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Spain’s Defining Geographic Feature

Nov. 3, 2017 Geography affects the development of all nations in profound ways, but rarely has it done so more strikingly than in Spain. Today the country is renowned for its beaches, but its defining geographic feature is its mountains. It is the existence – and more important, the location – of these mountains that has fostered the distinct, regional communities that make Spain so difficult to govern.

Though mountains are Spain’s most conspicuous geographic feature, they are not the only one to impede government efforts to unify the country. The weather patterns in Spain differ profoundly from region to region. Northwestern Spain gets a great deal of rain each year – sometimes as much as 80 inches a year. Compare that to the Southern Meseta, which sometimes sees as little as 10 inches of rain per year. Central and southern Spain are much dryer, though the Guadalquivir River Valley is a notable exception. Northeastern Spain has comparatively less rainfall too, but Catalonia has the Ebro River (and Valencia the Turia River) for irrigation.

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None of Spain’s major rivers, though, connect to one other. This is true of most European states, but it is especially pronounced in Spain because of the way the mountains and the climate serve to define the country’s regions. A unified Spain, where a strong central government can execute its authority, requires the expensive work of building the infrastructure necessary to stitch the country together. Spain’s geography challenges central rule because it creates resilient national and linguistic identities.

Geography has confounded every ruler from Isabella I to Mariano Rajoy. But it’s not that simple. If geography alone defined political power, Spain would never have unified as a country, let alone become one of the richest and most powerful empires in the modern world. Spain has never lost the legacy of its diversity, but in modern times it has always tried, and mostly succeeded, to consolidate that diversity under the idea of the Spanish nation. When Catalonia declared its independence, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said, “Spain is a serious country and a great nation.” He wasn’t wrong. Spain is a serious nation-state, and it is serious not because of its geography but despite it.