Much of the region lies on the great European Plain that links up with the steppes of southern Russia. Its main rivers, such as the Danube and the Vistula (VISH chuh luh), flow either south into the Black Sea or north into the Baltic Sea.
Goods and cultural influences traveled along these river routes. As a result, the Balkans in the south felt the influence of Byzantine civilization and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which also shaped Russia. Later, the Muslim Ottoman empire brought other cultural influences. In contrast, the northern regions of Eastern Europe that bordered Germany and the Baltic Sea forged closer links to Western Europe.
How did Eastern Europe's rivers affect the region?
Eastern Europe has long been a crossroads and buffer. Many peoples migrated into the region, which had no difficult geographic barriers such as high mountains or wide deserts. As a result, Eastern Europe today includes a wealth of languages and cultures.
Often, migrating peoples and even invaders stopped their advances in Eastern Europe. By absorbing waves of newcomers, Eastern Europe served as a barrier protecting Western Europe.
During the early Middle Ages, various groups of Slavs migrated into Eastern Europe. The West Slavs filtered into present-day Poland and the Czech and Slovak republics. The South Slavs occupied the Balkans, where they became some of the ancestors of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.
Other ethnic groups settled in the Balkans. (An ethnic group is a group of people who share the same language and cultural heritage.) Waves of Asian peoples migrated into Eastern Europe, among them the Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, and Magyars. Vikings and other Germanic peoples added to the mix.
Powerful neighboring states brought different religions to the region. Byzantine missionaries spread Eastern Orthodox Christianity throughout the Balkans. German knights and missionaries from the West brought Roman Catholic Christianity to Poland, Hungary, the Czech area, and the western Balkans. In the 1300s, the Ottomans invaded the Balkans and brought Islam to the region.
By about 1100, Jews had begun to settle in Eastern Europe. Settlements were probably organized by merchants. Jews carried on trade along routes that connected what is today Poland, Hungary, and the Balkans.
Which cultural influences are present in the Balkans?