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)
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 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)
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)
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)
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 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 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)
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, 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 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.
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.