Humanity has been searching for information about the environment and nature for many ages. The establishment of geography as a science began before the Christian era. This discipline helped people to understand various aspects of life and many natural phenomena. Naturally, the proposed branch of science has served different purposes during the long period of its existence. This paper will discuss the importance of geography and its goals at various periods.
Geography is a science about the land, nature, and earth as well as its inhabitants. The term comes from Greek and consists of two words: “geo” means “earth,” and “graphy” means “writing.” It is interesting that prehistoric people did not use this word when they were exploring the nature. However, they had created a basement for the formal geography of the modern world.
The geography of early Greek civilization divides into three directions:
- Topographical observations about the earth and people.
- Mathematical and astronomical traditions concerning the measurement of earth.
- A theological tradition aimed at finding the purpose of human existence on the planet.
When Rome was a dominant Mediterranean power, at the end of Hellenistic age, geography comprehended the questions of astronomy and teleology. These sciences included works on the topics of natural things, the measurement of earth, and theological matters.
During Hellenic period, a number of prominent geographical works were created. For instance, ancient authors Polybius (123 BC) and Posidonius (51 BC) described topographical issues in their research papers not in a geographical manner but in a historical one. However, Strabo’s works (BC-post AD21), enabled the society to obtain complete view of the state of this science for the first time. He considered geography a political issue. What is more, he stated that governors could use this science to conquer territories and gain power over the lands they wanted to possess. In addition, Strabo claimed that he has synthetized the works of his predecessors, particularly Eratosthenes, Polybius, and Aristotle, and gathered the information from many earlier geographical works. He supposed that the earth was spherical and divided into five zones. He also described the inhabited parts of land as huge islands, which the ocean surrounded. The bulk of his Geography consisted mainly of topographical descriptions that were allocated to Europe, Asia, and Africa.
After Strabo’s work appearance, Pliny made the next major description of the world in his book Natural History (AD 23-79). The writing included the description of everything that was known of the physical constitution of the Universe by that time. Pliny’s work lacked clear structure as well as comprehensive explanation of facts and observations. Thus, the study received critical reviews since it “had a certain amount of confusions and disorder. Natural History contained the lists of countries and their inhabitants, seas, towns, mountains, rivers, and various tribes. In addition, Pliny made a break between his astronomical and geographical observations and appeared to adopt the topographical definition of geography. It is important to mention that he discussed tribes that had disappeared; hence, the researcher included historical dimension in his work. Hence, the purpose of ancient geography was to collect information about countries and its inhabitants, which was important for creating a record of reliefs and ecosystems.
At Medieval times, the geographer al-Muqaddasi has made a great contribution to the development of science about lands. Notably, during that period, the researchers preferred to categorize the world in administrative terms. They maintained the number seven as a basis of the theory of aqalim. Al-Biruni, a scientist of that period, proposed a diagram of the world, in which he described climates not by latitudinal bands but by circles. In addition, the authors of Balki School of the tenth century supported the idea that administrative aspect should define those regions. As an example, one of them described fourteen regions by administrative boundaries, ethnicity, and cultivation. Therefore,, the purpose of geography in the Medieval period was to give explanations to various natural phenomena and summarize climatic differences on many populated territories, which was important for the rise of modern geography.
Ancient Islamic geography also contributed to the development of this science. The distinctive difference of that period was to generalize astronomical data. Besides, the
books by Ibn Khurdadhbih contained valuable information about the nature. These treatises involved the facts about topography, administrative information, commerce, and reports of boundaries. Another useful work of mathematical geography was created by al-Khwarizmi and had tremendous influence on the science in that period. It included tables of astronomical coordinates of locations and geographical features as well as descriptions of maps with coordinates.
The beginning of this science in its modern format refers to 1870s. This distinct academic discipline has started to develop in the United States, Europe, and Japan. According to Marxist theory, the capitalism in those countries reached its highest form – the imperialism. Scientists of that period supposed that colonialism and imperialism gave a stimulus to geographical studies in the late nineteenth century. The interest of imperialism in the advancement of the new geography was at the high level. Improving the discipline and its methods, the explorers wanted to receive the knowledge about conquering lands, exploitation of resources, wars, and class as well as race domination. Therefore, the goal of the European imperialism was to strengthen its position by military and diplomatic means.
The need for advanced geographical research occurred in the nineteenth century. In fact, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 had essential influence on the rapid development of that science since a war usually stimulated the interest in geography. There was an opinion that “that war fought as much by maps as by weapons”. It is important to mention that Prussian officers included former students of famous geographer Carl Ritter who became the director of studies for the Corps of Cadets later. Hence, the army of winners was thoroughly acquainted with geography. The winners and defeated countries acknowledged the importance of geographical knowledge and admitted that France was a country where it was at the highest level of development.
Geography contributed to the European imperialism in the late modern period in various ways. For example, it affected the growth of the empires. The rapid progress of the advanced geographical education in Europe, especially France, refers to the renewed interest among the European powers in the overseas colonial imperialism. Germany encouraged the colonial ambitions of France and Italy to create discord between them. It is notable that French geographers promoted colonial expansion, and the growth of French Empire stimulated the evolution of geography in the country. Students in its universities were able to study the subject. A chair of geography was established in Paris in 1892. It is essential to note that Belgians also recognized the high value of geography though the universities in this country did not study it as a subject until the end of the nineteenth century. As a result, in 1876, the King of the Belgians Leopold II invited geographers from other countries to discuss the territory of central Africa. Due to this event, it became necessary to use various expensive ways of arbitration to settle the boundary disputes. A famous Britain surveyor Holdich stated that geographical information could be useful in the demarcation of the acceptable borders of European empires. In addition, countries with skilled scientists had an advantage in negotiations over national spheres of influence. For this reason, eventually, Britain opened a school of geography in Liverpool in order to have its own specialists in that field of knowledge.
The rapid improvement of geography as a science also influenced the economic exploitation of overseas territories. The colonial powers aimed to discover the economic potential of certain lands. However, the geographical knowledge was not fully recognized. Geographers could provide valuable information about resources of a specific country and give advice about the best way of their exploitation. An example of a well-educated advisor is Richthofe. He highlighted the importance of the Shantung Peninsula with its coalfield and profitable trade position. Thus, it is obvious that the demand for geographers was high at that time. It was notable that this science had more practical value than the academic one. Stanley underlined the connection between geography and growth of Britain. He also promoted this science among young people to stimulate them to create overseas enterprises.
European and American geographers Friedrich Ratzel, Ellen Semple, and Ellsworth Huntington suggested that environment had essential influence on culture and civilization. Huntington, for instance, has found the connection between the high level of civilization development and the monotonous tropical heat. At the begging of the 20th century, the works of the aforementioned geographers appeared for the public to support their idea with facts. According to the research, the population of Europe was more intelligent than that of Tropical Africa. Thus, geographical factors, especially climate, determined the character and achievements of peoples. The same issue served as an ideological tool to support imperialism and racism. Besides, it is important to mention another geographical problem of that time. The expansion of inhabited territory was a subject of concern. The population of Europe was rapidly growing, and the need for new places of migration appeared.
To summarize the aforementioned information, it is clear that geography has been an indispensable science since the creation of civilizations. It has served many purposes that varied at different periods. Ancient geography carried the historical, mathematical, and ethnographical importance. Concerning this science in its present form, it is closely connected with the distribution of territories, migration, economic aspects, and climatic factors. Undoubtedly, geography has an essential impact on the development of humanity and the modern world.