Apropos my question about this a few days ago, reader Jesse Lansner writes:
There's a pretty good explanation on the historical boundaries between Europe, Asia and Africa [here]. The original distinction came from the Greeks, who gave names to the regions base on their direction from Greece (Europe to the north, Asia to the East and Africa to the South). I don't think Greek knowledge of the world ever reached the point that they had to draw a line between Europe and Asia. There's never been any need for people to agree on a boundary between Europe and Asia, and there is no official body that I know of that can settle the issue.

However, the Ural Mountains are generally accepted a border, as are the Bosporus and Dardanelles. The undefined border is between the southern end of the Urals and the Black Sea. I've found a number of references to the Caucasus Mountains as a dividing line, although none clarify exactly where the line is drawn or which countries fall into which continent. Most people would consider Kazakhstan to be wholly in Asia, which means the dividing line starts with the Urals, curves along the Russia/Kazakhstan border (which appears to be a fairly arbitrary line, although it occasionally follows some natural boundaries) to the Caspian Sea, and then cuts across the Caucasus (possibly along the Russian border, but maybe along the Turkish border) to the Black Sea, and through there to the Bosporus. All the Greek Islands are in Europe, despite the fact that many of them are much closer to the Asian part of Turkey than they are to anything else in Europe.

The U.S. government would seem to agree with this to some extent, as the CIA World Factbook puts Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in Southwestern Asia and Kazakhstan in Central Asia. On the other hand, the Council of Europe includes Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

I'm not sure how the UN's regional groups break down, but both the UN Economic Commission for Europe and the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific include all four nations -- plus Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. . . .

None of this solves the problem of where the European Union should end. Wherever the line is, Cyprus should be in Asia but it's now part of the European Union. Likewise, most of Turkey is in Asia, but almost nobody is the EU has suggested rejecting Turkey outright.
Nor should it solve the problem, of course: The EU will naturally decide its proper scope based on politics and economics, not theoretical geographical lines.

Posted by Eugene Volokh to The Volokh Conspiracy at 5/5/2004 03:24:06 PM
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