What we think of as Europe is pretty easy to define these days. But it wasn’t always so, and it may not be for long.
Geographers and historians aren’t quite sure. Not for reasons having to do with “political correctness” or other ideological controversies, but because of geography.
With the other six continents—Asia, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, North America, and South America—it’s fairly simple to tell where they begin and end. But the same can’t be said of Europe. As Wikipedia tells us, “the borders of Europe . . . are arbitrary.”
Yet as Wikipedia also tells us, the definition of a continent, especially Europe, also includes “cultural and political” elements.
And as a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly told readers, in Europe’s case, “culture” until recently meant Christianity.
In the article, provocatively entitled “How Islam Created Europe,” Robert D. Kaplan tells readers that in Greek and Roman times, “Europe” referred to the “world surrounding the Mediterranean.” In fact, the mythological character Europa, from whom we get the word “Europe,” was a Phoenician woman from what is now Israel and Lebanon.
In this understanding, “Europe” included places like North Africa, but not what’s now Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia.
What changed this definition was the spread of Islam across North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, what is known as the Levant. Islamic civilization, especially when its forces were turned back by Charles Martel at the battle of Tours in 732, gave people all across Christian Europe something to define themselves against.
As the expression “Christian Europe” suggests, over time Europeans came to see themselves as part of a larger entity that was, like the Islamic world, defined in religious terms. Kaplan quotes the 1957 book, “Europe: The Emergence of an Idea,” which tells readers that “European unity began with the concept . . . of a Christendom in ‘inevitable opposition’ to Islam.”
You can read the rest of the story here.