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Empress

The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan

By Ruby Lal
10-minute read
Audio available
Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan by Ruby Lal

Empress (2018) digs deep into the historical archives to shed light on one of the Asian subcontinent’s most inspirational yet neglected figures: Nur Jahan, the first and only empress of the vast and powerful Mughal Empire. Tracing Nur’s story from a roadside birth in Afghanistan to her rise through the royal court and her many military, artistic and humanitarian achievements while in power, Indian historian Ruby Lal sets the record straight about one of history’s most remarkable women.

  • History buffs
  • Feminists
  • Anyone who loves inspiring true stories

Ruby Lal is an Indian feminist historian, writer and scholar based in the US. She is a professor of South Asian history at Emory University in Atlanta, and former associate director of The Program for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality at John Hopkins University. Her previous books include Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World (2005).

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Empress

The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan

By Ruby Lal
  • Read in 10 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 6 key ideas
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Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan by Ruby Lal
Synopsis

Empress (2018) digs deep into the historical archives to shed light on one of the Asian subcontinent’s most inspirational yet neglected figures: Nur Jahan, the first and only empress of the vast and powerful Mughal Empire. Tracing Nur’s story from a roadside birth in Afghanistan to her rise through the royal court and her many military, artistic and humanitarian achievements while in power, Indian historian Ruby Lal sets the record straight about one of history’s most remarkable women.

Key idea 1 of 6

Nur Jahan was born to parents fleeing persecution in their home country.

The astonishing story of Mihr un-Nisa begins in 1577 on a wintry roadside just outside the city of Kandahar in today’s Afghanistan. The humble circumstances of her birth reflected her family’s hardships. The children of influential noble families, Mihr’s parents had been forced to leave their native Persia behind by the increasingly repressive ways of its Safavid ruler, Ismail II.

The Safavid Empire hadn’t always been inhospitable to free-thinkers. In fact, it was founded by Sufi Muslims, a group known for their tolerance and mysticism. But things had gradually changed by the sixteenth century: religious minorities faced persecution and liberals like Mihr’s father, Mirza Ghiyas Beg, had to be careful about airing their views. When Ismail’s predecessor Tahmasp I died, the situation became intolerable. Fearing for his family’s safety, Ghiyas decided to make a fresh start abroad.

Ghiyas and his family set out toward a land known to Arabs and Persians alike as al-Hind, that is, Mughal-ruled India. It was a promising place – trade was booming and the empire was known for its openness. Even better, it was close enough to Persia that the noble status of Mihr’s parents might count for something and help them build a better life.

The gamble paid off. The family settled in Agra, the Mughal capital in northern India. Ghiyas quickly made a name for himself and was soon invited to join Emperor Akbar’s court. His newfound social standing meant he could provide his daughter with the best education available. Historians speculate that it was around this time that Mihr first met Jahangir, the heir to the Mughal throne who gave her the name by which she’s remembered today – Nur Jahan or “light of the world.”

Nothing came of their relationship at the time, however, as Nur was already married to a courtier and former military man named Ali Quli Beg. The couple moved to Bengal in western India and had a daughter of their own, Ladli. They might have been far removed from the physical center of Mughal life, but they couldn’t escape the court’s political intrigues. In 1607, Jahangir – then just two years into his reign – dispatched an assassin to kill Ali, who he claimed was conspiring to overthrow him.

Nur, now a widow, decided to return to Agra. It wouldn’t take her long to make her mark on history.

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