in 1504. In his invasion of India in 1526, Babur's army of 12,000 defeated a less mobile force of 100,000 at the First Battle of Panipat, about forty-five kilometers northwest of Delhi. Although the seat of the great Mughal Empire he founded was in India, Babur's memoirs stressed his love for Kabul--both as a commercial strategic center as well as a beautiful highland city with an "extremely delightful" climate.

Although Indian Mughal rule technically lasted until the nineteenth century, its days of power extended from 1526 until the death of Babur's great-great-great-grandson, Aurangzeb in 1707. The Mughals originally had come from Central Asia, but once they had taken India, the area that is now Afghanistan was relegated to a mere outpost of the empire. Indeed, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most of the Hindu Kush area was hotly contested between the Mughals of India and the powerful Safavids of Iran. Just as Kabul dominates the high road from Central Asia into India, Qandahar commands the only approach to India that skirts the Hindu Kush. The strategically important Kabul-Qandahar axis was the primary forces of competition between the Mughals and the Safavids, and Qandahar itself changed hands several times during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Safavids and the Mughals were not the only contenders, however. Less powerful but closer at hand were the Uzbeks of Central Asia, who fought for control of Herat in western Afghanistan and for the northern regions as well where neither the Mughals nor the Safavids were in strength.

The Mughals sought not only to block the historical western invasion routes into India but also to control the fiercely independent tribes who accepted only nominal control from Delhi in their mountain strongholds between the Kabul-Qandahar axis and the Indus River--especially in the Pashtun area of the Suleiman mountain range. As the area around Qandahar changed hands back and forth between the two great empires on either side, the local Pashtun tribes exploited the situation to their advantage by extracting concessions from both sides. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Mughals had abandoned the Hindu Kush north of Kabul to the Uzbeks, and in 1748 they lost Qandahar to the Safavids for the third and final time.

Toward the end of the seventeenth century, as the power of both the Safavids and the Mughals waned, new groups began to assert themselves in the Hindu Kush area. Early in the eighteenth century, one of the Pashtun tribes, the Hotaki, seized Qandahar from the Safavids, and a group of Ghilzai Pashtuns subsequently made greater inroads into Safavid territory. The Ghilzai Pashtuns (see_____, ch. 2) even managed briefly to hold the Safavid capital of Isfahan, and two members of this tribe ascended the throne before the Ghilzai were evicted from Iran by a warrior, Nadir Shah, who became known as the "Persian Napoleon."

Nadir Shah conquered Qandahar and Kabul in 1738 along with defeating a great Mughal army in India, plundering Delhi, and massacring thousands of its people. He returned home with vast treasures, including the Peacock Throne, which thereafter served as a symbol of Iranian imperial might.

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