From Ancient Egypt to Rome to Britain, history is full of great empires that have had a major impact on the story of human civilization, though we’re not here to talk about them. Instead, we’re more interested in the empires and civilizations that have been left out of history books, probably because many of them existed so long ago that we’ve sort of forgotten about them.
10. Maurya Empire
Lasting from about 321 to 185 BCE, the Maurya Empire was the first empire to cover most of the Indian subcontinent, with its capital at Pataliputra near modern-day Patna. It was established by Chandragupta Maurya, who was succeeded by his son Bindusara and later by Emperor Ashoka, also sometimes called Ashoka the Great.
The Maurya Empire’s rise to power began after the overthrow of the Nanda dynasty. Under Ashoka’s reign, the empire expanded through military conquest and diplomacy, leading to long periods of relative prosperity for the subcontinent. The region benefited from the efficient Mauryan administrative system, which included a network of officials and an efficient system of taxation. The rulers encouraged trade, particularly along the Silk Road, and engaged in economic activities like agriculture, manufacturing, and commerce on a large scale.
9. Caliphate Of Córdoba
From January, 929 to 1031, the city of Cordoba in Spain served as the capital of one of the most successful Islamic states in history, also known as the Caliphate of Cordoba. Established after the conquest of the Christian kingdoms in the region, it would grow to be one of the most successful states in the larger Islamic empire, with Cordoba serving as the center of arts and science across the Iberian peninsula.
The period is regarded as one of the golden ages of Spain, when libraries, colleges, and public schools were established throughout the territory to encourage academic learning. During this time, fields like science, architecture, and poetry flourished in Cordoba, making it one of the centers of education and scholarship in the larger Islamic empire. It was also a successful trading city, turning Spain into the most populous and prosperous country in Europe at the time.
8. Xiongnu Empire
The Xiongnu Empire was a nomadic empire that existed from the third century BC to the first century AD. It was primarily located in central Asia and stretched across much of the Eurasian Steppe, including present-day Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and parts of China and Russia. The Xiongnu Empire was established by various nomadic tribes, with the Xiongnu people emerging as the dominant force under their leader, Modu Chanyu, who gained power after killing his father in 209 BC.
The empire experienced many periods of prosperity and expansion during its reign. The Xiongnu were skilled horse riders and fierce warriors, enabling them to conquer vast territories and establish a network of tributary states across central Asia for more than 500 years. They controlled key trading hubs, facilitated cultural exchange, and engaged in diplomacy with neighboring powers, like the Han Dynasty of China. The Xiongnu Empire would have a significant impact on Chinese history, too, with frequent conflicts and alliances shaping the geopolitical landscape of the region for years to come.
7. Tiwanaku Empire
Tiwanaku was a pre-Columbian civilization that existed from approximately 400 to 900 AD in the southern Andes region of South America. It was mostly centered around the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, spanning parts of present-day Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. The empire was named after its capital city, Tiwanaku, and was responsible for the construction of impressive architectural structures and intricate stone carvings throughout the Andes region.
It was established by the Tiwanaku people, who created a centralized authority led by priests and nobles, along with an efficient system of administration. The empire experienced significant growth and influence throughout its existence, which helped spread its cultural and economic influence to neighboring societies. The Tiwanaku Empire emerged as a powerful state due to its strategic location along trading locations and its ability to harness agricultural productivity from known techniques. It was so impressive that at its peak, the terraced farms and fields of Tiwanaku could feed more than 60,000 people.
6. Assyrian Empire
The Assyrian Empire existed as an ancient-Mesopotamian civilization from about 900 to 600 BC, primarily located in what is now northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. The empire was established and expanded by a succession of powerful Assyrian rulers, including Tiglath-Pileser I, Ashurnasirpal II, and Sargon II.
The Assyrian Empire experienced many golden periods and eras of military dominance over its regional rivals, emerging as one of the most influential civilizations in the region’s history. It established itself as a formidable empire through a series of military conquests and aggressive campaigns, and its success was largely due to its highly-organized military structure. Assyrian armies were adept at employing state-of-the-art tactics and engineering techniques to win wars, especially with their expertise in siege warfare and construction of massive fortified cities.
During this period, the region under Assyrian control also became a center of trade and commerce, as it developed a sophisticated administrative and tax-collection system, legal codes, and a well-structured bureaucracy.
5. Yuan Empire
The Yuan Empire was the continuation of the Mongol empire in China, established after the Mongol defeat of the Song empire in 1271. It was located in East and Central Asia, including territories that are now part of modern-day China, Mongolia, and other neighboring regions.
The empire reached its height of power and influence under Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson, who successfully conquered China and established the Yuan dynasty, making himself its first emperor. It was characterized by a strong centralized government, with Mongols usually forming the ruling elite and Chinese scholars and bureaucrats serving in administrative roles.
During this period, China experienced an age of prosperity and cultural exchange due to international trade, particularly along the Silk Road, which connected East Asia with Europe and the Middle East. Sadly, it would be a short-lived empire, as the Yuan dynasty was overthrown in 1368 by a popular rebellion known as the Red Turban Movement.
4. Mali Empire
From about 13th to 16th century BC, the Mali Empire was one of the richest and most prosperous kingdoms in the world. Established by King Sundiata Keita, it was located in what is now the republic of Mali in West Africa, with its influence extending to faraway regions in Africa and beyond.
Mali was a primarily trade-based empire founded by uniting several smaller states into a singular entity. Under Mansa Musa, who ruled in the 14th century, the empire reached its pinnacle of wealth and influence – a period many modern historians recognize as one of the region’s golden ages.
Mali and the general west-African region flourished during this period, as the empire controlled many important trading outposts, particularly along the trans-Saharan route that involved precious items like gold and salt. Mali’s position as a major trading hub allowed for cultural exchange from distant empires, leading to a renaissance in art, science, architecture and other fields. Cities like Timbuktu grew into centers of learning and academia, attracting students and scholars from across the world.
3. Kingdom Of Kush
The Kingdom of Kush was an ancient African, Nile Valley civilization that existed from approximately 1070 BC to 350 AD, making it one of the longest-living empires in history. It was located in the ancient region now known as Nubia, and comprised present-day Sudan and parts of Egypt. The kingdom was established by the Nubian people after gaining independence from Egypt, with its capital shifting between cities like Napata and Meroe throughout its history.
Kush initially emerged as a powerful state due to its trade along the Nile River, as it benefitted from the exchange of goods and ideas between Sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean region. The kingdom’s influence expanded when it conquered Egypt, creating the 25th Dynasty and ruling as pharaohs from 747-656 BC.
Throughout this period, the Nile region was known for its wealth, much of it derived from trade in gold, ivory, ebony, and other valuable resources from the region. The kingdom eventually adopted aspects of Egyptian culture and religion while also maintaining its unique Nubian identity.
2. Khmer Empire
The Khmer Empire was a powerful Hindu-Buddhist civilization in southeast Asia that existed from 802-1431 AD. It was mainly centered in present-day Cambodia, with its influence extending to parts of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.
Under Jayavarman II – the founder of the empire – it grew into one of the most prosperous and powerful states in the region, reaching its peak during the reign of Suryavarman II around 1122 AD. The empire’s success was fueled by an advanced agricultural system, including the construction of intricate irrigation networks and reservoirs.
One of the most notable innovations of the Khmer Empire was the construction of Angkor Wat, often called the largest religious monument in the world. The empire’s capital, Angkor, was also renowned for its grand temples, intricate carvings, and sprawling urban infrastructure.
1. Achaemenid Empire
At its peak, the ancient-Iranian Achaemenid Empire stretched from Egypt and Libya all the way to northern India and central Asia, making it the largest ancient empire we know of. Established around the year 550 BC by Cyrus II – also called Cyrus the Great – it held over 44% of the world’s population around 475 BC, and could even be considered an early example of a global, multi-ethnic empire.
The Achaemenid Empire was known for many great innovations, including and especially its vast and interconnected network of roads. Many cities across the region grew to be sprawling metropolises, largely thanks to the efficient rule of a series of notable kings from the Achaemenid Dynasty. It would remain a stable, formidable power in Eurasia until 331 BC, when the empire was completely conquered by the armies of Alexander.