There is no natural border between Europe and Asia. Divisions between them are in our heads, writes Victoria White
THERE is no continent of Europe. There is no natural border between Europe and Asia. The divisions between them are in our heads. While we name seven continents, in many countries they name five, with Europe and Asia as Eurasia and the Americas together.
I only found this out a couple of days ago. I had spent my life believing in the geographical division between Europe and Asia. I have sailed portentously from the European to the Asian shore, in Istanbul. On arriving in Turkey, for the first time, I opined that I could see the difference between Europe and Asia straight away.
I must have been looking through my rear end. Europe and most of Asia are on the same tectonic plate. The difference between Europe and Asia is, in the words of the National Geographic, “a historical and cultural construct” based on the idea that “the various cultural groups of Asia have more in common with one another than with those of Europe.”
This is about as scientific as children forming gangs in a playground. When the Greeks drew the border between Europe and Asia, they knew precious little about the rest of the world. In the 6th century BC, the Greek geographer, Anaximander, divided the world into three evenly sized chunks, Europe, Asia and Libya, with the borders provided by the Phasis River (the Rioni, which flows through Georgia to the Black Sea) and the Nile. The word ‘pheasant’ comes from the word ‘Phasis’, which shows the scant regard our wildlife has typically shown for the official migration procedures between Europe and Asia.
Those borders have changed a little since the time of Anaximander, but the basic idea has remained the same. The Roman geographer, Ptolemy, went with the River Don as his boundary, rather than the Rioni. The Swede, Philip John von Stahlenberg, who spent a decade as a prisoner of war in Russia in the early 18th century and understood the geography of the region, moved the border from the River Don to the River Volga and the Ural mountains.
But agreement on a ‘natural’ border is bound to fail, because there isn’t one. This is simply a game of ‘them’ and ‘us’. It relates to distance, to religion, to power, to imperial ambition, but it does not relate to science, which shows that our history as European and Asian peoples is shared. There is a theory that the cultures of Eurasia became so developed because people could travel such a long distance at the same latitude. This meant they were constantly learning new survival skills from each other, as they travelled from east to west and west to east.
As if to ram home our interconnectedness, the word ‘Europe’ comes from ‘Europa’, a mythological princess in the culture of the Middle Eastern Phoenicians. They had their stronghold in contemporary Lebanon, Syria and Israel, but they traded culture and knowledge, as well as goods, throughout the Mediterranean, from 1550 to 300 BC.
When their ideas landed in Greece, they sparked a cultural renaissance, which was the golden age of Ancient Greece. They invented the first modern alphabet and taught it to the Greeks. In fact, the Greek word for ‘book’ came from the Phoenician port of Byblios, from which we get the word ‘Bible’.
The Jews, the original ‘people of the Book’, share a heritage with other Semitic peoples who later adopted Islam. When the Jews moved westwards, they brought Eastern knowledge and ideas, enriching European culture. Hitler’s near-extermination of European Jews was yet another failed attempt to draw a line between Europe and Asia. We lost six million European Jews and we are still losing them to Israel — losing their culture, their creativity, their very difference.
Surely, this places the influx of Syrian refugees in perspective. There is no solace for the descendents of the lost Jews in the settlement of half a million refugees in Germany each year, but there may be solace for the Germans. I reckon Angela Merkel knows that the influx of Syrians, if skilfully handled, could be the spark that lights a new era of inventiveness in her country. When she speaks of the migrants “changing” her country, I think she’s hoping they will.
It has always been a contrivance to claim a boundary around Europe as a unified culture — “founded on Christianity”, in the words of Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban.
Quite apart from the fact that Jesus Christ was a Middle Eastern Jew who had “three wise men from the East” at his birthday party, cutting-edge scholarship is beginning to place European history in its Eurasian context. At London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Dr Marta Ajmar is following “the route of objects” to show, for instance, that the cobalt-blue colour which appeared on European pots during the European Renaissance was developed in the Middle East and further more in China.
Our vision of history has been distorted, she says, by “our reticence to inscribe the Islamic world into the Renaissance.” In truth, she says, Islamic culture was at least as important an influence during the Renaissance as Ancient Greece and Rome.
For example, Hans Belting has shown that the rediscovery of perspective in Florentine Renaissance painting derives from the work of the 11th century mathematician, Alhazen, in Islamic Baghdad.
Mass migrations, east and west, have typically prefaced explosions of creativity, as the migration west, of the Phoenicians, sparked the genius of Ancient Greece and, indeed, as the fall of Constantinople to the Turks spurred on the European Renaissance. Mass expulsions aimed at achieving ethnic purity, from Ferdinand and Isabella’s removal of the Jews and Muslims from Spain to the Tsar’s pogroms to the population exchanges of Greece and Turkey, have left cultural deserts behind.
If we had any cop-on, we wouldn’t have to be told by Jean-Claude Juncker how many Syrian and Eritrean refugees we have to take in. Europe has grown old and tired behind the gates of Vienna, clinging to Christianity as a unifying ethos. It’s time we stopped pretending to be a continent. It’s time for Europeans to re-open the gates to their hinterland and welcome as many refugees as we possibly can. We need them easily as much as they need us.
There is no natural border between Europe and Asia. Divisions between them are in our heads
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