Counting Down the Ten Largest Empires in History, Nos. 10-6

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10. Portuguese Empire (1815) – 10.4 million km2 (4.0 million sq mi)


Portugal proper is not the largest country on the planet by any means, but its hold on a massive overseas colonial empire existed for nearly six centuries thanks to the maritime kingdom’s place at the forefront of the Age of Exploration.  Beginning with the 1415 capture of Ceuta on the north coast of Morocco, Portugal gradually expanded into the North Atlantic (a convenient way to avoid Venetian control of Mediterranean trade) by settling Madeira and the Azores, and from there moved down the African coast and into the Indian Ocean, opening up colonies in Cape Verde, Guinea, São Tomé and Príncipe, Angola, and Mozambique.  Its largest land holding, however, was Brazil, awarded to Portugal in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas which essentially divided all lands outside of Europe between Portugal and Spain (even though very little of the land in question had actually been reached by either).  Brazil was the lone portion of the Americas that extended east of the Tordesillas meridian. By the early 16th century, Portugal had colonies in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia as well (areas that were east of the Tordesillas line as shown below).


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As Portugal colonised Brazil, its South American holdings gradually expanded westward across the Tordesillas line over the next three centuries into the Amazon to eventually take up roughly the area of the modern of country of Brazil.  During Napoleonic rule over Portugal, the seat of the empire was actually relocated to Rio de Janeiro by João VI.  When João returned to Portugal after the fall of Napoleon, João left his son Pedro I to rule Brazil as regent.  Pedro eventually rose against his father and separated Brazil from Portugal in 1822, immediately reducing the size of Portugal’s empire by 75 percent.

9. Umayyad Caliphate (720-750) – 10.5 million km2 (4.0 million sq mi)


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The initial conquests of Muhammad in Arabia between 622 and 632 would continue to be built upon for the next 118 years as his successors spread Islam throughout western Asia, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula.  Initially, the Rashidun Caliphate (the four caliphs immediately following Muhammad) pushed as far as Afghanistan in the east, Libya in the west, and the Caucasus in the north (the area in light red on the map above).  When the caliph Ali was assassinated in the new capital of Kufa in modern-day Iraq (ironically, Ali had moved the capital there from Mecca fearing for his life), the Umayyad dynasty under Ali’s rival Muawiyah I was inaugurated as Muawiya subdued Iraq and established control of the caliphate, eventually relocating the capital to Damascus where he had previously been governor.  From Damascus, further conquests were made.  In the east, Baluchistan, the Sindh, the Fergana and Oxus valleys, and the southern Caspian shoreline; in the west, the Maghreb, Portugal, and most of Spain (shown in beige on the map above).

8. Abbasid Caliphate (750) – 11.1 million km2 (4.3 million sq mi)


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By the end of the reign of Hisham in 743, the Umayyad governance of the caliphate had been stretched to its limit, and the Abbasid clan was consolidating power in the Middle East. If you are noticing a similarity between the area of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, that is because the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in 750 (the Umayyad dynasty would re-establish itself in Spain at Cordoba led by Abd al-Rahman, the lone Umayyad to escape the massacre).  Based out of Baghdad, the Abbasids would go on to add territory in the Mediterranean (Corsica, Sardinia, Siciliy, and Crete) to the caliphate, but Abd al-Rahman would consolidate power over the Iberian Peninsula over the next 30 years and remove any semblance of Abbasid control over Spain.  The Abbasid caliphate would continue to fracture, gradually losing military dominance over most of the empire until by 950 numerous de facto independent emirates had formed.

7. French Empire (1919-1938) – 13.0 million km2 (5.0 million sq mi)


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France’s largest North American holding of New France, lost to Great Britain in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, was substantial enough on its own to rank in the top 15 largest empires of all time, but it pales in comparative size to the colonial empire France began acquiring with its 1830 invasion of Algeria.  From this North African base, France began acquiring large portions of West Africa during the late 19th century (the colonial federations of French West Africaand French Equatorial Africa plus a protectorate over Tunisia – the modern-day territory of twelve separate countries).  France would also enter Indochina in the 1880s, conquering Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and add Madagascar and Djibouti in East Africa.  Numerous South Pacific territories and a Moroccan protectorate were added during the late 19th and early 20th century.  The French empire reached its zenith after World War I when League of Nations mandates were granted over Syria, Lebanon, Togo, and Cameroon (former Ottoman and German possessions).  Throw in pre-existing colonies in Guiana, the Caribbean, and India, and France’s empire rated second only to Britain’s for its time.  World War II would see France temporarily lose many of these holdings, and the myriad independence movements erupting throughout the empire beginning with the First Indochina War and Malagasy Uprising of the mid-1940s would lead to an acceleration of the decolonisation process of the 1950s and 1960s.  France’s holdings in the South Pacific remain substantial, and it also controls numerous islands in the Indian Ocean and Caribbean that gives the country the world’s second-largest exclusive economic zone, but its actual, tangible land holdings are but a fraction of the empire’s pre-WWII extent.


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6. Yuan Dynasty (1305-1310) – 14.0 million km2 (5.4 million sq mi)


The Yuan Dynasty was the Chinese dynasty proclaimed by Kublai Khan in 1271.  Kublai Khan had already begun embracing Chinese customs and teachings by this point, and the other far-spread khanates of the Mongol Empire (the Golden Horde of northwest Asia and Eastern Europe; the Chagatai Khanate of Central Asia, and the Ilkhanate of the Middle East) were beginning to establish their own separate identities, often violently.  Kublai Khan consolidated power at Dadu (Beijing) and pushed south, conquering the Southern Song Dynasty in 1276, making the Mongols the first non-Chinese to rule all of China and ushering in a period of great cultural diversity and scientific development thanks to the pan-continental connections of the Mongols.  After Kublai’s death in 1294, the four-way splitting of the Mongol Empire accelerated under Kublai’s grandson Temür Khan.  Initially, Temür was able to not only make peace with the other three khanates but also gain control relatively peacefully over Vietnam, taking the Yuan Dynasty to its largest size before his death in 1307.  His successor, Külüg Khan, made failed attempts at economic reform and left China in poor financial shape; this combined with the discrimination suffered in the higher levels of government by ethnic Chinese would lead to the decline of the Yuan court.  The final 50 years of the dynasty would be riddled with coups, uprisings, and civil wars before the ushering in of the Ming Dynasty in 1368.  The remnants of the Yuan court would retreat north to their Mongolian homeland.

Further Reading

Batke, P. (1997).  The Islamic Timeline.  Available at  Accessed 28 March 2012.

Lu, Y. (2004).  The Yuan Dynasty.  Cultural Essentials: Exploring Chinese Culture.  Available at  Accessed 28 March 2012.

Rosenberg, M. (1999).  The Treaty of Tordesillas. Geography.  Available at  Accessed 28 March 2012.

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