The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 12th October 2010

An Ethiopian Eden: Mapping Paradise in Ethiopia

Given by - Alessandro Scafi

Reviewed by - John Mellors


Alessandro Scafi started by pointing out that the 1974 discovery of the 3 million year old skeletal remains of Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) in the Awash Valley, Ethiopia, had led some to describe Ethiopia as the birthplace of mankind. In the Book of Genesis the Garden of Eden is described as the place where Adam and Eve lived after they were created by God. In the middle ages the Garden of Eden was believed to be a physical place on Earth and the supposed location of Paradise was shown on many early maps of the world. Its location changed as more of the earth was explored; at one time, in the fifteenth century, the Garden of Eden was thought by some to be in Ethiopia. Alessandro's lecture gave an account of the early locations for Paradise, and how it had eventually come to be mapped in Africa.

The Bible states that the river that watered the Garden split into four rivers that watered the Earth (Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, Euphrates) and this led many to think that the location of Paradise must be somewhere in Mesopotamia. As these areas became better known it became clear that Paradise must be elsewhere and by the twelfth century its supposed location was moved further East. At this time the world map in the Liber Floridus, the Sawley World Map and the thirteenth century Hereford Mappamundi all showed Paradise as an island at the most eastern point off the coast of India (at the top in these maps).

In the fourteenth century Ptolemy's Geographia was rediscovered and the information from this was used to provide more detail on maps. Exploration continued and book and map production moved from monasteries to universities and mercantile cities as practical nautical maps were required. No sign of Paradise had been discovered near India and on the fifteenth century Walsperger World Map, it is shown as a walled citadel in the Far East. Other maps of this time, such as the Borgia World Map and a painting by the Siennese artist Giovanni di Paolo showed Paradise to be in Africa. For many years the Indian Ocean was believed to be an enclosed sea with India joined to Africa so the shift of Paradise towards Africa was easy to understand. Made in the 1450s, the Catalan-Estense World Map (see a detail below) shows Paradise as being in Ethiopia with Prester John nearby. Prester John was commonly associated with Paradise because a fake letter written in the twelfth century stated that his kingdom was only three days away from Paradise.

Despite being held in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Warburg Institute this lecture was very well attended and very well received. Clearly Alessandro, and his colleagues, had put a lot of work into the PowerPoint presentation to ensure that the information on the maps could be easily interpreted. A fascinating insight was given to the rapid changes that took place in mapping during the Middle Ages, with some wonderful illustrations.

Detail from the Catalan-Estense map showing Paradise in Ethiopia. The river running through Paradise splits into four, one branch feeding the Blue Nile and Lake Tana. Prester John (Presta Johan) is shown in his tent.
Location: Biblioteca Estense, Modena, Italy

First Published in News File Spring 2011

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