Greetings to you my friends!
I am completely new to the Fullmetal Alchemist series, having found the anime itself a few days ago. Upon realizing how dramatic, well-animated, and soul-touching the anime is, I looked at some previews of the manga. This sounds backwards to me, as the manga was made first, but I've always had a soft spot for anime in general. As things go, I am only three episodes into the anime and have seen a few slides of the manga.
The reason I have created this topic is to address several historical and geographical issues that I noticed in the FMA series so far. After finishing the third episode, I decided to look up various maps and background information, without spoilers, to see what sort of world had been created. I am very happy that I did this, because FMA resembles my very favorite time period in history. Being a historian and lover of the subject of European history, the architecture, clothing, names, and even Romantic-era-inspired music (in the anime) have astounded me. Since I am completely new to anime of any kind, please tolerate me if I am not fanboyish enough.
Starting with the music, regardless of whether this whole world was modeled on Earth, I must compliment the composer. As I am a music student, focusing on music history, I've noticed some similarities in the anime's music to the more dramatic pieces by Sibelius (Finland, 1865-1957), and to the serious Germanic composers such as Brahms and Richard Strauss. The sheer beauty of many of these orchestral miniatures are obviously something common to many anime series, but I find a special glory in the music for FMA. Michiru Ōshima did a fine job, and I believe she imitated or was inspired by the music of the late 19th/early 20th century Europe entirely. There is a certain sound to the way the bassoon plays in "city" scenes, for example, and the "urban" rhythms which sound very waltzy, as if it's meant to represent pre-WW1 Europe's grand cities. Her use of the clarinet and strings far out in the countryside are particularly moving, nearly making me choke up in the third episode, and I'm a pretty stoic person.
On the historical front, I have to say that the relations between Amestris, Aerugo, Ishbal, Drachma, and Creta that I've seen on various websites remind me of late 19th-century Germany. Based on what I've read, I believe that Amestris is something like southern Germany and pre-Unification Bavaria/Baden/Württemburg (which today make up two of the biggest states in Germany). You may dismiss this as fanciful, but I am reading an article (http://www.bookrags.com/wiki/Amestris_(Fullmetal_Alchemist)) which mentions skirmishes and raids between Amestris and Aerugo to the south, and Amestris and Creta to the west in the recent years of this story's history. As lovers of German history know, this very same situation occurred in Germany around 1864-1871.
To the north of the Bavaria was Prussia, which was mostly at peace with the Kingdom of Bavaria, but there were border raids and especially attacks by Prussia in 1866, when Bavaria sided with Austria against Prussia in the Austro-Prussian war. This is very similar to the situation between Amestris (Bavaria) and Drachma (Prussia), according to the chronologies I am reading. There is also the fact that, in 1864, Bavaria was part of the German war against Denmark far to the north (just like Drachma), which gained the modern state of Schleswig-Holstein for Germany. Lastly, I've noticed a bite out of the empire in the north of every map, near a place called "Fort Brigg", where a bit of Drachma bulges down into Amestris. This reminds me of the Harz mountains in Germany, which conveniently sit just north of Bavaria.
To the west of Bavaria/Württemburg was France, today still on the same frontier with the river Rhine. Needless to say, this reminds me of Creta, which is to the west of Amestris, according to maps. In "our" world, the infamous 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian war saw a nearly unified German empire invade and beat France quite badly. This was no major WW1/WW2-like war, but it was significant enough to mirror the situation between Creta and Amestris in the magna, which has constant border wars and raids. The same is true between Amestris and Aerugo to the south, similarly mirroring the bloody Italian wars of unification and skirmishes with Austria, also south(west) of Germany/Bavaria.
Lands east of Amestris are the greatest problem for this theoretical discussion. I've searched quite a few different forums and there are hundreds of topics debating the locations of Amestris and a land called "Ishbal", where it seems the first two episodes/manga(s?) take place. Naturally, the artist may have never had Earth in mind, but I find it fun to waste my boredom on this explanation. There is a land called "Xing", which is obviously rather similar to Asian nouns, and "Ishbal" is painfully similar in name to a certain religion here on Earth which is associated with desert sands. Apart from name similarities, which are dubious anyway, the entire war and chronology between Amestris and Ishbal is very similar to the European wars for empire in the Middle East, as well as the Crusades. This last claim is very hard to defend, because Ishbal is depicted as being just east of Amestris, yet they are of totally different geography. The only explanation is that Amestris is far larger than the version shown on the map I have attached to this thread, perhaps extending into the mountainous Balkans or Carpathians so as to border on the Ishbal-like country of Turkey.
The preceding paragraph brings me to the actual geography. As anyone who has seen pictures of Bavaria, Austria, Switzerland, and the Alps can tell you, Rizembul (I've seen so many spellings of that darn name!) looks very similar to areas of the Alpine region. There are many high peaks in the distance, and perfect emerald fields stretch on into the foothills surrounding the Elric ranch/home. One reason I love this series so far is that it reminds me of those beautiful Alpine pastures and forests high above lazy villages and bustling cities.
In cultural aspects, we can see something far in advance of the 1864-1871 hypothesis. Trains, thick-tie 1930's business suits, light-firing gun powder, and I think even jeeps are seen in a few photographs and promotionals. Beyond this, though, the various military uniforms are very similar to pre-WW1 types, especially the pompous French and German imperial uniforms which were so costly to young lives in 1914 (can you imagine a sniper seeing the bright blue coats of French soldiers in 1914? There would practically be a bull's eye on the poor soldiers' chests). There are no horses that I have seen in the anime, manga pictures, or promotionals, so I cannot judge cavalry uniforms, though it seems that everyone has a generalized uniform for every branch (if there are more than one) of the army.
All of these factors together (music, geography, comparative history, events, and the unmentioned clothing) seem to point to 1900 or 1910, though there are anachronisms on both sides of this estimate. On the "past" side, cities look like a mix between surviving Medieval bell towers, churches, and mansions, and Baroque -> Classical era apartment blocks. The farthest any buildings go seem to be grand Romantic-era structures, and there is no modernist architecture to be found. On the futuristic side, suits and dresses (i.e. at the funeral of Edward and Alphonse's mother) look like attire for the late 1930's, and I have seen no cravats or Victorian-era collars flipped up. Edward's various clothes in particular look like a mix of styles from 1820 (watch chains, high collars) all the way to 1950 (various "retro" looks and streamlines).
I hope that I have not taken up too much forum space, or your time. These are all ideas and first impressions after having looked at close to zero spoilers. For those of you that know the story well, please tell me if I am accurate in my assumptions. I tried to ignore the "Continental Year 1910" message at the opening of the anime, and made my own conclusions. Instead of being a specific year, this whole beautiful world seems to be an amalgamation of styles from the early 12th up to the mid-20th centuries. Even if you didn't read this entire wall of mine, you can at least join me in cheering the amazing detail and imagination of Hiromu Arakawa.
(In this map, Aerugo is centered around something like Milan, Turin, or Venice. Ishbal may just be many miles further south, as it hardly looks like Poland or the Balkans!)