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As an instance we may point to the elevated table-lands of Central Asia, which now separate the countries and peninsulas surrounding them, but which, when they shall have become the seats of human industry, will convert Asia into a real geographical unit, which at present it is only in appearance. Massy and ponderous Africa, monotonous Australia, and Southern America with its forests and waterfalls, will be put on something like an equality with Europe, whenever roads of commerce shall cross them in all directions, bridging their rivers, and traversing their deserts and mountain ranges.

The advantages, on the other hand, which Europe derives from its backbone of mountains, its radiating rivers, the contours of its coasts, and its generally well-balanced outline are not as great now as they were when man was dependent exclusively upon the resources furnished by nature.


This gradual change in the historical importance of the configuration of the land is a fact of capital importance which must be borne in mind if we would understand the general geography of Europe. N the geography of the world the first place is claimed for Europe, not because of a prejudice like that of the Chinese, but as a matter of right. The intermingling of nations, migrations which have assumed prodigious proportions, and the increasing facilities of intercourse, must in the end lead to an equilibrium of population throughout the world.

To the happy conditions of soil, climate, configuration, and geographical position, the inhabitants of Europe owe the honour of having been the first to obtain a knowledge of the earth in its entirety, and to have remained for so long a period at the head of mankind. The division of the known world into three distinct parts could not fail to impress itself upon the minds of those infant nations; and when the Greeks had attained a state of maturity, and historical records took the place of myths and oral traditions, the name of Europe had probably been transmitted through a long series of generations.

But, whatever may be the original meaning of its name, Europe, in all the myths of the ancients, is described as a Daughter of Asia. The zone of depression extending from the Black Sea to the Gulf of Obi is shaded. Since that epoch the limits between Europe and Asia have been shifted by geographers still further to the east. They are, however, more or less conventional, for Europe, though bounded on three sides by the ocean, is in reality but a peninsula of Asia.

At the same time, the contrasts between these two parts of the world fully justify scientific men in dividing them into two continental masses. But where is the true line of separation between them? Map-makers generally adopt the political boundaries which it has pleased the Russian Government to draw between its vast European and Asiatic territories, and others adopt the summits of the Ural Mountains and of the Caucasus as the boundary between the two continents; and although, at the first glance, this delineation appears more reasonable than the former, it is in reality no less absurd.

The two slopes of a mountain chain can never be assigned to different formations, and they are generally inhabited by men of the same race. The steppes of the Manych, between the Black Sea and the Caspian, and to the north of the Caucasus, are still covered in part with salt swamps. The Caspian itself, as well as Lake Aral and the other lakes which we meet with in the direction of the Gulf of Obi, are the remains of this ancient arm of the sea, and the intermediate regions still bear the traces of having been an ancient sea-bed.

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The erosion of the sea, as well as upheavals and subsidences of land, has effected, and still effect, changes in the contours of our coasts. Numerous soundings in the seas washing Western Europe have revealed the existence of a submarine plateau, which, from a geological point of view, must be looked upon as forming an integral portion of our continent. Bounded by abyssal depths of thousands of fathoms, and submerged one hundred fathoms at most below the waters of the ocean, this pedestal of France and the British Islands must be looked upon as the foundation of an ancient continent, destroyed by the incessant action of the waves.

If we supposed Europe to subside to the extent of one hundred fathoms, its area would be reduced to the compass of one-half. The ocean would again cover her low plains, most of which are ancient sea-beds, and there would remain above the waters merely a skeleton of plateaux and mountain ranges, far more extensively indented by bays and fringed by peninsulas than are the coasts existing at the present time. The whole of Western and Southern Europe would be converted into a huge island, separated by a wide arm of the sea from the plains of interior Russia.

From an historical as well as a geological point of view, this huge island is the true Europe. Russia is not only half Asiatic on account of its extremes of temperature, and the aspect of its monotonous plains and interminable steppes, but is likewise intimately linked with Asia as regards its inhabitants and its historical development.

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Russia can hardly be said to have belonged to Europe for more than a hundred years. It was in maritime and mountainous Europe, with its islands, peninsulas, and valleys, its varied features and unexpected contrasts, that modern civilisation arose, the result of innumerable local civilisations, happily united into a single current. And, as the rivers descending from the mountains cover the plains at their foot with fertile soil, so has the progress accomplished in this centre of enlightenment gradually spread over the other continents to the very extremities of the earth.

The British Islands form one of these. The geographical unity of Europe is represented to the full extent only in the system of the Alps, and in the mountains of France, Germany, Italy, and the Balkan peninsula which are connected with it. It is there we must seek the framework of continental Europe. They consist in reality of more than thirty mountain masses, representing as many geological groups, and joined to each other by elevated passes; but their rocks, whether they be granite, slate, sandstone, or limestone, form one continuous rampart rising above the plains.

In former ages the Alps were higher than they are now. This is proved by an examination of their detritus and of the strata disintegrated by natural agencies. But, whatever the extent of detrition, they still rise in hundreds of summits beyond the line of perennial snow, and vast rivers of ice descend from them into every upland valley. Looked at from the plains of Piedmont and Lombardy, these glaciers and snow-fields present the appearance of sparkling diadems encircling the mountain summits. To the east of Mont Blanc the Alps change in direction, and, beyond the vast citadels represented by Monte Rosa and the Bernese Oberland, they gradually decrease in height.

To the east of Switzerland no summit exceeds a height of 13, feet, but this loss in elevation is fully made up by increase of breadth. And whilst the general direction of the principal axis of the Alps remains north-easterly, very considerable mountain chains, far exceeding the central mass in breadth, are thrown off towards the north, the east, and the south-east.

A line drawn across the true Alps from Vienna has a length of no less than miles. In thus spreading out, the Alps lose their character and aspect. We no longer meet with grand mountain masses, glaciers, and snow-fields. Towards the north they gradually sink down into the valley of the Danube; towards the south they branch out into secondary chains, resting upon the arched plateau of Turkey.

The whole of the Balkan peninsula must be looked upon as a natural dependency of the Alps; and the same applies to Italy, for the chain of the Apennines is nothing but a continuation of the Maritime Alps, and we hardly know where to draw the line of separation between them. They have been gradually separated from them through the continuous action of water, but there can be no doubt that, in former times, the semicircle of mountains known as the Little Carpathians, the Beskids, the Tatra, the Great Carpathians, and the Transylvanian Alps was joined, on the one hand, to the Austrian Alps, and on the other to spurs descending from the Balkan.

The configuration of the Alps, and of the labyrinthine mountain ranges branching off from them towards the east, could not fail to exercise a most powerful influence upon the history of Europe and of the entire world. The only high-roads known to barbarians are those traced out by nature herself, and they were consequently able to penetrate into Europe only by sea, or through the vast plains of the north.

Having penetrated to the westward of the Black Sea, their progress was first stopped by the lakes and difficult swamps of the Danubian valley; and, when they had surmounted these obstacles, they found themselves face to face with a barrier of high mountains, whose intricate wooded valleys and declivities led up to the inaccessible regions of eternal snow. The Alps, the Balkan, and all the other advanced chains of the Alpine system constituted an advanced defensive barrier for Western Europe, and the conquering nomad tribes who threw themselves against it did so at the risk of destruction.

Accustomed to the boundless horizon of the steppes, they did not venture to climb these steep hills—they turned to the northward, where the vast plains of Germania enabled successive swarms of immigrants to spread over the country with greater ease. And as to the invaders, whom blind rage of conquest impelled to engage in the defiles of these mountains, they found themselves caught as in a trap; and this accounts for the variety of nations, and of fragments of nations, whose presence has converted the countries of the Danube into a sort of ethnological chaos.

To the south of this great mountain barrier the migrations between Europe and Asia could take place only by sea—a high-road open to those nations alone who were sufficiently advanced in civilisation to have acquired the art of building ships. Whether pirates, merchants, or warriors, they had raised themselves long ago above a state of primitive barbarism, and even their voyages of conquest added something to the stock of human knowledge.

Moreover, owing to the difficulties of navigation, they migrated only in small bodies. At whatever point they settled they came into contact with populations of a different race from their own, and this intercourse gave birth to a number of local civilisations, each bearing its own stamp, and nowhere did their influence preponderate.

The wide range of the Alps and of their advanced chains thus separated two distinct worlds, in which historical development went on at a different rate.

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At the same time, the separation between the two slopes of the Alpine system was by no means complete. Nowhere in the Alps do we meet with cold and uninhabited plateaux, as in the Andes and in Tibet, whose enormous extent forms almost insurmountable barriers. The Alpine masses are cut up everywhere into mountains and valleys, and the climate of the latter is sufficiently mild to enable man to exist in them.

The mountaineers, who easily maintained their independence, owing to the protection extended to them by nature, first served as intermediaries between the peoples inhabiting the opposite lowlands. It was they who effected the rare exchanges of produce which took place between the North and South, and who opened the first commercial high-roads between the summits of the mountains.

The direction of the valleys and the deeply cut mountain passes even then indicated the grand routes by which the Alps would be crossed, at a future period, for the purposes of commerce or of war. The Alps there are of great height, it is true, but they are narrower than anywhere else; besides which, the climate on the two opposite slopes is similar, and assimilates the mode of life and the customs of the people dwelling there.

Far more formidable, as a natural barrier, are the Alps to the north-east of Mont Blanc, for they constitute a climatic boundary. The other mountain ranges play but a secondary or local part in the history of Europe, when we compare them with the Alps.

Still, the influence which they have exercised upon the destiny of nations is no less evident. The table-lands and snow-fields of the Scandinavian Alps form a wall of separation between Norwegians and Swedes. The quadrangular mountain fort of Bohemia, in the centre of Europe, which shelters the Chechians, is almost entirely enclosed by Germans, and resembles an island fretted by the waves of the ocean.

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The hills of Wales and of Scotland have afforded a shelter to the Celtic race against the encroachments of Anglo-Saxons, Danes, and Normans. The Bretons, in France, are indebted to their rocks and landes for the fact of their not having yet become wholly French; whilst the table-land of Limousin, the hills of Auvergne and the Cevennes constitute the principal cause of the striking contrast which still exists between the inhabitants of Northern and of Southern France.

The Pyrenees, next to the Alps, constitute the most formidable obstacle to the march of nations in Europe; they would have remained an insurmountable rampart down to our own time, were it not easy to pass round them by their extremities abutting upon the sea. The valleys which radiate in all directions from the great central masses of the Alps are admirably adapted for imparting to almost the whole of Europe a remarkable unity, whilst they offer, at the same time, an extreme variety of aspects and of physical conditions. The Po, the Rhone, the Rhine, and the Danube traverse countries having the most diverse climates, and yet they have their sources in the same mountain region, and the fertilising alluvium which they deposit in their valleys results from the disintegration of the same rocks.

Minor valleys cut up the slopes of the Alps and of their dependent chains, and carry towards the sea the waters of the mountains and the triturated fragments of their rocks. Running waters are visible, wherever we cast our eyes. There are neither deserts, nor sterile plateaux, nor inland lakes and river basins such as we meet with in Africa and Asia.

The rivers of Europe are not flooded as are those of certain portions of South America, which deluge half the country with water. On the contrary, in the scheme of her rivers Europe exhibits a certain degree of moderation which has favoured the work of the settler, and facilitated the rise of a local civilisation in each river basin. Moreover, although most rivers are sufficiently large to have retarded migration, they are not sufficiently so to have arrested it for any length of time.

Even when roads and bridges did not exist, barbarian immigrants easily made their way from the shores of the Black Sea to those of the Atlantic.

enter But Europe, in addition to the advantages due to its framework of mountains and the disposition of its river basins, enjoys the still greater advantage of possessing an indented coast-line. It is mainly the contours of its coasts which impart to Europe its double character of unity and diversity, which distinguish it amongst continents. It is an organism, if we may say so, resembling a huge body furnished with limbs. Strabo compared Europe to a dragon.

The geographers of the period of the revival of letters compared it to a crowned virgin, Spain being the head, France the heart, and England and Italy the hands, holding the sceptre and the orb.


Russia, at that time hardly known, is made to do duty for the ample folds of the robe. The area of Europe is only half that of South America, and one-third of that of Africa, and yet the development of its coast-lines is superior to that of the two continents taken together. In proportion to its area the coasts of Europe have twice the extent of those of South America, Australia, and Africa; and although they are to a small extent inferior to those of North America, it must be borne in mind that the arctic coasts of the latter are ice-bound during the greater portion of the year.

A glance at the subjoined diagrams will show that Europe, as compared with the two other continents washed by the Arctic Ocean, enjoys the immense advantage of possessing a coast-line almost wholly available for purposes of navigation, whilst a large portion of the coasts of Asia and America is altogether useless to man.