Asia, Africa, the Americas, Antarctica, Australia, and Europe are the great terrestrial landmasses that currently occupy the surface of the earth, establishing the very terrain upon which we dwell, and are undeniably critically dependent upon, however; from this short list of geological units, one has a certain tendency to be distinctive: Europe. Even the very name is quite fittingly symbolic of its uniqueness, being the only continent whose name neither begins nor ends with the letter ‘a’. [Editor’s note: ‘Europe’, as a name, is derived from the region’s older title, ‘Europa’, so while it currently doesn’t end with an ‘a’, it did in the past.] Europe’s peculiarity extends much further than mere semantics though, of all the continents, it is the most bizarre, appearing more as an extension of Asia rather than a truly separate continent on the world map. It separates from Anatolia by the Dardanelles and the Aegean; and the Mediterranean sea offers a major barrier between it and Africa, but the entirety of Europe is conjoined and contiguous to the giant Eurasian landmass from the east, in a manner not exhibited by any other continent.
The two Americas may share a common land border, similar to the small sliver of territory known as the Sinai Peninsula that connects Asia to Africa, but unlike these two borders, the division between Asia and Europe is much less reasonable. Besides it being a cultural and political entity, there is little geographic justification for the recognition of a European continent; it is arguably more arbitrary in its nature compared to its fellows, at best a sub section of the giant Eurasian land mass, similar to the Indian subcontinent or Arabian peninsula, recognized as an identifiable civilizational unit with a unique history inside its own bubble, but ultimately merely a constituent of a greater entity.
The origins of the idea of the European continent, and the evolution of its historical identity, best serve as an explanation for the near-unanimous approval of this unobvious inconsistency in contemporary times. The ancient Greek philosopher Anaximander (610 – c. 546 BC), produced the oldest known world map; being limited to the geographical knowledge of the time, it divides the world into three parts: Europe, Libya (Africa), and Asia. Each separated from the other by a body of water, the Phasis River between Asia and Europe; and the river Nile between Asia and Africa.
Unlike in later times, the division between the continents was entirely geographic in the minds of the ancient Greeks, who themselves held colonies in both Asia and Europe, indeed Anaximander was himself born in Asia Minor, so any notion that the Europe-Asia divide was born out of a sense of ‘white superiority’ or European exceptionalism is completely nonsensical; the ancient Greeks largely did not compute on these more modern terms. Within the context of the limited information available in their time period, the tri continental model seemed perfectly natural.
By the 5th century BC, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, the border between Asia and Europe was now further north, close to the Don River in modern-day Russia, as it became increasingly better known that Asia and Europe were not as separate as earlier thought. Greek geographer Strabo in the first century AD, and Greco Roman geographer Ptolemy in the second century AD, formally defined Europe as the land that stretched from the straits of Gibraltar in the west to the Don in the east. This interpretation remained standard convention for the next several hundred years.
It is only in the 8th and 9th century that ‘Europe’ begins to have more of a cultural translation, with the term increasingly being synonymous with the territory of the former Western Roman Empire. The Carolingian Renaissance in the late 8th century began to define Europe as the territory of Latin Christendom which essentially consisted of modern-day Italy, France, Britain, western Germany, and the northern section of the Iberian Peninsula; it clearly distinguishes Latin Catholic Europe from both the Orthodox and Islamic worlds which surrounded it on three fronts, and this was the birth of a cultural European identity defined by Christianity. Over the subsequent centuries, it began to include all of what’s now considered Europe in contemporary times, amalgamated into a single civilizational entity. The earlier established boundaries of the Straits of Gibraltar and the Don River would, however, remain the dominant interpretation of European geography well into the 18th century. Even after it was completely understood that the basis upon which the Greek originally founded the idea was factually incorrect and that Europe was merely an extension of Asia, the idea of Europe as a cultural unit was too firmly entrenched by then to be uprooted, though the precise border between Europe and Asia would be revised in the coming years.
Philip Johan von Strahlenberg in 1725 was the first to depart from the traditional border established over a millennia and a half earlier in the form of the Don, by declaring the Volga river as the new boundary between the two landmasses. His ideas were quickly adopted and popularized by the Russian empire, and over the subsequent centuries the precise border between Europe and Asia would shift multiple times according to multiple sources from the Kuma–Manych Depression to the Greater Caucasus watershed, and eventually to the Ural mountains which, arbitrarily, separates Europe and Asia today.
In essence, Europe was born out of Greek ignorance of the topography of Eastern Europe, popularized and made cartographic convention by the Romans, renvisioned by medieval Christians in more cultural and ornate terms as the home of Latin speaking followers of the Church of Rome, and eventually broadened to consist of the peoples and lands west of the Ural mountains in Russia, North of the Dardanelles and the strait of Gibraltar. Europe has no real justification for its existence as a continent from Asia, barring a vague and inconsistent definition of cultural or racial exceptionalism. Yet, the European continent is fully recognized as an actual continent by the overwhelming majority of the world today, and it is now perhaps difficult for us to imagine a world where Eurasia is a single entity, and the ‘European peninsula’ or ‘European Subcontinent’ is simply one constituent among many. It is perhaps the best example of how, at times, convention overrides basic consistency in academia, had the notion of a European continent not been grown, nurtured and deeply ingrained over the centuries it would most likely be viewed as laughably absurd in today’s world.