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Magic Asia

Asia, the world’s largest and most diverse continent. It occupies the eastern four-fifths of the giant Eurasian landmass. Asia is more a geographic term than a homogeneous continent, and the use of the term to describe such a vast area always carries the potential of obscuring the enormous diversity among the regions it encompasses. Asia has both the highest and the lowest points on the surface of Earth, has the longest coastline of any continent, is subject overall to the world’s widest climatic extremes, and, consequently, produces the most varied forms of vegetation and animal life on Earth. In addition, the peoples of Asia have established the broadest variety of human adaptation found on any of the continents.

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.

The name Asia is ancient, and its origin has been variously explained. The Greeks used it to designate the lands situated to the east of their homeland. It is believed that the name may be derived from the Assyrian word asu, meaning “east.” Another possible explanation is that it was originally a local name given to the plains of Ephesus, which ancient Greeks and Romans extended to refer first to Anatolia (contemporary Asia Minor, which is the western extreme of mainland Asia), and then to the known world east of the Mediterranean Sea. When Western explorers reached South and East Asia in early modern times, they extended that label to the whole of the immense landmass.

Asia is bounded by the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the east, the Indian Ocean to the south, the Red Sea (as well as the inland seas of the Atlantic Ocean—the Mediterranean and the Black) to the southwest, and Europe to the west. Asia is separated from North America to the northeast by the Bering Strait and from Australia to the southeast by the seas and straits connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans. The Isthmus of Suez unites Asia with Africa, and it is generally agreed that the Suez Canal forms the border between them. Two narrow straits, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, separate Anatolia from the Balkan Peninsula.

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 (particularly East Asia) 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.

Asia’s population is unevenly distributed, mainly because of climatic factors. There is a concentration of population in western Asia as well as great concentrations in the Indian subcontinent and the eastern half of China. There are also appreciable concentrations in the Pacific borderlands and on the islands, but vast areas of Central and North Asia—whose forbidding climates limit agricultural productivity—have remained sparsely populated. Nonetheless, Asia, the most populous of the continents, contains some three-fifths of the world’s people.

Asia is the birthplace of all the world’s major religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism—and of many minor ones. Of those, only Christianity developed primarily outside of Asia; it exerts little influence on the continent, though many Asian countries have Christian minorities. Buddhism has had a greater impact outside its birthplace in India and is prevalent in various forms in China, South Korea, Japan, the Southeast Asian countries, and Sri Lanka. Islam has spread out of Arabia eastward to South and Southeast Asia. Hinduism has been mostly confined to the Indian subcontinent.

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