Some people think the world of themselves and have their whole lives mapped out. Others just spend a lot of time thinking about the world and staring at maps. If you’re one of these atlas aficionados, you probably have a pretty good idea of what the prominent features of our planet look like — and the countries that span its surface. That’s no small feat. With over 200 countries in existence today, it’s hard not to get all those lines in the sand (and across rivers, fields, mountains, and seas) mixed up.
So how did the world end up with so many patches of national territory that have such weird shapes? About 400 years ago, the Holy Roman Empire and several other European powers ratified the Peace of Westphalia, which brought an end to the Thirty Years’ War in Central and Northern Europe. This included the forerunners of major European states today such as Poland, Norway, and The Netherlands. Could you recognize the outlines of those countries as they are now, nevermind back then? The Westphalian treaties also established the principle that each nation state has sovereignty over its domestic affairs and territory as international law — which gave birth to the modern nation-state as a coherent entity. Following this, national borders as we know them began to emerge first in Europe — among them, the borders of France. Do you know what the borders of France look like?
This process then expanded all over the globe as France and other European imperial powers exported this idea of national sovereignty to the Americas, Africa, and Asia. However, history didn’t stop there. Countless wars and arbitrary territorial agreements between colonial powers have led to the creation of countries whose borders sometimes make no sense or are completely inexplicable. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are both examples of this phenomenon. Do you remember what the borders of those two countries look like? What about Kazakhstan, whose borders partly reflect exacting attempts by Soviet ethnographers to keep distinct human populations intact?
On the other hand, some countries are lucky enough to be defined partly or even entirely by natural geographic features, which can make them very easy to identify. They say no man is an island — but the nation of Cuba is! And in Australia’s case, an entire continent. Would you be able to pick these two countries out of a lineup based on just their silhouettes?
And Italy is famous the world over for its distinctive shape. How many countries with a long history of incredible soccer players can claim to look like a boot kicking a ball?
Regardless of precisely what they look like, there’s a profound story behind each country’s modern borders. And if you know what to look for, these ultimately imaginary lines can tell you something about a nation’s politics and culture. How keen is your eye? Can you tell one country apart from another? Take this quiz to find out!
Italy is notoriously known for its "boot like" shape. It is the fifth most visited country in the world, welcoming more than 46 million visitors every year. Also, the Vatican City in Rome is the smallest country in the world and is led by the Pope himself.
The official name of Greece is Hellenic Republic and is located in SE Europe, close to both Africa and Asia. In 2011 the population of Greece was around 11 million. The capital and largest city in Greece is Athens.
Cuba is the largest of all the islands in the Caribbean. From the air, the island of Cuba resembles a crocodile or alligator so Cuba is often referred to in Spanish as "el cocodrilo" or "el caima."
Portugal is the oldest country in Europe and has had the same defined borders since 1139 making it the oldest nation-state in Europe. It has the oldest bookstore in the world is in Portugal's capital. Portugal is also the largest cork producer in the world. Also, surprisingly Portugal has on of the world's top surf spots, with a coastline that spans 497 miles, it is known to have 364 days of surf!
The culture in Vietnam is a complex adaptation of Chinese, Japanese, French, and American colonial influences. The body of their first president Ho Chi Minh was embalmed and is on display in a mausoleum. Vietnamese traditional fashion is easily distinguished by the long flowing robes.
Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam. The Arabian Peninsula that it sits on is the world's largest peninsula. Riyadh's camel market is one of the largest in the world and sells about 100 camels per day.
The Philippines was the first country in SE Asia to gain independence after WWII in 1945. The Philippines has the highest rate of discovery of new animal species with 16 new species of mammals discovered just in the last 10 years.
The majority of the islands that form Micronesia are either volcanic islands or coral atolls. Around 6,000 islands formerly owned by Spain in Micronesia were sold to Germany after Spain lost its authority in the Philippines. These include the Caroline Islands, the Mariana Islands, Palau, and other possessions.
The Atacama desert in Chile is the driest place on Earth, getting less than 0.05mm of waterfall each year. Chile is also a world class wine destination and the ninth largest producer of wine in the world. Valparaiso in Chile has been such inspiration for painters and poets, particularly Pablo Neruda, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971.
In Spain, the Puerta del Sol (Gate of the Sun) plaza in Madrid is the physical center of the country. There is no tooth fairy in Spain, instead, they have a legend called 'Ratoncito Perez' who exchanges children's teeth with gifts. Spain produces about 45% of all the olive oil in the world.
The population of Germany in the year 2010 was 82 million. Germany was the first country in the world to adopt Daylight savings time which is also known as summer time. It occurred in 1916, in the midst of WWI, and was put in place to conserve energy. Interestingly, prison escape is not punishable by law in Germany because their law maintains that it is basic human instinct to be free, and therefore prisoners have a right to escape jail.
France is the world's most popular tourist destination, with about 83.7 million visitors arriving in France according to the World Tourism Organization report published in 2014, France is the world's most visited country. France is also the largest country in the EU, it's area makes up about 1/5th of the EU's total area.
The world's longest automated metro system is in Dubai (which is located in the United Arab Emirates). It has 87 trains operating its 75-km-long network which has no drivers at all. The trains are carbon neutral and the temperature is maintained at a standard 20 degrees Celsius with no variation whatsoever.
Bolivia is one of the two only landlocked South American countries, the other is Paraguay. Like in Ecuador and Peru. cut (guinea pig) is used and eaten as a traditional meat. El Penal de San Pedro (Saint Peter's Prison) in La Paz is famous for its walled society. Bolivia has over 30 official languages and 36 native cultures. The main languages spoke are Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara.
Switzerland is one of the only two countries to have a square shaped flag. Switzerland is ready for a nuclear war if there ever is one. There are enough nuclear fallout shelters to accommodate its entire population. The Swiss military also keeps fully stocked artillery bunkers, disguised as quaint country homes, in the middle of populated villages.
Uruguay is the only country whose name in English has the same letter three times in its first five. The first European in Uruguay was a Spanish explorer Juan Diaz de Solis in 1516. He was killed and eaten by the native Charrua, this kept native Europeans away for 100 years. Uruguay is the only country that keeps track of 100% of its cattle.
Malaysia is home to the largest cave chamber in the world, it is the Sarawak Chamber in Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, which can easily accommodate a Boeing 747. Also in Malaysia, Sabah is home to the Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world. There are more than 60 sub-ethnic groups in Sabah and Sarawak.
Located on the equator, Colombia is known for its hot weather and great coffee. This country is also known for its talented soccer team.
Singapore is one of the strictest countries in the world, especially when it comes to cleanliness. Toilet cleanliness is serious business. In fact, you can be fined up to $500 for not flushing after you use the toilet. It is also illegal to chew gum in Singapore.
Mobile phone coverage is available in more than 90% of the country, and mobile phones are considered to be status symbols. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the poster boy in many of the muscle building centers in Afghanistan. They think he looks Afghan.
Poland's official name is actually the Republic of Poland. Poland is also the 9th largest country in Europe by land area. It shares a border with seven countries including, Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, Slovakia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and Germany.
Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that has never been colonized by a European country. In fact, in the Thai language, the name for their country is Prathet Thai, which means "the land of the free." All the males were Buddhist monks for a bit of Thailand's history. Thaliand is where you will find both the smallest and the largest creatures, the smallest mammal in the world, the bumblebee bat is native to Thailand. Also, the largest fish, the whale shark lives in Thai waters as well.
The name Kazakhstan translates to "Land of the wanderers." Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country by area in the world but has one of the lowest population densities at 6 people per square mile. The people that make up Kazakhstan represent more than 120 different nationalities. Horse meat is an essential part of Kazakh cuisine, the athletes during the Olympics in 2012 begged the Olympics Committee to bring it to the Games in London.
The oil reserves found in Kuwait were discovered in 1934 and they are the world's sixth largest oil reserves in the world. Kuwait is also the first Gulf country to have established a constitution and parliament.
Indonesia is made up of over 17,500 islands, 6,000 of which are inhabited. The largest of these islands are Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and the Indonesian part of New Guinea called Papua. Indonesia is part of the Pacific Rim "Ring of Fire."
The first people of Zimbabwe were the Bantu-speaking Iron Age farmers that settled in the region around AD 300. The capital Harare was originally called Salisbury in 1890 in honor of the British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury. Zimbabwe is a landlocked plateau country.
The Netherlands is also known as Holland, it's capital and largest city is a very well known one... Amsterdam. Around 20% of the Netherlands is located below sea level. The Netherlands borders with Belgium and Germany.
Hotel Rwanda is a very famous and popular film that showed some of the conflicts that plagued Rwanda. It is a small, mountainous, landlocked country in East Africa. It is bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In Persian, the word "Iran" means "land of the Aryans." Iran's capital and largest city, Tehran, has some of the worst air pollution issues in the world. An estimated 27 people die each day from air pollution-related diseases. Iran is mostly a desert and only receives less than 4 inches of precipitation each year.
Lake Maracaibo which is connected to the Gulf of Venezuela at the northern end is the largest lake in South America and one of the oldest on Earth, an estimated 20-40 million years old. In Venezuela, summer is experienced all year round because the country only has two seasons: hot and dry season and hot and wet season.
Romania was a source of inspiration for two famous novels: "The Castle in the Carpathians" by Jules Verne, and "Dracula" by Bram Stoker. The mass transit network in Bucharest a city in Romania, is the fourth largest in Europe.
An interesting feature about Macedonia is that it has more mountains and mountain peaks than any other country in the world. The country has as many as 34 mountain peaks, each with a height more than 2,000 meters above sea-level. Mount Golem Korab is the highest at 2,753 meters above sea-level. Most of the peaks in Macedonia have not been visited by people.
Christopher Columbus was the first colonial to discover Honduras. His first words were "thank God we got out these great depths!" Honduras' literal meaning is "Great Depths." Conan Mayan Ruins are considered the most important ruins for the fully intact hieroglyphs. It is the main source of how we know Mayan history today.
There are about 35 species of plants that come only from Brunei. Some of these are the orchid, the palms, and bamboo. The Belalong tree frog can only be found in Brunei. When Brunei first participated in the 1988 Olympic Games, its team was composed of a single official and no athletes.
Yemen's territory has more than 200 islands, the largest of these is Socotra. Yemen contains almost no natural resources and belongs to the poorest nations in the middle east. Until 1565 Yemen was ruled by Turkey. Yemen also has one of the highest birth rates of all of the middle eastern countries.
Norway has the world's biggest sovereign fund, where it has been saving almost all its oil money and is worth almost a trillion dollars. Norway also introduced salmon sushi to the Japanese. Norway gets 98-99% of its electricity from hydroelectric power, more than any other country in the world.
In Uzbekistan, the way to greet a woman is by bowing to her with your right hand placed over your heart. A master chef in Uzbekistan is able to cook in just one cauldron, enough food to serve a thousand men. They also believe that turning bread upside down will bring you bad fortune.
There are 12.8 million people currently living in Senegal. The official language of Senegal is French but mostly people still speak all of their own ethnic languages. Most of the people living in Senegal are Muslim.
Geographically, Belarus is located between Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Minks is the eternal city in Belarus, it has been annihilated on 8 different occasions in the turbulent historical past of Europe, but has rebuilt every time like a phoenix. The most important holiday is Freedom Day on May 9th where they celebrate the end of the German occupation during WW2.
Serbia is the largest raspberry exporter worldwide, producing over 30% of the total worldwide raspberries consumed. Dinar is the official Serbian currency.
A baby is born in Pakistan every seven seconds. In 1979 Abdus Salam won Pakistan's only Nobel Prize by sharing the physics award. Pakistan is the world's second largest chickpea producer behind India. The name Pakistan means 'land of the pure' in Persian and Urdu.
Some philologists generally agree that Lithuanian, the native language of Lithuania, is the most ancient of all living languages. Lithuania is known as the land of storks, the country's national bird, with about 13,000 pairs. In 2011, Lithuania ranked first worldwide for internet upload and download speed.
Morocco is only 8 miles from Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar. Morocco is one of the largest producers of illicit hashish in the world. Marrakesh, or also known as the "red city" requires sun protection and headgear of some kind all year-round, even during winter. Morocco is also the largest processor and exporter of sardines in the world.
Bulgaria is the only country in Europe that hasn't changed its name since it was first established in 681 AD. The oldest gold treasure in the world was found in Bulgaria; in 294 graves there were about 3000 gold objects that were dated back more than 6,000 years. There is also a bacteria that is unique to Bulgarian air and gives it's local yogurt the unique flavor that it has.
The people of Barbados are called Barbadians. Barbados is an island that is completely surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, it belongs to the Lesser Antilles which is a group of islands in North America. Rihanna was born in Barbados in 1988. Tiger Woods also married his Swedish girlfriend at a ceremony on Barbados.
Kosovo is the newest nation of the 21st century and recognized by over 60 countries including 22 EU states. It declared independence on February 17, 2008. Kosovo has the highest morbidity rates in Europe due to diseasaes being transmitted by water. Their natural resources include lead, zinc, copper, silver, gold, brown coal, bauxite, ignite, and nickel.
The world's oldest and earliest human skull was found in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. The longest-running study of chimpanzees in the world was done in Tanzania by Jane Goodall who studied the chimps in the 1960s. The official language of Tanzania is Swahili but there are over 120 languages spoken there.
In Jordan, they believe that praising children excessively can invite bad luck and is generally avoided. The Dead Sea or the Salt Lake in Jordan is the earth's lowest point and lies 402 meters below mean sea level. This country also has one of the most breathtaking and spiritual landscapes on the planet. It is considered polite to refuse a meal three times before actually accepting it.
The capital of Ethiopia is Addis Ababa and is the highest capital city in Africa, at 2,400 metres. Ethiopia is the second most-populous country in Africa, with a population of over 90 million people in 2015. There are over 80 languages spoken in this country.
Montenegro didn't declare its independence from Serbia until 2006. It's name breaks down into two words, 'monte' and 'negro' meaning 'black mountain' and dates back to the 15th century. The countries flag features a gold lion, the flag is based on the flag that was in use during the reign of King Nicola I, who was king between 1910-1918.