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Asia is the world's largest and most populous continent, located primarily in the eastern and northern hemispheres. It covers 8.7% of the Earth's total surface area (or 30% of its land area) and with approximately 3.879 billion people, it hosts 60% of the world's current human population. During the 20th century Asia's population nearly quadrupled.
Asia is defined according to similar definitions presented by the Encyclopedia Britannica and the National Geographic Society as 4/5 of the landmass of Eurasia – with the western portion of the latter occupied by Europe – located to the east of the Suez Canal, east of the Ural Mountains and south of the Caucasus Mountains (or the Kuma-Manych Depression) and the Caspian and Black Seas. It is bounded on the east by the Pacific Ocean, on the south by the Indian Ocean and on the north by the Arctic Ocean. Given its size and diversity, Asia – a toponym dating back to classical antiquity – "is more a cultural concept" incorporating diverse regions and peoples than a homogeneous physical entity Asia differs very widely among and within its regions with regard to ethnic groups, cultures, environments, economics, historical ties and government systems.
Three-continent system of the Greek geographers
The original distinction between Europe and Asia was made by the ancient Greeks. They used the Aegean Sea, the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, the Black Sea, the Kerch Strait, and the Sea of Azov as the border between Asia and Europe. The Nile was often used as the border between Asia and Africa (then called Libya), although some Greek geographers suggested the Red Sea would form a better boundary. Darius' canal between the Nile and the Red Sea introduced considerable variation in opinion. Under the Roman Empire, the Don River emptying into the Black Sea was the western border of Asia. It was the northernmost navigable point of the European shore.
The Europe-Asia boundary
The Don River became unsatisfactory to northern Europeans when Peter the Great, king of the Tsardom of Russia, defeating rival claims of Sweden and the Ottoman Empire to the eastern lands, as well as armed resistance by the tribes of Siberia, synthesized a new Russian Empire extending to the Ural Mountains and beyond, founded in 1721. The major geographical theorist of the empire was actually a former Swedish prisoner-of-war, taken at the Battle of Poltava in 1709 and assigned to Tobolsk, where he associated with Peter's Siberian official, Vasily Tatishchev, and was allowed freedom to conduct geographical and anthropological studies in preparation for a future book.
At home in Sweden again, five years after Peter's death, in 1730 von Strahlenberg published a new atlas proposing the Urals as the border of Asia. The Russians were enthusiastic about the concept, which allowed them to keep their European identity in geography as well as other cultural heritage. Tatishchev announced that he had proposed the idea to von Strahlenberg. The latter had suggested the Emba River as the lower boundary. Over the next century various proposals were made until the Ural River prevailed in the mid-19th-century. The border had been moved perforce from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea into which the Ural River projects. In the maps of the period, Transcaucasia was counted as Asian. The incorporation of most of that region into the Soviet Union tended to push views of the border to the south.
The Oceania-Asia boundary
The border between Asia and Oceania is placed somewhere in the Malay archipelago. The terms Southeast Asia and Oceania, devised in the 19th century, have had vastly different geographic meanings since their inception. Oceania has never been Asia, whatever it may have been defined to be. The chief factor in determining what islands of the Malay Archipelago are Asian has been the location of the colonial possessions of the various empires there (not all European). Lewis and Wigen assert, "The narrowing of 'Southeast Asia' to its present boundaries was thus a gradual process. Currently Malaysia and Indonesia with the western half of New Guinea are in Southeast Asia (although the New Guinea territory of Indonesia is being disputed by the natives).