much of history was made by people. actually, all history was made by people but much of it was made by individuals doing things differently from those around them. while these are not all people who changed the course of world history, they are significant either because of the time they lived and what they did in that time or how they were changed by the world around them. knowing who they are and their circumstances, if not their details, gives insight into their age and the history of their cultures. as our history is a series of overlapping stories, their individual narratives are a useful way to approach the study of our collective past. to find their existence useful and practical, ask yourself three questions.

  • who were they?
  • what was significant about their experience?
  • how does their experience relate to what i see around me today?

dates given are birth years and sometimes approximate (~). locations are modern-day countries and in many cases were known by other names at the time. they are listed this way to give an easily-identifiable location for modern students. in many cases, the name a historical figure was known by was different from their actual name. in these cases, i have attempted to list them together to make searching and identification easier. if there are names you believe missing from this list because of their significant historical importance, please let me know. when compiling a list of significant figures, much like events, some important ideas are lost. if someone is not on the list, it may be because their impact was particularly local. or it may be that they have been overlooked accidentally. this is not a complete list of everyone in history who made a difference but it is a good beginning for students to think about the interlinked stories of individuals through human time.

prehistory (-1500bce)

  • (3200bce~, egypt) menes (narmer)
    menes unified egypt and founded the first dynasty. while it’s not universally accepted this was one person, the general consensus is that menes and narmer are two ways to refer to the same individual. his existence, while certain, is difficult to date and scholarly estimates range from nearly six-thousand to twenty-three-hundred years before the common era. whenever he lived, however, he is accepted in egyptian culture as the first human ruler of egypt, inheriting the throne from the god horus and founding the great ancient city of memphis. while certainly not the only one responsible for its invention, he is often credited as the conduit to the creation of the earliest egyptian writing, not a particularly wild claim as his kingdom’s massive need for bureaucracy was unprecedented in the region and recordkeeping, requiring a fully-functional writing system, was a sensible way to accomplish it.
  • (2600bce~, egypt) khnum khufu
    khufu (also known as cheops) commissioned the great pyramid of giza, not simply creating one of the great wonders of the ancient world but expanding egyptian trade routes and material production to facilitate its building and many other monumental construction projects. his impact on later civilization ranges from expansive mortuary cults to being a frequent figure in popular stories and literature expanding from egypt across north-africa and the levant. scarabs with his name were sold en-masse in the centuries following his death as charms to bring good-luck and protection. stories about khufu formed the basis for legends and myths in greek and arabic culture, even after the ability to read egyptian source material was lost.
  • (2600bce~, egypt) imhotep
    imhotep wasn’t a ruler – he was high priest of ra, egypt’s sun god, and chancellor of egypt under djoser. his “wisdom text” writings, especially those from his reputation as a doctor, led him to be deified as the god of healing and his approach formed the foundation of egyptian medical practice. his impact on culture can even be felt today, him being the focus of popular movies like “the mummy”.
  • (2350bce~, iraq) sargon of akkad
    sargon conquered the sumerian city-states to create the akkadian empire, stretching across the levant and mesopotamia with its capital at akkad. this empire was instrumental in the development and spread of writing and standardized language in the near-east, eventually through west-asia and europe. sargon is often seen as the first ruler not simply to control a localized entity (a country in modern language) but an empire with many divergent traditions and cultural groups. how much truth there is in this depends on many things, mostly how “different” you consider the separate areas of china or african regions to be as leaders in those areas certainly unified local populations in the millennia before sargon but the unification of mesopotamia and the levant includes a larger range of difference. regardless, the significance of a mesopotamian empire, whether the first imperial power or not, can’t be overstated.
  • (2150bce~, israel) abraham
    abraham is seen as the father, potentially the founder, of what are known as the “abrahamic religions” – judaism, christianity and islam. the story, while historically-questionable and impossible to verify, pervades culture from his time to today, suddenly becoming a father while elderly then being prepared to sacrifice his son when commanded to by his god. in reality, his original name is unknown and the name “abraham” is simply a reference to being a father-figure but the significance of his obedience and faith combined with the story of his willingness to form a covenant with his god to create a legacy, echoes even today. the group he founded, the israelites, is not simply a faith group but a modern nation, whose existence is premised on the history he is fundamental to. with moses and jesus, he is one of the three best-known religious figures in the west.
  • (1810bce~, iraq) hammurabi
    hammurabi unified old babylonia, assyria and most of mesopotamia in a single kingdom. his legacy, however, is mostly linked to the creation of a code of laws whose premise is still fundamental to justice today – the concept of specific, retributive punishment for illegal actions. his code formed the basis for the laws of moses and many legal justice systems still dominant today. this was a significant shift away from the compensation models of earlier leaders, seeking to punish the perpetrator rather than provide the victim with practical solutions. this remains the structure of nearly all legal systems in the developed world.
  • (1507bce~, egypt) hatshepsut
    hatshepsut began her life as an egyptian leader as the primary wife of thutmose ii but, after his death, became the regent for his two-year-old son (though he wasn’t hers). she established and recreated trade routes, expanding egyptian economic dominance of the area and was one of the most prolific builders of both monumental and functional buildings across egypt, making her, while not the first or only female leader to rule at the time, likely the one with significant lasting impact on the near-east and africa. many later leaders attempted to erase her from egyptian history but it is a testament to the significance of her impact that even with their overwhelming ability to control their people and culture they were unable to eliminate her story.
  • (1500bce~, iran) zoroaster
    zoroaster, as with many ancient figures, is likely to have existed but extremely difficult to date, though his existence may be the hardest to place with estimates ranging across millennia. he was a revolutionary teacher, fighting against the accepted traditions across the indo-iranian world and founding a new religion. he is credited with writing the gathas among other scriptural texts and his religious teachings formed the basis for many other faith systems created in the centuries that followed including christianity, islam and baha’i. parallels between zoroastrian ideas and accepted western and middle-eastern doctrine and teachings today are clear, making him one of the most fundamental faith figures in history.

early history (1500bce-500bce)

ancient history (500bce-500ce)

early-modern history (500-1500)

modern history (1500-1900)

contemporary history (1900-today)

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.