The 5 Most Powerful Middle Eastern Empires of All Time

They came, they saw, they conquered.

The Middle East is the cradle of civilization, centrally located between all the other major regions of Eurasia and Africa. Trade and conquest have always radiated out of and into this region. It is inevitable, then, that some of history’s most notable and powerful empires were centered in the Middle East. However, the region has always been fraught with power-struggles and danger for would-be empire builders: states rose and fell swiftly and suddenly.

Here are five of the Middle East’s most powerful empires:

The Assyrian Empire

The (neo) Assyrian Empire, which lasted from around 900 B.C.E. to 612 B.C.E.,was the world’s first true empire in the sense that it ruled over a multiethnic population and a vast variety of land. At its peak, Assyrian control extended over the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Levant), parts of Iran and Anatolia, and even to Egypt for a while.

It was especially brutal—even for its time—spending most of its history at war, and subjugating most of the major nations of the Middle East at the time. The Assyrian Empire didn’t merely defeat its enemies like previous empires; instead, it attempted to totally destroy them once and for all by deporting and displacing defeated populations and moving them around its vast territory. In this way, many ancient nations that had been around for thousands of years, like the Elamites, vanished from history.

One key factor in Assyria’s rise and success was the fact that it controlled valuable ores in hilly terrain in today’s Kurdistan region, which it could use for weapons. By contrast, most of its neighbors, who lived in flat lands, had less access to metals. However, the empire made many enemies and, exhausted by constant warfare, eventually fell to a coalition of forces in 612 after the Battle of Nineveh.

The Achaemenid Persian Empire

The Achaemenid Persian Empire was the first major global empire in history, spanning most of the civilized world and containing 44 percent of the world’s population at the time, a proportion that has never since been exceeded. The Persian Empire managed to successfully rule much of the Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of South Asia and Europe for hundreds of years.

The empire was founded in 550 B.C.E. by Cyrus the Great, who was notable for establishing some of the policies that made his empire successful. For example, he allowed the empire’s heterogeneous population’s cultural and religious autonomy. This made revolts infrequent and gave its many nationalities a stake in the empire’s continued existence; the Old Testament declared Cyrus the “anointed of God.”

The Persian Empire also benefited from being well-connected by a series of roads, using a standardized official language, having a bureaucracy, and establishing many of the other hallmarks of future empires. However, the fall of the empire to Alexander the Great by 330 B.C.E. was spectacular in its swiftness. Perhaps this was the result of the entropy that befalls all empires. As Cyrus the Great warned the Persians, the luxuries and wealth that comes from ruling a successful empire eventually leads to soft people.

The Umayyad Caliphate

After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, his successors, the four rightly-guided Caliphs (the Rashidun Caliphate) won spectacular victories over the Byzantines and Persians, creating an Islamic Arab empire larger than the Roman one. Yet, this could have been a short-lived burst of Arab expansion but for their successors, the Ummayads, who both expanded and consolidated the Arab empire, establishing Islam as a permanent force in the Middle East.

The Umayyads came to power with one Muawiyah in 661 C.E., who controversially seized control of the empire and created a hereditary Caliphate. The Umayyads ruled from Damascus, shifting Arab power out of Arabia and establishing a permanent Arab presence in the rest of the Middle East.