Exploring Modern Maps of the Horn of Africa (18th-20th c.)
Scope and objectives of the ETHIOMAP project
Cartographic Sources and Territorial Transformations in the Horn of Africa since the Late 18th Century

Northeastern Africa is marked by an especially rich and ancient political and cultural history, ethnic diversity and a very rich corpus of historical and cultural source material, including centuries old local historiographies in Christian Ethiopia and neighboring Muslim polities. This includes centuries local centuries-old historiographies and cartographies of the different historical states of northeastern Africa. These were most prominently Christian Ethiopia and several Muslim sultanates and emirates, but also the unwritten oral historiographies of other southern kingdoms, such as Kefa and Oromo states, and “tribal republics”. Cartographic depictions of these territories were produced by foreign researchers and co-produced by often anonymous local informants and collaborators such as traditional scholars, merchants and officials of Christian Ethiopia or some neighboring kingdoms, which have since disappeared.

In the 17th century, when the mathematical models defining modern cartography were invented, northeastern Africa was the best-cartographed region in Africa – by contrast to other regions that were represented either according to classical Ptolemaic traditions or by “white areas”. This accuracy of geographic knowledge was especially true for the Christian regions of Ethiopia, also named Abyssinia, which, at an early stage, had entered into the “known world” of the Western geographers. A steady flow of information reached European scholars since the first Portuguese expedition in Ethiopia in the beginning of the 16th century. This was followed by the settlement of Jesuit missionaries from 1555 to 1634. After the Jesuits were expelled and the country was closed to European visitors until the end of the 18th century. In 1683, the German scholar Hiob Ludolf (1624-1704), published a large map of Abyssinia drawn from the information he had collected from an Ethiopian monk, Abba Gorgoryos, whom he met and worked with in Rome in the 1650s.

In 1790, the Scottish traveler James Bruce published the first maps of Ethiopia and the Nile basin based either on his direct observations and measurement of positions or from information he collected from officers of the royal court. After Bruce, toponymic and topographic data were gathered by travelers, missionaries and researchers, some of whom lived in the region for many years and collected their information from locals, often in the context of long stays at local kings’ courts, and in some cases due to their involvement in local kinship and power networks after their marriages into local families. The accessibility of information by local traders, traditional scholars and regional rulers assured that a great wealth of historically and anthropologically important data was amassed over time.

From the early 19th century until the mid-20th century, maps presenting the progress of explorations and geographical studies on Ethiopia were printed and quite widely distributed. Beside these maps designed for a large readership, there were specialized maps produced in a limited number of copies for scholars. The detailed military maps, which contained strategic information in the context of colonial conquest of Africa, are more seldom and hardly accessible. Very detailed and sophisticated maps were produced for the public by specialized cartographic institutes. Considerable amounts of manpower and technological innovation were invested on data processing and multi-layer printing. However, due to the fact, that there is no compendium of these maps, produced in very different scholarly and political contexts, there is a fundamental ignorance of the data offered by them in historical and anthropological studies of the Horn of Africa.

Historical maps matter, not only for scholarly purposes. Blurred and incomplete knowledge of the processes of construction and appropriation of territories and on how they were fixed on maps may have consequence on the public understanding of the territorial structures and related identities at different scales, from local to international perspectives. Whereas issues related to international boundaries, their making, transformations and challenges have been abundantly discussed, there is an obvious lack of reference works to study the evolution of administrative units and their limits at each period of the building of the contemporary states in the Horn of Africa since the mid-19th century.

Objectives of the project

The ETHIOMAP website combines on-line visualization and indexation tools to explore and study a collection of historical maps of north-east African territories. If places found within today’s boundaries of Ethiopia are topographically central in the collection, hence the project’s name, other places related to neighbouring countries are also part of the work. The scope of the research is limited to maps published between 1790 and 1944. deemed important for they represent either scientific advances or historical turning points

For each map of the corpus, all written information is indexed and described according to categories specific to the document’s internal structure. Custom lists of items can be generated through filters (by zone, by category). Each item is clickable and shows its position on the map.

In the perspective of exploring the whole collection, all indexed items will be gathered into a common general thesaurus of reference transcriptions. Each reference entry of this thesaurus will open to a list of the different maps in which a single placename is found under different spellings.