Europe – Extent And Boundaries

THE dwellers on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea must have learnt, in the course of their first warlike and commercial expeditions, to distinguish between the great continents ; for within the nucleus of the ancient world Africa is attached to Asia by a narrow band of arid sand, and Europe separated from Asia Minor by seas and chaDnels difficult to navigate on account of dangerous currents. The division of the known world into three distinct parts could not fail to impress itself upon the minds of those infant nations; and when the Greeks had attained a state of maturity, and historical records took the place of myths and oral traditions, the name of Europe had probably been transmitted through a long series of generations. Herodotus naïvely admits that no mortal could ever hope to find out the true meaning of this naine, bequeathed to us by our forefathers ; but this has not deterred our modern men of learning from attempting to explain it. Some amongst them consider that it was applied at first to Thrace with its ” large plains,” and subsequently extended to the whole of Europe ; others derive it from one of the surnames of Zeus with the “large eyes,” the ancient god of the Sim, specially charged with the protection of the continent. Some etymologists believe that Europe was designated thus by the Phoenicians, as being the country of “white men.” We consider it, however, to be far more probable that its naine originally meant simply the West,” as contrasted with Asia, “the East,” or “country of the rising sun.” It is thus that Italy first, and then Spain, bore the name of Hesperia ; that Western Africa received the name of El Maghreb from the Mohammedans, and the plains beyond the Mississippi became known in our own tinres as the ” Far West.”

But, whatever may be the original meaning of its name. Europe, in all the myths of the ancients, is described as a Daughter of Asia. The Phoenicians were the first to explore the shores of Europe, and to bring its inhabitants into contact with those of the East. When the Daughter had become the superior of her Mother in civilisation, and Greek voyagers were following up the explorations begun by the mariners of Tyre, all the known countries to the north of the Mediterranean were looked upon as dependencies of Europe, and that name, which was originally confined to the Thraco-Hellenic peninsula, was made to include, in course of time, Italy, Spain, the countries of the Gauls, and the hyperborean to the north of the Caspian shows the area depresed below the level of the Mediterranean.

Since that epoch the limits between Europe and Asia have been shifted by geographers still farther to the east. They are, however, more or less conventional, for Europe, though bounded on three sides by the ocean, is in reality but a peninsula of Asia. At the same time, the contrasts between these two parts of the world fully justify scientific men in dividing them into two continental masses. But where is the true line of separation between them : Map-makers generally adopt the political boundaries which it has pleased the Russian Government to draw between its vast European and Asiatic territories, and others adopt the summits of the Ural Mountains and of the Caucasus as the boundary between the two continents ; and although, at the first glance, this delineation appears more reasonable than the former, it is in reality no less absurd. The two slopes of a mountain chain can never be assigned to different for mations, and they are generally inhabited by men of the sanie race. The true line of separation between Europe and Asia does not consist of mountains at all, but, on the contrary, of a series of depressions, in former times covered by a channel of the sea Av which united the Mediterranean with the Arctic Ocean. The steppes of the Manych, between the Black Sea and the Caspian, and to the north of the Caucasus, are still covered in part with salt swamps. The Caspian itself, as well as Lake Aral and the other lakes which we meet with in the direction of the Gulf’ ot Obi, are the remains of this ancient arm of the sea, and the intermediate regions still bear the traces of having been an ancient sea-bed.

There can be no doubt that vast changes have taken place in the configuration of Europe, not only during more ancient geological periods, but also within comparatively recent times. We have already seen that a vast arm of the sea formerly separated Europe from Asia ; it is equally certain that there was a time when it was joined to Anatolia by an isthmus, whirl’ has since been converted into the Bosphorus of Constantinople ; Spain was joiDed to Africa until the waters of the Atlantic invaded the Mediterranean ; Sicily was probably connected with Mauritania ; and the British Islands once formed a portion of the mainland. The erosion of the sea, as well as upheavals and subsidences of land, has effected, and still effect, changes in the contours of our coasts. Numerous soundings in the seas washing Western Europe have revealed the existenee of a submarine plateau, which, from u geological point of view, must he looked upon as forming an integral portion of our continent. Bounded by abyssal depths of thousands of fathoms, and submerged one hundred fathoms at most below the waters of the ocean, this pedestal of France and the British Islands must be looked upon as the foundation of an ancient continent, destroyed by the incessant action of the waves. If the shallow portions of the ocean, as well as those of the Mediterranean Sea, were to be added to Europe, its area would be increased to the extent of one-fourth, but it would lose, at the same time, that wealth in peninsulas which has seeured to Europe its historieal superiority over the other continents.

If we supposed Europe to subside to the extent of one hundred fathoms, its area would be reduced to the compass of one-half. The ocean would again cover her low plains, most of which are ancient sea-beds, and there would remain above the waters merely a skeleton of plateaux and mountain ranges, far more extensively indented by bays and fringed by peninsulas than are the coasts existing at the present time. The whole of Western and Southern Europe would be converted into a huge island, separated by a wide arm of the sea from the plains of interior Russia. From an historical as well as a geological point of view, this huge island is the true Europe. Russia is not only half Asiatic on account of its extremes of temperature, and the aspect of its monotonous plains and interminable steppes, but is likewise intimately linked with Asia as regards its inhabitants and its historical development. Russia can hardly be said to have belonged to Europe for more than a hundred years. It was in maritime and mountainous Europe, with its islands, peninsulas, and valleys, its varied features and unexpected contrasts, that modern civilisation arose, the result of innumerable local eivilisations, happily united into a siDgle current. And, as the rivers descending from the mountains cover the plains at their foot with fertile soil, so has the progress accomplished in this centre of enlighteDment gradually spread over the other continents to the very extremities of the earth.