History is the study of the past through written documents, which means that most people technically didn’t make it into history at all. Traditional historians weren’t very interested in recording the fate of random peasants. But every so often, these forgotten people would force their way into the history books. Some even defied the aristocrats of the time and founded great empires of their own.
10Ya’qub The Coppersmith
Ya’qub al-Saffar (“the Coppersmith”) was an impoverished metalworker who lived in the city of Zaranj in the mid-ninth century. His brother, a mule driver named ‘Amr, lived close by. For most of their lives, eastern Persia was in a state of turmoil as the Abbasid caliphs vied for control with an extremist sect known as the Kharijites. As things descended into anarchy, local self-defense militias sprang up throughout the province. In Zaranj, Ya’qub and ‘Amr volunteered to join one such group.
Over the next few years, Ya’qub took control of the local forces, defeated the bandits plaguing the area, and expanded his power throughout the region. By 876, the Saffarid Empire spanned throughout modern Iran and Afghanistan. Ya’qub himself seemed certain to conquer Baghdad, overthrowing the mighty Abbasid Caliphate.
But it wasn’t to be. The Coppersmith suffered a narrow defeat just 50 miles from Baghdad. Wounded in the battle, he died three years later and was succeeded by his brother ‘Amr, who was unable to hold the empire together and was executed in a Baghdad marketplace.
Rabih Az-Zubayr was born in the Sudan at some point in the mid-19th century. Sold into servitude as a child, he became a slave-soldier for a local Sudanese ruler. When this prince was defeated by the Egyptians, Rabih fled into central Africa with around 400 survivors, who would form the kernel of his empire.
Attacking towns and villages as he went, Rabih built his ragged group of survivors into an army of 5,000 trained soldiers, complete with an artillery brigade. In the 1890s, he attacked the once-mighty Bornu Empire and quickly overran it. With impressive efficiency, he formed a tightly controlled empire east in the African interior east of Lake Chad.
Unfortunately for Rabih, his expanding empire ran up against the equally acquisitive French, and his outdated rifles and cannons were no match for the latest European military hardware. He still won several victories, including exterminating a French expedition at Togbao, but he was ultimately defeated and killed on the banks of the Logone River in 1900, bringing his empire to an end after less than a decade.
The last of the great Central Asian conquerors was born into a lowly family of herders in eastern Persia. His should have been a humble life, but Nader Shah was driven by a monomaniacal desire for power. He seems to have spent a short time as a slave early in life, before escaping and becoming a bandit. After his armed band helped defeat a local warlord, Nader came to the attention of Prince Tahmasb, a pretender to the throne.
Tahmasb made Nader his commander, which proved to be the best and worst decision he ever made. Nader was one of the greatest generals in history and quickly won numerous victories. But he was also unwilling to be a mere servant and murdered Tahmasb and claimed the throne himself, creating a mighty empire that stretched from Georgia to northern India.
In 1739, Nader launched his famous invasion of the Mughal Empire. After crushing the massive Mughal army, Nader sacked Delhi, making off with unimaginable treasures, including the famed Koh-i-Noor diamond. So much wealth was extracted from Delhi that Nader was able to cancel all taxes in Persia for three years.
Unfortunately, Nader began to show signs of mental degeneration, including bizarre acts of cruelty. In 1741, he had his oldest son blinded, then immediately claimed to regret it. Alarmed by his instability, a group of his own officers assassinated him in 1747, and his empire quickly fell apart.
7Timur The Lame
Nader’s career was impressive, but not that original—-he was merely following in the footsteps of another great and bloody conqueror: Timur the Lame (often known as Tamerlane in the West). Like Nadir, Timur was born to a humble family and became a petty bandit. Early records of his life say that he was once stealing some sheep when an angry shepherd fired arrows into his leg and arm, leaving him with minor disabilities (these injuries were confirmed by archaeologists who opened his tomb in 1941).
Timur took his group into the service of the Chaghatai Khans, then rose through their service and ultimately usurped the throne. He built a massive army of horsemen who raided and conquered in all directions, creating an army that ruled “from Damascus to Delhi.” He defeated the Golden Horde, razed Baghdad, and briefly destroyed the power of the Ottomans (Sultan Bayezid the Thunderbolt died as a prisoner of Timur).
Timur became known for the brutality of his conquests. He built towers of skulls, enslaved thousands, and wiped out ancient cities. He died of a bad cold in 1405, on his way to invade China, leaving his empire to disintegrate in his wake.
James Brooke was born the son of a reasonably wealthy British judge, and he might have been expected to live out his life in comfortable obscurity. But James never seemed comfortable in 19th-century British society. When his father died, he used the inheritance to buy an armed schooner and sailed east.
In Singapore, he heard that the Sultan of Brunei was struggling to exert control over the island of Borneo. Brooke at once offered to help out, on the condition that he be made governor of Sarawak, a huge territory along the coast of the island. The Sultan was unenthusiastic, but was reluctant to challenge Brooke, who was falsely implying that he worked for the British government. He agreed, only for Brooke to rapidly assert his independence as the “White Rajah” of Sarawak.
Brooke cemented his new kingdom by forming an alliance with the coastal “Sea Dyaks,” who massacred the inland tribes whenever they stepped out of line. Brooke himself funded his operation as a pirate hunter, claiming the Royal Navy’s £20 reward for each pirate killed. This netted him up to £30,000 per expedition, although cynics noted that the dead “pirates” tended to be local opponents of Brooke.
Brooke consistently tried to present himself as a jolly English adventurer, but his rule was founded on bloodshed, including the massacre of 1,500 Chinese in 1857. The state of Sarawak outlived him, passing through the hands of two more “White Rajahs,” before the British bought it in 1946.
5The Mahdi Of Sudan
Muhammad Ahmad was born on an island in the Nile, not far from Dongola in northern Sudan. His family were humble boat-builders, but he sought a religious education from a young age and became known for intense devotion and arguing with his teachers. In 1881, he called his followers to Aba Island and declared himself the Mahdi, a messianic figure expected to appear before the Day of Judgment in most branches of Islam.
At the time, Sudan was ruled by Egypt, which in turn was effectively a British protectorate. This dual foreign influence was heavily resented, and it was taken as a miracle when the Mahdi’s poorly armed followers defeated an Egyptian attempt to arrest him. His religious movement grew rapidly in strength over the next few years, culminating in the stunning defeat of the British general “Hicks Pasha” in 1883.
In late 1884, the Mahdists launched their famous siege of Khartoum, which was stoutly defended by Charles Gordon, better known as “Chinese Gordon,” an oddball British general who was probably their equal in religious fanaticism. The city fell in 1885, leaving Muhammad Ahmad undisputed ruler of a religious empire stretching across modern Sudan. However, “the Mahdi” fell ill and died six months later. With the heart of their movement gone, his followers were not able to defeat a new Anglo-Egyptian invasion in in 1896.
Over 150 years after the Muslim conquest of modern Iran, tensions remained high between the Arab caliphs and their Persian subjects. Many Persians continued to follow the Zoroastrian religion and resented the influence of Arab language and culture. The brewing revolution found a leader in Babak Khorramdin, a zealous follower of the Zoroastrian prophet Mazdak.
Babak began his career as a guerrilla fighter, launching lightning raids to seize isolated mountain fortresses, including his famously impenetrable castle of Ghaleye Babak. As his reputation grew, Persians flocked to his banner and by 819 his forces were capable of fighting pitched battles against the Caliph’s armies. Over the next 16 years, he defeated four Arab armies and gained a reputation as a protector of the poor.
But the might of the Abbasid Caliph was too great, and Babak was ultimately driven from his mountain stronghold and captured. His arms and legs were cut off, and he was allowed to bleed to death. Shortly before his capture, he had famously rejected an offer of amnesty, declaring that it was “better to live a single day as a ruler than 40 years as an abject slave.”
According to the Greek historian Curtius, the mighty ruler Mahapadma started life as the son of “a barber who earned just enough to eat each day. But he had a fine presence and thus gained the queen’s affection. Thanks to her influence, he obtained a position of trust . . . treacherously assassinated the king and, under the pretext of protecting the royal children, usurped the supreme authority.”
Indian sources agree, calling Mahapadma the son of a barber and a prostitute who rose from extremely humble beginnings to become prime minister of a north Indian kingdom, then overthrew the king and established his own dynasty. He was known for slaughtering rival nobles and refusing to follow the aristocratic rules of warfare, to the point that the Puranas dub him “the destroyer of the princely order.” Such ruthless tactics worked well, and by his death in 329 BC, he had expanded his rule to form the most powerful empire India had ever seen.
2The Slave Dynasty Of Delhi
Qutb al-Din Aibak was the founder of the “Slave Dynasty” that ruled northern India in the 13th century. As the name implies, he started life as a slave in Nishapur and was sold to Sultan Muhammad of Ghor. As an adult, he was placed in charge of the royal stables and later became a military commander, where he showed his true talent by conquering Delhi and most of northern India.
After the Sultan was assassinated by unknown assailants, Qutb found himself in the perfect position to seize power, which he duly did. Before he could become sultan, he had to gain his freedom, but his heavily armed soldiers ensured that his new owner was unlikely to refuse. The Mamluk (“Slave”) dynasty he founded would rule the Delhi Sultanate until 1290, when it was replaced by a more aristocratic lineage.
It’s impossible to imagine a worse childhood than that of Temujin, the greatest conqueror the world has ever known. When he was 12, his father was poisoned by his enemies, prompting the tribe to abandon his widow and orphans, leaving them with nothing. His mother, Hoelun, managed to keep the children alive by gathering food along the banks of a river, while the young Temujin hunted rats, marmots, and other small game. At 14, he killed his half-brother after an argument over a small fish.
It only got worse from there. At some point, he was captured by the Tayichiuds and forced to work as a slave. A failed escape attempt resulted in him being placed in a cangue, a stock-like device that left him unable to feed himself. He only survived thanks to the assistance of other slaves, before finally staging a successful escape by hiding in a river overnight.
Even as a young adult, Temujin was merely the head of a small band, barely scraping out an existence on the steppe. It was only when his young wife Borte was kidnapped by the Merkids and Temujin put together an expedition to rescue her that he truly started on the path to becoming the immortal Genghis Khan.