Lunch in Asia, Dinner in Europe
Developments in European geographic definitions reveal a common error in human thinking.
I once treated my wife to breakfast in Europe, lunch in Asia, then took her back to Europe for dinner. I hadn’t chartered a jet to do this. In fact, we didn’t even leave the city.
Istanbul, you see, straddles the Bosporus, that Turkish strait connecting the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. And the Bosporus is the recognized delimitation between the two continents. So the west of Istanbul is European, and the east is Asian, the two separated only by a short ferry ride.
A tale of two continents
This continental border has been recognized since the sixth century B.C. when Greek geographers divided the world into three parts: Europe, Asia and Africa. Later each came to be called a continent (from the Latin for “continuous land”), with the conventional definition being a large, continuous and discrete landmass separated from others by an important body of water.
This has posed a problem for cartographers wishing to show the dividing line between Europe and Asia. The Turkish straits seem a clear enough division, but up in Russia there is no true dividing line. Several different rivers and mountain ranges have been proposed over the years, yet even today there is no unanimous agreement on where the line is located.
Europe and Asia are continuous land. By definition we should refer to Eurasia as one continent.
Why then was Europe considered a separate continent?
Because ancient Greek geographers (who started the whole business) felt they were very different from, and culturally superior to, the barbarian (their word) Mongols on the other side of the Urals, and they felt this vital demarcation needed underlining on maps. Other Europeans followed this reasoning through the centuries, and they printed most of the maps, so despite continental definitions and GEOSAT mapping and all the rest, voilà, Europe is still a continent.
However, rather than snicker, I submit that we should be understanding and kind in our thoughts toward those proud geographers.
Our human nature assumes that the way we do things—our customs, our culture, our preferences and perhaps our language—is better than the way others do things. It’s a nearly universal presumption that is usually wrong.
The Bible reminds us in many passages not to think too highly of ourselves and our particular ways. Paul wrote, “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith” (Romans 12:3). He also reminds us, “Do not be wise in your own opinion” (verse 16).
This is, of course, much easier said than done, as Paul himself noted: “For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (Romans 7:15). Doing right and thinking humbly, as God would have us do, require constant effort, and we need His help to succeed.
Whenever I think of our time in Istanbul and the idea of the European continent, I’m reminded how easily we can bend the rules of humility when we think of ourselves.