We usually tend to focus on only the dark and gruesome parts of history, though it’s not been all bad. Among all the wars, diseases, and other tragedies of history, there have also been quite a few times of unprecedented peace and prosperity. These are sometimes referred to as a ‘golden age’ by historians, when cultures around the world achieved new heights in science, medicine, literature, economics, philosophy, and a slew of other fields.
10. 14th-16th Century, Mali
Timbuktu was established as a seasonal trading camp on the southern edge of the Sahara desert some time in the 12th century, providing a way for West African kingdoms to trade with the salt-rich kingdoms in the east and beyond. By the early 1300s, when it was annexed by the Kingdom of Mali, Timbuktu had already turned into the most important trading center in West Africa. According to a legendary tale, the city was so rich in gold that when the emperor, Mansa Musa, donated a bunch of it to Egypt in 1324, it tanked the price of the precious metal across the country for 12 years!
It wasn’t just the riches – during Mansa Musa’s reign that began in 1312, Mali was also one of the most important centers of culture and learning in the African Islamic world. Scholars, architects, doctors, and other experts were invited from across the known world – at its peak, the city could house more than 25,000 students, with over 800,000 manuscripts stored in its archives. This period lasted roughly until the end of the 16th century, when Timbuktu was occupied by Moroccan forces.
9. New Kingdom, Ancient Egypt
The New Kingdom of Egypt was a period between the 16th and 11th centuries BC. This nearly-500-year-long era is remembered as the most prosperous time in ancient Egyptian history, when pharaohs belonging to Dynasty 18, 19 and 20 turned the Egyptian kingdom into the most advanced civilization of the ancient world.
This growth was powered by multiple factors. While the fertile Nile river delta provided a rich source of food and other natural resources, the gold mines of the Nubian desert made the pharaohs rich beyond imagination. That flowed down to the rest of Egyptian society in the form of expansive architectural projects like temples and tombs, as Egyptian architecture got more complex and elaborate than ever before. This was also when Egypt reached the peak of its territorial expanse, both by conquest and diplomacy by now-famous pharaohs like Tutankhamun, Ramses II, and Hatshepsut.
8. Tang Dynasty, China
The Chinese Tang dynasty succeeded the Sui dynasty during the early 7th century. Under its rule, China reached the peak of its territorial and cultural influence in the region, lasting over three centuries until its fall in 907 AD. It was one of the greatest civilizations of its time, known far and wide for its ethnically-diverse and cosmopolitan urban settlements. During the seventh and eighth centuries, many Chinese cities grew into large, bustling metropolises – the capital, Chang’an, was easily the most populous city in the world at its peak, with a population of over one million residents.
The Tang era saw many far-reaching achievements in fields like arts, literature, architecture, city planning, and many others. This was when woodblock printing was first invented in China, giving scholars and thinkers a new way to produce and distribute knowledge. This period is particularly noteworthy for its contribution to ancient Chinese poetry, especially during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong, who established a separate institution dedicated to poetry called the Academy of Letters.
7. Pax Romana, Ancient Rome
Pax Romana – or ‘Roman peace’ – was a period of relative calm across the Roman world. Beginning with the reign of Augustus Caesar in 27 BC and ending with the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 BC, these two centuries saw the relatively small Roman republic turn into one of the largest empires in history. Despite the tumultuous early years of Augustus’s reign, Rome prospered immensely during this time, ushering in an era of peace and prosperity for many of its citizens, especially in the capital.
The empire reached its territorial peak during this time, with a population of over 70 million. Roman scientists made new advances in various fields, especially in architecture and city infrastructure. An intricate network of roads and aqueducts was built across the territory, which further boosted trade among far-off provinces.
While it’s debatable that it was a good time for everyone involved – as the empire still went through multiple conflicts in its border regions throughout this time – Pax Romana was by and large a peaceful era for most citizens. It would come to an abrupt end with the death of emperor Marcus Aurelius, followed by the disastrous reign of his son, Commodus.
6. Gupta Empire, India
The Gupta empire was a Hindu empire founded in 320 AD, after almost five centuries of chaos and fighting among smaller kingdoms and principalities across India. The first Gupta ruler, Chandragupta I, expanded it into a formidable geo-political entity, stretching across vast parts of northern, eastern, and central India.
From its foundation to its fall in the 6th century, the Gupta period remained a high point in the history of Indian civilization. This was when the modern, decimal number system was developed – now known as Arabic numerals – along with other fundamental discoveries by thinkers like Aryabhata and Sushruta. Indian architecture also reached new heights during this time, as Gupta rulers – especially Chandragupta II – commissioned massive palaces and temples across the empire.
5. Post-WW2, USA
When the Second World War concluded in 1945, America found itself in an exceptionally-advantageous position. While pre-war powers like Britain and France lay in ruins, with large parts of their populations dead, the US economy was about to experience some of its most productive years ever.
Also sometimes known as the Golden Age of Capitalism, it was a period of rapid growth and reindustrialization across the country, particularly in the western and south-western states. Cities like Los Angeles, Houston, Albuquerque, Phoenix and others expanded rapidly, as more and more Americans moved out of dense inner city areas to the suburbs, thanks to higher wages and standards of living. Massive infrastructure projects were undertaken during this time, like the Highway Act of 1956 that built close to 40,000 miles of roads and highways to connect different parts of the country. The gross national product grew from $200 billion in 1940 to $500 billion in 1960 in this period, as the American worker moved to high-skilled, service-based jobs.
4. The Golden Age Of Islam
The Islamic golden age began in the 8th century with the foundation of the Abbasid Caliphate. Centered in the capital of Baghdad, Islamic scholars – funded and supported by the Caliph and other members of royalty – made many fundamental discoveries in the fields of science, technology, medicine, theology, warfare, and others. Building on knowledge from ancient cultures like India, China, and Greece, many of those discoveries would lay the foundation for the scientific revolution in Europe.
Unfortunately, all that would come to an abrupt end in 1258, when Bahghdad was overrun and brutally sacked by Mongol forces in 1258, with a majority of its population put to the sword. That included the House of Wisdom, or the Grand Library of Baghdad, where hundreds of thousands of manuscripts were burned or tossed into the river.
3. 5th Century, Athens
The golden age of Athens lasted almost throughout the 5th century BC, particularly during the reign of Pericles from roughly 461 to 429 BC. Back then, Athens was only one of the many city states in Greece, ruling over an alliance of more than a dozen other states called the Delian League. In effect, it operated more like an Athenian empire than an alliance, making the city wealthier and more powerful than ever before.
Throughout this time, Athenians made so many advances in fields like philosophy, science, logic, mathematics, theater, and arts that it’s often referred to as the foundation of western democracy. In mathematics, Athenian thinkers like Euclid and Pythagoras laid down the first laws of modern geometry. Playwrights like Sophocles and Euripides lived in Athens around this time, along with physicians like Hippocrates, philosophers like Plato and Socrates, and historians like Herodotus and Thucydides.
2. Timurid Renaissance
The Timurid dynasty was founded by Timur – a Turko-Mongol warlord that conquered and carved out a vast empire across Central Asia and Persia in the 14th century. It was a golden age of Persian culture – from the late 14th century to roughly early 16th century, the Timurid empire made unforeseen advances in astronomy, architecture, poetry, performing arts, metalworking, military science, and others.
Now known as the Timurid Renaissance, this period is particularly known for the development of a technique known as Persian miniature painting – an abstract style of colorful art practiced in cities across Iran and Central Asia. Calligraphy was developed as a separate art form throughout this period, as artists from around the world flocked to the rapidly-developing cities to practice their craft. Many members of the dynasty were artists themselves, as they funded and encouraged large-scale architecture and art projects across the empire.
1. Italian Renaissance
The Italian Renaissance began during the early 15th century. Centered in the Republic of Florence – then one of the many separately-governed city states on the Italian peninsula – this period would soon come to be known as the zenith of European arts and sciences, triggering other renaissances in countries like Britain, Spain, France, Germany, and others.
By the late 14th century, Florentine was an important center of banking and other commercial activity in Europe. As the wealth flowed in, the hard, toil-based lifestyle of the Middle ages was replaced by a more individualistic, freer approach to life, also known as ‘humanism’. Wealthy Florentine citizens were now more willing to invest time and money into arts and culture, which had a profound impact on Florentine society.
This shift in popular outlook – combined with advances in technology – gave birth to many exceptional artists, thinkers, writers, scientists, and engineers across Florentine, including names like Filippo Brunelleschi, Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and others.