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History of Europe

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Europe has a long history of cultural and economic achievement, starting as far back as the Palaeolithic. The origins of Western democratic and individualistic culture are often attributed to Ancient Greece. The Roman Empire divided the continent along the Rhine and Danube for several centuries. Following the decline of the Roman Empire, Europe entered a long period of stasis, known as the "Dark Ages" to Renaissance thinkers and as the "Middle Ages" to Enlightenment and modern historians. During this time, isolated monastic communities in Ireland and elsewhere carefully safeguarded and compiled knowledge accumulated previously. The Renaissance and the New Monarchs marked the start of a period of discovery, exploration, and increase in scientific knowledge. In the 15th century Portugal opened the age of discoveries , soon followed by Spain. They were later joined by France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom in building large colonial empires with vast holdings in Africa, the Americas, and Asia.

After the age of discovery, the ideas of democracy took hold in Europe. Struggles for independence arose, most notably in France during the period known as the French Revolution. This led to vast upheaval in Europe as these revolutionary ideas propagated across the continent. The rise of democracy led to increased tensions within Europe on top of the tensions already existing due to competition within the New World. The most famous of these conflicts was when Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power and set out on a conquest, forming a new French empire that soon collapsed. After these conquests Europe stabilised, but the old foundations were already beginning to crumble.

The Industrial Revolution started in Britain in the late 18th century, leading to much greater general prosperity and a corresponding increase in population. Many of the states in Europe took their present form in the aftermath of World War I. From the end of World War II through the end of the Cold War, Europe was divided into two major political and economic blocks: Communist nations in Eastern Europe and capitalist countries in Western Europe. Around 1990, the Eastern bloc broke up.

Physical features

In terms of shape, Europe is a collection of connected peninsulas. The two largest of these are "mainland" Europe and Scandinavia to the north, divided from each other by the Baltic Sea. Three smaller peninsulas—Iberia, Italy and the Balkans—emerge from the southern margin of the mainland into the Mediterranean Sea, which separates Europe from Africa. Eastward, mainland Europe widens much like the mouth of a funnel, until the boundary with Asia is reached at the Ural Mountains.

Land relief in Europe shows great variation within relatively small areas. The southern regions, however, are more mountainous, while moving north the terrain descends from the high Alps, Pyrenees and Carpathians, through hilly uplands, into broad, low northern plains, which are vast in the east. This extended lowland is known as the Great European Plain, and at its heart lies the North German Plain. An arc of uplands also exists along the north-western seaboard, beginning in the western British Isles and continuing along the mountainous, fjord-cut spine of Norway.

This description is simplified. Sub-regions such as Iberia and Italy contain their own complex features, as does mainland Europe itself, where the relief contains many plateaus, river valleys and basins that complicate the general trend. Iceland and the British Isles are special cases. The former is a land unto itself in the northern ocean which is counted as part of Europe, while the latter are upland areas that were once joined to the mainland until rising sea levels cut them off.

The few generalisations that can be made about the relief of Europe make it less than surprising that the continent's many separate regions provided homes for many separate nations throughout history.


Political and geographic boundaries in Europe do not always match. This physical and political map shows Europe at its furthest extent, reaching to the Urals.

Geographically Europe is a part of the larger landmass known as Eurasia. The continent begins at the Ural Mountains in Russia, which define Europe's eastern boundary with Asia. The southeast boundary with Asia isn't universally defined, with either the Ural or Emba rivers serving as possible boundaries, continuing with the Caspian Sea, and either the Kuma and Manych rivers or the Caucasus mountains as possibilities, and onto the Black Sea; the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles conclude the Asian boundary. The Mediterranean Sea to the south separates Europe from Africa. The western boundary is the Atlantic Ocean, but Iceland, much farther away than the nearest points of Africa and Asia, is also included in Europe. There is ongoing debate on where the geographical centre of Europe is.

In practice, the borders of Europe are often drawn with greater regard to political, economic, and other cultural considerations. This has led to there being several different "Europe"s that are not always identical in size, including or excluding countries according to the definition of "Europe" used.

Almost all European countries are members of the Council of Europe, the exceptions being Belarus, the Holy See (Vatican City), and Kazakhstan.

The idea of a European "continent" is not held across all cultures. Some non-European geographical texts refer to a Eurasian Continent, or to a European "sub-continent", given that "Europe" is not surrounded by sea and is, in any case, much more a cultural than a geographically definable area. In the past concepts such as "Christendom" were deemed more important.

In another usage, "Europe" is increasingly being used as a short-form for the European Union (EU) and its members, currently consisting of 25 member states. A number of other European countries are negotiating for membership, and several more are expected to begin negotiations in the future.

Getting Around Europe

Political History

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Geography of Europe