Human history is a vast sea of information, expanding and contracting constantly as historical evidence and records are discovered, reinterpreted or lost forever. While all past cultures and events are worthy of study, there are some major turning points in human history that are generally agreed to have had a significant impact on the shape of our world today:
1: The invention of writing, circa. 3600 BCE
All of human existence prior to this point is called prehistory, and so, with the invention of written records, we can say that history effectively ‘began’ in Sumeria (modern-day Iraq) around five and a half thousand years ago. There can be little doubt about the colossal influence this has had on the development of human civilisation.
2: The emergence of Judaism, 500-600 BCE
Although previous religions had already contained elements of monotheism, Judaism was the first known religion to conceive of a personal monotheistic God. This laid the core tenets of many of the world’s largest religions, including Christianity, Islam and Sikhism.
3: The Battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea, 490 BCE – 479 BCE
The ultimately unsuccessful Persian invasions of Greece have long been regarded as a turning-point in the story of European history. An alliance of independent Greek city-states was able to repel the vast Persian Empire; allowing Athens, with its novel democracy, philosophy and science, to flourish. Ancient Greek, or Hellenic, culture would later be spread throughout western Asia by Alexander the Great and have a huge influence on the Roman Empire, and subsequently, Europe in general.
4: The unification of China, 221 BCE
The unification of China’s rival dynasties in the 3rd century BCE by the state of Qin allowed it’s ruler to proclaim himself ‘Qin Shi Huang’ – the first of China’s historical emperors. This laid the foundation for China’s existence as a unitary state and a single civilisation. Despite periods of fragmentation, the concept of China as a single nation would endure. Today China is the world’s most populous country and second-largest economy.
5: The Punic Wars, 264 BCE – 146 BCE
From the 3rd century BCE, the growing Roman Republic faced its toughest challenge yet – the established maritime empire of Carthage and its greatest general, Hannibal. After a series of wars Rome eventually conquered the Carthaginian Empire and destroyed Carthage itself, laying the foundations of its mighty empire.
6: The death of Jesus, 30-33 CE
Jesus’ crucifixion by the Romans is central to Christian theology. The faith Jesus founded would spread throughout the world, particularly Europe and Western Asia, after it was adopted by Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Today Christianity is practised by over 2.4 billion people.
7: The sack of Rome, 410 CE
Although Rome was no longer the capital of the Empire, its sack by the Visigoths in 410 was the first time in nearly eight centuries the city had fallen to an invader. With the Empire’s authority crumbling, Western Europe would enter a long period of economic and technological decline.
8: The Hijra, 622 CE
The Islamic calendar begins with the migration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina. The faith he founded would soon spread throughout the world. From 634 CE, Muslim Arab armies humbled one great empire (Byzantium) and completely destroyed another (Sassanid Persia). In the process, they spread the Arabic language and Islamic culture throughout the lands which we know today as the Middle East.
9: Rise of the Mongols, 1206 CE
In 1206, the Mongol leader Temujin, having unified the nomadic Mongol tribes, assumed the title of Genghis Khan (universal leader). For the next century and a half, the Mongols would conquer the largest land empire in history. It is estimated that up to 40 million people died as a result of Genghis’ conquests.
10: Voyages of Discovery, 15th and 16th centuries CE
The Portuguese discovery of a sea route to India, around the Cape of Good Hope, and the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, would trigger a radical change in the balance of power between Europe and the Islamic world. Europeans were able to bypass the traditional land trade routes across the Middle East and to import vast amounts of gold plundered from the Americas. For the next five centuries, European empires would spread throughout the world.
11: The Industrial Revolution, circa. 1760-1840 CE
Beginning in Britain, new technological innovations allowed a shift from labour-intensive hand-crafting to machine-manufacturing in factories. This created an incredible boost in productivity and enabled an unprecedented boom in population, living standards and technological innovation. The Industrial Revolution is arguably the most transformative change in human history since the adoption of agriculture.
12: The French revolution, 1789 – 1799 CE
The French revolution led to a radical change in the political landscape not just in France, but throughout Europe and its colonial empires. Occurring during an age where political participation was severely restricted to the ruling classes, its ideals of republicanism, equality and secularism laid the blueprint for most of our modern state institutions. However, the revolution was a bloody affair, triggering reigns of terror at home and a series of international conflicts.
13: The First World War, 1914 – 1918 CE
The First World War was the first major fully industrialised conflict and amongst the deadliest conflicts in history. The war contributed to the outbreak of revolution in Russia. It also sowed the seeds of conflict in the Middle East through the imposed partition of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France. Perhaps most significantly, the harsh conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles on Germany, combined with the Great Depression in the 1930s, would aid the rise of Nazism.
14: The Russian Revolution, 1917 CE
While the strain placed on Russia by the First World War was an immediate trigger for the Russian revolution of 1917, the conditions for revolt were built up slowly over centuries by a repressive autocratic government and economic backwardness. The revolution culminated in a putsch by Lenin and his Bolshevik party, resulting in the world’s first officially communist state, the Soviet Union, and inspiring many more Marxist revolutionary movements throughout the 20th century.
15: Operation Barbarossa, 1941 CE
Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union began with a surprise attack on the 22nd of June. Despite advancing rapidly at first, Germany’s expansion would grind to a bloody halt during the Battle of Stalingrad from 1942-3, which proved to be the turning point in the entire war. From then on, the Nazis were forced to retreat steadily by Soviet forces, allowing Britain and the US to challenge German power to the west. Germany’s defeat came at a massive cost to the Soviet Union, but allowed it to establish its control over Eastern Europe and emerge as a rival superpower to the United States.
16: The Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1945 CE
Bringing a final end to the Second World War, the use of nuclear weapons by the United States ushered in a dangerous new age of global competition. The Soviets raced to possess a bomb of their own, conducting its first successful test just four years later. For the first time in history, nations possessed weapons powerful enough to destroy civilisation itself, perhaps even life on Earth. Today there are approximately 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world and nine nuclear-armed states.
17: The end of British rule in India, 1947 CE
When Britain relinquished its rule over the Indian subcontinent, it marked the beginning of the end for the British Empire and for European empires more generally, creating the world of independent states which we inhabit today. The complicated legacy of colonialism still has an enormous and enduring impact, with many of the 20th century’s conflicts coming about at least partly because of the borders drawn by European powers and the social and economic structures they imposed.
18: Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, 1979 CE
Deng Xiaoping assumed control of China from 1978. During this time, China turned away from the Communist economic model and began opening up to outside investment and market forces. This set China on a path of rapid and unprecedented economic development. China is now considered an emerging superpower.
19: Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989 CE
Divided since WW2, the end of the militarised border between East and West Berlin is symbolic of the end of Communist rule throughout Eastern Europe. Germany was reunified in 1990 and the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991. The Cold War had finally come to an end. Many former Communist countries subsequently joined the European Union and/or NATO, but hostility between Russia and the West has resurfaced strongly during the 21st century.
20: 9/11, 2001 CE
The terrorist attacks in New York on the 11th of September, 2001, have probably been the defining political event of the 21st century so far. This set America on a path to war in the Middle East, with the conflicts started in the years following 9/11 still unresolved today.
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