Top 10 Greatest Asian Rulers Of All Time

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Many of history’s most vast and populous civilizations have existed on Asia.  Thus, the task of ruling over such empires and kingdoms required particularly talented leaders, in order for their countries to thrive.  Here are the ten greatest (not necessarily friendliest, though) native-born Asian rulers. These ten are remembered for more than just their ability to shed the blood of their enemies.

10. Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar the Great (October 15, 1542 ­ to October 27, 1605)

Akbar

In 2011, Time Magazine ranked Akbar among its “Top 25 Political Icons.” Why? Well, he was the all-time greatest Mughal Emperor of India, for one. In addition to his military successes, he greatly influenced India’s art and architecture. His religious tolerance, and scholarly interest in varying religious beliefs, is one of many hallmarks of his long reign. He is considered not just one of Asia’s greatest leaders, but one of the greatest leaders of all of world history.

9. Zhu Di, The Yongle Emperor (May 2, 1360  to August 12, 1424)

zhu-di

Zhu Di reigned in China from July 17, 1402 to August 12, 1424. His achievements are impressive, to say the least. He commissioned the Yongle Encyclopedia in 1403. He dodged a bullet, so to speak, when Timur died in 1405, just before undertaking a planned invasion of China. Di then began construction of the famous Forbidden City, a World Heritage Site, in 1406.

Yet, perhaps his most well-known accomplishment was sponsoring Zheng He’s voyages of discovery between 1405 and 1433. These expeditions into the Indian Ocean brought back much knowledge about Asia and Africa, and predated the more widely-known European expeditions, that resulted in Europe’s eventual colonization of much of the world. Nevertheless, the extent on Zheng He’s efforts have given many a scholar to ask what would have happened if Di funded additional voyages that went even further? Imagine how different the ethnographic make-up of the world would be today!

8. Emperor Meiji the Great (November 3, 1852  to July 30, 1912)

Emperor-Meiji

Meiji is most famous for the Meiji Restoration, a revolution in 1868 that ended the Tokugawa Shognate established nearly three centuries earlier in 1600. In this revolution, Meiji restored imperial control over Japan and modernized the country, as depicted in such major films as The Last Samurai. The modernization of Japan helped make Japan a westernized industrial powerhouse, capable of defeating China during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894 ­- 1895,) and then Russia ten years later in the Russo-Japanese War (1904 ­- 1905,) both of which also occurred during Meiji’s long reign. As such, Meiji made Japan one of the few non-European powers (the other being the United States of America) to rival the imperialist European countries as a major world power, during the Age of Imperialism of the late 19th through early-20th century.

7. Shah Jahan (January 5, 1592 ­to January 22, 1666)

Emperor-Shah-jahan

Shah Jahan’s name in Persian means “Ruler of World,” Despite such a boastful name however, his actual domain was limited mainly to Mughal India. His long reign from 1628 to 1658 is considered that empire’s “Golden Age.” Of all of Jahan’s numerous architectural and military achievements, his single most famous accomplishment is one of the early modern wonders of the world: the Taj Mahal.

This beautiful monument was built for Jahan’s reportedly-captivating wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Jahan imported great builders from the Ottoman and Persian empires to construct this marvel of Mughal civilization. After Jahan’s death, he too was entombed in the magnificent example of Islamic-Indian architecture.

6. Timur the Lame (April 9, 1336 ­to February 18, 1405)

timur-the-lame

Although most commonly known as “The Lame,” Timur has also been referred to as “The Great” and “The Sword of Islam.” On the one hand, his military campaigns are appalling in terms of their toll on human lives, killing perhaps seventeen million people, which ranks only below such modern tyrants as Hitler and Stalin in terms of historic brutality.

Yet, the man who thought of himself as Genghis Khan’s heir achieved a stunning degree of success during his life. By the time he took control of the Chagatai Khanate, the great Mongol Empire of Genghis and Kublai was on the decline, with the Yuan Dynasty having been replaced by the Ming Dynasty in 1368. Nevertheless, Timur fought a series of campaigns to gain recognition as Great Khan, or at least ally of the remnants of the Mongol Empire, chiefly the Ilkhanate, Golden Horde, and Northern Yuan Dynasty. His empire thus encompassed a massive portion of Asia, and he was planning to expand even further than that.

He died in 1405, while setting out to conquer Ming China. In short, only death prevented him from effectively conquering the known world. One can only imagine the consequences for world history had his expedition succeeded, like so many others.

5. Darius I (550­ BCE to 486 BCE)

Darius-I

Darius ruled for thirty-six years, over the sole superpower in the world at the time. Under his reign, the Persian Empire spanned from part of Europe and Africa, to the great river valleys of India. Two major works of art and architecture date from his reign: the Behistun Inscription, and the Palace at Persepolis. Although the Palace is now in ruins, these ruins still reflect a major sculptural achievement that is, today, a World Heritage Site.

It is one of the great cultural tragedies of history that Alexander the Great’s army destroyed notable portions of the Palace built under Darius. Yet, despite Darius’s many accomplishments, he also overreached in his efforts to conquer, or at least punish, the Scythians and Greeks alike. The Persians suffered many losses in their campaigns against both; had they somehow been more successful, Persia might have endured even longer as one of history’s greatest empires.

4. Kublai Khan (September 23, 1215 ­to February 18, 1294)

kublai-khan

Kublai Khan  is quite famous in Western culture, having been immortalized through the writings of Marco Polo and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as well as the epic beatdown he received from a time-travelling Brian Boitano.

During his actual lifetime though, Khan had tremendous influence on many aspects of Asian history, primarily because the Mongol Empire reached its height, in many ways, under his reign. He founded the Yuan Dynasty in China, which lasted in varying sizes from 1279 to 1635. Nevertheless, despite his successful expansion of the empire, Mongol expeditions under his reign also demonstrated the limits of Mongol expansionism. Their invasion of the Japan was halted at the Battle of Hakata Bay in 1281; subsequently, the Mongol invasion of the even-further away island of Java also faltered in 1293.

Had these campaigns succeeded, the additional influence on subsequent Asian, if not world, history would have been incredible, especially considering the place the Japanese victory has in their culture. For example, the “kamikaze” pilots of World War II were named after the “Divine Wind” that saved them against the Mongols.

3. Xerxes I Of Persia (519 BCE to 465 BCE)

xerxes-I

Though Xerxes did not found the Achaemenid Persian Empire, he ruled it at its greatest size, and made it the global force that it was at the time. His failed invasion of Greece has secured him a legendary place in not just Asian, but also Western culture. Most recently, he appeared as a major character in 300, which has been portrayed and spoofed on such shows as South Park and Robot Chicken. Some also identify Xerxes as the possible spouse of biblical queen Esther.

2. Cyrus II Of Persia (600 OR 576 BC­E to 530 BCE)

Cyrus-II

Cyrus, Xerxes’ father, established the Persian Empire, the first tri-continental empire in history. He is one of history’s first “great captains,” a term used by military historians to refer to the greatest military leaders of all time. As such, the empire established by Cyrus surpassed the territorial extent of predecessors such as the Assyrians, and left an even greater legacy on a broad region of the world.

His role in religious history is also significant, as he was the one who conquered Babylonia, freed the Jews that had been captured by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, and allowed them to return to Jerusalem. As such, not only is Cyrus remembered as one of the greatest military leaders in world history, he is also revered as someone anointed by the Lord. Some Jews today even look to Cyrus as a Messiah.

1. Genghis Khan (Circa 1162 to August 1227)

Genghis-khan

Genghis Khan had to be the number one guy here. He conquered more land than even Alexander the Great, and laid the basis for history’s largest contiguous empire. As such, he laid the foundation for the empires ruled by Kublai and Timur. His very name is beyond iconic; it is no surprise, then, that he has been depicted in media as brutally powerful and omnipresent, such as in the Civilization series of video games, and major films like The Conqueror and the Oscar-nominated Mongol.

He also had a major demographic influence on Eurasia, not just in terms of people killed in his conquests, and the mixing of peoples due to the establishment of his empire, but also through his own sexual relations and production of offspring, many of whom had numerous children of their own, some of whom founded empires of their own.

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Opinions on his personality and character remain divided as to how great a unifier of Asia he was, versus just being a ruthless slaughterer of humanity. Nevertheless, his influence on Eurasian history places him among the top five or so greatest military commanders in WORLD history, as well as most influential people, period.


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33 Comments

  1. Little footnote about Cyrus: Alexander the Great, who made most of his name conquering the Persian Empire, was supposed to have been a big admirer of him.

  2. Well Akbar and Shah Jahan were native born but of Afghani origins. Babur had invaded India from Afghanistan and thus putting in the roots of the Mughal Dynasty. In real terms of a great native Indian king who truly has been forgotten is Ashoka the Great of the Murya Dynasty who spread Buddhism to different countries and even the Indian emblem of four lions is from his period.

    • Dr. Matthew D. Zarzeczny, FINS on

      Hello!

      I had considered including Babur. My original draft of the list had thirteen rulers, but given the site’s name of TopTenz, I of course had to whittle it down. If you are curious who barely missed the cut, below are my 11 through 13 greatest rulers of Asia:

      13.Tomyris (c. 530 BC): Tomyris ruled as queen of the Massagetae in
      Central Asia. She rejected Cyrus the Great of Persia’s offer of
      marriage and subsequently fought a war against the great king. In one
      battle, the Persians captured Tomyris’s son who committed suicide while
      in captivity. Infuriated, she not only won the next battle and captured
      Cyrus, but also had him beheaded before personally shoving his head
      wineskin filled with human blood, saying, “I warned you that I would
      quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall.” She later was ranked
      among the Nine Female Worthies of the Middle Ages and appeared on a
      coin minted by Kazakhstan as one of history’s “great commanders”.

      12. Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur Beg (14 February 1483 – 26 December
      1530): Babur is the first Mughal Emperor and thereby founder of the
      Mughal dynasty of India. He claimed descent from two higher ranked men
      on this list: Timur and Genghis Khan. His is still considered a hero to
      various central Asian peoples and influenced the architecture of the
      lands over which he ruled.

      11. Wu Zetian (c.625 – 705): Empress Wu is probably the most famous
      Chinese empress. She reigned as empress regnant (a rarity in Chinese
      history). Her legacy is mixed. On one hand, she appears as a playable
      character in the Civilization series of computer games. She has also
      been the subject of numerous films and television programs. That she is
      so celebrated is not surprising given her expansion of China during her
      reign as well as contributions to statuary. Yet, on the other hand, she
      could exhibit vindictiveness that surpassed Tomyris. Most notoriously,
      Wu dealt with her predecessor as empress, Wang, by having Wang caned
      100 times before having her hands and feet cut off. Next, Wang was
      placed in a jar for days before being released only to succumb to
      beheading.

      Best,

      Matthew

        • Dr. Matthew D. Zarzeczny, FINS on

          Dear Amrendra,

          Thank you as well! I always enjoy reading people’s comments on not just my list, but also the other lists on this excellent site!

          Best,

          Matthew

    • Dr. Matthew D. Zarzeczny, FINS on

      Dear Gene,

      Those numbers must be exaggerated. Such an “accomplishment” is just not realistic without say nuclear weapons.

      Best,

      Matthew

  3. I enjoyed this post as I did not know of any Asian rulers except for Genghis and Emperor Meji the Great..
    VERY INTERESTING. Glad to see Genghis as number one.

    • Dr. Matthew D. Zarzeczny, FINS on

      Dear Yevgeniy,

      Just out of curiosity and based on your name, who do you think was the greatest ruler in Ukrainian history?

      Thanks!

      Matthew

      • Dear Matthew,

        This is interesting that you brought this up ha, I honestly do not know much about Ukranian rulers except for Bohdan Khmelnytsky. So I’d say he is the greatest ruler. I assume he was a great ruler because their are great monuments of him in Kiev. But I did ask my grandpa about him one day when I was little, he said he was a bandit like every other ruler and but he was a hero haha. But when I asked if we were related to him he said thank god no.

        p.s. My grandfather hated corruption of the rulers no matter what they achieved.

        Thanks
        Yev

  4. Dr. Z,

    I believe that Meiji is THE greatest Asian ruler of all time because of his role in restoring imperial control over Japan and modernizing the country. He initiated such important aspects of Japan as we know it today such as their government, the Diet, and the school system. Without Meiji, Japan would not be such a powerful and successful country as it is today.

    -Lindsay B.

  5. Wow amazing list, thanks for this.
    I particularly appreciate your perspective on persian history since the persian empire was, not only an important military force, but also an advanced society of the time.
    I’ve always been shocked by Frank Miller’s description of Xerxes; perception relayed in the 300 movie based on his comic.
    Miller’s point a view is a sad side-effect of his right-wing perception of humanity and the movie, which was shot soon after the irak war, displayed an oversimplified east vs west dichotomy by rewriting history.
    I’m not saying the battle of thermopylae is not an important event in the persian/ greece wars, i’m just saying it wasn’t necessary to display Xerxes as a degenerated monster to make a point.

    • Dr. Matthew D. Zarzeczny, FINS on

      Thank you for your kind comments! I am looking forward to the 300 prequel coming out later this year! 🙂

  6. Nicholas Fill on

    I believe that Cyrus II of Persia had arguably the biggest effect of Asia. It is fascinating that at that time, he created a tri-continental empire in the Persian Empire. With that said, I would have to agree with you that even more remarkable than that is Genghis Kahn’s dominance in Asia. Having ruled the largest empire, he maintained his magnificent rule and is arguably one of the most effective military commanders. How could one argue with such a large, dominant, and destructive empire than his under his rule?

  7. Mitch Bartholomai on

    Dr. Z,

    I couldn’t agree with you more about Genghis Khan being the greatest Asian ruler of all time. The fact that he conquered more land than Alexander the great is a statement in itself. He may not have been the most heartfelt ruler, but he definitely got things accomplished that nobody ever has.

  8. Mark Jackson on

    Enjoyed the article. Genghis Khan is clearly the greatest Asian ruler. The amount of land he conquered is a great accomplishment or his time period. Part of the reason he was so successful was because of his attitude. He didn’t let anyone get in his way. Though he killed many innocent people, his dominance in Asia will forever be known.

  9. Ryan Winchell on

    By establishing the Persian Empire, Cyrus II Of Persia started one of history’s greatest empires of all time only to be followed by a handful of other tremendous leaders. Therefore, I am not surprised to see him sitting second on the list. I think Genghis Khan deserves to be the number one greatest Asian ruler on the list due to his major accomplishments such as conquering an incredible amount of land, initiating the world’s largest contiguous empire, and heavily influencing Eurasia. Interesting list of Asian rulers from top to bottom.

    – Ryan W.

  10. Not completed .

    The Great Ashoka was one of the best leaders .

    His territory covers afganistan to burma and kashmir to kanyakumari

  11. I have heard of Emperor Meiji before but nothing too in depth. I like his entry in the article because its intresting to see all of his acomplishment as Emperor especially because he had a long reign and was able to fight off two great powers in China and Russia, and not to mention only happened about 100 years ago.

  12. Adam Lenhart on

    I’m glad there are a few what-ifs that never came to pass. Some would have been just too brutal, but I have a feeling that Genghis Khan had no real appreciation for people because of his overzealous sexual relations and the fact that he had such an impact on Eurasian culture through the amount of people killed. Of course, it could have just been a vengeful blood lust as well. It’s hard to say without interrogating the man himself.

  13. What I don`t get, is while people are saying Genghis Khan was a good ruler, don`t people remember that he murdered in the tens of millions, committed genocides, built pyramids of heads, like you see in Cambodia, if people didn`t surrender to him, he killed them, had people crushed to death in a carpet, “so not to bloody his hands,” and he raped so many women, that 16, million people are descended from him?

  14. one thing is clear, where all over the time various parts of world were conquered and conquerers
    mixed with local populations and spread there genes and religion, in hindu rajputs this could never be done by anyone , not alexander not genghis and not mughals, many of them still trace their lineage to before christ

  15. 7. Shah Jahan would have to be my favorite. From what we learned in class he accomplished a lot militarily and as a ruler, but he also accomplished wonders architecturally through building the tomb for his wife and later him as well. It is not a wonderful tourist attraction and everyone goes there to see the marvels it has to show off.

  16. Dr. Z,

    Firstly I would like to congratulate you for this well written article. But I do have a difference of opinion with you in certain aspects of this list. Some how it seems that though the list is named as the 10 greatest rulers of all time, but it makes rarely any distinction between rulers & conquerors. Is it necessary a great conqueror will be considered a great ruler ? Timur & Ghengiz were great conquerors in my opinion, not necessarily the greatest rulers.
    Would really like to know your views on this subject.

  17. Kindly check in the following links and conclude who is the best king in India
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raja_Raja_C
    http://www.quora.com/Who-are-the-greates

    Raja Raja Chola & Rajendra Chola (10th century AD) – The greatest of Tamil kings and among the best of India – the father-son duo established the Tamil empire in South East Asia. They built 100+ great temples (including the Tanjore Siva temple) that are a part of UNESCO’s world heritage site. Unlike other kings of Bharat, they proceeded to extend their influence beyond India and controlled the Indian ocean’s

    RAJA RAJA CHOZHAN WAS THE GREATEST EMPIRE IN INDIA, BEECAUSE HE WAS THE FIRST KING WHO CROSSES THE BORDER FOR BATTLE(WAR) AND CAPTURE MOST OF THE ASIA AND EVEN SRI LANKA(PLEASE CHECK IN THE WEB), HE WAS THE ONLY KING HAD MORE THAN 60000 ELEPHANTS IN HIS ARMY, AND MORE THAN 35 DEPARTMENTS IN HIS MILITARY-PLS CHK HIS HISTORY AND COME TO CONCLUSION, HIS WAS THE FIRST KING IN INDIA WHO INTRODUCE LOCAL(ULLATCH THERTHAL) ELECTIONS IN INDIA

  18. I wonder if Alexander cud b placed on the list, technically. Of course, he was born in Europe n not of Asian decent.

  19. Of note, Cyrus II was not the father of Xerxes I, Darius I was. Xerxes’ mother Atossa was the daughter of Cyrus the Great.
    Cambyses II was the son of Cyrus II and the second ruler of the Achaemenid Empire.

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