Asia is Earth's largest and most populous continent, located primarily in the Eastern and Northern Hemispheres. It shares the continental landmass of Eurasia with the continent of Europe and the continental landmass of Afro-Eurasia with both Europe and Africa. Asia covers an area of, about 30% of Earth's total land area and 8.7% of the Earth's total surface area. The continent, which has long been home to the majority of the human population, was the site of many of the first civilizations. Asia is notable for not only its overall large size and population, but also dense and large settlements, as well as vast barely populated regions. Its 4.5 billion people constitute roughly 60% of the world's population.
In general terms, Asia is bounded on the east by the Pacific Ocean, on the south by the Indian Ocean, and on the north by the Arctic Ocean. The border of Asia with Europe is a historical and cultural construct, as there is no clear physical and geographical separation between them. It is somewhat arbitrary and has moved since its first conception in classical antiquity. The division of Eurasia into two continents reflects East–West cultural, linguistic, and ethnic differences, some of which vary on a spectrum rather than with a sharp dividing line. The most commonly accepted boundaries place Asia to the east of the Suez Canal separating it from Africa; and to the east of the Turkish Straits, the Ural Mountains and Ural River, and to the south of the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian and Black Seas, separating it from Europe.
China and India alternated in being the largest economies in the world from 1 to 1800 CE. China was a major economic power and attracted many to the east, and for many the legendary wealth and prosperity of the ancient culture of India personified Asia, attracting European commerce, exploration and colonialism. The accidental discovery of a trans-Atlantic route from Europe to America by Columbus while in search for a route to India demonstrates this deep fascination. The Silk Road became the main east–west trading route in the Asian hinterlands while the Straits of Malacca stood as a major sea route. Asia has exhibited economic dynamism as well as robust population growth during the 20th century, but overall population growth has since fallen. Asia was the birthplace of most of the world's mainstream religions including Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, as well as many other religions.
Given its size and diversity, the concept of Asia—a name dating back to classical antiquity—may actually have more to do with human geography than physical geography. Asia varies greatly across and within its regions with regard to ethnic groups, cultures, environments, economics, historical ties and government systems. It also has a mix of many different climates ranging from the equatorial south via the hot desert in the Middle East, temperate areas in the east and the continental centre to vast subarctic and polar areas in Siberia.
Definition and boundaries
Asia–Africa boundaryThe boundary between Asia and Africa is the Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez, and the Suez Canal. This makes Egypt a transcontinental country, with the Sinai peninsula in Asia and the remainder of the country in Africa.
Asia–Europe boundaryThe threefold division of the Old World into Europe, Asia and Africa has been in use since the 6th century BC, due to Greek geographers such as Anaximander and Hecataeus. Anaximander placed the boundary between Asia and Europe along the Phasis River in Georgia of Caucasus, a convention still followed by Herodotus in the 5th century BC. During the Hellenistic period, this convention was revised, and the boundary between Europe and Asia was now considered to be the Tanais. This is the convention used by Roman era authors such as Posidonius, Strabo and Ptolemy.
The border between Asia and Europe was historically defined by European academics. The Don River became unsatisfactory to northern Europeans when Peter the Great, king of the Tsardom of Russia, defeating rival claims of Sweden and the Ottoman Empire to the eastern lands, and armed resistance by the tribes of Siberia, synthesized a new Russian Empire extending to the Ural Mountains and beyond, founded in 1721. The major geographical theorist of the empire was a former Swedish prisoner-of-war, taken at the Battle of Poltava in 1709 and assigned to Tobolsk, where he associated with Peter's Siberian official, Vasily Tatishchev, and was allowed freedom to conduct geographical and anthropological studies in preparation for a future book.
In Sweden, five years after Peter's death, in 1730 Philip Johan von Strahlenberg published a new atlas proposing the Ural Mountains as the border of Asia. Tatishchev announced that he had proposed the idea to von Strahlenberg. The latter had suggested the Emba River as the lower boundary. Over the next century various proposals were made until the Ural River prevailed in the mid-19th century. The border had been moved perforce from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea into which the Ural River projects. The border between the Black Sea and the Caspian is usually placed along the crest of the Caucasus Mountains, although it is sometimes placed further north.
Asia–Oceania boundaryThe border between Asia and the region of Oceania is usually placed somewhere in the Malay Archipelago. The Maluku Islands in Indonesia are often considered to lie on the border of southeast Asia, with New Guinea, to the east of the islands, being wholly part of Oceania. The terms Southeast Asia and Oceania, devised in the 19th century, have had several vastly different geographic meanings since their inception. The chief factor in determining which islands of the Malay Archipelago are Asian has been the location of the colonial possessions of the various empires there. Lewis and Wigen assert, "The narrowing of 'Southeast Asia' to its present boundaries was thus a gradual process."
Ongoing definitionshown in green
Geographical Asia is a cultural artifact of European conceptions of the world, beginning with the Ancient Greeks, being imposed onto other cultures, an imprecise concept causing endemic contention about what it means. Asia does not exactly correspond to the cultural borders of its various types of constituents.
From the time of Herodotus a minority of geographers have rejected the three-continent system on the grounds that there is no substantial physical separation between them. For example, Sir Barry Cunliffe, the emeritus professor of European archeology at Oxford, argues that Europe has been geographically and culturally merely "the western excrescence of the continent of Asia".
Geographically, Asia is the major eastern constituent of the continent of Eurasia with Europe being a northwestern peninsula of the landmass. Asia, Europe and Africa make up a single continuous landmass—Afro-Eurasia —and share a common continental shelf. Almost all of Europe and the better part of Asia sit atop the Eurasian Plate, adjoined on the south by the Arabian and Indian Plate and with the easternmost part of Siberia on the North American Plate.
EtymologyThe idea of a place called "Asia" was originally a concept of Greek civilization, though this might not correspond to the entire continent currently known by that name. The English word comes from Latin literature, where it has the same form, "Asia". Whether "Asia" in other languages comes from Latin of the Roman Empire is much less certain, and the ultimate source of the Latin word is uncertain, though several theories have been published. One of the first classical writers to use Asia as a name of the whole continent was Pliny. This metonymical change in meaning is common and can be observed in some other geographical names, such as Scandinavia.
Bronze AgeBefore Greek poetry, the Aegean Sea area was in a Greek Dark Age, at the beginning of which syllabic writing was lost and alphabetic writing had not begun. Prior to then in the Bronze Age the records of the Assyrian Empire, the Hittite Empire and the various Mycenaean states of Greece mention a region undoubtedly Asia, certainly in Anatolia, including if not identical to Lydia. These records are administrative and do not include poetry.
The Mycenaean states were destroyed about 1200 BCE by unknown agents although one school of thought assigns the Dorian invasion to this time. The burning of the palaces baked clay diurnal administrative records written in a Greek syllabic script called Linear B, deciphered by a number of interested parties, most notably by a young World War II cryptographer, Michael Ventris, subsequently assisted by the scholar, John Chadwick. A major cache discovered by Carl Blegen at the site of ancient Pylos included hundreds of male and female names formed by different methods.
Some of these are of women held in servitude. They were used in trades, such as cloth-making, and usually came with children. The epithet lawiaiai, "captives", associated with some of them identifies their origin. Some are ethnic names. One in particular, aswiai, identifies "women of Asia". Perhaps they were captured in Asia, but some others, Milatiai, appear to have been of Miletus, a Greek colony, which would not have been raided for slaves by Greeks. Chadwick suggests that the names record the locations where these foreign women were purchased. The name is also in the singular, Aswia, which refers both to the name of a country and to a female from there. There is a masculine form, aswios. This Aswia appears to have been a remnant of a region known to the Hittites as Assuwa, centered on Lydia, or "Roman Asia". This name, Assuwa, has been suggested as the origin for the name of the continent "Asia". The Assuwa league was a confederation of states in western Anatolia, defeated by the Hittites under Tudhaliya I around 1400 BCE.
Alternatively, the etymology of the term may be from the Akkadian word aṣû, which means 'to go outside' or 'to ascend', referring to the direction of the sun at sunrise in the Middle East and also likely connected with the Phoenician word asa meaning 'east'. This may be contrasted to a similar etymology proposed for Europe, as being from Akkadian erēbu 'to enter' or 'set'.
T.R. Reid supports this alternative etymology, noting that the ancient Greek name must have derived from asu, meaning 'east' in Assyrian. The ideas of Occidental and Oriental are also European invention, synonymous with Western and Eastern. Reid further emphasizes that it explains the Western point of view of placing all the peoples and cultures of Asia into a single classification, almost as if there were a need for setting the distinction between Western and Eastern civilizations on the Eurasian continent. Kazuo Ogura and Tenshin Okakura are two outspoken Japanese figures on the subject.