Mapping an Entangled Past: An Interconnected Historical Map of Kafa (South-West Ethiopia) by Friedrich Julius Bieber (1905)

The development of the European cartography of north-east Africa was strongly associated with the 18th-, 19th‑ and early 20th-century missionaries and explorers. These travellers’ insights were informed by the local knowledge of indigenous people. Prior to the mid-19th century, European geographic knowledge about the diverse kingdoms in the south and south-west of Ethiopia was sparse compared to the more northern regions of present-day northern Ethiopia. However, in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, a handful of European travellers crossed the northern Abyssinian lands and visited different kingdoms and small-scale states located in the south and south-western parts of old Abyssinia (Cecchi 1886: 585; d’Abbadie 1890: 63–66).

Among these, the kingdom of Kafa was one of the historically independent and strongest kingdoms of south-western Abyssinia. In 1897 after fierce eight months of war and resistance, the kingdom was conquered by Emperor Menelik II’s forces under his general Ras Walda-Giyorgis (Beke 1850: 208–223; Temesgen 2011: 198, 201). After his brilliant triumph over the colonialist Italians at the battle of Adwa in 1896, Emperor Menelik II turned his focus to the south-west, particularly to Kafa. Then, by using the modern weapons he got from the battle of Adwa and the support from the already submitted neighbouring kings (including King Abba Jifar of Jimma), Menelik conquered Kafa and incorporated the kingdom into the Ethiopian state as a province in 1897 (Henze 2000: 173; Huntingford 1955: 105; Lange 1982: 221; Bieber 1923: 521).

Very few European academic explorers wrote down their travel accounts and sketched maps of this kingdom; among the notable exceptions is the Austrian traveller Friedrich Julius Bieber, who travelled most of the area and extended his stay in Kafa from June through July 1905, a few years after Menelik’s conquest of the kingdom. Recent works on his endeavours indicate that he initially came to the Ethiopian court as one of the members of the Austro-Hungarian diplomatic delegation of 1904/05 (Sayuri 2016: 30–39). Bieber, in his function as an envoy for commercial and diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Austria-Hungary had established a positive connection with emperor Menelik II. He played a facilitating role in the establishment of diplomatic and commercial relations between the two empires.

Bieber is said to have been acquainted with knowledge about north-east Africa in general and the “divine kingdom of Kafa” from his prior reading (ibid.). Then by using the opportunity, he received permission from Emperor Menelik II and travelled to Kafa in 1905. He was a self-educated and prolific writer who, in the wake of his travels, wrote extensively on the geographic, socio-cultural and political history of Kafa in particular (Bieber, 1908, 1920–1923). His research endeavours also included a sketched map depicting the geological and ethnographic remnants of socio-cultural and political institutions of the decayed old kingdom of Kafa and its neighbouring states (Bieber 1908: 1–32).

Bieber’s travel route sketch map interestingly consisted of rich and very complex ethnographic profiles of different societies which inhabited the old Kafa kingdom and its surroundings. Moreover, his work in recording all the landscape features and ethnographic information from the local informants, which he analysed according to his perceptions and knowledge was depicted in a map inspired by his information. In the following, the map, which was published in 1908 by the Justus Perthes publishing house in Gotha will be discussed, focussing on the diverse sets of knowledge it contains.

Transferring Field Knowledge into Maps

Bieber transmitted his travel records in the form of field notes (diaries and itineraries) to the German cartographer Carl Schmidt, one of the chief cartographers of the Justus Perthes map publishing house in the beginning of the 20th century. He carefully took up Bieber’s hand-sketched maps and their information. Working with Bieber’s evidence, Schmidt constructed his map of Kafa and other neighbouring kingdoms along the lines of Bieber’s expedition to the south-western Ethiopian highlands in the early 20th century. Schmidt was probably aided by several specialists in the publishing house. This map had drawn together a large amount of geographic, toponymal, and ethnological data from Bieber’s entire sketch. It was the cartographer’s choice, however, how to combine the complex local knowledge that the traveller had transmitted to Gotha, and to decide what ought to be put on the map and what should be left out. A map made from Bieber’s 1905 sketched map with his travel information was published in 1908 by Justus Perthes Gotha.

A map of Kafa based on information from Bieber.
Kaffa. Routen der Expedition v. Mylius-Bieber. 1905. Aufgenommen von Friedrich J. Bieber, in: Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen 54 (1908), T. 10.
Gotha Research Library, Perthes Collection, SPK 4° 00100 (054) (CC BY-SA 4.0). Link ↗

An article entitled Das Hochland von Südäthiopen by Bieber himself (1908) accompanied the map in Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, describing his travel route and containing historical documentation of the diverse knowledge of the people of Kafa. The article demonstrated how Bieber used territorial concepts and practices which were hitherto unknown and had never before appeared on European maps.

Despite inevitable distortion and incorrect use of place names and ethnic names, which was perhaps caused by Bieber using the German pronunciation system to transcribe the ethnonyms and toponyms, the map had rich and detailed information about local concepts of territoriality. These were ingrained in cultural-socio-political land use traditions rather than in formal law and showed that historical Ethiopia and its neighbours can be characterized by very complex concepts of territoriality, which do not necessarily correspond with European assumptions and expectations. Bieber’s map can be understood as an original and highly informative repository of local notions of borders and territoriality and is an interesting witness to political-territorial changes over decades and centuries.

Translating Local Notions of Borders and Territoriality

Bieber’s map offers important insights into the local notion of borders that the kingdom of Kafa used and its local concepts of territoriality. The representation of several mountains and impassable dense forests as well as the depiction of the border ditch dug by the people of Kafa during the time of the kingdom of Kafa is particularly fascinating. This border ditch is depicted on the map as a Grenzgraben, locally called Hiriyoo. These ditches dug around the kingdom of Kafa were used by the indigenous people as an indication of their border area. In addition, the traditional gate systems of the old Kafa kingdom were also frequently shown on Bieber’s map as Obbi-Kello, Gomi-Kello, Gumbi-Kello, Kette-Kello, Deschi-Kello, Kankati-Kello and Oda-Kello (Bieber 1908: 1–32). This kello system was a politically institutionalized system that had been used as a marker of border and territoriality by the Kafa people and later by other neighbouring Omotic and Gibe Oromo states in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Bieber also has several names of political centres of the kingdom of Kafa. During the time of the kingdom of Kafa, there were towns regarded as political seats of the kings from the foundation to the demise of the kingdom. These include Shadda, the earliest centre to the south-east of Kafa found in Tello district, Bonga, Anderacha and Sharadda. Among these, Bonga and Anderacha are commonly known as the residential area of the royal families or in a modern term “the palace of the kings” of Kafa since the 16th century. Bieber designated Anderacha as the Kaiserpfalz, which is associated with the practices of medieval European rulers. Kaiserpfalz was a term that originally described the imperial residences scattered around the kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire and was here probably used by Bieber because he encountered the ruins of the palace, which was destroyed during the war between the Ras Woldegiorgis of Menelik II. This might be an indication of the nature of Bieber’s affection for the kingdom: He was able to associate his experiences there heavily with his own cultural heritage and often intermingled political concepts of both areas, as can be witnessed throughout the map and article.

Moreover, various socio-cultural and traditional religious institutions are visible on the map. The temple of the traditional religious rite of Kafecho is also depicted as Kultstätte (locally known as deejjee Xaoo). It is a thanksgiving or sacrification site used by the king or custodians of the ritual. Bieber also indicated the worship house of the king as Hekko Templelocally known as Eqqi kexo. The graveyard of the king’s mother is also visible on the map as Gräber der Kaiser Mütter in south-eastern Kafa, around Shosha. And again, Bieber’s usage of European political terms for Ethiopian institutions is obvious, perhaps in an effort to translate Ethiopian political structures for a European audience.

Despite his relative cultural literacy, Bieber failed to indicate the border demarcation between Kafa and its neighbours. For instance, he made his return trip via Dawuro and showed some locations from Dawuro on the map. However, he never indicated any reference points on the border between Kafa and Dawuro. Another deficiency of Bieber’s map is that his travel route line on the map contains very rich and condensed information whereas in areas far away from his travel route the map appears devoid of information. Thus, the information depicted on the map is not linear or balanced, but rather mirrors Bieber’s specific perspective and interests in the region.

Mapping as a Cultural Inquiry

Unlike the maps by his predecessors, which constitute merely very rough geographic information, Bieber’s map provides and visualizes plural socio-cultural and ethnographic perspectives about Kafa. What is incredible in this map is the fact that it contains not only archived geographical and geological features like mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, and forested landscapes; but also makes visible the ways in which local stories, local practices, memories, and both traditional and modern religions constitute places as meaningful locations.

More specifically it elucidates diverse socio-political and religious places like ritual sites, churches, state capitals, and different territorial lineage/clan names of Kafecho inhabited in the Kafa Kingdom and its borders. Thus, one can understand from this map how the people of Kafa had rich socio-political and religious practices. The map also shows the plurality of ethnic profiles of the inhabitants whose patrilineal lineages affiliated with diverse clan origins. The map of Bieber, therefore, is used in both a literal and metaphorical sense, where it goes beyond strict cartography to include not only land but also different ranges of cultural institutions which are more localised from its context. Hence, the map of Bieber is not only the usual physical and geographical map; it could rather be seen as an elaborate “cultural map”, using European cultural concepts to translate the world he encountered to a European audience.

Further Reading

Temesgen Gebeyehu Baye: The Evolution and Development of Kingship and Traditional Governance in Ethiopia: A Case of the Kefa Kingdom, in: Journal of Asian and African Studies 47.2 (2012), pp. 190–203.

Beke, Charles T.: On the Countries South of Abyssinia, in: The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society 13 (1843), pp. 254–269.

Bieber, Friedrich J.: Das Hochland von Südäthiopen, in: Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen 54 (1908), pp. 1–15, 99–114.

Id.: Kaffa. Ein altkuschitisches Volkstum in Inner-Afrika. Nachrichten über Land und Volk, Brauch und Sitte der Kaffitscho oder Gonga und das Kaiserreich Kaffa, 2 vols., Münster 1920–1923.

Bieber, Otto: Geheimnisvolles Kaffa. Im Reich der Kaiser-Götter, Vienna 1948.

Cecchi, Antonio: Da Zeilla alle frontiere del Kaffa, vol. 2, Rome 1886.

D‘Abbadie, Antoine: Caffa, Enarea, Renseignements donnés par le djellab Abel-el-Kader, natif de Gondar, âgé de dix-huit ans, le 15 fevrier 1843 (communiqué par M. Jomard), in: Bulletin de la Société de géographie 19 (1843), p. 328.

Id.: Géographie de l’Ethiopie. Ce que j‘ai entendu, faisant suite à ce que j’ai vu, Paris 1890.

Henze, Paul B.: Layers of Time. A History of Ethiopia, New York 2000.

Huntingford, George W. B.: The Galla of Ethiopia. The Kingdom of Kafa and Janjero, London 1955.

Lange, Werner J.: History of Southern Gonga, Wiesbaden 1982.

Yoshida, Sayuri: The Life and Collection of Friedrich Julius Bieber. An Archival Study of Kafa at the Beginning of the 20th Century, in: Nilo-Ethiopian Studies 21 (2016), pp. 29–39.



Cite this blog post
Zegeye Woldemariam Ambo (2024, February 29). Mapping an Entangled Past: An Interconnected Historical Map of Kafa (South-West Ethiopia) by Friedrich Julius Bieber (1905). Mapping Africa and Asia. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from https://karafas.hypotheses.org/6127

Zegeye Woldemariam Ambo

Zegeye Woldemariam Ambo is a PhD fellow at the Gotha Centre for Transcultural Studies of Erfurt University, writing his dissertation on the history and culture of the defunct kingdom of Kafa in present day's south-west Ethiopia. He investigates and reconstructs an intricate culture and history of the Kafa kingdom.

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