Is Azerbaijan in Europe?

To mark the slightly-weird occasion of the Eurovision Song Contest coming from Baku (4 hours ahead of the UK and almost as far east of London as as Titanic wreck off Newfoundland is west), I am going to take a break from environmental politics and return to my first love – geography. Things were much simpler for me as a child: Warsaw Pact countries weren’t really in Europe; they were part of the very un-European USSR. As for the other point of potential ambiguity in Turkey; it was simple enough to draw the line at the Bosphorus. By the time I reached the age of 25, the Berlin Wall was being pulled down and suddenly we had Western Europe and Eastern Europe again: With the dismantling of the USSR it became very clear to me that Russia had just temporarily suppressed the European-ness of a large number of countries; but I would still have thought of Russia and the Ukraine as Asian countries – and I was still adamant that, although Turkey straddled the border, it was almost entirely part of Asia. However, the key to answering the question, “Is Azerbaijan in Europe?”, is to decide whether you are talking about physical or human geography. Taking physical geography first, it is important to understand that – although there is an awful lot of science in Geography – it is not like maths or physics. So, there is not always a right and a wrong answer; and the boundary between Europe and Asia is a case in point: The notion that the city founded by the emperor Constantine – and later re-named Istanbul – lay at the boundary of two continents was a convenient historical illusion re-inforced by a physical barrier that was only tamed by a bridge in the late 20th Century. In the current century, a tunnel has been constructed that has incorporated some very clever technology to overcome the other reason that I personally have always drawn the line at the Bosphorus; that being earthquakes. However, although a common misconception, the plate boundary causing the earthquakes does not pass from the Mediterranean to the BAltman Sea via the Bosphorus. I should imagine that most people born after about 1950 have at least a basic understanding of plate tectonics and, given a map of the Earth, could probably draw plate boundaries along the mid-ocean ridges that split both the North and South Atlantic in half; and around the great Southern Ocean to encircle Antarctica. Furthermore, thanks to Michael Palin, quite a lot of people are familiar with the term “Ring of Fire” but, as a plate boundary, I doubt that many could position it correctly on a blank map of the Pacific Ocean. However, like I said, geography is not like maths; everything is not straight-forward: We call Africa a continent; but it includes the East African Rift Valley and is very slowly tearing itself apart. Similarly, we refer to North America as a continent but it has an even more famous plate boundary messing-up our attempt to impose order on chaos – the San Andreas Fault. This is where plate tectonics starts to get complicated: There are actually three types of plate boundaries; constructive (where new crust is being formed), destructive (where it is being destroyed), and conservative (where lateral movement is preserving the crust on both sides of the boundary). Now things get really messy: The plates that form the Earth’s surface are not all similar sizes; some are huge and some are tiny. Rather than being thought of hexagons on the surface of a (soccer) football; it is better to think of them as pieces of floating sea ice – a random mixture of all shapes and sizes. Hence we have huge plates like the in the Pacific (with destructive boundaries on almost all sides) and small plates like the Caribbean. Thus, if you asked people to draw lines on a map to show where the African plate from its neighbours, some might include the East African Rift Valley, most would probably draw a line up the middle of the Red Sea and hopefully link up with the Jordan Valley… but where then? Similarly, most would draw a line west to east through the Strait of Gibraltar through the Mediterranean (but where exactly – and where does it go after Istanbul?). So then, continents are not defined by plate boundaries; they are a social construct – an invention of the human mind. Having grasped this, we are now ready to try to answer the question in physical terms. Or rather, we would be but for one slight problem: Europe and Asia are not two separate continents; they are a single Eurasian plate. Thus there is now no obvious boundary between Europe and Asia – in terms of continents or plate tectonics at least. This is why, if they have to, most geographers will draw the line along previous collision boundaries – delineated today by the crumple zones of the Caucasus and Ural mountains. However, if that is the case, part of Kazakhstan may be in Europe – but Azerbaijan is not. This is clearly a bit of a mess; and I therefore yearn for the simplicity of my youth: I think we should all have stuck with the simplicity of human geography and history that would exclude from Europe – Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. That would leave Ukraine in Europe (because it is north and west of the Caucasus Mountains) and Russia… Oh goodness, I dont’ know! Personally, I don’t consider it to be part of Europe in any normal sense but, if Ukraine is in; how can Russia be out? So, in terms of human geography, Europe is a social construct and, given that most contestants sing in english but vote for their neighbours, the Eurovision Song Contest is a complete load of bullsh… 😉

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About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
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5 Responses to Is Azerbaijan in Europe?

  1. Patrice Ayme says:

    The Eurovision song contest was held in Azerbaijan. Some have wondered if that country should be viewed as in Europe. Tectonic arguments have been raised: the Caucasus is a plate boundary. However the main boundary with the Arabian plate is more than 1,000 kilometers to the south, in the Arabico-Persian gulf… in between, there are a lot of fragmentary miniplates (and another two or three major mountain ranges). Is Azerbaijan in Europe? What is Europe? Is it the Indo-European civilizational petri dish? Yes, it is. Is Armenia in Europe? Well, Armenia was the first state which adopted Christianity as its state religion. For most of antiquity, Armenia was a gigantic state occupying vast swathes of present day Turkey and Azerbaijan (which did not exist yet). Armenia was long allied, or part, of the Roman empire. Ultimately, it was victimized by the invading Turks. Armenia has a territorial conflict with Azerbaijan. Is Georgia in Europe? It is a Christian state. It was for thousands of years in the Greco-Roman world. It was a rampart against Islam. A Georgian army helped the Mongols seize and destroy Baghdad, capital of the Islamist Caliphate (OK, there was also a Frankish army in attendance, and because it was a major butchery, and cukltural devastation, one tends to overlook these not so neglectable details of history…) Is Phoenicia in Europe? That’s where our alphabet comes from. Is Sumer in Europe? That’s where the effort of making an alphabet, in association with Egypt, came from. And also the bi-cameral, representative democracy system we use. And Alexander conquered the area, and descendant regimes forever did, except when overruled by Rome. Is Turkey in Europe? Well, where the Turks originated, far to the North-East, that’s where the Indo-European languages originated. Is Egypt in Europe? Well, much Greek mathematics is actually Egyptian mathematics. For more than a millennia, a full millennia before Greek civilization rose, Crete and Egypt maintained a symbiosis. Crete originated the thalassocracy principle, with democracy and gender equality. Are Hungary, Finland, and the Basque in Europe? They don’t speak an Indo-European language. Is Iran in Europe? Well, water in French is “eau” (pronounced “o”). In Iranian, it is “ob”. Where does Europe stop? Well, Marseilles was a Greek colony, from Phocea, back in what the Romans called “Asia” (now Anatolia). Marseilles founded an empire, which lasted more than six centuries. Caesar put an end to it (because it had supported his rival). Still the Greek influence perdured, all the way through the 1789 revolution, to this day. The USA, Russia, and Australia are European colonies. So is all of South America. PA

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    • Rick Altman says:

      Patrice, I have thanked you for this on your own blog but should have done so here also. Europe is a social construct but, today, I think that perhaps the line should be drawn so as to exclude Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. Why? because if you do not, it is hard to draw any other line that makes sense in our modern world. I am not denying our common history but, in case you hadn’t noticed, the Mappa Mundi has been superseded. Therefore Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Armenia, etc. are not in Europe; they are in the Middle East (another social construct).

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  2. Pingback: Where, What Is Europe? « Some of Patrice Ayme’s Thoughts

  3. Geoff Shorten says:

    So Baku is to the west of London? And geography is your first love?

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    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks Geoff. I am amazed no-one else has spotted (or at least commented upon) my mistake, which is a rare case of reality inversion from me (now corrected). The whole thing was written while “watching” the Eurovision Song Contest and – as I am sure you know – it is very easy to read what you want to read rather than what is there: As does a so-called “sceptic” when reading Climategate emails! 🙂

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