How did the concept of Europe and Asia develop?

Dec 2014
1,082
Europe
#1
Geographically at least, it's hard to see much distinction between Europe and Asia, at least compared to other continental divides like Asia-Africa or North-South America. The Ural mountains don't even extend the length of the Europe-Asia divide, and what we consider the "Asian" part of Turkey and the Levant are in fact further west than that boundary. I'm curious how did the idea of a divide between Europe and Asia develop over time? What factors was it based on through history?

In the Middle Ages for example, Europeans might have argued that Europe was the region influenced by Christianity and Greco-Roman civilization, while Asia was that influenced by Islamic society. But then where did the pagan Baltic or Finno-Ugric nations fit in to that? Or what about China, which was so different religiously and culturally to western, Islamic Asian societies? How would they have been classified?

It's just interesting to me that currently 'Asia' covers such a huge range of cultures, religions, societies etc. and yet we somehow are able to group them all in as one entity separate from 'Europe' based on an odd, somewhat inconsistent geographic boundary. Tectonic plates clearly don't explain it, because Europe and Asia are both on the same one. I'm curious how this divide came about?
 
Last edited:

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,070
Dispargum
#2
As to Europe, you're pretty close already when you mention Greco-Roman heritage and Christianity that made Europe distinct from the rest of the world.

The historian Henri Pirenne argued that the Mediterranean basin remain fairly unified as late as the 7th century, but after the Muslim conquest of the Middle East and North Africa split the old Mediterranean world in two and set Europe on a very different and distinct path. He went on the claim that Charlemagne, by conquering Germany, gave northern Europe a unity as well as a distinctiveness all its own.
 
#3
Geographically at least, it's hard to see much distinction between Europe and Asia, at least compared to other continental divides like Asia-Africa or North-South America. The Ural mountains don't even extend the length of the Europe-Asia divide, and what we consider the "Asian" part of Turkey and the Levant are in fact further west than that boundary. I'm curious how did the idea of a divide between Europe and Asia develop over time? What factors was it based on through history?

It's just interesting to me that currently 'Asia' covers such a huge range of cultures, religions, societies etc. and yet we somehow are able to group them all in as one entity separate from 'Europe' based on an odd, somewhat inconsistent geographic boundary. Tectonic plates clearly don't explain it, because Europe and Asia are both on the same one. I'm curious how this divide came about?
Well, there is a clear geographical divide in the form of the Black sea and the Aegean sea. This divide goes right back to the Trojan War: Troy was (broadly speaking, though not entirely) what we now call Western Anatolia, and the 'Achaeans' were in what we now call Greece. There were times when both sides of the Aegean were Greek, but part of the time it was the dividing border between 'Western civilisation' and Eastern civilisation: during the period of Persian rule first, then during the tail end of the Byzantine period with the early Ottomans, and now once again with Greece and Turkey, the frontline of the migrant crisis. It's also a climactic divide: Europe is generally relatively green and fertile, but once you get into Cappadocia it starts to be an inhospitable desert outside of coastal and riverside areas. There are no deserts in Europe, and even the far Southern areas of Spain, Greece and Italy are mountainous and coastal, or islands, and so not comparable to Iraq or Africa.

The greener areas of Anatolia and North Africa and to an extent the coastal parts of the Middle East were generally considered to be part of 'Mediterranean' civilisation during the Roman period, but the Islamic conquest changed that forever. Of course, the Southern Balkans were part of the Ottoman empire for most of the past 500 years, but take a look at how 'Greece' was viewed by Western Europeans at that time: it was not really seen as a Western country at all, it was viewed in the same way as we see Armenia or Georgia today: an alien Eastern land where people happen to be Christian. Except of course for the Greek heritage of Western civilisation, which all educated people would have been very well aware of. Greece might not have become independent until the end of WW1 if not for Classical sentiment in France and Britain.

As for the tying up of the Middle East with Asia, most people just knew they were far away to the East. Greece as always was the bridge between East and West, it was from Greece that Middle Eastern civilisation (i.e. things like writing) spread to Italy and created the Roman empire.
 
Dec 2014
1,082
Europe
#4
Well if you're talking about a climate divide, Asian Siberia immediately across the continental border has a very similar climate to 'European' Russia, so I'm not sure that's a totally convincing way of dividing the two areas. Also not sure how you're seeing the Black Sea as a divide, Asian Anatolia goes along it's full length and European regions like Georgia and Russia are to the east of it.

edit: Just to clarify, I understand what you said about the Black and Aegean seas being divides in the classical world. But clearly they didn't remain so, since as I said Russia and Georgia are both viewed as European and yet they're beyond those seas. So I'm wondering, how did the modern divide come about?
 
Last edited:
Nov 2010
7,648
Cornwall
#5
I've said a few times on here that I'm not sure people were very hung up on what was 'Europe' at all in the middle ages. They just seemed to deal in different nations or peoples.

That's why questions about 'why did Europeans do x, y, z....' sort of wind me up a bit!
 
Dec 2014
1,082
Europe
#6
I've said a few times on here that I'm not sure people were very hung up on what was 'Europe' at all in the middle ages. They just seemed to deal in different nations or peoples.

That's why questions about 'why did Europeans do x, y, z....' sort of wind me up a bit!
True, concepts like Christendom or Dar-al-Islam would have been more important back then. Still, makes me wonder how did our modern definition of the Europe-Asia divide come to be, especially given that in earlier periods like the Middle Ages the divisions would have seemed so different.
 

Edratman

Forum Staff
Feb 2009
6,649
Eastern PA
#7
This is a question that I have wondered about for quite a while. Whenever I look at a map it appears obvious to me that Europe is a peninsula of Asia, not a separate continent.

I suspect that defining Europe as a separate continent was hubris on the part of the map makers of Europe a few centuries past ; an expression reflecting the global dominance by a handful of nations in western Europe.

Based on no proof, I guess that the Urals were chosen as the boundary line because some significant geographical feature was required to make the artificial continental distinction appear less bogus.
 
Mar 2013
12
USA
#8
The concept of Europe and Asia was pretty neat and tidy during antiquity as bodies of water are a simple and effective way to delineate boundaries. Russia was basically unknown to the Greeks, and while some surviving classical maps show Asia and Europe connected I suppose the remoteness and inconsequence of those northern regions to the Greeks made the ambiguity easy to brush off (out of sight, out of mind). This concept was inherited by the Romans and their influence on Europe caused the idea to become entrenched throughout the region.

Europe's Russian border has no geographical significance, but rather than scrap the concept of Europe altogether (which was an integral part of European identity by the Age of Discovery) or accept a certain level of ambiguity in its definition, Philip Johan von Strahlenberg decided in 1730 that the Ural Mountains were as good a border as any and the idea took root. The Russian Empire helped promote it too, since it strengthened their association with Europe.
 
#9
Well if you're talking about a climate divide, Asian Siberia immediately across the continental border has a very similar climate to 'European' Russia, so I'm not sure that's a totally convincing way of dividing the two areas.
Well, as it happens, Siberia is part of Russia today, and thus not considered part of the cultural region of 'Asia' by most people. It's considered culturally a part of Eastern Europe. I suppose since the start of the Cold War we think more and more in terms of 'first world, second world and third world' rather than in terms of continents, where first world is Western Europe and its colonial descendants plus Latin America and wealthy Asian countries, and the second world is Eastern Europe and Russia's communist buddies elsewhere.

But before the modern period, Siberia was one of the least developed and 'relevant' regions on the planet, and it was so big nobody really knew what was on the other side of it. It was a frontier.

Also not sure how you're seeing the Black Sea as a divide, Asian Anatolia goes along it's full length and European regions like Georgia and Russia are to the east of it.
I'm not sure how you can think a massive sea is not a geographical divide. It was certainly viewed as a divide in Classical times, it was thought to be the furthest corner of the world. The reason Jason and the Argonauts went to Colchis, modern Georgia, is because the idea of crossing Lake Maeotis was the most extreme heroic adventure imaginable whilst remaining in the real world. Perhaps that was slightly less true later on when the Greeks came into contact with India and East Asia, but the Argo myth is from a little earlier than that.

Let's be honest, we can't really compare the modern world to the ancient world. So much of our cultural and geographical assumptions are based on things that are no longer true. Economic development, mass migration and the development of nationalism and political ideologies, not to mention religions, have wiped away the majority of what was recognisable to the Romans.

edit: Just to clarify, I understand what you said about the Black and Aegean seas being divides in the classical world. But clearly they didn't remain so, since as I said Russia and Georgia are both viewed as European and yet they're beyond those seas. So I'm wondering, how did the modern divide come about?
I don't know who views Georgia and Armenia as 'European'. They are Christian Middle Eastern countries to my view. Once upon a time the Middle East had many different alphabets, languages and religions, but now there are only really three remaining: Arabic, Turkish and Persian, which are all Muslim and until recently all used the Arabic alphabet. But look a little closer and you'll see there are still some minorities: the Yazidis, the Neo-Aramaeans, the Kurds, the Lebanese Orthodox, the Copts, and the Jews of course.
 
Jan 2016
1,637
India
#10
The classification of Eurasia into Europe and Asia is pure Euro-centrism. The term Europe does have some geo-cultural significance, but the term Asia is completely meaningless. As an Indian, I'm not sure what I have in common with Manchus or Filipinos for us all to be "Asians." Also, I do not think that Europe is sufficiently isolated from rest of Eurasia to termed a separate continent. If mountain ranges can be considered as boundaries between continents, then India is a continent too. In my view, Eurasia is a single continent which is inhabited by at least five major cultural spheres that are related to each other to variable degrees. These are Chinese, Indian, Islamic, southeast Asian, and European.
 
Last edited:

Similar History Discussions