Since the beginning of man, people have fought in order to exert their military, cultural, and economic dominance over another. This is the concept of empire: it is timeless and it is ever-present. But if history has taught us one thing, it is that empires always fall – and that is a fact that remains true for even the largest. Below is a list of a few of the greatest empires in the world that have stretched across cultures and continents.
5. The Qing Empire (1644 – 1911)
The last imperial dynasty in China began with the sack of the Ming capital of Beijing in the mid 17th century, leading to pacification of the country and expansion beyond its previous borders. It included most of modern-day China, as well as Mongolia. By 1790, it was the largest in the world for a brief time, comprising one sixth of the world’s land mass and one third of the world’s population.
Unfortunately, the Qing Dynasty was plagued with almost every problem a country can have: corruption, natural disaster, rebellion, and military defeat eventually weakened the empire until its last empress was overthrown and the Republic of China was formed in 1911. Interestingly enough, the infant son of Empress Longyu would be installed as the puppet emperor of Manchukuo by the Japanese from 1932 until the end of WWII in 1945. Today, the Qing are credited with highly integrating Chinese culture into many facets of the nation.
4. The Umayyad Caliphate (661 – 750)
The Umayyads were the second of four major Islamic caliphates (basically a religious empire) to be established after the death of Muhammad. Originally hailing from Mecca, the Umayyads gradually extended the Muslim conquest until is spanned across the Middle East, North Africa, and most of what is today Spain and Portugal. At the height of its power, the Umayyad Empire comprised of over 5 million square miles, making it the largest empire the world had known up to that point.
From their capital of Damascus, the caliphs imposed administrative and taxation policies that were widely viewed to be oppressive and unjust. After several civil wars within the Muslim world, the Umayyads were eventually overthrown by the Abbasids, who would go on to rule Islamic lands for the next 500 years.
3. The Russian Empire (1721 – 1917)
One of the largest contiguous land empires in history, the Russian Empire was an imposing force in Europe and Asia whose remnants can still be easily seen on any map today. Considered to have started in 1721 with the end of the Great Northern War, Peter the Great built his new capital at St. Petersburg and reorganized his government into an autocracy where he held absolute power. At its height in 1866, the Russian Empire stretched from Western Europe and the Baltic Sea to North America and the Pacific Ocean (yes, Alaska was once Russian!). It covered nearly 9 million miles but only held 10% of the world’s population.
By the early 20th century, the Romanov Dynasty was coming under heavy pressure by a dissatisfied population. A stunning defeat in the Japanese-Russo War led to the Russian Revolution of 1905, which resulted in the formation of a national legislature. Civil unrest was temporarily suppressed with Russia’s entry into WWI, but the effects of the war soon became demoralizing. In 1917, communist Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin took control of the country; Tsar Nicholas II and his family were summarily executed in 1918, leading to the end of the Romanov Dynasty and the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
2. The Mongol Empire (1206 – 1368)
Certainly one of the most feared conquerors in history, the Mongols carved an empire out of Asia through blood and death. Under the leadership of Ghengis Khan, the newly unified Mongol and Turkic tribes sent forces in almost every direction ; after the death of Ghengis in 1227, his descendants continued the conquest until, in 1294, they have formed the largest contiguous land empire that ever had been and that ever would be. Their skill on the battlefield was unmatched, and there were very few instances where they were defeated.
Interestingly, once the Mongols had established their empire, the ensuing stability of their rule allowed an unprecedented level of flow of culture, technology, and goods within the empire. Historians have coined this period as the Pax Mongolica, meaning Mongolian Peace in Latin. Unfortunately, Kublai Khan’s death in 1294 created instability as conflicts over succession arose; the empire was split up and eventually conquered, becoming all but dissolved after the overthrow by the Ming Dynasty in 1368.
Still, the effects of the Mongolian Empire have had far-reaching consequences on culture and commerce even to this day. It is even estimated that as many as 16 million of Ghengis Khan’s descendants are alive in the world today.
1. The British Empire (1583 – 1997)
At its greatest extent in 1922, the British Empire was the largest empire in the history of the world: it included Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand, and numerous other islands and territories on every continent. It covered over 13 million square miles, nearly a quarter of the Earth’s entire land mass. Finally, almost half-a-billion people were subjects of the British Crown, about a fifth of the world’s population at the time. The geographical breadth of British territorial holdings led to the popular phrase “the sun never sets on the British Empire” – and that was completely accurate.
The British Empire was constantly evolving, as territories were almost constantly gained and lost. For example, the American colonies left the empire in 1776, and British rule over India was not initiated until 1858. After WWII devastated both Britain and her overseas colonies, the process of decolonization would begin in earnest; strengthening independence movements led the Crown to eventually relinquish sovereignty to most of its overseas territories. Many consider the end of the British Empire to have been during WWII, but it was not until 1947 that India, their most populous and valuable foreign possession, gained independence. Hong Kong was the last major British territory to leave the empire, when in 1997, Britain’s 99-year lease on the region expired.
Today, the United Kingdom still holds sovereignty over 14 other territories, although the names and characteristics of colonial government have long since diminished. Many former members of the British Empire still enjoy warm relations with the UK and comprise the Commonwealth of Nations so that common goals and values can be shared and promoted. Although it cannot be considered an empire, the front page of their website claims that the 54 nations of the Commonwealth hold two out of every seven people in the world and contribute 20% of the world’s trade! Nevertheless, no one can argue against the greatness of the former British Empire, and the lasting political and cultural impact it had, and still has, on the world.