Mekelle Foresight with Jan Nyssen, Researcher and Professor of Geography

Tigrai TV, 4 May 2022 –


Michael Menassie (MM): Hello, and welcome to Mekelle Foresight. This is Michael Menassie, producer and host of the show. My guest today is Professor Jan Nyssen of Ghent University. The research team he heads has recently uncovered a map prepared by a German atlas printing house in the mid-nineteenth century. This is part of their research on historical cartography in the Horn of Africa. We will discuss about that today; welcome, Professor Nyssen.

Jan Nyssen (JN): Hello Michael and I am glad to be with you.

MM: Thank you. It was reported in the media that this map of the Horn of Africa1 was previously unseen. Let’s start with this. Why was this map, made in the mid-nineteenth century in Germany, kept hidden for all this time until you recently brought it to light?

JN: I don’t know if it was deliberately kept hidden. There are thousands and thousands of historical maps, and I happened to see a snapshot of it, a part of it, because we have colleagues historical cartographers and historians who are working with these maps and analysing them to see how territories shifted over time and so on. Some weeks ago, they posted a part of that map2; after seeing that, I found it back through internet search. Then, was it kept hidden? Yes and no. There is not a big complot all over the world to hide maps. The maps are freely available. For instance, this map is available in two-three different archives and if you search you can find it. What is remarkable however, is that Mr. Achamyeleh, a person from the fano side in Amhara region, wrote a whole book3 about historical maps [representing Welkait]; however he published only those maps that fit with the Amhara nationalist point of view, stating that Welkait belongs to Gondar essentially. This man must have come across all the other maps. There are around 20 maps in the mid-19th century, there is not only this German map, there are other German maps, American maps, British maps, and they all consistently incorporate Welkait with Tigray. That was the time of Djazmatch Wubie; at that time all these cartographers were mapping Tigray to both sides of the Tekeze. I think at least this person [Achamyeleh] must have omitted it deliberately. It cannot be that he didn’t come across it, given that he did so much research in archives. But for the rest, it is a matter of serendipity, by chance I came across the map which I had not seen before. And I picked it up – that’s how I found it. I must say that there are historians related with Mekelle University who are researching these maps, fully from the historical point of view.

MM: Zooming in to Western Tigray, in an essay you published regarding your discovery, you wrote “The goal here isn’t to prove territorial claims based on specific maps, but rather to demonstrate these maps fit in a wide array of historical maps and records which jointly reveal that territorial organization has varied tremendously over time.” Even that the Red Sea Coast, Egypt, Nubia, and the northern and central Ethiopian highlands were known, and Tigray and Amhara mapped in relatively detailed form. Given this fact, to what extent does your finding settle the dispute between the Tigrayans and the Amhara who have made reference to old maps, census data and historical place names in defending their rights to these parts of Ethiopia, to rule these parts of Ethiopia.

JN: You have rightly cited me. See this other map representing the period of the mid-19th century (Fig. 1). There is not only this map, there are other sources. For example the book “A social history of Ethiopia” by famous historian Richard Pankhurst4 written in 1990, quoting sources from the 18th century, that state “Welkayt in Tigrè”. Pankhurst was Addis Ababa-based, and he wrote with the Amharic background: “Tigrè”. He writes several times “Welkayt in Tigrè”. Those sources are there. There are other documents that tend then to show Welkait closer to Begemder. I am not picking out one or the other, but I am saying “these maps are also existing” (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. “Tigre” as it was mapped in 1841 by Weiland5,-Eritr

JN: If you want to look at historical maps, you see that there have been changes in territorial control. For a certain time it [Welkait] was controlled by Tigray and for some time by Amhara. In other words, Welkait has not always been [part of] Gondar. The maps are clearly proving that in historical times its [territorial control] has changed.

MM: The existence of various maps and documents and also the debate is acceptable. What we saw in this war, which is ongoing, especially the Amhara elite, is however attempting to redraw politico-administrative entities with force and ethnic cleansing. This is being used as an optimal strategy to achieve political goals.

JN: Yes. What they do is to pick a couple of maps that fit their purpose. They pick the maps of the Haile Selassie period. Before Menelik and Haile Selassie, Ethiopia comprised a lot of kingdoms with a hierarchy amongst them. There was Tigray, and Gondar and Kaffa and so on. When Menelik was in power, he participated somehow in the scramble for Africa. He gave part of the Tigrayan territory to Italy; the colonial powers gave him the freedom to colonise southern territories in his turn. And then he has totally redrawn all boundaries in Ethiopia; he gave pieces of territory to his vassals that they could control. Here is a map of that [Haile Selassie’s] period (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Map of provinces and ethno-linguistic settlement patterns in Ethiopia by Trimingham (1965)6, republished by Westphal7.

If you look at that map, you see that at that time, one third of the Gondar province was inhabited by Tigrinya speakers. The map (Fig. 2) is a map of the languages in Ethiopia in 1965, republished in 1975. And the northern part of Gondar province was inhabited by Tigrinya speakers. But if the paradigm is shifted and another approach is taken, as happened in 1990, if one considers that these provinces were a construct by Menelik and by Haile Selassie, one may try to organise the country based on the real world of the ethnicity and how the people interact. Hence it makes sense to come to a Tigray with the boundaries more or less like they are now [just before the war].

MM: And in this map, the Tigrinya-speaking area straddles across the Tekeze?

JN: After I published this essay about the map by Handtke in 1849, I found other maps, such as the one in 1841 by Weiland (Fig. 1). On both maps, there is the same contour of Tigray/Tigre. You know, there have been stupid claims on social media, that I am the one who was adding colours on these maps in order to modify them. Let them view the original scanned maps on the internet, and they will see that the colours are there on the originals. This 1841 map should then be more convincing to those people because the letters TIGRE are written across the territory, across the Tekeze, stretching from Welkait to Agame. It is important to remind that these maps show territorial control; these are not maps that represent ethnicity. For instance on the 1841 and 1845 maps, Tigray stretches south, well beyond Wandatch, that is far into Lasta; at that time it was under Tigray. At that time, Dejazmatch Wube controlled many princedoms – now we would say woredas or so. In every princedom he had a relative or a close friend, through whom he controlled his territory. And in all these small areas, these people (lords) were semi-independent – don’t imagine a state like we know it nowadays. The geography was also helping very much for that semi-independence; in the rainy season all rivers are full of water and armies could not pass. Hence in the rainy season every territory became independent. And when the river went down, again they paid their taxes, in this case to Ras Wube. What the maps are showing is a territorial control, exerted from the Adwa-Aksum area.

MM: Science has to continue, but there are also those who say “what is the point talking about historical maps when people are dying”; the life of millions of people is at stake.

JN: Indeed, that is very important. Let me give you two reflections in this regard. One, since a couple of days, since these maps are circulating, you would be surprised by the number of insults that I am receiving on social media. Before a month, we made an estimate with our team, that between a quarter and half a million of people died due to the Tigray war8. I was not insulted for revealing those numbers! There are people who are more nervous for maps than for potentially half a million people who died! That’s something very strange for me.

The second part of my response, is that we should not necessarily argue about old maps. Basically, what this map is saying is that there are so many different [contradictory] maps. If you are going to fight about old maps, you will not get out of it. The map of the languages in north Ethiopia (Fig. 2) shows that Tigrinya is also widely spoken to the west of the Tekeze River, and that was the base for making the new Tigray. I feel like, one cannot dissociate the extent of the Tigray territory and the war and the crisis that we face now. The worst ethnic cleansing, the most killings were in Western Tigray9. A lot of this has been uncovered; you have like half a million of people who have been moved away from their house. So, we are not holding a theoretical discussion about maps. It contributes to solving the problem. People on the Abiy side, or on the fano side,  often boast that the main reason for snatching away Western Tigray is to take away the most fertile lands [from Tigray]. “Let them go, let them go to their dry mountains, and they will not survive”. It is another way of starving Tigray. In peace negotations, Western Tigray is quite essential for the survival of Tigray. And then, the discussion about Western Tigray becomes important, and in that discussion, basically from the Amhara nationalist side, they came with all these old maps3, they did not want to talk about the language of the people in the area, they only wanted to talk about the old maps. And now, with these maps that are uncovered about the extent of Tigray in the 19th century, even their argument that Welkait historically had always belonged to Gondar on so on, it appears that this also is not true. And now we can have the real discussion, “forget about these historical maps, what was the language in Western Tigray”? Western Tigray was and still is a very wide area with low population density, but the communities who were living there, they were speaking Tigrinya. Also the southern areas of Western Tigray, the hilly areas around Dansha and so on, are mainly Tigrinya-speaking [at least before ethnic cleansing]. And then you saw the “Welkait Gondarines” [who went to Gondar over the last years before the war], when they had some private talk that other people in Gondar should not understand, they shifted to Tigrinya. So, the point is that the real language on the spot should be considered. “Forget about these old maps, because Tigray [now] also has a lot of old maps that show that this has been historically part of Tigray. But let us look at the language maps (Fig. 2)”.

MM: After you published these findings, peace and conflict analyst Prof. Kjetil Tronvoll reacted: “Now that the research team headed by Jan Nyssen has discovered a German-made map from 1849, clearly stating Welkait as part of Tigray, the question remains whether Amhara activists will manage to find an even older map, stating the opposite”. He also wonders how far back one can go back. What are your thoughts on this?

JN: How far one can go back, hmmm? You know, in 1820 Belgium was part of The Netherlands. Can you imagine that somebody comes and says “hi, I found a map and it shows that you were part of The Netherlands…”. Around 1750, Belgium was part of Austria. And maybe somebody will come with an even older map. What does it mean to have an older map? It is changing through time. Often on maps you see Begemder, Gondar, Welkait written close to each other on such old maps, there is even no boundary drawn. But there is no indication on such maps that there was effective territorial control, [the land is also not level, there is a big mountain range in between]. Do we then need to go back to the time of Aksum, or even before and use that to delimit the boundaries for nowadays? No, you look to the real world. To me, what is remarkable, is that the insults I am getting [about this], they come from the usual suspects on social media, Jeff Pearce and that type of toxic people. You would expect that Achamyeleh Tamiru, who wrote a full book of 300 pages with lots of maps supporting the Gondar point of view3, this is the person who should react. On the social media, people pick up something, they say that I have been adding lines on the map and so on. That’s the type of reactions you get. But I have not seen one serious researcher reacting, like “how are we going to handle this situation? This man has found maps that show exactly the opposite of our claims”. Maybe they are busy writing something, that is possible of course. You may not expect people to react within a couple of days for such findings.

MM: By 1849, when Handtke produced his map, Eritrea had not yet come into existence as a separate territory. It does not appear on the map as a country. Then how was that part of the Horn mapped at that time?

JN: When you look at Eritrea, at that time, along the Red Sea coast there was a sultanate that was separate, and the highlands of Eritrea were part of the wider Tigray, the areas in Eritrea where Tigrinya and partly Tigre languages are used. And then, there are the lowlands which at that time were mapped as “tribal land” without much precision. Then, there is a totally different step, when around 1870 the Italians came and then the scramble for Africa started and Menelik used the opportunity for pushing southward, because he could not keep the coast of the Red Sea. Then he went south, taking his share, his small share in the scramble for Africa.

Fig. 3. Michael Menassie and Prof. Jan Nyssen

MM: In your research, you must have come across literature also, besides maps. For instance, there are other sources that show that Tigray was a lot bigger, sometimes four times bigger than what it is now.

JN: Yes, but then we are speaking again about this territorial control. Even on this map (Fig. 1), Tigray stretches down to Dallol, because Tigray needed salt and they took territorial control over an area from where they could get salt, a safe source of salt. In the same vein, in Haile Selassie’s time, Tigray held a large part of Afar. Once the new borders have been drawn, there is no more claim on Afar, because the Afar people have their own territory, they have unified their own lands. You wouldn’t go into that same mistake as the Gondar extremist people are doing, finding the one map that shows the bigger extent of Tigray and “that’s what we want”. There is for instance a historical map of Tigray that includes the whole of Lasta, the sources of Tekeze River, at a certain time all that was controlled by Tigray. If the Tigrayans go that way, they would make the same mistake like the Gondarines are doing. That has a term in political science, that’s called “irredentism”. Irredentism is that you don’t look at the current situation, you look at the history and you try to find the bigger historical extent. When you do that, from both sides, or also from one side, it leads to war. People start thinking how big their territory could be. Let me give you a historical example from Europe, the best example is in Germany. In the 20th century they lost twice a war, even the Second World War was very bad, because with Hitler they had a very bad political system. After each war, at the east, they lost a lot of territory. There are, few, but there are people in Germany who say “we need to take those territories back, it belongs to Germany”. But all know, it they would go for that, it would be a catastrophe, and any serious person in Germany will say “there was Hitler and his war and then we lost territory, and there is no way to take it back”. But irredentism is finding maps that reach the farthest possible and then claiming those territories.

I want to come back to Western Tigray – now we se Waldabba as a monastery in a remote place, in the forest and the bushes. At that time, Waldabba was having very large territories, much more than now. On the map (Fig. 1), at that time, there were two big territories in Western Tigray, that is Waldabba and Welkait. The essential thing is that, thanks to the discovery of these maps, it is clearly proven now to say that there is no historical ground to say that “Welkait always belonged to Amhara”, or “Welkait always belonged to Gondar”, and now the real discussions can start.

MM: It is fair to say that the Tigrayans have now come to terms with the reality. They [the TPLF] are now blamed for the current set-up of states, which is based on a completely different set of parameters. Peoples’ identity, culture, consent, …

JN: What we would call federalism…

MM: What factors do you envisage for further going forward?

JN: But now you are talking about the future of Ethiopia. And then it is much more than about Gondarines only. So many bad things have happened; we have all seen those images at Mehabere Dego, even female Ethiopian soldiers laughing and shooting at people that they gathered on the edge of a cliff and pushing them down. What I hear from Tigrayan people is “how can we live together [with them]?”, there are so many bad things that have happened. Restarting at this time a discussion about how should every boundary look like in the future Ethiopia [seems premature]. In Oromia it is the same, with all the bad things that are happening. I have never understood, by the way, in this whole federalistic set-up why they made an Oromo zone in Amhara region. They could have constituted that area as part of Oromia, as an exclave of the Oromo region. Overall the country is in bad shape. We know, or better, we try to know what is happening in Tigray, but the rest of Ethiopia is also in a bad shape. Abiy has brought the country back for many decades. I am not the one who is going to come now with solutions on how to redraw the next map of Ethiopia, and it is also out of my capacity, I am not a political scientist. I am simply saying that the story that “Welkait was always part of Gondar” is not true. I wouldn’t dare to hypothesise how the internal boundaries in Ethiopia will be drawn after the war. It’s a very complex issue, we’re not out of it, that is obvious.

MM: The point that I was trying to raise is the following. Tigrayans have long relinquished this historical claim, and settled to the reality. The federal arrangement does not incorporate many of the lands that are Tigray’s historical claims. Territories that have become part of Afar or of Amhara.

JN: That is then about Tigray’s historical territories. Yes, and that’s valid for each of Haile Selassie’s provinces. Not only one third of Gondar province was inhabited by Tigrinya speakers. If you go to the then Godjam province, the total western part is inhabited by Gumuz people. Wollo province was inhabited by three ethnicities, Oromo, Afar and Amhara. Once they changed the approach and went for federalism, then each of these provinces was cut and reorganised.

MM: Before we finish this interview, can you give me some details about the other map (Fig. 2) that shows the languages. Who’s map is it, where was it produced, etc.

JN: This is a map that was produced in 1965, by J. Spencer Trimingham who wrote a book about “Islam in Ethiopia”6. Besides religion, he needed also ethnicity as a background, because somehow religion overlaps, and sometimes religious boundaries don’t overlap at all [with ethnic territories]. So, for his research, Trimingham needed the map of languages in Ethiopia. And then, in 1975, Egbert Westphal wrote a book on the “Agricultural systems in Ethiopia”6, and we know that agricultural systems are somehow related to ethnicity. Gumuz have a totally different agricultural system than Amhara. Hence, Westphal also needed an ethno-linguistic map and he republished Trimingham’s map. You will find similar language maps in every atlas of Ethiopia that existed in the Emperor’s time and in Derg time. At that time, the provinces were cutting across the language areas. There has never been a claim that these provinces were ethnically homogeneous. See the language map (Fig. 2). In modern mapping times this would come with flashy colours, we don’t work with maps in black and white anymore. I could colour the different language areas, but I don’t do it in order to respect the historical document, we should keep it like that as an evidence. Using the legend for Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre, one can clearly read on the map (Fig. 2) that back then (1965), Tigrinya was spoken in the Tigray province, but also in a wide area on the west of Tekeze up to the border with Sudan. It was all Tigrinya-speaking in 1965. Such maps, which were very common at that time, have then later, among others, been used to delimit regional boundaries.

MM: I have exhausted my questions, the floor is yours for some final thoughts.

JN: I am hoping that the war stops soon, I am hoping that all these people who have been displaced may return to their land and work on their land. I just heard that there have been good rains in the Mekelle – Dogu’a Tembien area and that farmers are getting ready to sow their crops. They have not received improved seeds, but they have all kept some seeds from the last harvest. Even if there is famine, a farmer cannot eat their seed. Farmers are sowing now, that is the latest that I heard this morning. For me that’s most important; let the politicians and the military find solutions, but the people need to be allowed to live in their villages, I am sure everywhere the farmers will be very active in ploughing and try to let the communities survive. We are back to that stage where the communities do their best to work hard and to survive on their own10.

MM: Thank you, Professor Nyssen, for this very illuminating interview and for the hard work in your research. Thank you for giving us this opportunity.

JN: I am doing my best, particularly as the people in Tigray, since 1994 have been hosting me in the villages and in the towns and in Mekelle. I think that it is normal that I do this.


  1. Nyssen, J. Handtke’s (1849) map of the Horn of Africa uncovered. Zenodo – (2022).
  2. Smidt, W. in Online Lecture Series „New Perspectives on the Horn of Africa“    (Wissenschaftlicher Arbeitskreis Horn von Afrika, 2022).
  3. Achamyeleh Tamiru. የወልቃይት ጉዳይ (The Wolkait Affairs).  430 (Self-published, 2019).
  4. Pankhurst, R. A social history of Ethiopia.  (Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University, 1990).
  5. Weiland, C. F. Das nordoestliche Africa oder Aegypten, Nubien, Habesch, Kordofan und Dar-Fur, 1:5 000 000 –,-Eritr(Verlage des geograph. Instituts 1841).
  6. Trimingham, J. S. Islam in Ethiopia.  299 (Frank Cass & Company, 1965).
  7. Westphal, E. Agricultural systems in Ethiopia.  (Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation, 1975).
  8. Globe and Mail, 15 March 2022: Tigray war has seen up to half a million dead from violence and starvation, say researchers.
  9. Human Rights Watch & Amnesty International. “We Will Erase You from This Land” – Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing in Ethiopia’s Western Tigray Zone (Human Rights Watch, 2022).
  10. Nyssen, J., Negash, E., Van Schaeybroeck, B., Haegeman, K. & Annys, S. Crop Cultivation at Wartime – Plight and Resilience of Tigray’s Agrarian Society (North Ethiopia). Defence and Peace Economics, 1-28, doi:10.1080/10242694.2022.2066420 (2022).

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