Milash as a Border-Marking Concept in the Setting of the Geohistory of Northern Ethiopia: The Case of Mereb-Milash

Northern Abyssinia (northern Ethiopia) is home to the ancient Aksumite Kingdom. Although its capital was in Aksum, the cultural boundaries of the kingdom extended as far as the modern state of Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. According to Ethiopian and Eritrean sources, local borders were formulated using indigenous techniques to separate autonomous and semi-autonomous provinces. Borders that fall under this rubric maintaned their temporal and historical links for a long time. Local borders were designed referring to toponyms with monumental features, high mountains, long rivers and riverine settlements.

Among the envisioned indigenous spatial concepts embedded in the tradition was the broader concept of Milash. It was applied to designate provinces, territories and administrative nuclei. In pursuant to this tradition, some provinces and administrative nuclei were named using the Tigrigna word Milash as suffix after the names of rivers or high mountains. Thus, Bambilo-Milash, Mereb-Milash, Ala-Milash (Alewha-Milash), Werie-Milash, Gabat-Milash, Alaje-Milash etc. were used as local border references. They are frequently mentioned in Ethiopic genres as locally used internal borders. Hence, this work explores how traditional borders ascribed to the Mereb-Milash province located along the Mereb River were incorporated in European cartographic works of northern Ethiopia in the 19th century. The exemplary maps, which will be discussed here, are held at the Perthes Collection in Gotha, which comprises the remains of the Justus Perthes publishing house, one of the centres of 19th-century European exploration and cartography of the Horn of Africa.

Mereb-Milash

Archival and oral data on the history of northern Abyssinia indicates that Mereb-Milash was a traditional border zone conceived from politico-religious and cultural points of views. We find it embedded in the literary works and shared histories of the populations who live on both sides of the Mereb, Belesa and Muna rivers. Some scholars such as Alemseged (1998: 2) prefer to refer to these provinces as the Trans-Mereb.

Often the meaning and application of Mereb-Milash is dependent on the context in which it is used. For instance, when it is used as Mereb-Milash with no further explanation, it stands for two provinces lying across the opposing sides of the Mereb River. However, historically the area north of Mereb River adopted the name Mereb-Milash as the nomenclature of the area replacing or in coexistence with old names such as Makela-Bahri, Midri-Bahri and Bahre-Negash.

In 1864 A Map of Northern Abyssinia and the Countries at the Mereb, Barka and Anseba was produced by Justus Perthes in Gotha. The map was designed by August Petermann and edited by Bruno Hassenstein. It was prepared based on the inputs collected by Werner Munzinger, Theodor von Heuglin, Gottlob Theodor Kinzelbach and data from Antoine d’Abbadie. The map clearly represents the local border-marking techniques of the province by using big rivers, i.e. Mereb, Barka and Anseba Rivers.

Published in 1864, the map by Petermann and Hassenstein utilised recent input by German travelers alongside the data provided by d’Abbadie.
August Petermann, Bruno Hassenstein: Originalkarte von Nord-Abessinien und den Ländern am Mareb, Barka & Anseba, in: Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, Ergänzungsband 13 (1964), T. 3b.
Gotha Research Library, Perthes Collection, SPK 40.20.b B(02), Bl. 6 (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Link

There were considerable changes and continuities in the borders ascribed to Mereb-Milash. Partly the changes were motivated following eventful historical developments in the ruling houses of Tigre Mekonnen (south of Mereb River) and the Bahre Negash (north of Mereb River). Francisco Alvarez, who visited the region in the 16th century, noted that the kingdom of the Tigre Mekonnen was limited by the Mereb River, similarly to the southern kingdom of Bahre Negash at the other side of the river. According to him, Mereb River was regarded the border between the two ruling houses. This concept survived various political changes. For instance, according to Ludolf (1684: 17) Tigray had three “toparchies” with 27 prefectures under Tigre and seven prefectures under the Bahre Negash respectively. The autonomy enjoyed by the house of the Bahre Negash with semi-autonomous prefectures indicates the acknowledgment of a border. We find it embedded inside the locally conceptualized borders ascribed to the house of the Bahre Negash.

Let us have a look at the Map of Abyssinia and the Adjacent Districts based on Henry Salt’s observations and first published in 1815. This map is a typical example of Europeans’ understanding of the administration of Abyssinia under different regional ruling houses with a king at the centre of the power hierarchy. It provides an insight into how provinces, regions and districts were organized into cartographic works on Abyssinia in general and northern Abyssinia in particular. Besides, it provided an opportunity for contemporary researchers to understand the local concepts of territory and territoriality reflected in the local border- and boundary-marking techniques used by the indigenous societies.

The map (1815) provides insights into a typical European understanding of the region.
Charte von Abyssinien und dem angrenzenden Gebiete, entworfen nach den örtlichen Beobachtugen und eingezogenen Nachrichten von Heinrich Salt 1809 u. 1810, Weimar 1815.
Gotha Research Library, Perthes Collection, SPK 40.20.a A (07), Bl. 1 (CC BY-SA 4.0). Link

The houses of the Tigre Mekonnen and the Bahre Negash had coexisted for generations. They had remarkable symbiotic relationships. In fact, there were also occasions of raids and counterraids between them. These are vividly reflected in their respective annals. Nevertheless, Mereb River was taken as the border between the houses of the Tigre Mekonnen and the houses of the Bahre Negash. This was the norm when there were two equally powerful rulers in the two offices at the same time. However, when a weak ruler assumed power in either side, the border, i.e. Mereb-Milash would maintain only a nominal significance. This was true specifically to the tenures of Bahre Negash Yishak partly and Ras Amde Haymanot and Ras Sihul Mika’el who ruled from the north and south of the Mereb River. The distinctions between the houses of the Bahre Negash and the successors of the Tigre Mekonnen were distinguishable only after Ras Wolde Michael Solomon (r. 1841–1879) ascended to power from the Hazzega ruling house from Hamassen.

Mereb-Milash in Colonial Times

Following this, the traditional elements of the border-marking concepts embedded below the Mereb-Milash later morphed into a boundary with polemic reflections from both sides of the Mereb River. The division was further widened with the dawn of colonialism and the establishment of Eritrea as Italy’s First-born Colony (Colonia Primogenita) in 1890. Emperor Menelik II’s rule had also opened a new phase in the establishment of new boundaries north of Muna, Belesa and Mereb rivers as the references of the legalised boundary between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

In 1900, the old historic borders traditionally accepted by local rulers from the two sides of the Mereb River were transformed into colonial boundaries between Eritrea, being Italy’s colony, and Ethiopia. This gives evidence on how indigenous concepts of borders could be transformed into political boundaries of two independent states that were previously integral parts of a single sovereign state.

Further Reading

Alemseged Abbay: Identity Jilted or Re-Imagining Identity? The Divergent Paths of the Eritrean and Tigrayan Nationalist Struggles, Lawrenceville 1998.

Alvarez, Francisco: Narrative of the Portuguese Embassy to Abyssinia During the Years 1520–1527. Translated by Lord Stanley of Alderley, London 1881.

Barradas, Manoel: Tractatus Tres Historico-geographici (1634). A Seventeenth Century Historical and Geographical Account of Tigray, Ethiopia, Wiesbaden 1996.

Fitawrari Mika’el Hasama Raka: Zanta Eritrea, 1986.

Gebreyesus Abay: Meseret Alet Hizbi Mereb Milash, Asmera 1964.

Kolmodin, Johannes: Traditions de Tsazzega et Hazzega, Rome 1912.

Ludolf, Hiob: A New History of Ethiopia Being a Full and Accurate Description of the Kingdom of Abessinia, Vulgarly, Though Erroneously Called the Empire of Prester John, London 1684.

Salt, Henry: A Voyage to Abyssinia, and Travels into the Interior of That Country, Executed under the Orders of the British Government in the Years 1809 and 1810, London 1814.



Cite this blog post
Samuel Kidane Haile (2024, February 7). Milash as a Border-Marking Concept in the Setting of the Geohistory of Northern Ethiopia: The Case of Mereb-Milash. Mapping Africa and Asia. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vrp4

Samuel Kidane Haile

Samuel Kidane Haile is a PhD fellow at the Gotha Centre for Transcultural Studies of Erfurt University, writing his dissertation on “Historical Sources, Oral Traditions and Interpretations on the Period of Ras Sihul Mika'el, 1690-1780”. His research focuses on the geo-history of northern Ethiopia in the 18th c.

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1 Response

  1. Andalem Tariku Woldegiorgis says:

    Mereb-milash holds an important place in the history of northern Ethiopia. However, since Amde-Tsion’s first adoption of the title ‘Maekele-Baher’ (later changed to ‘Bahre-Negash’), the idea of ‘milash’ has been linked, even by researchers of the north, only to the land beyond the Mereb River. Therefore, this study makes a valuable remark that helps to explain the meaning of these names in Ethiopian history. This would eventually help for the clearer understanding of broader topics. Good job.

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