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ETHIOMAP : Cartographic sources and territorial transformations of Ethiopia since the late 18th century


Illustration : Detail of James Bruce’s map, 1792

Perceived as a border territory based on a conception of the World centred on the Mediterranean Sea, Ethiopia has long been a ‘rallying edge’ for the development of cartography, which was revived by the discovery of that fact that World is finite during the Renaissance. For Europeans, to reach the sources of the Nile and describe the entire course of this river and its tributaries represented a succession of hardships in order to solve old legends, get to a complete and rational understanding of the planet’s most remote areas, and assure the ability and legitimacy of controlling these territories and their alleged fabulous resources. Several risky expeditions were organised in the name of the Nile quest ; their outcomes were substantiated and disseminated via printed maps. While the Spanish Jesuit Pedro Paez was the first European to observe the wetlands that feed the upstream of the Blue Nile in 1618, it is the Scottish James Bruce and his Italian assistant Luigi Balugani who went there in 1770 with measuring tools and offered the first survey of this region, in line with the trigonometric approach of the description of the globe. Many other explorers came enhancing our knowledge of the area after that, with more sophisticated tools, more powerful weapons, and more arrogant behaviours or, on the opposite, better consideration for the local knowledge.

The Franco-German project “ETHIOMAP : Cartographic sources and territorial transformations of Ethiopia since the late 18th century”, funded by the French National Research Agency (ANR) and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), focuses on the various aspects of the application of techniques of modern cartography to Ethiopia and surrounding areas.

The projects will begin in January 2016 and gather four teams : theCéSor (UMR 8216 EHESS-CNRS) in France ; the Gotha Research Centre of the University of Erfurt in Germany ; the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa andMekelle University in Ethiopia.
Éloi Ficquet (EHESS, CéSor, France) and Wolbert Smidt (Mekelle University, Éthiopia ; University of Erfurt, Germany) are its directors.

Research will first focus on the Justus Perthes cartographic collection in Gotha, which is incredibly rich and has been made accessible since its purchase by the Länder of Thüringen in 2003. Famous for the publication of the well-known Almanach de Gotha (a directory of Europe’s royalty and higher nobility) from 1785 à 1944, this publishing company is also known for the production of the best cartographic maps of the time, with the periodical publication of the Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen in particular. While the archives of the Almanach de Gotha were destroyed by the soviet army in 1945, the Justus Perthes archives still contain a major collection of maps and data including the entire booming period of Geographical Sciences before the emergence of information technologies. The study of the cartographic collection of Gotha concerning Ethiopia will be completed and compared by surveying other collections in France, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
Based on a selection of maps illustrating either scientific breakthroughs or political watersheds, our goal will be to list, index, and write a critical analysis of each item, by comparing their occurrences and transcriptions from one map to another and, as far as possible, relate them to the heterogeneous pieces of knowledge they transcribe (position reports, oral information, and official sources). This directory of historical maps (from the end of the 18th century until the first half of the 20th century), their critical descriptions, their index, and a visualisation tool, will be published online on a website dedicated to this project.
The adjustment and publication of this database for the general public will then allow us to write summaries regarding the use of maps as historical sources. In the specific case of Ethiopia, a country that managed to push back a number of colonisation attempts, it will for instance be possible to observe how maps have been imported as technologies of power being read, used, and produced by sovereigns and their military or civil officers. Local powers have been redesigned and their nature redefined due to reforms based on a new understanding of territories according to the synthetic and overhanging dimension of maps.