Durrani Dynasty

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Rulers of Afghanistan.

The Durrani dynasty (17471842) was founded in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1747, when a group of Pakhtun (Pushtun) elders elected Ahmad Durrani to lead them. Members of the house of Ahmad Shah ruled over the empire he created until its collapse in 1818. A branch of the family maintained control over Herat and the northwestern region until 1842. A grandson of Ahmad Shah regained the Afghan throne in 1838 but was overthrown in 1842, in the course of a popular uprising against British forces.

The province of Kandahar had changed hands repeatedly between the Moghul and Safavid empires when, in 1708, a coalition of Pakhtun and nonPakhtun elements under the leadership of Mir Wais Hotak freed the province from the Safavids. In 1722, the Pakhtuns conquered Isfahan, establishing a short-lived Ghilzai empire. By 1737, their capital in Kandahar was taken over by the Persian conqueror, Nadir Shah Afshar, whose death in 1747 provided Ahmad Shah with the opportunity to establish the Durrani empire.

Ahmad Shah belonged to the Saddozai lineage, which had provided the Abdali clan with its leaders for several centuries. On assuming power, Ahmad Shah changed the name of the clan from Abdali to Durrani (Pearl of Pearls). He be stowed special privileges on the Saddozai lineage but confined the kingship to his own house. The crown was hereditary in the house of Ahmad Shah. But in the absence of clear rules, every succession gave rise to an intense struggle for the throne. When Ahmad Shah died, two of his four sons emerged as contenders, but their conflict was quickly resolved in favor of the eldest, Timur Shah (ruled 17721793). When he died, the continuous struggle among his numerous sons became a permanent feature of the politics of the dynasty, ultimately leading to its collapse. Three of his sons became rulers, Shah Zaman (ruled 17931800), Shah Mahmud (ruled 18001803; 18091818), and Shah Shuja (ruled 18031809; 18381842).

Under Ahmad Shah, foreign conquest was the main goal of the dynasty. To build himself a base of support at home and provide a force for conquest abroad, Ahmad Shah showered the Durrani clans with privileges, investing their leaders with the main offices of the empire. Most of the ministers and generals belonged to various branches of the Durrani clan, though rarely to the Saddozai lineage to which Ahmad Shah's house belonged. But near the end of his rule, changed regional conditions had rendered further conquests unprofitable. Timur Shah, who fought only defensive wars, rarely called the Durrani clans to action. To reduce the power of his ministers, he moved the capital from Kandahar, the heartland of Pakhtuns, to Kabul, a predominantly Persian- (Farsi-) speaking city. He also created new offices, to which he appointed nonDurranis owing loyalty to his person.

The warring princes, however, not only had to reconfirm Durrani nobles in their privileges but had to concede to them new powers as well. The cumulative effect of these concessions resulted in the weakening of the crown to the point that ministers were in a position to depose rulers at will. Most of the rulers, however, managed to prevent members of a single lineage from monopolizing all official positions. But under Shah Mahmud, members of the Barakzai clan managed to gain control of the most important offices. When, in 1818, the crown prince blinded the powerful Barakzai chief minister, the latter's brothers, seeking revenge, overthrew the house of Ahmad Shah and brought about the collapse of the Durrani empire.

A civil war ensued. The Indian provinces of the Durrani empire gained their independence, and Afghanistan was divided into a number of independent principalities. A great-grandson of Ahmad Shah, Prince Kamran, gained control of the province of Herat, which he ruled until 1842. Shah Shuja, a grandson of Ahmad Shah and former ruler, mounted a number of expeditions from his exile in India to regain power but without success. Fearing the rising influence of Russia in Persia and Central Asia, British officials in India decided to extend their support to Shah Shuja. To help restore him to power, they sent forces simultaneously against the rulers of Kabul and Kandahar in 1838, thereby initiating the first AngloAfghan War. The house of Ahmad Shah still retained enough legitimacy, and Shah Shuja was welcomed by the people. Soon, however, he revealed himself to be no more than a stooge of British power. In 1841, anxious about their own loss of influence, Afghan notables led a popular revolt against the British forces. The British army was destroyed, and Shah Shuja was assassinated in 1842. His descendants fled to India, and from then on, no member of the house of Ahmad Shah ever played a prominent role in the politics of Afghanistan.

The advent of the Durrani dynasty transformed the Pakhtuns in general, and the Durrani clans in particular, into the dominant political force in Afghanistan. The dynasty, however, derived its model of power from the ancient Persian and Islamic theories of government. Persian was the language of bureaucracy, and it gradually became the language of the court.

See also Ahmad Durrani; Barakzai Dynasty; Kabul; Pushtun.


Dupree, Louis. Afghanistan. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Leech, R. "An Account of Early Abdalees." Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 14 (1845): 445470.

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