In the ancient days of world, before the land of Azeroth was split into multiple continents, before the great city of Zin-Azshari lay at the bottom of the sea, the night elves ruled the world through the Kaldorei Empire. For thousands of years, the largest empire in the history of Azeroth covered over half of the singular continent of Kalimdor, only to be brought to its knees by its own lust for power in the War of the Ancients.
The Birth of a New Race
The night elves were not the first great empire in Azeroth. In forgotten ages past, the old gods’ Black Empire had covered the entire world, and afterwards the Troll Empire served as a dominant force across large portions of the singular continent of Kalimdor. The first night elves were, in fact, a reclusive race of trolls known as the Dark Trolls, so named because they only came out at night from their underground homes. Their skin was grayish-blue or black in color from the lack of light and they had little to no contact with the other troll races. Eventually, they settled by the shores of the Well of Eternity.
Small among the troll races, the Dark Trolls lived in areas marked by purple on this map.
The Well of Eternity was a vast lake in the very center of Kalimdor, created in the primordial past when the old god Y'Shaarj was ripped out of the world by the titan Aman’Thul. The hole left in the world was so deep that it bled the arcane lifeblood of the world-soul sleeping inside Azeroth. To prevent the soul from dying, magical wards were constructed that calmed the raging arcane energies and sealed the wound into the a massive lake, the Well of Eternity. With the waters of the lake saturated with the arcane energies, it became the heart of the world's magic and natural power. Drawing from the magic of the infinite cosmos, the Well acted as a mystical fount, sending its strong magic energies out across the world, nourishing life, accelerating the cycles of growth and rebirth, and even allowing the evolution of sentient beings from animals.
You have this guy to partly thank for the Well of Eternity, even though all he did was dig himself a really deep hole to live in.
It was these powers of the Well of Eternity that caused a drastic evolution in the Dark Trolls who settled there. They grew taller, smarter, and gained sleeker bodies. As their bodies changed, so did their culture. Their language evolved to a higher, more refined form which was influenced by the discovery of titan artifacts around the Well, as well as communion with their new deity, Elune, Goddess of the Moon. From this spiritual enlightenment they learned the ancient titan-coined name of the land where they lived, Kalimdor, which translates to "Land of Eternal Starlight" in the titan languages. Using their newfound language, and in light of the great changes which had occurred with them, the 'dark trolls' now gave themselves the new name of Kaldorei, meaning "Children of the Stars”. In later years, other races would know them as the night elves.
Elune wasn’t the only divine being the night elves made contact with, although she would always be the one they held above any others. Elune’s own child, the demigod Cenarius, saw much potential in this newly evolved race and began to teach them about the natural world along with many other wild gods and nature spirits. On the banks of the Well of Eternity, the night elves built their capital city, Elun'dris, which means "Eye of Elune" in the night elf tongue. Always eager to discover more about the source of their gifts, the elves explored the depths of the well and discovered the power of arcane magic and sorcery. With practice and skill, many night elves became powerful sorcerers and used the arcane magic from the Well to expand their civilization outward. When at war with other races, they were unstoppable thanks to their martial prowess, powerful magic, Elune’s blessings, and a secret dangerous weapon of soldiers called Night Warriors who were infused with the full fury of the dark side of Elune’s lunar power through dangerous rituals.
The city of Elun'dris, later renamed to Zin-Azshari, built on the banks of the Well of Eternity.
The Reign of Azshara
After much development, discovery, and expansion, the night elves reached a golden age under a new leader named Queen Azshara. Charismatic, beautiful, powerful, and adored by her people, Queen Azshara ruled the night elves for thousands of years and was one of the most powerful arcane sorcerers in history. Under her rule, the night elf civilization vastly expanded its territory, architecture, influence, and magical capabilities. Great cities and temples blessed by Elune spread across Azeroth, all connected by a system of highways. Great wonders of magical craftsmanship that would be unmatched in future ages were created as well as many other wonders. So beloved was Queen Azshara that the capital city was renamed in honor of her. No longer would it be Elun’dris, the “Eye of Elune”, but Zin-Azshari, “The Glory of Azshara”.
Queen Azshara, renowned for her beauty and power, was beloved by all night elves and guided the Night Elf Empire into its golden age. She was also the single biggest egomaniac in history.
While the queen herself was practically worshipped by all night elves, the same could not be said for the growing aristocratic class that developed around her. These high-ranking elves were known as the Quel'dorei, or Highborne, and consisted of powerful sorcerers who served as Azshara’s closest courtiers in her grand palace. From advisors like Lord Xavius to handmaidens like Lady Vashj, they considered themselves superior to all other elves who were 'lower-born'. Their haughty ego didn’t win them any friends among the populace who grew to despise them, yet did not extend this disgust to the queen herself.
Xavius and Vashj were two of Azshara's closest courtiers, although they both had major "makeovers" later in life. Xavius would become the first satyr while Vashj would later join her queen in becoming a naga.
Azshara and her Highborne might have been the most powerful members of the Night Elf empire, but the majority of the common elves stayed true to the traditions taught to them by Cenarius long ago, retaining their connection to nature instead of magic and sorcery. While Cenarius was happy to see this, he watched with growing sadness as the Highborne grew more and more arrogant, distant, and obsessed with their own power. Azshara’s ideology of racial purity meant the elves had less and less contact with any of the other “primitive” races of the world, considering themselves the highest beings to ever exist and looking down on all others.
The Night Elf Empire at its largest.
Expanding the Empire
At this point, Azshara now ruled over the largest mortal empire in history, driving back even the fierce trolls and “allowing” them to keep their sacred Zandalari Mountains in exchange for ceasing any attacks on her borders. This humiliation sparked a bitter hatred in the trolls for all elves, a hatred which would endure for centuries.
In spite of her vast power and territory, there was one place Azshara knew in her gut she couldn’t control, Mount Hyjal, the home of the Wild Gods. Those ancient beings and magics of nature disgusted Azshara simply because they were beyond her control, and thus posed a possible threat to her power. Disguising her fear and caution, she publicly spun her negligence of Mount Hyjal as respect and honor for the elves’ past and nature-focused traditions, leaving the mountain one of the few areas of the continent left completely free of her rule.
The Beginning of the End
With all possible enemies neutralized or cowed, Azshara’s borders were secure and her focus delved further into her obsession with tapping into the full power of the Well of Eternity. She encouraged reckless experiments in arcane magic from the highborne experiments that would be the doom of her great empire. The raw arcane power unleashed by the Highborne sorcerers sent ripples from Azeroth through the Twisting Nether, home of the demons and fel magic. Like a homing beacon, the elves’ magic attracted the attention of the fallen-titan Sargeras, leader of a demonic army called The Burning Legion. Unknown to the elves, Sargeras had been scouring the universe in search of Azeroth since he'd learned it was a nascent titan - a world-soul - which he desired to claim for himself. This would kickstart a great demonic invasion known as the War of the Ancients which would bring the Night Elf Empire to its knees and shatter the world itself.