Is Azerbaijan in Europe?
To mark the slightly-weird occasion of the Eurovision Song Contest coming from Baku (4 hours ahead of the UK and almost as far east of London as as Titanic wreck off Newfoundland is west), I am going to take a break from environmental politics and return to my first love – geography.
Things were much simpler for me as a child: Warsaw Pact countries weren’t really in Europe; they were part of the very un-European USSR. As for the other point of potential ambiguity in Turkey; it was simple enough to draw the line at the Bosphorus. By the time I reached the age of 25, the Berlin Wall was being pulled down and suddenly we had Western Europe and Eastern Europe again: With the dismantling of the USSR it became very clear to me that Russia had just temporarily suppressed the European-ness of a large number of countries; but I would still have thought of Russia and the Ukraine as Asian countries – and I was still adamant that, although Turkey straddled the border, it was almost entirely part of Asia. However, the key to answering the question, “Is Azerbaijan in Europe?”, is to decide whether you are talking about physical or human geography.
Taking physical geography first, it is important to understand that – although there is an awful lot of science in Geography – it is not like maths or physics. So, there is not always a right and a wrong answer; and the boundary between Europe and Asia is a case in point: The notion that the city founded by the emperor Constantine – and later re-named Istanbul – lay at the boundary of two continents was a convenient historical illusion re-inforced by a physical barrier that was only tamed by a bridge in the late 20th Century. In the current century, a tunnel has been constructed that has incorporated some very clever technology to overcome the other reason that I personally have always drawn the line at the Bosphorus; that being earthquakes. However, although a common misconception, the plate boundary causing the earthquakes does not pass from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea via the Bosphorus.
I should imagine that most people born after about 1950 have at least a basic understanding of plate tectonics and, given a map of the Earth, could probably draw plate boundaries along the mid-ocean ridges that split both the North and South Atlantic in half; and around the great Southern Ocean to encircle Antarctica. Furthermore, thanks to Michael Palin, quite a lot of people are familiar with the term “Ring of Fire” but, as a plate boundary, I doubt that many could position it correctly on a blank map of the Pacific Ocean. However, like I said, geography is not like maths; everything is not straight-forward: We call Africa a continent; but it includes the East African Rift Valley and is very slowly tearing itself apart. Similarly, we refer to North America as a continent but it has an even more famous plate boundary messing-up our attempt to impose order on chaos – the San Andreas Fault. This is where plate tectonics starts to get complicated: There are actually three types of plate boundaries; constructive (where new crust is being formed), destructive (where it is being destroyed), and conservative (where lateral movement is preserving the crust on both sides of the boundary).
Now things get really messy: The plates that form the Earth’s surface are not all similar sizes; some are huge and some are tiny. Rather than being thought of hexagons on the surface of a (soccer) football; it is better to think of them as pieces of floating sea ice – a random mixture of all shapes and sizes. Hence we have huge plates like the in the Pacific (with destructive boundaries on almost all sides) and small plates like the Caribbean. Thus, if you asked people to draw lines on a map to show where the African plate from its neighbours, some might include the East African Rift Valley, most would probably draw a line up the middle of the Red Sea and hopefully link up with the Jordan Valley… but where then? Similarly, most would draw a line west to east through the Strait of Gibraltar through the Mediterranean (but where exactly – and where does it go after Istanbul?).
So then, continents are not defined by plate boundaries; they are a social construct – an invention of the human mind. Having grasped this, we are now ready to try to answer the question in physical terms. Or rather, we would be but for one slight problem: Europe and Asia are not two separate continents; they are a single Eurasian plate. Thus there is now no obvious boundary between Europe and Asia – in terms of continents or plate tectonics at least. This is why, if they have to, most geographers will draw the line along previous collision boundaries – delineated today by the crumple zones of the Caucasus and Ural mountains. However, if that is the case, part of Kazakhstan may be in Europe – but Azerbaijan is not.
This is clearly a bit of a mess; and I therefore yearn for the simplicity of my youth: I think we should all have stuck with the simplicity of human geography and history that would exclude from Europe – Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. That would leave Ukraine in Europe (because it is north and west of the Caucasus Mountains) and Russia… Oh goodness, I dont’ know! Personally, I don’t consider it to be part of Europe in any normal sense but, if Ukraine is in; how can Russia be out?
So, in terms of human geography, Europe is a social construct and, given that most contestants sing in english but vote for their neighbours, the Eurovision Song Contest is a complete load of bullsh…