Of the Earth’s seven continents, Europe is the second smallest in total area—only Australia is smaller. In terms of population density it is the second largest after Asia. Geographically, Europe is a peninsula of Eurasia. It has been described as a peninsula of peninsulas and islands.
The surprising difficulty of defining Europe as a continent can be seen not only in differing definitions of its boundaries, or the bewildering number of candidates for its most extreme points north, south, east, and west, but even in disagreements over which locale constitutes the geographical center of Europe. The answers to all of these questions seem completely undeterminable in any precise kind of way. Fortunately, the broad outlines are clear.
The “boundaries of Europe” discussed here concern only Europe as a continent ending (or beginning) at the Ural Mountains. This creates a formalistic and artificially truncated political and racial horizon.
Notably, it ignores the Russian Federation as a unitary racial/political/social entity—a nation, including Russia-in-Asia, extending across much of northern Eurasia and constituting the world’s largest country in total area. Its 6.6 million square miles include one-eighth of the Earth’s inhabited land area—1.7 x the land area of Canada or 2 x the size of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent.
Moreover, some countries still possess overseas territories outside Europe that are integral parts of the homeland. With the exception of Greenland and a few small islands close to Europe, such territories will not be discussed here.
Due to Europe’s peninsular structure, the most difficult boundary to define is the eastern one, dividing continental Europe from continental Asia. Whether various countries or portions of countries are grouped geographically with Europe or Asia varies according to the sources consulted.
Because the major maritime boundaries that separate the continent of Europe from the Earth’s other continents—the Mediterranean Sea on the south, the Atlantic Ocean on the west, and the Arctic Ocean on the north—have well-defined coastlines, the close analysis of such boundaries primarily involves the allocation of various islands to Europe or some other continent.
The Boundary of Europe and Asia
Evidently the first man to define the eastern continental boundary between Europe and Asia pretty much as it exists today is Philip Johan von Strahlenberg (1676–1747), a Swedish army officer, explorer, and scholar of German descent. As defined in his book Das nord- und ostliche Theil von Europa und Asia (The north and east part of Europe and Asia) (Stockholm, 1730), which was translated into English, French, and Spanish, Strahlenberg’s border followed the chain of the Ural Mountains north-to-south, then the Emba River to the north coast of the Caspian Sea before passing through the Kuma-Manych Depression to the Black Sea. This Depression, named after two rivers, lies just north of the Caucasus Mountains which are today regarded as the true boundary.
The continent’s eastern boundary cuts Russia in two—European Russia and Asian Russia. There is a strikingly uneven distribution of human and natural resources between the Asian and European regions. Asian Russia, about the size of China and India combined, occupies roughly three-quarters of Russian Federation territory. But the quarter of the country west of the Urals—a major portion of continental Europe—is home to more than 75% of Russia’s population and most of its industry and agriculture. It was in European Russia that the Russian nation took shape. Despite governmental efforts to resettle Russians in sparsely populated Asian areas with abundant natural resources, the imbalance persists.
The watershed divide of the Ural Mountains forms the natural land boundary between the continents of Europe and Asia. The range, averaging 3,000–4,000 ft. in height, extends about 1,640 miles north-south from the Arctic Ocean to the northern steppe of Kazakhstan. At 6,214 ft., Mount Narodnaya in the northern Urals is its highest peak. The densely forested central portion of the range, the Middle Urals, is broader and lower in altitude, a plateau region of 1,000–2,000 ft.
Several low east-west passes provide major transportation routes through the Urals to the East (Asia).
A glance at a map shows that from the Urals the continental boundary broadly follows the unnavigable Ural River that rises at the mountains’ south end and empties into the northern end of the Caspian Sea to the south. However, this segment of the land border is indeterminate, as one scholar has noted:
For most of its length, the eastern border of Europe, namely the Ural mountains, is beyond contention. But between the southern end of the Urals (from, say, the city of Orsk where the Ural river turns westwards) and the Caspian Sea there is a gap from north-east to south-west of some 400 km.[249 mi]. Here there is no agreement as to where Europe ends and Asia begins and at least three “natural” lines have been suggested, namely:
(i) the Volga river, which however seems too far west and, moreover, divides a number of constituent republics of the Russian Federation between the two continents;
(ii) the Emba river, which, of all major waterways, continues the most directly the line of the Urals in a broadly south-westerly direction towards the Caspian; this, however, would divide the Republic of Kazakhstan, usually considered as an Asian state, between Asia and Europe and there seems no good reason to accept the Emba as constituting the border;
(iii) between the Volga and the Emba is the Ural river which, if we were to decide on a “natural” border, would be the most satisfactory of those proposed; this, however, would still leave a substantial part of Kazakhstan in Europe. (Glanville Price, Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe, 2000, p. xii.)
The author opts for the existing Russian-Kazakhstan border. The downside with such a choice is that political borders change constantly.
The next major segment of the boundary is formed by the Caspian Sea, bordered in Europe by Russia and in Asia by Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Azerbaijan. 746 mi. long and 270 mi. wide, it is the largest completely enclosed body of water, or inland sea, on Earth. It is fed by the Volga, Ural, and Emba rivers from the north. This sea was known to the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Persians.
The border of Russia with Georgia and Azerbaijan runs along Caucasus Mountains watershed. The European portion of the 700-mi. east-west mountain range between the Caspian and Black Seas is Ciscaucasia on the north. The Asiatic part, Transcaucasia, lies to the south.
The range’s highest peak, Mt. Elbrus (18,481 ft.) is often counted as Europe’s highest. The Caucasus are crossed by several high passess, the two best known of which are Mamison Pass in the center, and Daryal (or Darial) Pass, which was fortified as early as 150 BC and has vertical rock walls 5,900 ft. high.
The Black Sea (ancient Euxine Sea) between Europe and Asia has been joined since ancient times with the Aegean Sea (part of the Mediterranean), and through it the Atlantic Ocean, by the Bosporus/Sea of Marmara/Dardanelles waterway. The Black Sea is connected to its own northern arm, the 200-mi. long Sea of Azov, by the Kerch Strait.
Russia’s mighty Don River empties into the Sea of Azov at Azov, near the ancient site of Tanais, a Greek colony. Azov was captured by Vladimir I in the 900s AD and by the Genoese, who made it a trading port, in the 1200s. Sacked by the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane in 1395, it was held alternately by Russians and Turks until it was finally secured by Russia in 1739.
It was Vladimir I who established the Orthodox Eastern Church as the state religion c. 989 AD, thereby linking Russia religiously and culturally to the Eastern Roman Empire throughout the medieval period.
Major European rivers flowing into the Black Sea are the Danube, Dniester, Bug, Dnieper, and Kuban.
The steppe region north of the Black Sea has been proposed by some scholars as the original homeland (Urheimat) of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Others contend that the heartland was further east toward the Caspian Sea, and still others that it was in Anatolia (present-day Turkey).
Legendarily, the Black Sea was sailed by Jason and the Argonauts. In a sacred grove in ancient Colchis (contemporary Georgia) on its eastern shore, the Greek heroes sought the Golden Fleece.
In ancient times the Black Sea was crossed by Hittites, Carians, Thracians, Greeks, Persians, Cimmerians, Scythians, and Romans, and later by the East Romans (Byzantines), Goths, Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Slavs, Varangians (East Vikings), European Crusaders, Venetians, and Genoese.
The large peninsula extending into the Black Sea on its northern shore, framed on the east by the Sea of Azov, is the Crimea, site of the Crimean War (1854–1856). In the 8th century BC it was inhabited by the Cimmerians, who were expelled by the Scythians in the 7th century. The southern coast of the Crimea was settled in the 6th century BC by Greek traders who maintained extensive trade ties with Athens. In WWII Germans occupied the peninsula from 1941–1944. At Yalta in 1945, FDR and Churchill handed Eastern Europe to the Communists.
The Mediterranean Boundary
To the south Europe is separated from Africa and Asia by the Mediterranean Sea and the Strait of Gibraltar. Very unlike Europe north of the Alps, the Mediterranean climate has hot, dry summers and mild, rainy winters.
European nations with a Mediterranean shoreline are Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, the island of Malta, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece and Turkey.
Traditionally, “Turkey” refers to “European Turkey” or “Easterm Thrace”—the 3% of Turkey situated north of the Dardanelles/Sea of Marmara/Bosporus waterway and regarded as geographically part of Europe, distinguished from “Asiatic Turkey” (Anatolia or Asia Minor), the 97% of Turkey geographically situated in Asia.
Navigable since ancient times, the strategic significance of this interlinked waterway between the Black and Mediterranean Seas was a factor that led Roman Emperor Constantine the Great to found Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) there in 330 AD. It became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, which endured for more than a thousand years.
Historically significant Greece, 80% mountainous and slightly smaller than the state of Alabama, has between 1,200–6,000 islands (depending upon how “island” is defined), 227 of them inhabited. The largest are Crete, Euboea, Rhodes, and Lesbos. Its many island chains and peninsulas and are extensions of its mountain ranges. Due to its highly indented shoreline and numerous islands, Greece boasts the twelfth longest coastline in the world, 8,498 miles.
The main subdivisions of the Mediterranean Sea, all European, are the Adriatic, Aegean, Tyrrhenian, Ionian, and Ligurian Seas. The Mediterranean as a whole stretches 2,300 miles from east to west.
Due to the narrow Strait of Gibraltar on the west, the Mediterranean has very low tides. European rivers flowing into the sea, all sources of fresh water, are the Ebro, Rhone, and Po. The Nile in Egypt, the world’s longest river, also empties into the Mediterranean.
Oceanographically, evaporation greatly exceeds precipitation and river runoff in the Mediterranean, a fact that is central to the water circulation within the basin. Evaporation is especially high in its eastern half, causing the water level to decrease and salinity to increase eastward. This pressure gradient pushes relatively cool, low-salinity water from the Atlantic across the basin; it warms and becomes saltier as it travels east, then sinks in the region of the Levant and circulates westward, to spill over the Strait of Gibraltar. Thus, seawater flow is eastward in the Strait’s surface waters, and westward below; once in the Atlantic, this chemically distinct “Mediterranean Intermediate Water” can persist thousands of kilometres away from its source. (“Mediterranean Sea,” Wikipedia, citing Paul R. Pinet, Invitation to Oceanography, 3rd ed., 1996, 202–207.)
Islands in the Mediterranean are allocated to Europe, Asia, or Africa respectively.
Most of the major islands in the Mediterranean—Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Crete, Cyprus, Balearic Islands, Dodecanese, Cyclades, Sporades, Ionian Islands, and Malta—are associated with adjacent European countries.
Of those that are not, the greatest number belong to Asian Turkey. (However, some definitions of Europe include Asian Turkey.) Five islands are associated with Tunisia in Africa, and one, Arwad, with Syria in Asia.
Cyprus, with a population of 1.1 million, lies south of Turkey off the coast of Syria, north of Israel. Technically in Asia, it is a member of the Council of Europe and the European Union. The UN classification of world regions places Cyprus in Western Asia, the CIA’s World Factbook in the Middle East.The earliest known human activity on the island dates to the 9th millennium BC. Copper, of which Cyprus was the ancient world’s primary source, was named after the island (Greek Kypros). Copper and its alloy bronze are of enormous significance in the study of European prehistory and archaeology.
In a dispute with Greece, Turkey partitioned Cyprus in 1974, establishing the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on 40 percent of the island, a de facto state recognized only by Turkey. International entities regard the entire island as a single independent republic, the Republic of Cyprus, which controls the remaining 60 percent of the island.
In modern times Greek and Turkish Cypriots have been at loggerheads. The population is divided between Greek (80%) and Turkish (20%) ethnic groups differentiated by language (Greek, Turkish), nationality, and religion (Greek Orthodox, Sunni Islam). Leaving aside substantial recent foreign immigration, it is doubtful that the two sharply-defined ethnic groups differ racially.
Malta, an independent European state situated south of the Italian island of Sicily, is the main island of the (three) Maltese Islands. Originally a Phoenician and Carthaginian colony, it was captured by Rome in 218 BC. During WWII it became the world’s most bombed spot, undergoing more than 1,200 air raids. It achieved its indpendence from Great Britain in 1964.
The Strait of Gibraltar separating Spain from Africa in the western Mediterranean is an 8–23 mile wide, 36-mi. long passage linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Ownership of the “state” of Gibraltar, the 2.5 sq. mi. British territory on Spanish soil, is disputed by Spain.
The towering, limestone Rock of Gibraltar and Mount Acho (ancient Abila) at Ceuta, a Spanish exclave in Morocco, Africa, form the classical Pillars of Hercules, which were crowned with silver columns by ancient Phoenician mariners to mark the limits of safe navigation for the Mediterranean peoples. The Semitic (not Jewish) Phoenicians, however, sailed well beyond them, quite possibly circumnavigating the southern tip of Africa and turning north on the other side.
The Atlantic Boundary
In the west, Europe’s boundary is defined by the Atlantic Ocean, with which the Irish, North, Baltic, Mediterranean, and Black Seas are all connected. This coastline is much warmer than it would otherwise be due to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, the ocean current which originates in the Gulf of Mexico and joins the North Atlantic Drift to carry warmth to Europe’s shores.
The Atlantic coast can be viewed to some extent as an interlinked geographical-anthropological region. Weather and physical conditions are relatively uniform, resulting in common landscapes, plants, and animals. Via waterborne contact, prehistoric Atlantic peoples presented certain common traits as indicated by artifacts and architectural styles. An example is the European Megalithic Culture. Sir Barry Cunliffe, an English archaeologist and prehistorian, has written a book from such a perspective, Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples 8000 BC–AD 1500 (2001). Some genetic studies also seem to interrelate specific groups of people from different parts of Atlantic Europe.
As with Europe’s Mediterranean boundary, the allocation of islands between continents is significant along the Atlantic periphery. Nevertheless, the situation is complex, and any treatment is to some extent arbitrary.
The Canary Islands, a Spanish possession and Outermost Region of the European Union, lies 62 miles off the coast of Morocco and Western Sahara in northwest Africa. The Canaries are the Fortunate Isles of antiquity. They were visited by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the Carthaginians. As described by Roman scholar Pliny, large numbers of wild dogs (Latin canes), roamed the islands, which he therefore named Canaria. The indigenous population, the Guanche, a Berber people, eventually became extinct. The present population of 2.1 million is 86% Spanish and 14 % Negro/Moor/Berber.
About 250 miles north of the Canaries and 440 miles from the coast of Africa (Morocco) is Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal and Outermost Region of the EU. It was uninhabited at the time of its discovery by the Portuguese in 1420. Prince Henry the Navigator began colonization of the islands and established sugar plantations there which became the prototype for the plantation system developed in the Portuguese colonies in the Americas after 1550. Internationally recognized Madeira wines remain an important export. Madeira’s present population of 268,000 is classified as ethnic Portuguese, but has a marked degree of West African Negro and North African Berber admixture.
North of Madeira is another autonomous region of Portugal and EU Outermost Region, the Azores, lying 800 miles off the coast of Portugal. The vast majority of its 245,000 inhabitants are an admixture of Portuguese, Sephardic Jews, Moors, Flemish, French, Spaniards, and other European populations. As with the Canaries and Madeira, emigration from the islands has been substantial. By the 1990s more Azoreans resided in the US and Canada than in the archipelago.
Most of Europe’s Atlantic islands, including the Canaries, Madeira, and the British Isles, lie well to the east of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a 9,300-mile long submerged mountain chain on the ocean floor extending from the Antarctic Circle in the south to the Arctic Circle in the north, situated midway between the Western Hemisphere and Europe-Africa. From the seafloor, mountains rise 3,300 to 9,800 ft. and measure 930 mi. wide from east to west at their base.
A few peaks in the ridge break the ocean’s surface, forming islands or groups of islands. The Azores and Iceland are both situated atop such peaks. Greenland, geologically associated with North America to the west, is not.
In terms of geographically allocating islands to the North American or European continents, the boundary is usually drawn between Greenland and Iceland, with Greenland on the American and Iceland on the European side.
But although Greenland (Danish Grønland) is geographically part of North America, it is historically, politically, and culturally tied to Europe. Greenland formally withdrew from the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1985, but as an overseas territory of the Kingdom of Denmark with extensive home rule, its citizens possess EU citizenship.
The largest island in the world, it lies mostly north of the Arctic Circle and is separated from Canada on the west by Davis Strait and Baffin Bay and Iceland on the east by the Denmark Strait. There are numerous islands along its coast, which is deeply indented by fjords. Eighty-five percent of its total area is ice cap. Most of the country’s population lives in villages along the mountainous coastal fringe.
The island was discovered and settled around. 982 AD by outlaw Norwegian chieftain Eric the Red, whose Icelandic-born son, Leif Ericsson, later discovered America by sailing west from Greenland. Greenland was uninhabited at the time of the Norse arrival—the Inuit did not arrive until more than 200 years later, c. 1200 AD.
In the 1200s the island fell under Norwegian and, subsequently Danish, rule. The Norse colonists mysteriously vanished around 1435, probably due to a climate change known as the Little Ice Age. Archaeological remains and written records indicate malnourishment among the last white inhabitants.
Jewish pop anthropologist Jared Diamond offered a typically racist “explanation” for the Greenlanders’ disappearance. They “chose” to fail by destroying the environment and practicing violence against the Inuit. Their selfish classism and Christian bigotry also contributed to their destruction. Diamond’s pseudo-scholarship is representative of the deep-seated anti-white hatred insinuated into every nook and cranny of contemporary society.
A few centuries later, European explorers rediscovered the island, which was recolonized by Norway beginning in 1721. In 1815 it became part of Denmark. After Germany’s invasion of that country in 1940, the US occupied Greenland until war’s end.
Today, Greenland’s population of 57,000 consists of 88% Inuit or Inuit-Danish hybrids and 12% Europeans, mostly Danish. The Danes occupy positions as administrators, professionals, academics and skilled tradesmen.
Interestingly, the word “Inuit” does not appear in my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1973), nor in my unabridged Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1981)—the heavy tome you see on its own stand in most libraries. Instead, “Eskimo”—originally the Algonquian Indian term for the northern natives—was still used, along with variants such as Eskimoid, Eskimology, and Eskimologist. The word “Saami,” for Lapps, also does not appear.
Settled by Norwegians around 850–875 AD, Iceland is the westernmost state of Europe (Greenland is not a state), located 570 miles west of Norway and 155 miles southeast of Greenland. Indented by many long fjords, it measures about 300 mi. wide from east to west. It has many active volcanoes. Geothermal energy from hot springs is employed for heating. The country possesses one of the most advanced population genetics and geneaological research facilities in the world. deCODE genetics, a private firm, has funded the creation of a genealogy database called Íslendingabók, which attempts to cover all of Iceland’s known inhabitants.
The Icelandic parliament, the Althing, first convened in 930 AD, is the oldest representative assembly in Europe. Old Norse literature attained its greatest flowering in Iceland between 1000 and 1350 AD. Grœnlendinga saga and Eiríks saga describe the discovery and settlement of Greenland and Vinland (Newfoundland).
Norwegian rule was imposed in 1261, and thereafter Iceland belonged alternately to Norway and Denmark. Occupied by the US and Britain during WWII, it became independent in 1944. Icelandic, the official language, has changed less from Old Norse than any of the other Nordic languages.
The Arctic Boundary
The Arctic Ocean defines Europe’s continental boundary on the north. European portions of the ocean identified by specific names include the Norwegian and Greenland Seas north of Scotland, the Barents Sea north of Scandinavia and Russia, and the Kara Sea north of Russia’s Ural Mountains.
Regions within the Arctic Circle were first explored between 800–1100 AD by Norse Vikings who discovered Iceland, Greenland, North America, and, in Russia, the White Sea at which they had arrived by 800, and where their influence remained strong for centuries.
The White Sea, an inlet of the Barents Sea in Russia whose main port is Arkhangelsk, is connected by a system of canals to the inland Baltic Sea at Leningrad. The notorious White Sea-Baltic Canal, built between 1931 and 1933 at tremendous human cost by over 100,000 concentration camp political prisoners (at least 9,000 of whom perished), is too shallow (minimum depth 11.5 ft.) to accommodate ocean-going vessels.
The Jewish overseers of the project, Genrikh Yagoda, Deputy Chairman of the OGPU, Matvei Berman, head of the GULAG during the 1930s, Semyon G. Firin, Chief of Construction and head of the White Sea Baltic Corrective Labor Camp Directorate, Naftaly Frenkel, the Chief of Works, Lazar Kogan, chief of the BBK Construction Directorate and his deputy Yakov Davidovich Rappoport, were awarded medals by the Politburo upon the canal’s completion, July 15, 1933.
Due to climatic conditions, Europe’s Arctic shores are sparsely populated. Non-white residents include the Mongolid Inuits of Greenland and the pastoral, reindeer-herding Mongolid Saamis (Lapps—about 55,000 people) of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Russian peninsula of Kola. Both groups have experienced significant white admixture.
Few large towns exist. The largest cities are in Russia—Arkhangelsk (350,000), Murmansk (over 300,000), Norilsk (130,000), and Vorkuta (75,000); in Norway, Trondheim (165,000) and Tromsø (60,000). Other towns typically consist of small agglomerations of less than 5,000 residents.
The northernmost city in mainland Europe is Hammerfest, Norway, population 9,300, which annually experiences uninterrupted daylight from May 17–July 29, and no sun at all from November 21–January 21. Hammerfest was attacked and looted by the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and occupied by the Germans and bombed by the Soviet Air Force during WWII.
The Norwegian Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean includes the Spitsbergen group, 360 mi. north of Norway. Probably known to the Vikings, Spitsbergen was discovered in 1596 by Dutch navigator Willem Barents, who commanded several expeditions that reached Novaya Zemlya in the course of his search for a northern passage to East Asia. Barents Island and the Barents Sea are named in his honor. During WWII the Germans and Allies fought here. Svalbard Airport, Longyear provides the main point of contact with the mainland. No roads link the settlements of its 2,800 inhabitants, who travel by snowmobile, aircraft, and boat.
Covered with ice northeast of Svalbard, the 191 islands making up Russia’s Arctic archipelago of Franz Josef Land, about 600 miles from the North Pole, is the most northerly land in Europe and the Eastern hemisphere. Though Norwegian sealers may have reached the archipelago in 1865, its official discovery is attributed to the Austrian polar explorers Julius von Payer and Karl Weyprecht in 1873. They named the archipelago in honor of Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph I. In 1931 the German airship Graf Zeppelin made an historic flight from Berlin to Hooker Island in Franz Josef Land, and while there conducted an aerial survey of the archipelago as far north as Rudolf Island.
Turning south and slightly east from Franz Josef Land, we connect with the two large islands known as Novaya Zemlya (New Land), which extend northward from the northern end of the Ural Mountains and are a continuation of that chain into the Arctic Ocean. A population of 50–300 reindeer-herding Nenetses (Mongolian Samoyed), who subsisted by fishing, trapping, herding, and hunting, was resettled to the mainland by the Soviets in 1952.
On Novaya Zemlya on October 30, 1961, the Soviets exploded, by dropping from an aircraft, Tsar Bomba (“King of Bombs”), the largest and most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated on Earth. The hydrogen bomb yielded the equivalent of 50 megatons of TNT—after being scaled down from its original design of 100 megatons!
As mentioned, Novaya Zemlya is a continuation of the northern Urals to the south, thus completing our circuit of Europe’s external boundaries.
Europe’s influence extends well beyond its formal geographic borders. European explorations, colonization, social, political, intellectual, artistic, and scientific innovations, empires, and revolutions, have transformed the world. While it is needful to comprehend Europe as a continent, the true geography of the Europeans extends to the far corners of the Earth—and beyond.