Europe, Asia, Eurasia and Cockroaches

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The journey tot he east

Eurasia is a continent formed by Asia and Europe.

Eurasia is a geographical area or continent comprising Europe and Asia united. It can be seen as an actual continent from a geographic, geological, and cultural point of view, as it shares the Indo-European and Uralic linguistic branches in many countries. Eurasia is considered the world’s largest continent or a «supercontinent,» as the traditional continents of Europe and Asia form a single landmass.

The division of Europe and Asia dates back to the 6th century BC with early Greek geographers such as Anaximander and Hecataeus of Miletus. They made the threefold division of the Old World into Europe, Asia, and Africa. The ancient Greeks discovered that the Balkan Peninsula and Asia Minor were separated by sea and considered continents. We inherited the concept, even if that means ignoring the fact that huge Russia cannot be viewed as an isthmus and that we are dealing with a single continent.

Bruno MaÇaes  in his book «The Dawn of Eurasia » tells us how the borders between Europe and Asia have always been unstable, untenable, and deceptive. Russia is a seamless block from Moscow to Vladivostok, where you arrive at a classic European city’s human and physical landscape. He tells us that Voltaire said that once you reached the Sea of Azov – the inland sea located on the border between Russia and Ukraine – it was no longer possible to know whether you were in Europe or Asia. Europe is not joined to Asia but is an extension of it, like India or Saudi Arabia:

Map Eurasian continent. A vision that shows Europe, and especially Spain, a corner in the great continental landmass. For some reason, the Romans called Spain, Finis Terrae (the end of the earth)

the borders between Europe and Asia? Ask the cockroaches

1570 map of Asia (Asia Nova Descriptio), the Sea of Azov as a "continental" border. Muscovy - the official name of the Russian state from 1547 until the foundation of the Russian Empire in 1721 by Peter the Great - is depicted as "transcontinental," having an Asian and a European part (labelled Europae pars).

For several centuries, the border between Europe and Asia kept shifting, generally eastwards, as knowledge of Russia increased and, perhaps more significantly, as Russia embarked on its project of Europeanisation.

At the Battle of Poltava in 1709 – in which Russia defeated Sweden, the power that had controlled northern Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, passing control to the Romanov family and later inherited by the USSR -, Philip von Strahlenberg, a Swedish officer captured by the Russian army, devoted his thirteen years of captivity to studying Russian geography. When he returned home in 1730, he published a book arguing that the border between Europe and Asia should be in the Ural Mountains.

Hermann Moll (ca. 1715) draws the border along the Don, the Volga, cutting overland from Samara to the Tobol River, following the Lower Irtysh eventually the Obi River, placing New Zembla - Russia's Arctic archipelago - in Europe).

At the same time, Vasily Nikitich Tatishchev – who also participated in the Battle of Potlava – was a Russian economic administrator and historian who compiled for the first time a complete Russian history. He managed to collect much historical and geographical data about Russia during his extensive travels in Germany, Sweden and eastern Russia as a state cartographer. He spent much of that time collecting arguments that were decisive in drawing the boundaries of Europe from those mountains, noting that fish were different if they came from the east or the west and that cockroaches were very abundant on the west side while on the eastern slopes they were practically non-existent.

Thanks to the cockroaches of the Ural Mountains  (quite scientific, isnt it?) we have a clear and scientific separation of where Europe begins and where Asia begins, a criterion that has remained more or less unchanged to the present day. As the question was not very clear, Bruno Maçaes tells us that in 1935 a questionnaire was sent to eminent experts in political geography, but there was no agreement: a quarter of the experts opted for the eastern limits of Russia, others for the Ural Mountains, while the rest either had new ideas or did not answer at all.

As late as 1944, the historian Marshall Hodgson called for an end to representing the border between Europe and Asia as a broken line that makes no sense in the middle of Russia.

“A conference called to give peace to the world must begin by tending the world’s fences. … The map of Europe on which we were brought up has passed forever into the limbo of discarded things.” Charles Downer Hazen in “Fifty years of Europe, 1870-1919”.

Europe and Asia as quasi-metaphysical categories

What is true, whatever fish, cockroaches, or expert geographers may say, a borderline in a very vast area between Europe and Asia where any border, be it geographical or cultural, was arbitrary and indeterminate. For Maçaes, Europe, and Asia, as time progressed, «grew to the status of almost metaphysical categories.»

Just as Europe defined itself by creating an «other», Asia is also a concept created in Europe by lumping together incredibly diverse cultures and civilisations whose only common element was the exclusion of all of them from Europe. If Europe is separated from Asia, so can Middle-East Asia, East Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, or South Asia. Therefore, it does not seem unreasonable to unite all these very different areas into a single concept called Asia, including Russia and China.

Different regions in Asia (Middle-East being represented as Western Asia)

In the post «What is Asia: where does it begin and where does it end» , two powerful myths about Asia pervade any debate about its very existence as a region. One sees Asia as essentially an invention of outsiders. The other confuse it with the «rise of Asia,» but both are illusory or misleading. Henry Kissinger points out that until the arrival of Western powers, no Asian country had a word for «Asia» and none of these multiple cultures and civilisations – many more centuries, if not millennia, older than Europe – ever considered themselves part of a higher unity.

It is true that after the arrival of European powers and the first independence movements, the concept of Asia began to be used as an opposition to invading Europe. Asia did not name itself as such – that is, as Asians – yet, the idea of Asia, far from being simply an invention of Westerners, was also imagined by thinkers and leaders of the first-generation Asian nationalist current, such as Okakura Tenshin of Japan, Sun Yat-sen of China, Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Aung San of Burma.  For the Japanese poet Okakura Kazuko «Asia was one» as opposed to individualistic Europe as opposed to the idea of community in Asia

In "The Book of Tea", Kakuzo succinctly describes a history of two traditions and two continents of philosophy, poetry, art, botany, religion and architecture.

Okakura Kazuko’s famous «The Book of Tea» is not about tea but about «theism» as the author calls the aesthetic and life philosophy born in China in the 8th century and flourished in Japan seven hundred years later, determining its world view, morals, art, and architecture.

As we said before, European concept of «Asia» is created in Europe by lumping together incredibly diverse cultures and civilisations whose only common element was the exclusion of all of them from Europe. If Europe is separated from Asia, so can Middle-East Asia, East Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia or South Asia. Therefore, it does not seem unreasonable to unite all these very different areas into a single continent that includes Russia and China.

The division between Europe and Asia, if any.

The division between Europe and Asia is not a neat and clear-cut idea but is related to thinking at a particular moment in European history. The two concepts are but historical products of the Enlightenment thinking that prevailed in Europe throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. This thought saw scientific progress and its application to all spheres of social and individual life.

A few decades later, this scientific progress materialised in technologies that allowed Asia to be militarily overtaken – and in this case, we can indeed use the definition of Asia as all those areas of the Eurasian continent outside the borders of Europe and Russia.

What is certain is that Eurasian thinking has re-emerged with a vengeance, recovering the flows of trade and cultural exchange that took place along the historic Silk Road linking China with Europe for two thousand years. China’s Belt Road Initiative (一带一路 One Belt, One Road) has revived the idea of making possible the integration of a vast region from Lisbon to Shanghai.

The Belt and Road Research Platform. Clingendael Institute. Clingendael Magazine. Map of the Belt Road Initiative (Published March 2021)

In this project, overland routes connect China with ports in these regions and other Asian countries and Europe via Central Asia. One of them is the railway route between the Chinese city of Yiwu and Madrid, over 13,000 kilometres long, the longest in the world. The map drawn up by the Clingendael Institute links two historical routes: the Silk Road and the Manila Galleon and looks like a bypass to the USA.

… but that is another story and we come to the end of another of our travel notes. But our Journey to the East continues so…

… If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully … If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or input, please email us at We will be happy to answer them.

Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

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