Projects like The Battle of Adwa are dependent upon a sense of place. In fact, there are very few historical projects that cannot be improved by a visit to the scene of key events. Historical settings can be primary sources, if we know how to read them and if we know how time has changed them.
When I decided to take on the Adwa story, one of the first things I did was to get myself to Ethiopia, to Addis Ababa and, of course, the site of the Adwa battle. I walked about, took photos, and used GPS to situate myself. All of these activities deepened my understanding of the terrain and helped me to place nineteenth century accounts and illustrations in critical dialog with the terrain as it exists today. This photo shows the area near where Matteo Albertone's advance guard collided with Ethiopian sentries early on the first of March, igniting the battle of Adwa.
In addition to visits to key sites, I used graphics software to update historical maps and to make them more readable. The Red Sea port of Massawa was a key location in the Adwa story. When the Egyptians evacuated Massawa in 1885, the Italians moved in, with the encouragement of the British and to the great annoyance of Ethiopia.
I found a richly detailed historical map of Massawa, but it was cluttered, annotated in Italian, and marred by a crease at the binding.
I used this as a base map for my own creation. I was able to remove a substantial amount of clutter, while retaining the essential geographical and historical information. I translated the textual information and I removed the binding crease and shadow.
I faced a similar challenge with the town of Harar. Harar was the hinge in Menelik’s connection to the sea in the south. Goods coming up from the coast – or headed from Addis Ababa to the sea – passed through Harar. I talk about Harar at a couple of points in the book – how it figured in Egypt’s plan to bottle up Ethiopia; how Greek, French, Armenian, and British businessmen set up shop there.
Although Harar didn’t have a large permanent population, as a market town it had a very large transient population. That, combined with the fact that Harar was a walled settlement, gave it an intensely urban feel, which it still possesses.
I located a detailed map of Harar; it had some of the same defects as my historical map of Massawa. The cartographer included a generous amount of information, but contour lines showing elevation competed with lines tracing walls and passageways. The annotations were in French; the overall look of the map was marred by a fold line and a shadow.
Since I wanted to focus on the layout of Harar, I redrew the map without the elevation lines. My map emphasized the walls, the gates, the market squares, and the roads approaching the town.
In the end, the maps of Massawa and Harar didn't make it into the book. Still, creating them was fruitful. The process enabled me to become intimately familiar with the historical geography of these locations - familiarity primes the historical imagination.
Posting these images here allows me to make a couple of points. The first concerns the importance of geography as a primary source - landscape and the built environment have a history too. The second concerns the "resurrection" of historical maps. Very little of what historians use today is born digital, but with a little care we can help certain objects be digitally reborn.