The British appetite for conquest and Empire-building was once so great that there was a famous saying that the sun never set on the British Empire. However, Britain was not the only country to engage in a massive period of expansion of its overseas territories – here we list history’s ten largest empires, by land area.
- British Empire
In 1922 the British Empire was governing more than 458 million people living in some 13 million square miles or 33.7 million square kilometers; at that time, that represented about one-fifth of the world’s total population. There was even a saying during those times that the sun never sets over the British Empire due to its vast number of territories scattered around the globe. During the remainder of the 20th century, the empire was slowly dismantled as Britain liberated its colonies following the end of the Second World War.
- Mongol Empire
Genghis Khan established the Mongol Empire, which in 1279 covered about 12.7 million square miles or 33 million square kilometers. The Empire originated from Mongolia and extended rapidly in several directions through conquests and invasions. Late in the 13th century, the Mongol Empire covered present-day Russia, China and Mongolia, a large part of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It was split into smaller empires governed by Genghis Khan’s grandchildren towards the end of the 13th century.
- Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was also vast, stretching over three continents and ruling more than 125.6 million people in 1897. The Russian Empire started in 1866 and included all of today’s Russia and most of Eastern Europe as well as Alaska, covering a total land area of 8.8 million square miles or 22.8 square kilometers. Alaska was sold in 1867 to the United States. While the Russian Empire was huge, Russia was not yet a world power at that time since most of the territories under its governance were either rural or tundra areas, thus did not contribute much to the empire’s economy. Over the years, many of the territories belonging to the empire gained independence.
- Spanish Empire
For 50 years, starting in 1740, the Spanish Empire covered 7.5 million square miles or 19.4 million square kilometers, composed of nearly half of South America, the entire Central America and most of North America, as well as parts of Africa and the Philippine archipelago. Spain was an important and prominent colonizing nation but it too, crumbled over time. Due to the silver inflation, it underwent a massive economic crisis. The empire also lost several wars in the latter years of its supremacy, such as in the Mexican Civil War and the Spanish-American War, which resulted in the loss of many of its colonies overseas.
- Umayyad Caliphate
From 661 to 750 the Umayyad Caliphate covered a land area of 5.8 million square miles or 15 million square kilometers. The Islamic Empire was responsible in governing a large portion of North Africa and the Middle East. During that time, the empire exercised an unheard of religious tolerance, where non-Muslims were allowed to follow and obey their own laws, holding high positions in government and had their own religious officials. However a series of revolts and civil wars led to the demise of the empire in the early half of the 8th century.
- Qing Dynasty
The Qing Dynasty was the last of the Chinese dynasties. At its height in 1759, its territory covered 5.7 million square miles or 14.7 million square kilometers, governing about 400 million people. The dynasty suffered economic crisis due to low fixed tax rate. It was forced to sign very penalizing treaties after it lost in the two Opium Wars in the 19th century. The Qing Dynasty slowly faded until it was overthrown in 1912 by nationalists that eventually led to the establishment of the Republic of China.
- Yuan Dynasty
After the reign of the Mongol Empire ended, it gave rise to the Yuan Dynasty, which was established by one of the grandsons of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan in 1310. At that time, it encompassed 14 million square kilometers or 5.4 million square miles of land that covered the Chinese part of the Mongol Empire (areas of Russia, Korea, India, China and Mongolia). The Ming Dynasty defeated the Yuan Dynasty in 1370 and the last of the Yuan withdrew to Mongolia where they continued to rule the last remaining peoples in the northern part of the empire.
- Second French Colonial Empire
At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Second French Colonial Empire was born. France regained control of many of its territories in Africa, South America and the West Indies. After its invasion and eventual conquest of Algeria, the French Empire reached its peak. The empire was maintained until after WWII, after which the country also followed the movement to decolonize and gave independence to many of its territories. At its height, it was governing a total land area of 5 million square miles or 13 million square kilometers.
- Abbasid Caliphate
Following the Umayyad Caliphate was the Abbasid Caliphate, which started in 750 and lasted until 1258. This Islamic empire once reigned over 44 million people living in 11.1 million square kilometers or 4.3 million square miles. Except for northwest Africa, it covered all of the land governed by the Umayyad Caliphate. Its capital was Baghdad which, during Islam’s Golden Age, was the cultural and scientific center. It remained as such until it was sacked by the invading Mongols in the middle of the 13th century. Afterwards the Abbasid Caliphate dissipated.
- Portuguese Empire
In 1815, the Portuguese Empire covered 10.4 million square kilometers or 4 million square miles, which included modern-day Brazil and large parts of Asia and Africa. The Portuguese Empire was the first among the many global empires and was also the longest-lasting one. Although it diminished in size in 1822 when Brazil won its independence, the Portuguese Empire officially existed until 2002, when East Timor was liberated.