Asia is the largest and most populous continent in the world, sharing borders with Europe and Africa to its West, Oceania to its South, and North America to its East. Its North helps form part of the Arctic alongside North America and Europe. Though most of its continental borders are clearly defined, there are gray areas. Europe and Asia are technically located on the same overall landmass, and combined the two are referred to as Eurasia. As a result of its porous land border, some countries on Asia’s western border have been at times referred to as part of Europe’s East. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are sometimes referred to as Asian and other times as European. Russia and Turkey tend to be cut into regions. Russia is generally split along the Ural Mountains, with its western half called “European Russia” and its East as simply “Russia.” The land between Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, and its direct borders with Bulgaria and Greece is at times referred to as a part of Europe called “Thrace,” while the rest of its territory is called “Anatolia” and is part of Asia.
On the other side of the continent, the islands which separate Asia from Oceania can also be difficult to delineate. Indonesia and parts of the Philippines are sometimes categorized as part of Oceania rather than as Asian. This being said, it is important to note that these divided regions do not constitute separate countries or autonomous regions claiming sovereignty (such as the cases of Hong Kong or Palestine). “European Russia” and “Russia” are both simply Russia, and the “Thrace” and “Anatolia” parts of Turkey are both undisputedly part of Turkey, but sometimes the regions are shaded differently on maps in order to help delineate the borders between Asia and Europe.
Asia is often divided into culturally and geographically similar regions. Although definitions, names, and borders can vary, generally the regions of Asia include West Asia (which is part of the Middle East), the Caucasus (sometimes also considered as part of the Middle East), Central Asia, East Asia, South Asia (also called the Indian Subcontinent), and Southeast Asia. West Asia is sometimes referred to as the Middle East, with is actually a misnomer since the cultural region we define as the Middle East often included countries outside of Asia, such as Egypt in Africa and Cyprus in Europe. West Asia specifically includes the countries within the region of Asia bordered by the Mediterranean and Red Seas to the West and the Persian Gulf, the Gulfs of Aden and Oman, and the Arabian Sea to the South.
Countries within West Asia include Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Just northeast of Turkey lies the Caucasus, a mountainous region wedged between the Black Sea to the West and the Caspian Sea to the East. The Caucasus includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and parts of Russia. Central Asia is located just north of Iran and Afghanistan and south of Russia, consisting of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. East Asia defines the region between Central Asia, Russia, and the Pacific Ocean roughly up to the beginning of the Tropic of Cancer.
The countries of East Asia include China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, and Mongolia (as well as Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan). South Asia is also referred to as the Indian Subcontinent, separated from East Asia by the Himalayan Mountains between China and India and defined largely by the Indian Tectonic Plate on which its countries largely rest. South Asian countries include Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Lastly, the Southeast Asian region defines the tropical and equatorial countries between South and East Asia to the North and Oceania to the South. The countries of Southeast Asia include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (or Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, East Timor (or Timor-Leste), and Vietnam.
It is worth reiterating that these regional borders are as porous as Asia’s continental borders, and some countries can be organized differently. Pakistan can be West instead of South Asian, Afghanistan can be Central or South rather than West Asian, and so on. Finally, it is also worth noting that Russia is not included in any of these regions. As it is the largest country in the world, Russia’s territory actually stretches across the entirety of Asia’s border from East to West. It cannot be categorized into any of these regions alone and so is kept separate.
There are also several unrecognized and partially recognized states within Asia. Palestine, which is made up of the Gaza Strip and West Bank regions in and around Israel, declared its independence in 1988 and is currently recognized as independent by 134 countries, though it is not an official member of the United Nations and is not considered to be its own country by every G-8 nation except Russia. Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia are all located in the Caucasus and all declared their independence during the 1990s, with limited recognition internationally.
Northern Cyprus declared its independence in 1983 but is only recognized as a sovereign state within the UN by Turkey, with every other member considering it as simply part of Cyprus. Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan are all considered by China to be a part of its territory, but each see themselves as either entirely independent (in the case of Taiwan) or fully autonomous (in the cases of Hong Kong and Macau), operate largely autonomously in terms of currency and government, and have varying degrees of international recognition as separate states. Taiwan actually operates under various names as a result of its contested statehood: it refers to itself officially as the Republic of China (or ROC), invoking the state which governed the mainland until the Chinese Civil War and takeover of power by the Communist Party of China in 1949, and today’s mainland China (officially the People’s Republic of China, or PRC) calls it Chinese Taipei, but internationally it is most commonly called Taiwan (the name of the state’s largest island).
Asia’s immense size lends itself to a variety of different geographical landscapes, depending on its region. West Asia has some of the highest temperatures on the planet as a result of its warm desert climate. Factoring in the heat index and wind speeds, summers in the region have risen to dangerous temperatures, with parts of Iraq and Iran having recorded feel-like temperatures of over 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius). Inversely, Asia is also home to the coldest weather in the populated world (excluding Antarctica), which was recorded as -90 degrees Fahrenheit (-67.7 degrees Celsius) and occurred in two Russian towns: Verkhoyansk and Oymyakon. Most of the northern half of Russia is characterized by continental subarctic climates similar to Alaska and much of Canada, and its far north is classified as an arctic tundra comparable to the far north of the Canadian territories or the coasts of Greenland.
Both extremes in precipitation can also be found on the Asian continent. Some of the driest places on Earth are located in the desert climates of West Asia, the steppes of Central Asia, and parts of China and Mongolia. At the same time, the northeast Indian village of Mawsynram is the absolute wettest place on Earth, with an average of 467.4 inches (11,872 millimeters) of rainfall per year. South Asia has a mixture of the monsoon weather which lends itself to such heavy precipitation along with tropical savannas with intense heat. Climate patterns involving the Indian and Pacific Oceans cause much of East Asia to have temperate weather with a heavy monsoon season, particularly in Eastern China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, South Korea and most of southern Japan. Much of continental Southeast Asia has a savannah climate similar to some of the drier parts of South Asia, while its island portions between Asia and Oceania are distinct for their tropical rainforests.
The various climates of Asia also allow it to have many different geographical features, such as mountains, rivers, and deserts. The Himalayas, home to Bhutan and Nepal and separating South Asia from China, is the tallest mountain range in the world and its highest peak, Mount Everest, is the tallest mountain on Earth. Three major Asian rivers are also sourced from the Himalayas, the Brahmaputra, the Ganges, and the Indus, which each approach 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers) in length. However, the longest river in Asia is actually the Yangtze River, which runs from the southwest region of Tibet all the way to the Pacific coastal city of Shanghai and measures at 1,790 miles (2,880 kilometers) in length.
The Syrian and Arabian Deserts of West Asia count among the world’s largest deserts, as does the Gobi Desert between China and Mongolia, in Central Asia. It is also worth noting that many of these massive landscapes are actually the underlying causes of Asia’s various weather patterns. The height of the Himalayas, for example, blocks rainclouds coming from the Indian Ocean and pushes them back into the Indian Subcontinent while simultaneously keeping northern cold air from travelling any farther south, accounting for both the hot monsoon weather of South Asia and the cold deserts and steppes of Central Asia.
The largest continent on Earth, Asia’s total size is roughly 17,212,048 square miles (44,579,000 square kilometers), or 30% of the planet’s total landmass. The largest countries of Asia include Russia (6.6 million square miles or 17.1 million square kilometers), China (3.7 million square miles or 9.6 million square kilometers), India (1.3 million square miles or 3.3 million square kilometers), and Kazakhstan (1.05 million square miles or 2.7 million square kilometers). Asia’s smallest countries are Maldives (120 square miles or 300 square kilometers), Singapore (278 square miles or 719 square kilometers), Bahrain (295 square miles or 765 square kilometers), and Brunei (2,226 square miles or 5,765 square kilometers). If Hong Kong and Macau are recognized as separate countries, then Macau (12.1 square miles or 31.3 square kilometers) is the smallest country in Asia and Hong Kong (1,064 square miles or 2,755 square kilometers) is the fourth-smallest.
Due to its immense size and diverse populations, it is nearly impossible to offer a unified history of Asia. The continent is the birthplace of nearly all major religions in the world today, as well as a vast number of technological and civilizational advancements. West Asia is at times called the “Cradle of Civilization,” as it was here that Neolithic humans first began its transition from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle, inventing the wheel and basic agriculture in order to do so. The West Asia was also home to the first known human civilizations, such as Ancient Sumer and the ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, and Akkadian empires. Meanwhile, the Indus Valley Civilization (or Harappan Civilization) was the first known civilization formed in South Asia, and in East Asia the Xia Dynasty would be the first recorded account of Ancient China.
Most of the world’s earliest belief systems trace their origins back to Asia. West Asia saw the creation of the first Kingdom of Israel, which fostered early Judaism, the birth of Jesus Christ and onset of early Christianity, and the birth of the Prophet Muhammad and the initial spread of Islam. Forms of early Hinduism were practiced in South Asia as far back as the Indus Valley Civilization, and it was codified as a religion during the Vedic Period which followed it. The South Asian country of Nepal was the birthplace of the initial Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, and the subsequent proliferation of Buddhism influenced much of Central, East, South, and Southeast Asia. Parshvanatha, the oldest historical leader of Jainism, was born in South Asia, as was Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Taoism has origins in East Asia stretching back to the very onset of Ancient China, perhaps even prehistoric China. East Asia also saw the birth of Kong Qiu, known in the West as Confucius, and the spread of Confucianism. The Shinto religion has ancient origins on the Japanese islands, though its first recorded history began alongside the rise of early imperial dynasties there during the Medieval Period.
With a population of roughly 4.4 billion, or 62% of the global population (about 7.1 billion), Asia is by far the most populated continent on the planet. The most populous countries in Asia are China (1.4 billion people), India (1.3 billion people), Indonesia (259 million people), and Pakistan (193 million people). Asia’s least populated countries are Maldives (341 thousand people), Brunei (412 thousand people), Bhutan (771 thousand people), and East Timor (1.2 million people). If Hong Kong and Macau are included as countries, then Macau (647 thousand people) becomes the third-least populous country in Asia.
Several different religions are widely spread throughout the Asian continent. This being said, Islam is followed by about 1.1 billion people, or 25% of the continent, making it the most popular religion in Asia. Islam is particularly popular in West Asia, where it is the sole official religion of many countries and is practiced by close to 100% of the populations of countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. However, most Muslims actually live in South and Southeast Asia. Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan have Muslim populations of well over 100 million, while the Southeast Asian country of Indonesia has more adherents to Islam than any other country, with over 200 million Muslims. The second-largest religion in Asia is Hinduism, which follows close behind Islam with roughly 1 billion adherents. Hinduism is strongest in India and Nepal (where it is followed by over 80% of the population), but it also has strong minority populations in several Southeast and West Asian countries. Christianity is also fairly widespread, with the majority of people in Armenia, Georgia, and Russia following various Orthodox churches, East Timor and the Philippines adhering to Roman Catholicism, and South Korea largely following Protestantism (though with a sizeable minority of Roman Catholics).
Other notable religions in Asia include Sikhism and Jainism (which are found mostly in India and Pakistan), Judaism (with Israel being the only country in the world with a majority Jewish population), and Zoroastrianism (the first Iranian religion and still practiced in parts of modern Iran and other countries). After Islam and Hinduism, however, irreligion technically counts as the third-widest “religion” in Asia. Roughly 21% of the continent claims not to have any particular religious affiliation, especially in China, Hong Kong, Japan, and North Korea. This fact can be partly explained by Communist state policies in China and North Korea regarding religion, but also by the nature of the traditionally prevalent religions of East Asia. Confucianism and Taoism (or Daoism) are more akin to philosophical traditions than the organized religions practiced in other societies, and indeed the Chinese state promotes some specifically Confucian tenants, while Japan’s Shinto belief system involves a relatively disunified set of religious traditions and folkloric tales. Thus it is the case that much of China’s population can be considered as somewhere between Confucian, Taoist, or irreligious, and that roughly 80% of Japanese citizens practice Shinto but less than 5% can really be called “Shintoist.”
Asia is home to a staggering number of languages ranging from local tongues spoken by only a few inhabitants to international languages used in entire regions. Regarding international languages, the most widely spoken language on the continent is Mandarin, which is spoken by 1.3 billion people and is an official language in China, Singapore, and Taiwan. Russian also crosses official language borders, being the official language of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan (alongside various other state and regional languages) and having roughly 260 million speakers. Arabic is perhaps the third major international language, recognized as official in most of the countries in West Asia and spoken by about 230 million people. It is also worth mentioning that English is internationally popular throughout Asia. Though it does not have many recognized native speakers, it is recognized as an official or regional language in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Singapore. For languages concentrated around specific countries, Hindi is India’s national language (though it recognized a plethora of regional tongues), and with roughly 400 million speakers it is also the second-most popular language in Asia. Other populous national languages include Indonesian (240 million speakers), Bengali (150 million speakers), Japanese (120 million speakers), and Filipino (90 million speakers), though most other countries in Asia also have their own national languages.
Additional Asia Geography Notes
Burma: Military authorities have promoted the name Myanmar since 1989 as the conventional name for their state. That decision was not (and is not) approved by any sitting legislature in Burma, and is not accepted by the U.S. government. However, Myanmar is widely accepted by numerous countries, and by the United Nations.
European Russia: The Russian landmass west of the Ural Mountains is commonly referred to as European Russia in most educational atlases, and by the vast majority of geography experts. It is not a separate country, but rather called that because of its political, cultural and geographical blendings with Europe. For reference purposes it is shown above to the west of the dashed-line, however, the entire country (as a whole) is still considered part of the continent of Asia.
Middle East: Countries considered part of the Middle East (or West Asia) are shown in a lighter shade of gray. Note that they are all still a part of the continent of Asia.
Opinions vary as to what countries make up the modern definition of Asia and the Middle East. Historically, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been long associated with the Middle East, but in recent years, some sources now consider them to be more closely aligned with Europe based on their modern economic and political trends. We have moved in that direction, and the same can be said for the island country of Cyprus.
Turkey is officially, politically and geographically considered part of both Asia and Europe. The small northwestern portion of Turkey named (Thrace) is a recognized part of Europe, while the largest part (Anatolia) is located in the Middle East, a part of Asia.