The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Ethiopian Showcase - Tuesday 27th January 2009

Historic Maps of Ethiopia

Given by - organised by Dorothea McEwan

Reviewed by - Anne Parsons


This showcase at the British Library, attended by twenty-five members of the Anglo-Ethiopian Society, allowed a close-up study of many maps not normally on display in the public galleries. Tom Harper (Curator, Antiquarian Mapping) welcomed us and introduced the sixteen items which had been brought for us to look at. Not all were from the Map Library, some being from the Manuscript Library and others from the Rare Book Library. All in all five departments had provided access to materials held in their care, ranging in date from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century.

We were shown the first map to be printed in Europe (1472). Isidore of Seville's tripartite map of the world shows only the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, is only about 50mm in diameter, and is more a concept than a map.

The oldest item, a Latin Psalter written in England around 1275, contained a round world map with Jerusalem at the centre, and God depicted at the top of the page; on the back are the names of the principal kingdoms and cities of Asia, Europe, and Africa - Ethiopia is on the periphery.

Another early manuscript (c.1500) was a surprisingly detailed classical map of Africa, the information on which it was based coming from Claudius Ptolemy's Geographia of about AD 150.

Two maps from the second half of the sixteenth century featured illustrations of the legendary Prester John. One was in a large atlas presented by Queen Mary of England to Philip II of Portugal in 1558.

Tom explained that, although many of these early maps would now be thought to be inaccurate, they should be evaluated in the context of knowledge of the day and that they give us a good idea about the European perception of Ethiopia and other foreign lands.

A personal favourite of mine was the Africa section (1 of 12 gores) of a large globe (over 3 feet diameter) constructed by Vincenzo Coronelli in Venice in 1688. Another interesting item was an educational map of Africa produced by John Spilsbury in Covent Garden in 1767. It is a map pasted onto board and dissected along country boundaries to make a jigsaw puzzle.

The two latest maps on show were produced apparently with a military purpose in mind. A manuscript sea chart of the coast of Abyssinia by Lieutenant William Maxfield, of the cruiser Antelope, was drawn in May 1804. A route map of part of Abyssinia (from Ansley Bay to Magdala), at a scale of 2½ miles to 1 inch, was compiled by E.G. Ravenstein and published in London by the War Office in 1867, just before the Magdala campaign.

Thanks for a wonderful afternoon should be offered to Tom Harper for so willingly spending time with us and sharing his knowledge, to Dorothea McEwan for arranging the visit with the British Library, and to Martha Mulugeta-Berihun for organising the list of members who could attend.

I'm sure there are many institutions in the UK with Ethiopia-related artefacts in their collections which are not normally on public view and I hope this will be the first of a series of visits that can be arranged for Society members.

First Published in News File Spring 2009

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