Orogenesis: The Making of mountains

Simon Harley, Michael Johnson

Research output: Book/ReportBook


Mountains have attracted the attention of mankind at least since Rousseau (or did Petrarch precede him*) who devoted much thought to nature, perhaps because the height and scale of mountains induced a sense of awe. A love of nature showed itself in the fairly recent desire to get to the top of mountains. George Mallory gave as his reason for wanting to climb Everest as “because it is there” but long before that mountains were important for man if only because 20% of the earth’s surface is taken up by mountains which formed natural barriers for trade and the movement of armies. Perhaps the ancient Egyptians tried to simulate mountains in the pyramids of Giza. The same is true of builders of Gothic cathedrals, which were built ever higher so as to imitate mountains which reach up to heaven. The Greeks worshipped the gods on Mount Olympus and mountains appeared often in Greek mythology, for example Prometheus was chained to a mountain side. The Greeks saw mountains as mysterious and frightening places, and even today for Hindus and Buddhists there are sacred mountains in the Himalaya such as Nanda Devi, Kailas and Everest - Qomolungma, the goddess mother of the Earth. Badrinath near the source of the Ganges in the High Himalaya is the home of the gods and a place of pilgrimage. Moses came down from a mountain with the tablets. Noah is supposed to have docked his ship on Mount Ararat. Mark Harrison points out, the Bible states “the mountains shall melt before the Lord” (Judges 5:5) but perhaps the reference was to volcanoes rather than orogenic mountains.

Many artists have been fascinated by mountains. Leonardo Da Vinci realised that the fossils in the rocks of the Appenines showed that the rocks were once below sea level and he and other painters used mountain scenes as back grounds. Cezanne painted many pictures of Mont St.Victoire in Provence.

The word orogenesis means ‘birth of mountains’ (Greek, oros, a mountain and genesis, be produced, creation), from this we get orogen which is a term for the characteristically long, narrow linear or curvilinear mountain belts, whether or not they have a marked topographic expression. So what is the definition of a mountain? In North America it is 600m which seems very acceptable, but when we come to the definition of “high” mountains then answers vary from only a few hundred metres in Scandinavia, to 1660-1700m in central Europe and 5500m in central Asia. These numbers refer to the practice of defining mountains by reference to particular landscape features such as the tree line or snow line.

Our concern in this book is with the science of mountains and with the processes involved in their formation. Although the aim is not to give a comprehensive account of the orogens of the world it is still necessary to present an account of the major features of selected orogenic belts. In chapters 1, 2 and 3 we give brief elementary accounts of background material needed for the understanding of mountain building processes. Some readers may wish to skip these chapters or follow up the further reading given in the references.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages388
ISBN (Print)978-0-521-76556-5
Publication statusPublished - 6 Mar 2012


  • orogeny, mountains, metamorphism, deformation, earth evolution


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