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Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally divided from Asia to its east by the water divide of the Ural Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian Sea, and by the Caucasus Mountains to the southeast. Europe is washed upon to the north by the Arctic Ocean and other bodies of water, to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, to the south by the Mediterranean Sea, and to the southeast by the Black Sea and the waterways connecting it to the Mediterranean. Yet, the borders for Europe—a concept dating back to classical antiquity—are somewhat arbitrary, as the term continent can refer to a cultural and political distinction or a physiographic one. This article is primarily about the first two aspects, although it references Europe's geography.
Europe is the world's second-smallest continent by surface area, covering about 10,180,000 square kilometres (3,930,000 sq mi) or 2% of the Earth's surface and about 6.8% of its land area. Of Europe's approximately 50 states, Russia is the largest by both area and population, while the Vatican City is the smallest. Europe is the third most populous continent after Asia and Africa, with a population of 731 million or about 11% of the world's population; however, according to the United Nations (medium estimate), Europe's share may fall to about 7% in 2050.
Modern Western Europe is the birthplace of Western culture. European (particularly Western European) nations played a predominant role in global affairs from the 16th century onwards, especially after the beginning of colonialism. Between the 17th and 20th centuries, European nations controlled at various times the Americas, most of Africa, Australasia and large portions of Asia. Demographic changes and the two World Wars led to a decline in European dominance in world affairs by the mid-20th century as the United States and Soviet Union took prominence. During the Cold War Europe was divided along the Iron Curtain between NATO in the West and the Warsaw Pact in the East. European integration led to the formation of the Council of Europe and the European Union in Western Europe, both of which have been expanding eastward since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The use of the term "Europe" has developed gradually throughout history. In antiquity, the Greeks divided the world into three continents, Europe, Asia and Libya (Africa), with the River Nile and the complex system of waterways between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Azov providing the boundaries. Flavius Josephus and the Book of Jubilees described the continents as the lands given by Noah to his three sons; Europe was defined as between the Pillars of Hercules at Cadiz, separating it from Africa, and the River Don, separating it from Asia. This division – as much cultural as geographical – was used until the Late Middle Ages, when it was challenged by the Age of Discovery. The problem of redefining Europe was finally resolved in 1730 when, instead of waterways, the Swedish geographer and cartographer von Strahlenberg proposed the Ural Mountains as the most significant eastern boundary, a suggestion that found favour in Russia and throughout Europe.
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