Maps have long served as a tool for charting and visualizing the known world. Early human societies created maps of the world they believed to exist around them that would shock most people today. Modern society takes for granted the fact that GPS navigation and satellites in orbit allow humans to view the world in ways never before imaginable. Every corner of the globe is visible with the click of a mouse today.
However, it was not that long ago that the Romans conquered a known world that didn’t stretch much beyond the Arabian Peninsula. There was also a time when humans didn’t know of the existence of North and South America, and Western societies believed that the planet ended in a catastrophic drop-off in the sea. Sometimes it is fun to use modern maps to show the reach of ancient of civilizations who believed they in fact ruled the known world.
When the Mongols Dominated the World
Beginning around 1206, Mongol hordes began to pour out of the Steppes of Asia to conquer a world that was ill prepared for the ferocious fighting style and barbaric tactics of the Mongols. Once a nomadic people with little interest in global domination, charismatic leaders such as Genghis Khan.
This interactive map shows the rapid expansion of the Mongol Empire at a time when its greatest asset was the horse. After leaving the Steppes of Asia in 1206, the Mongol Empire stretched from the Korean Peninsula in the East to the borders of modern-day Germany, Sweden, and Greece by 1279.
The feats of the Mongols are nothing short of stunning, and this map displays the massive scale of their conquest in stunning relief. Like a cloud of death, the red shade of the empires growth shows it conquering mainland Asia by 1227, the Middle East and most of China by 1259, and stretches of Russia and Eastern Europe by 1279.
The Mongol Empire was the largest in human history for six centuries until the British Empire surpassed it in the 18th century, but we still feel the impact of Mongols today. In their push for glory and land, the Mongol’s sacked the modern-day capital of Iraq, Baghdad, in 1258. Then a global center for wealth and knowledge, the city has never recovered from the destructive force of an empire that stretched from Europe to China and took the lives of tens of millions of people.
Spain & Portugal: The First Global Superpowers
The Roman Empire is often referred to as the perfect example of an early superpower, but its reach and impact paled in comparison to that of Spain and Portugal between 1580 and 1640. It’s hard to imagine today when you look at the small borders of these two neighbors on the Iberian Peninsula, but there was a period of time when these two nations combined to literally control the world.
Portugal and Spain had their own empires during the 15 th and 16 th century, but the signing of a treaty in 1580 created an Iberian Union in which Portugal and Spain essentially carved up regions of the world to split between themselves. At the height of their combined power, the two nations controlled large swaths of land on North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and the whole of Asia.
The wealth of this combined empire was so great that its trade with the Ottoman Empire, the world’s only counterbalance at the time, flooded the Ottoman economy with so much gold it is believed to have caused an inflationary crisis that led to the slow downfall of the latter empire.
Over the course of time, like all empires, Portugal and Spain declined, but their influence is felt around the globe to this day. In South America, for example, most nations speak Spanish as an official language, while Brazil (the continent’s largest nation) speaks Portuguese.
Maps can provide amazing insight into all manner of educational topics. There are few greater ways to visualizing the reach and impact of historic empires than by plotting them out on a map.