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The mountain ranges of Europe and Asia

When the great land masses of Africa and India collide with Europe and Asia, about 100 million years ago, they cause the crust of the earth to crumple upwards in a long almost continuous ridge of high ground - from the Alps, through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan to the Himalayas. This barrier will have a profound influence on human history.

To the south and east of the mountain range are various fertile regions, watered by great rivers flowing from the mountains. By contrast, north of the mountain range is a continuous strip of less fertile grasslands - the steppes, on which a horseman can ride almost without interruption from Mongolia to Moscow.

The unsettling and the settled: from 8000 BC

Only nomads can live on the steppes north of Asia's mountain ranges, moving with their flocks of animals to survive together on the meagre crop of grass. It is a tough life, and the steppes have bred tough people - pioneers in warfare on horseback.

From the Indo-European tribes of ancient times to the Mongols and Turks of more recent history, the people of the steppes descend frequently and with devastating suddeness upon their more civilized neighbours. There are many tempting victims. Beneath the mountain ridges Asia offers ideal locations for civilized life.

On a map showing the fertile plains of Asia, between the mountains and the sea, three such areas stand out: Mesopotamia, watered by the Tigris and the Euphrates; the valley of the Indus; and the plains of north China, from the Hwang Ho (or Yellow River) down to the Yangtze.

Other waterways, such as the Ganges or the Mekong, are in areas too heavily forested to make agriculture easy. But in Mesopotamia, western India and northern China, great rivers flow through open plains, providing ample flood water for the nurturing of crops. These regions of Asia become the sites of three of the early civilizations.

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