November 25, 2012 7:16 pm
 “Europe”—the word calls to mind a land of famous old buildings, scenic countryside, and time-honored traditions. Europe is rich in history. Ancient stone castles, lavish palaces, and beautiful cathedrals dot the land. But it’s also one of the world’s most vibrant, modern places.
Europe attracts visitors from around the world. They come to see its historic landmarks, world-class art museums, and great natural beauty. Scenic attractions include the rolling green hills of the British Isles, towering peaks of the Swiss Alps, and sunny Mediterranean beaches.
Europe is considered a separate continent. But it’s actually a peninsula—a piece of land that juts out from a mainland into water. Europe is a giant peninsula sticking west out of Asia, the mainland.
The Ural Mountains east of Europe divide the continent from Asia. The mountains run right through Russia. Russia lies partly in Europe and partly in Asia.
Europe has many smaller peninsulas of its own. Greece and Italy are peninsulas. Spain and Portugal share another peninsula called Iberia. In the north, Denmark occupies the small peninsula of Jutland. Sweden and Norway occupy the larger Scandinavian Peninsula.
Europe also includes many islands, such as Great Britain, Ireland, Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, and Crete. All of these islands and peninsulas give Europe a long coastline and many harbors, inlets, and seaports.
Europe is the second smallest of the world’s seven continents. Only Australia is smaller. Europe is about the same size as the United States. Yet it has almost three times as many people.
About 730 million people live in Europe. That makes it the most crowded of all the continents. Europe is divided into more than 40 countries, and Europeans speak more than 60 languages.
Europe is home to dozens of great cities. Many of them, such as London and Paris, date to ancient times. Among Europe’s other famous cities are Athens, Berlin, Budapest, Madrid, Moscow, Prague, Rome, and Vienna.
You can see a great variety of landscapes in Europe. Many hills and mountains cover northwestern Europe. Around Norway’s coast, ancient glaciers carved deep inlets to the sea called fjords. Steep mountains thick with timber line the fjords, creating beautiful scenery.
South of these highlands lies the Great European Plain. This low-lying plain reaches all the way from southern France to the Ural Mountains in Russia. Some of Europe’s best soils and most productive farms are found here.
Europe’s highest mountains rise to the south of this plain. In the west stand the spectacular, snow-capped Alps. These jagged peaks include the world-famous Matterhorn. The Alps cover parts of Switzerland, France, Italy, and Austria. High mountains reach all the way to the northern shore of the Mediterranean Sea.
Europe’s tallest and steepest peaks, the Caucasus Mountains, stand in the southeast. They are home to Elbrus, the highest point in Europe at 18,510 feet (5,642 meters).
The first great European civilizations arose along the calm waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The greatest of these was ancient Greece, which grew up on the islands and peninsula of Greece about 2,500 years ago.
The center of power then shifted to ancient Rome. Starting in Italy, the Romans built an empire around the Mediterranean coast. Then they pushed north, through France and the British Isles, and east as far as Iraq.
Greece and Rome laid the foundations for modern Europe. The Greeks made astounding advances in math, science, philosophy, and the arts. They invented democracy. The Romans made great strides in engineering, government, and law. They invented cement. Some Roman-built roads, canals, and bridges are still used today in Europe.
Christianity spread to Europe from the Middle East during Roman times. For many centuries, almost all the people of Western Europe belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. Most Eastern Europeans belonged to the Orthodox Christian Church. That church was based in Constantinople, a city on the eastern edge of Europe.
Europeans today are still mostly Christian. But not all Western Europeans are Catholic anymore. Almost half are Protestants. Small minorities follow other religions, including Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.
After the Roman Empire began to break apart in the ad 300s, Europe entered a period called the Middle Ages. Many small kingdoms arose to take the place of Roman rule. Struggles for power between kings and other nobles frequently broke the peace. Trade collapsed. Hardly anyone could read.
Gradually, the power of the kings increased. They built strong kingdoms across Europe, with powerful armies and navies to defend them. By the 1400s, Spain and Portugal had become great powers. They sailed all over the world and founded empires in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Later, The Netherlands, Britain, and France built impressive overseas empires.
Meanwhile, Europeans began questioning their traditional beliefs. They questioned the power of the Catholic Church. Great progress was made in science and the arts. In the 1700s and 1800s, Europeans invented new power-driven machines for making goods. Big factories emerged. This was called industrialization. It made Europeans rich and powerful.
In 1917, a group called the Communists took over Russia in eastern Europe. They turned Russia into an empire called the Soviet Union. Over time, the Soviet Union gained control of many other eastern European countries. Communist governments tried to control most aspects of life in their countries.
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union crumbled. Russia and other Eastern European countries gained their freedom.
The years of Communist rule left their mark on Eastern Europe. The Communists built inefficient factories that polluted the environment. Few Eastern Europeans prospered under Communism. Today, this is changing. Eastern Europeans are modernizing their countries and working to build new sources of wealth.
By the late 20th century, European countries had given up most of their remaining overseas colonies. Yet Europe remains a wealthy and powerful place. Today, as in centuries past, Europe is a world leader in art, science, industry, and learning.
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