Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Where is Asia? A look at the physical and cultural boundaries

A part of a series on Geography Awareness Week 2007: Asia

Asia? Asia proper in red. Mixing zones in blue.

Asia is a construction of man. One must understand this if they seek to know where Asia begins/ends. The continent Asia is the greater half of the "super continent" Eurasia which in turn is part of the "omega continent" (Catholicgauze's own term) whose name no one can quite seem to agree one. The geological boundaries of Asia do not match what we consider to be Asia. The Eurasian Tectonic Plate includes most of Asia and Europe but not the Indian subcontinent, the Arabian Peninsula, half of Japan, nor Far East Russia.

So why have an Asian continent? The idea of Asia was created in the classical world to differentiate Greece from the various other cultures to their east. As Europe became cultural closer with Greek, Roman, and Christian ideals being united concepts, the lands east seemed more and more exotic. The concept of Asia being "the other" was also reinforced by the Crusades with relevant Africa being ruled by the cultural Asian Muslims. Finally, general stubbornness to change and pride led early-modern geographers to keep Europe and Asia separate. When thinking of Asia we must always remember it is a human realm and not a physical one.

So where is Asia? One positive definition (Asia is...) will not do because there are too many unique, radically different subrealms of Asia: Arabia, the Stans, the Far East, Southeast, and Indonesia just to name a few. So I propose for this blog post a mixed definition: Asia is on the Eurasia-Africa omega continent and is not cultural Europe nor is it culturally Pacific.

A big hurrdle for mapping Asia is telling where Europe begins/ends. Most defintions use the Ural and Caucasus Mountains as the boundary. However, this is a physical rule-of-thumb and therefore improper when dealing with a cultural zone. Culturally European Russians are found as far as Vladivostok, the Caucsasus are populated by both culturally European and Asians, and Turkey is... well.. Turkey. So for the sake of coming to a quick decision here is Catholicgauze's line in the sand:
  • Georgia and Armenia are European due to their ties to Greece and Russia through religion, customs, and law.
  • Azerbaijan and the other Muslim Caucasus areas are Asia due to their cultural and demographic ties to Iran and the Muslim world.
  • Turkey is a mixing area but the further southwest one goes the further they enter Asia.
  • The isle of Cyprus is divided between European Greeks and Mixed Turks.
  • Russia is European but the southeastern parts along China and Mongolia are and increasingly mixing zones with Asia. Siberia's natives are unique and there presence creates a European/Asian mixing zone.
Asia's eastern borders are a little easier to determine. Japan, Korea, and China always have had a bound which makes them their own branch of Asian culture. An interesting side note: Taiwan was once more culturally Pacific with native Taiwanese being an Austronesian people.

Finding the southeastern boundary is an ugly affair. Austronesian people dominate places like Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. However, other branches of this people are found in culturally Pacific Polynesia. So cultural ties must be used when drying a human line on a human concept (clearly a "soft" science).
  • Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei long have had ties to western Asia through trade and Islam (the hajj kept the slightly above average person personally tied with Arabian Asia). Today economics has these countries in closer contact with China and the other Asian markets. This makes them Asian.
  • East Timor is a Catholic country with historic ties to Portugal. It rebelled against its Indonesian overlords and today has a geopolitical relationship with Australia. Asian it is not.
  • Papua New Guinea is a Pacific culture country, period. "They eat people there!" - A geographer
  • The Philippines should not be considered Asian. Spanish rule made it Hispano and American rule kept it isolated from developments in Asia. The Japanese could not culturally understand it during World War II. The Philippines create its own subregion in the Pacific cultural realm.
The last thing to determine is the western border. While many people seem to stop at Israel, what we consider Africa must be debated. Many people think of the Pyramids as purely Africa but that can be contested. Egypt has always looked not at its African neighbors but elsewhere. The Ancient Egyptians contested the Greeks and Romans and the last few rulers laid claim to the Pharoship via their heritage to Alexander the Great. Coptic Egypt rivaled Rome and Constantinople for dogmatic control of the Christian Church. Under Islam Egypt fought for control of the Middle East. Egypt then tried to be the united of all Arabs, an Asian people, with Nasser and his United Arab Republic. Today Egypt is a religious-political and sometimes violent battle ground between the Arab dictatorship and those who favor either the Muslim Brotherhood or the Saudi Wahhabis.

Catholicgauze's idea of Egypt not being African is not his alone. The new United States military command, AFRICOM, does not include Egypt. Egypt is left to CENTCOM which also has the Middle East, Iran, and various Stans.

Egypt appears to be the end point for Asia. Sudan has always been much more influenced by other African events than Arab ones, Libya sees now sees itself as the leader of a future united Africa, and the former French North Africa is its own subregion of Africa though there is an effort to revive Islamic radicalism in this more moderate area.

Side note: A another debate is Israel. Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people who originally came from Mesopotamia. Diaspora however dispersed the Jewish people for two thousand years. However, the founding of Israel allowed for the mixture of culturally European (Ashkenazi), European but heavily Moorish influenced (Sephardi), and Middle Eastern (Mizrahi) Jews. Other groups such as Palestinian Arabs and Druze have made impacts on modern Israeli culture. Israel thus can be considered an Asian mixing area.

Well if you are done here you read probably Catholicgauze's longest post. Congratulations! Thoughts, comments on your idea of Asia?


Unknown said...

Mr. Gauze,

I have to be honest, I'm not well-educated on the subject enough to offer any great criticism, constructive or otherwise. However, I certainly appreciate the thought and contemplation that went into your borders of Asia.

I've always thought the idea of 'continent's was a rather simplistic view of the world. I prefer the distinctions anthropologists make between Africa, Eurasia, the Americas and Australia.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

turkey once whas europe (byzantium era). butt now it's asia.

look at the masacres of the kurds, the armenians, cristians, assyrians etc. also look at there goverment (islamic, erdogan) who'm is preaching to the turks living in europe not to integrate

I think I made my case.

Sorry for my english.

alfaqui said...

I think that "Asia" is the least useful of the continent tags in terms of understanding its reality.

In terms of tectonic plates does not make much sense, and it is rather a cultural concept to fit European understanding shortcomings since the old Greeks.

I would rather refer to the big chunks of civilizations. Middle East, Indian Subcontinent, China and Japan.

I think in the US, "Asian" is mainly used to substitute "Chinese, Japanese or South-East Asian" but never for ethnic members of the other civilizations, prefering Arab or Indian instead.

Flounder Lee said...

I know this is a long gone post, but I am looking for a google earth file kml/kmz that has the commonly accepted border between Europe and Asia. I have found a few monuments that reside along this border but not the border itself and importing images with the border doesn't work very well because of the scale. I do appreciate your well thought out post though!

Catholicgauze said...

Hi Flounder Lee,
I haven't been able to find any good Asia boundary KML/SHP file. I believe this is based on no one can agree where exactly Asia starts and stops. I could make a rough guide if you want but one would have to remember the boundaries of Asia in the Urals, Cacusus, Mediterrian (Cyprus), and Oceania are all up to honest debate.