Asia, the largest of the divisions of the world, occupies the northern portion of the eastern hemisphere in the form of a massive continent which extends beyond the Arctic Circle, and by its southern peninsulas nearly reaches the equator. Apparently Asia was a local name given to the plains of Ephesus, gradually extended to the Anatolian peninsula, and later on to the whole of the continent.
Viewed in their broad features, Europe and Asia constitute but one continent, extending from west to east, and having the shape of an immense triangle, the angles of which are Spain in the west, the peninsula of the Tchuktchis in the north-east, and that of Malacca in the southeast. The Arctic Ocean in the north, the Pacific in the east, and the Indian Ocean, continued by its narrow gulf, the Red Sea, which nearly reaches the Mediterranean, enclose the continent of Asia. This immense mass of land touches the latitude of 77° 34' N. in Cape Tchelyuskin, while Cape Burros, at the extremity of the peninsula of Malacca, and 5350 miles distant from the former, falls short by 1° 15' of reaching the equator. Cape Baba, in Asia Minor, advances as far west as the 26th degree of longitude, and the utmost NE. extremity of Asia - East Cape, 5990 miles distant from Cape Baba - protrudes to the 190th degree (12 hours 40 minutes) to the east of Greenwich. The area covered by Asia and its islands is 17,255,890 sq. m. - that is, almost exactly one-third of the land-surface of the globe (32 per cent.). It is one-half larger than Africa, and more than four times larger than Europe. Geographically, Europe is a mere appendix to Asia, and no exact geographical delimitation of the two continents is possible. The low Urals are not even an administrative frontier: European Russia extends over their eastern slope. Caucasus is Asiatic in character; but, to separate it from Europe, one must resort to the old dried-up channel of the two Manytch rivers, which, at a geologically recent epoch connected the Black Sea with the Caspian. Asia Minor - also Asiatic in character - so closely approaches Europe that the Sea of Marmora and its narrow river-like straits seem almost an artificial boundary. The line of separation from Africa is better defined by the narrow Red Sea; but Arabia participates so largely in the physical features of Africa that it is in a sense intermediate between the two continents. In the south-east, the numberless islands of the Dutch Indies - relics of a sunken continent - appear as a bridge towards Australia. And in the extreme north-east, Asia sends out a peninsula to meet one of the Alaskan peninsulas in America, from which it is separated only by a shallow and narrow channel, Behring Strait. Although the coasts of Asia are much more indented by gulfs and peninsulas than those of Africa or America, still it stands in this respect much behind Europe, and the length of its coastline is reckoned at 33,000 miles in all (Europe having one of 50,000 miles); besides, about one-fifth of its shores is washed by the ice-bound Arctic Ocean, or by the foggy and icy Sea of Okhotsk. Its peninsulas are massive too, and, as a rule, little indented. Three immense offsets continue the continent of Asia into more tropical latitudes - Arabia, India, and the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. Asia Minor protrudes between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. In the Pacific there are only three large peninsulas - Corea, Kamchatka, and that of the Tchuktchis.
The islands of Asia are very numerous, and cover an aggregate of no less than 1,023,000 sq. m. (nearly 6 per cent, of Asia's surface). The coasts of Asia Minor are dotted with islands. Cyprus and Ceylon are important. In Eastern Asia, a narrow strip of islands, some large like Sumatra (177,000 sq. m.) and Java, others mere reefs, extend in a wide semicircle, under the name of Andaman and Sunda Islands, from Burma to Australia, separating the Indian Ocean from the shallow Java Sea and the Malay Archipelago. This last - an immense volcanic region inhabited by the Malay race - comprises the huge Borneo, the ramified Celebes, and the numberless small islands of the Moluccas, the Philippines, etc.; connected northward with the Chinese coast by the island of Formosa, which, like Hainan, may almost be considered part of the Chinese mainland. The Loo-choo (Liu-kiu) Islands and the Japanese Archipelago, the latter joining Kamchatka by the Kuriles, continue farther NE. the chain of islands. Saghalien is close to the continent. In the Arctic Ocean also are some unimportant islands.
Asia is at once the largest and the highest of all continents. Not only has it a number of mountains which exceed by five and six thousand feet the loftiest summits of the Andes; it has also the highest and the most extensive plateaus. If the whole mass of its mountains and plateaus were uniformly spread over its surface, the continent would rise no less than 2800 to 3000 feet above the sea. High plateaus are the predominant feature of Asia's orographical structure: they occupy nearly two-fifths of its area. One of them - that of Western Asia, including Anatolia, Armenia, and Iran - extends in a southeasterly direction from the Black Sea to the valley of the Indus; while the other - the high plateau of Eastern Asia, still loftier and much more extensive - stretches NE. from the Himalayas to the north-eastern extremity of Asia. These vast regions, mostly unfit for human settlement, and over wide areas mere dry deserts, divide Asia into two parts - the lowlands of Siberia and the Aral-Caspian depression to the north, and the lowlands of Mesopotamia, India, and China to the south. The highest parts of the East Asian plateau are in Tibet, varying from 18,000 feet to 10,000 feet in height. This highest plateau of the earth is girdled by the highest chain of mountains, the Himalayas - a typical ' border-ridge' which has one foot on the high plateau, and the other in valleys ten to fifteen thousand feet deeper, where the palm and vine grow freely. This immense chain of snow-clad peaks, which in Europe would reach from Gibraltar to Greece, raises its lofty summits above 20,000 feet; its lowest passes are 15,000 feet high, and Gauri-sankar or Mount Everest - the highest mountain of the globe - has its snow-cap at a height of 29,000 feet, that is, 5 1/2 miles above the sea.
In the north-west, the Tibet plateau joins another much smaller, but very high plateau - that of Pamir (' the roof of the world'), of which the Tagarma peak reaches a height of 25,800 feet. Farther north and north-east of the Pamir is a wide, intricate complex of several high chains, known under the general name of Tian-shan (q.v.). The great Khan-tengri rises there to 24,000 feet.
On the north, the plateau of Tibet is bordered by a succession of lofty chains (Kuen-lun, Altyn-tagh, Nan-shan), reaching more than 20,000 feet in their highest parts. These chains separate it from the great central depression which is occupied by Eastern Turkestan in the west, and by the Desert of Gobi in the east. This great depression - including the Han-hai, or ' dried-up sea,' of the basin of the Tarim - has an altitude of from 3000 to 4000 feet in the west, and 2200 feet in its lowest part - the depression of Lake Lob-nor. It has no outlet. The dry and barren ridge called Eastern Tian-shan, and two other ridges running NW., separate the Han-hai depression of Central Asia from the trenches of Urumtsi and Urungu, which descend west to the lowlands of Siberia. Beyond the great depression the plateau rises again, and reaches an average height of from 4000 to more than 5000 feet in the upper basin of the Yenisei and Selenga. To the north-west, the plateau is bordered by the snow-clad Sailughem ridge of the Altai (8000 to 9000 feet), which is broken by the depression in which Lake Baikal lies. A broad zone of alpine tracts more than 150 miles wide and 2000 miles long - the Altai, the Kuznetskiy Ala-tau, the Baikal, Lena, Olekma, and Vitim mountains - fringes this plateau in the west.
The hilly tracts of Asia are not confined to the plateaus and their border-ridges. The Caucasus, an immense wall of snow-clad mountains, stretches NW. to SE. for nearly 800 miles along the border of the Armenian plateau, from which it is separated by the broad valley of the Kura. It reaches 18,560 feet in the Elborous (Elburz) peak. The Urals, from 2000 to 4000 feet high, which separate Europe from Asia, are a broad belt of hilly tracts, stretching as a whole from north to south.
The interior of the Indian peninsula is again occupied by the wide plateau of the Deccan, having an average height of from 1500 to 3000 feet, bordered in the west by the Western Ghats (7870 feet high) and the Cardaman Mountains, and in the east by the much lower and broader Eastern Ghats. The Pedrotallagalla peak in Ceylon rises 8330 feet.
The whole of North-western Asia is occupied by an immense lowland - Siberia - which joins in the south the wide Aral-Caspian depression. This lowland, whose level is less than five or six hundred feet high, does not touch the alpine regions which fringe the great plateau of East Asia. It is separated from them by a belt of elevated, undulating plains. On the northern coast of the Caspian, the Aral-Caspian depression descends even below the level of the sea. The wide space between the great plateaus of Western and Eastern Asia and that of the Deccan, watered by the Indus and the Ganges, is again an immense lowland, covering no less than 400,000 sq. m., and supplying the means of existence to 125 millions of inhabitants. Another wide lowland, Mesopotamia, or the broad valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, was a cradle of civilisation from the remotest antiquity. The predominant feature of Asia's hydrography is the existence of very wide areas having no outlet to the sea. On the great plateau of Eastern Asia the region of the Han-hai and Gobi is watered only by the Tarim, which falls into the rapidly drying marshes of Lob-nor. If we add to this wide area the drainage basins of Lake Balkhash with its tributaries, the IIi and other smaller rivers; the great Lake Aral, with the Syr-daria (Jaxartes) and Amu-daria (Oxus), as also the numerous rivers which flow towards it or its tributaries, but are desiccated by evaporation before reaching them; and finally the Caspian with its tributaries, we find an immense surface of more than 4,000,000 sq. m. - that is, much larger than Europe - which has no outlet to the ocean. Four inland drainage areas more must be added to the above - the plateaus of Iran and Armenia, two separate areas in Arabia, and one in Asia Minor.
The drainage area of the Arctic Ocean includes all the lowlands of Siberia, its plains, and large portions of the great plateau. The chief rivers flowing north to the Arctic Ocean are the Obi, with the Irtish; the Yenisei, with its great tributary the Angara, which brings to it the waters of Lake Baikal; and finally the Lena, with its great tributaries, the Vitim, Olekma, Vilui, and Aldan.
Three great rivers enter the Pacific, and all three are navigable for thousands of miles: the Amur, composed of the Argun and Shilka, and receiving the Sungari (a great artery of navigation in Manchuria), the Usuri, and the Zeya; the Hoang-ho; and the Yang-tse-kiang, the last two taking their rise on the plateau of Tibet. The Cambodia or Mekong, the Salwen, and the Irawadi, rising in the eastern parts of the high plateau, water the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. Rising on the same height, the Indus and the Brahmaputra flow through a high valley in opposite directions along the northern base of the Himalayas, until both pierce the gigantic ridge at its opposite ends, and find their way in opposite directions to the sea. The Tigris and Euphrates, both rising in the high plateau of Armenia, flow parallel to each other.
A succession of great lakes, or rather inland seas, are situated all along the northern slope of the high plateaus of Western and Eastern Asia. The Caspian, 800 miles long and 270 wide, is an immense sea, its level now 85 feet below the level of the ocean; Lake Aral has its level 157 feet above the ocean; farther east we have Lake Balkhash (780 feet), Zaisan (1200 feet), and Lake Baikal (1550 feet). Three large lakes, Urmia, Van, and Goktcha, and many smaller ones, lie on the highest part of the Armenian plateau.
Volcanoes play an important part in Asia's geology; more than 120 active volcanoes are known in Asia, chiefly in the islands of the south-east, the Philippines, Japan, the Kuriles, and Kamchatka, and also in a few islands of the Sea of Bengal and Arabia, and of Western Asia. Numerous traces of volcanic eruptions are found, not only in these same regions, but also in Eastern Tian-shan, in the north-western border-ridges of the high Siberian plateau, and in the south-west of Aigun in Manchuria. Earthquakes are frequent, especially in Armenia, Turkestan, and around Lake Baikal.
Asia is exceedingly rich in a great variety of mineral products. There are gold-mines of great wealth in the Urals, the Altai, and Eastern Siberia; and auriferous sands are found in Corea, Sumatra, Japan, and the Caucasus Mountains. Silver is extracted in Siberia; platinum in the Urals; copper in Japan, India, and Siberia; tin in Banca; mercury in Japan. Iron ore is found in nearly all the mountainous regions, especially of Asia Minor, Persia, Turkestan, India, China, Japan, and Siberia; but iron mining is still at a rudimentary stage. Immense coal-beds are spread over China and the islands of the Pacific (Hainan, Japanese Archipelago, Saghalien), Eastern Siberia, Turkestan, India, Persia, and Asia Minor. They cover no less than half a million square miles in China alone; but the extraction of coal is as yet very limited. Graphite is found in Siberia. The diamonds of India, the sapphires of Ceylon, the rubies of Burma and Turkestan, the topazes, beryls, etc. of the Urals and Ner-tchinsk, have a wide repute. Layers of rock-salt are widely spread, and still more so the salt lakes and springs. The petroleum wells of the Caspian shores rival those of the United States. Mineral springs are widely spread over Asia; those of Caucasus and Transbaikalia already attract a number of patients.
Even Eastern Europe has quite a continental climate. Still more continental is the climate throughout Asia, with the exception of a part of its coast regions. On account of the immense area of Asia, great differences of climate are met with, and therefore the meteorologists subdivide the continent into several very different climatic regions, of which Eastern Siberia, dry, and in winter very cold, includes Verkhoyansk, the coldest spot of the Eastern Hemisphere; while India, the Indo-Chinese Peninsula, and adjoining islands have a tropical climate, with abundant periodical rains. Asia Minor has of all Asiatic regions the most moderate and agreeable climate. During the winter, Asia, as a whole, with the exception of India, the Indo-Chinese Peninsula, and South-western Arabia, enjoys a temperature much lower than that of corresponding latitudes elsewhere; while in July, throughout all Asia, except on the coasts of the Kara Sea, Kamchatka, and the Manchurian littoral, the temperature is higher than under the same latitudes elsewhere.
The aggregate population of Asia is estimated at S91 millions, being thus more than one-half of the entire population of the globe. This population gives, however, only an average of 49 inhabitants per sq. m. It is very unequally distributed, and reaches 557 per sq. m. in some provinces of China - denser than in England (540 per sq. m.) - and 470 in some parts of North-western India. Nearly one-tenth is almost quite uninhabited.
The inhabitants of Asia belong to five different groups: the so-called Caucasian (Fair type) in Western Asia and India; the Mongolian in Central and Eastern Asia, as also in the Indo-Chinese Peninsula; the Malay in Malacca and the Indian Archipelago; the Dravidas in South-eastern India and Ceylon; and the Negritos and Papuas in the virgin forests of the Philippine Islands and Celebes. A sixth great division comprises the stems which inhabit North-eastern Asia - the Hyperboreans. The Europeans reckon about six millions (Russians) in Caucasus, Turkestan, and Siberia; some 100,000 (British) in India; and 75,000 in the Dutch Indies.
The four great religions which are professed by the great majority of mankind - the Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, and Mohammedan - had their origin in Asia. At present the inhabitants of Asia belong chiefly to the Buddhist religion, which - inclusive of the followers of Lamaism, the moral philosophy of Confucius, and the teachings of Lao-tse, who all accept more or less the Buddhist ritual - has no less than 530 to 560 millions of followers - i.e. nearly one-third of mankind. The old faith of Hinduism has no less than 207 millions of followers in India. Most of the inhabitants of Western Asia, as also of part of Central Asia, follow the religion of Islam; they may number about 90 millions. The Christians number about 20 millions in Armenia, Caucasus, Siberia, and Turkestan. Many of the Ural-Altaians continue to maintain their ancient faith, Shamanism. Jews are scattered mostly in Western and Central Asia. A few fire-worshippers - Guebres or Parsees - who are found in the west of India and Persia are the sole remnant of the once wide-spread religion of Zoroaster.
The chief political divisions of Asia, with their approximate areas and population (mostly estimated), are as follows:
States and Territories.
Area in sq. m.
Transcaspia (with Caspian)......
Kafiristan and Hindu Kush.....
India (with Burma).........
French an Portuguese India.....
Dutch East Indies......
Philippines, etc. (U.S. and Ger.).
British Bormeo and Labuan.....
The amount of cereals - rice, millet, wheat, barley, oats, etc. - supplied by the rich cornfields of China, Indo-China, Japan, and even Turkestan - may be best judged by the density of population in the better-watered parts of these countries, and by the rapidly increasing amounts of corn exported, especially from India; while in Southern Siberia, the Altai, and the Middle Amur, Russian settlers raising wheat, rye, oats, barley, melons, etc. on the virgin soil of the prairies enjoy a welfare hardly known in Russia. The crops of cotton in India and Asia Minor helped Europe to meet the cotton crisis of 1863; and those of Bokhara and Transcaucasia gave an impulse to the growing cotton industry of Russia. Tea is the chief crop of Southern China, Assam, India, and Ceylon; and coffee is largely grown in Arabia, India, Ceylon, and the Dutch colonies. The silkworm culture is widely spread in Asia Minor, Persia, Turkestan, India, China, and Japan. The sugar-cane is largely raised in Southern and South-eastern Asia. Oleaginous plants, indigo and other dye plants, jute, spices, the cinchona-tree, and opium-producing plants are extensively cultivated; as also fruit-trees in Western Asia and Turkestan. The cocoa-palm, the bread-tree, and the gutta-percha tree are also grown in tropical Asia.
On the inland steppes and plateaus of Asia, numberless herds of horses, horned cattle, and sheep furnish all the necessaries of life to the nomad or half-nomad Mongolian inhabitants of these regions, and supply the European trade with a yearly increasing amount of hides, wool, and tallow. The forests of the far north and north-east afford the means of existence to nomad and Russian hunters. Both supply the trade with rich furs; while the rivers of Siberia and Manchuria provide food for the nomad Ostiaks, Gols, and Ghilyaks. And the Behring and Okhotsk Seas of the Northern Pacific, and their islands, supply the civilised world with some of the finest furs.
The plateaus, the deserts, and the mountainous regions of Asia, thickly clothed with impenetrable forests and intersected by deep gorges and valleys, are so many obstacles to the communication between different parts of the continent. The roads of Asia, except those of China and India, and a few main lines elsewhere, are mostly mere footpaths or tracks marked in the deserts, with wells far apart, and bleached with the bones of camels. Caravans of camels are therefore the chief means of transport for goods and travellers in the interior; donkeys, yaks, and even goats and sheep are employed in crossing the high passages of the Himalayas; horses are the usual means of transport in most parts of China and Siberia, and in the barren tracts of the north the reindeer, and still farther north the dog, are made use of. Fortunately, the great rivers of Asia (especially China and Siberia) provide water communication over immense distances.
Railways are only beginning to make their appearance in Asia. In India they already represent a total length of 26,000 miles. Russia, too, has spread her railways right across Asia to the shores of the Pacific. China decided in 1886 to open its territory to railway-construction, and in 1905 had nearly 3000 miles open, and concessions given for about 2500 more. Japan has over 4000 miles open. There are also railways in Banna, Siam, and Turkey in Asia. All the chief ports in the south and south-east of Asia are already in regular steam communication with Europe and the United States.
Telegraph communications are in a much more advanced state than the roads. St Petersburg is connected by telegraph with the mouth of the Amur, Vladivostok, and Port Arthur; while another branch, crossing Turkestan and Mongolia, runs on to Tashkend, Peking, and Shanghai. Constantinople is connected with Bombay, Madras, Singapore, Saigon, Hong-kong, and Nagasaki in Japan; and Singapore with Java, Australia, and so with New Zealand. India has nearly 60,000 miles of telegraphs; China, 14,000 miles; and Japan, 17,000 miles, with 2200 miles of submarine cables.
Hitherto Asia has supplied Europe chiefly with raw materials - gold, silver, petroleum, teak and a variety of timber-wood, furs, raw cotton, silk, wool, tallow, and so on; with the products of her tea, coffee, and spice plantations; and with a yearly increasing amount of wheat and other grain. Steam-industry, although but a very few years old, threatens to become a rival to European manufacture. Indian cottons of European patterns and jute-stuffs already compete with those of Lancashire and Dundee. The silks, printed cottons, carpets, jewellery, and cutlery of particular districts in India, China, Japan, Asia Minor, and Persia, far surpass in their artistic taste many like productions of Europe; and the export of these articles is increasing.
Central Asia is a term, in its geographical sense, used of the region lying between the Altai Mountains and the Persian Gulf, and includes part of Siberia, all Turkestan, Afghanistan, Beluchistan, and part of Persia. An earlier usage - that of Humboldt - gave this name to the khanates of Bokhara and Tartary. In Russian official language, Central Asia is an administrative division of the empire lying to the SW. of Siberia, and comprising, with part of what used to be called Siberia, the recent Russian annexations in Turkestan. Russian Central Asia is divided into the governments of Akmolinsk, Semipalatinsk, Tur-gai, Uralsk, Semirechinsk, Sir-daria, Zarafshan, Amu-daria, the Trans-Caspian territory, and Ferghana. The total area is given at 1,201,000 sq. m., and the pop. at 4,390,000. For the physical geography of the region, see Asia; see also Turkestan, Siberia, Khokand, etc.