The greatest empires in history – WorldAtlas

Almost since the beginning of human history, there have been empires that have controlled large swathes of land. Some of these empires succeeded in gaining control of a territory that spanned two or more continents. Over time, however, empires gradually became a thing of the past, replaced by the modern nation state. Mid to late 20e century, the era of empires was practically over, as most of the territories that were the imperial possessions of certain powers gained their independence. Nevertheless, empires tend to leave a lasting legacy on the territory they conquer. In fact, they helped shape the world we know today. Here are the greatest empires in human history:

1. British Empire – 35.5 million km2

Map showing the extent of the British Empire at its height.

The British Empire was the largest empire in human history. These were the colonial possessions of what is now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The imperial expansion of Great Britain began at the beginning of the 17e century. At its peak in 1920, the British Empire controlled 35.5 million square kilometers of land. People said “The sun never sets on the British Empire”, because the empire consisted of colonies all over the world. But after World War II, British imperialism began to decline, when the United Kingdom granted independence to most of its colonial possessions. Former British colonial possessions include the 13 North American colonies that became the United States of America, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand.

2. Mongol Empire – 24 million km2

Mongolian Empire Map
Map of the Mongol Empire.

The Mongol Empire extended over territory both in Asia and in Europe. In fact, in his prime, he was in control of most of the former. The empire began with the unification of the Mongol tribes under the leadership of Genghis Khan at the beginning of the 13e century. In about half a century, the empire controlled much of Eastern Europe, most of Central Asia, and most of China. At its peak between the middle and the end of the 13e century, the borders of the Mongol Empire extended from the Sea of ​​Japan to the west of Asia Minor (Anatolia, current Turkey), covering an area of ​​24 million km ².

3. Russian Empire – 22.8 million km2

The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, one of the main palaces of the Russian Empire
The Winter Palace on Palace Square in summer in Saint Petersburg, Russia. It was a main palace of the Russian Empire and is currently a tourist attraction of the city of Petersburg. Editorial credit: Viacheslav Lopatin /

The Russian Empire began as the Principality of Moscow, which included the territory surrounding the present-day Russian capital. In the middle of the 16e century, however, Tsar Ivan IV began a campaign of expansion. Around the middle of 17e century, the Russian Empire had reached the shores of the Bering Sea, opposite what is now the US state of Alaska. In fact, Alaska belonged to the Russian Empire at one point. At the end of the 19e century, the Russian Empire expanded to include the territory of the Caucasus and Central Asia. At its height, the empire’s borders stretched from the northern coast of Asia to the borders of present-day Afghanistan and Iran, and from the Bering Sea in the east to the eastern border of the Germany in the west, covering a total area of ​​22.8 million km². Today, the Russian Federation still owns much of the territory of the former Russian Empire, although the territory it once held in Central Asia, the Caucasus and part of Eastern Europe is now part of other countries.

4.Qing Dynasty – 14.7 million km2

The Qing Dynasty Imperial Palace in Shenyang, China
The Qing Dynasty Imperial Palace in Shenyang, China. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in 1625.

The Qing Dynasty was an imperial dynasty that ruled China from the mid-17e century at the beginning of the 20e century. It was the last imperial dynasty in Chinese history before the country became a republic. The origins of the Qing Dynasty, however, were not Chinese, but Manchu, which is why it is sometimes referred to as the Manchu Dynasty. Manchuria is now the northeast region of China. In the 17e century, the Manchus conquered China and founded the Qing dynasty after overthrowing the previous Ming dynasty. At its peak at the end of the 18e century, the territory of the Qing included 14.7 million km ².

5. Spanish Empire – 13.7 million km2

Map of the Spanish Empire
Map of the Spanish Empire.

The Spanish Empire was a vast colonial empire covering much of North and South America, the Caribbean, and smaller territories elsewhere. It began shortly after the unification of the states of Castile and Aragon in the Iberian Peninsula and completed what was called the Reconquista de la Peninsula, or recapture of the peninsula from the Muslims at the end of the 15th.e century. At its peak at the beginning of the 19e century, Spanish territory in North and South America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia covered a total of 13.7 million km2. The former Spanish colonies include Mexico, the countries of Central America, and most of the present-day nation states of South America.

6. Second French Colonial Empire – 11.5 million km2

The Second French Colonial Empire began in the early mid-19e century, after the period of the first French colonial empire. Like the United Kingdom, France once held many colonial possessions in all parts of the world. Its largest possessions were in Africa, while France maintained smaller colonies in the Americas, the Caribbean and the South Pacific. At its peak at the beginning of the 20e century, the Second French Colonial Empire extended over 11.5 million km² of territory. The former French colonies include the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as most of the territory that today constitutes West Africa.

7. Abbasid Caliphate – 11.1 million km2

Memorial monument of Muhammad ibn Musa al Khwarizmi in Khiva, Uzbekistan
Memorial monument to Muhammad ibd Musa al Khwarizmi (Xorazmiy) in Khiva, Uzbekistan, who was a well-known Persian mathematician, astronomer and geographer during the Abbasid Caliphate. Editorial credit: Andrii Lutsyk /

The Abbasid Caliphate was the third Islamic caliphate to succeed the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. The caliphate was born in the middle of the 8e century, when the Abbasids overthrew the previous Umayyad Caliphate. It was during the reign of the Abbasid Caliphate that the golden age of Islam began. At its peak, the territory of the caliphate stretched from the western border of India in the east to the coast of North Africa in present-day Algeria in the west, totaling 11.1 million km².

8. Umayyad Caliphate – 11.1 million km2

The historic village of Anjar famous for its ruins of the Umayyad Caliphate
The historic village of Anjar on the border between Lebanon and Syria which is famous for its ruins of the Umayyad Caliphate.

The Umayyad Caliphate was the second caliphate after the time of the Prophet Muhammad. He succeeded the caliphate of Rashidun in the middle of the 7e century and lasted until the middle of the 8e century when he was overthrown by the Abbasids. The Umayyad Caliphate controlled roughly the same territory as the Abbasids mentioned above. At the start of the dynasty, he already controlled present-day Iran, the Caucasus, the Fertile Crescent, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, but continued to conquer a vast expanse of territory on the coast of North Africa, reaching until the north coast of present-day Morocco.

9. Yuan Dynasty – 11 million km2

Map of Chinese Yuan Dynasty
Ancient map of Chinese Yuan Dynasty.

The Yuan Dynasty was the dynasty that emerged to rule China as the vast Mongol Empire split into separate empires between the mid to late 13th century.e century. At its peak, it controlled all of present-day China, as well as Mongolia and the Korean peninsula, for a total of 11 million km2 of land. In the middle of the 14e century, however, its power began to wane until it was finally replaced by the Ming Dynasty.

10. Xiongnu Empire – 9 million km2

The people who created the Xiongnu Empire were nomads living in the eastern Eurasian steppe. The empire was founded by a person named Modu Chanyu at the beginning of the 3rd century BC, and was centered on the territory that would later become the domain of the Mongols. At its peak at the end of the 2sd century BC, the territory of the Xiongnu Empire extended from the Manchu region of present-day China to approximately the eastern edge of Central Asia, and totaled 9 million km2 of land.