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Articles in Historical Geography

Historical Clues and Modern Controversies in the Northeastern Caucasus: Udi and Ancient Albania

By Martin W. Lewis | January 23, 2012 | 32 Comments
Map of Hurrian Kingdoms, 2300 BCE

The Caucasus is rightly called a “mountain of languages.” Linguistic diversity reaches its extreme in the Russian republic of Dagestan and adjacent districts in northern Azerbaijan. The nearly three million inhabitants of Dagestan speak more than thirty languages, most of them limited to the republic. Such languages may seem inconsequential to outsiders, mere relict tongues of minor peoples. Yet a …

The Turkic-Speaking Greek Community of Georgia—and Its Demise

By Martin W. Lewis | January 19, 2012 | 27 Comments
Maps showing ethnic changes in Georgia

Readers who have carefully examined the maps of the Caucasus posted recently in GeoCurrents may have noted an area marked “Greek” in south-central Georgia. This Greek zone appears on most but not all ethno-linguistic maps of the region, sometimes as a single area, and sometimes as two. Depicting Greek communities here is historically accurate but increasingly anachronistic. Since 1991, the Greek …

From Sarmatia to Alania to Ossetia: The Land of the Iron People

By Martin W. Lewis | January 16, 2012 | 29 Comments
Map of the Sarmatian Tribes in Late Antiquity

The Caucasus is often noted as a place of cultural refuge, its steep slopes and hidden valleys preserving traditions and languages that were swept away in the less rugged landscapes to the north and south. Such a depiction generally seems fitting for the Ossetians, the apparent descendents of a nomadic group called the Sarmatians that dominated the grasslands of western …

Ethnic Politics and the Relocation of Ghana, Benin, and Mauritania

By Martin W. Lewis | December 10, 2011 | 7 Comments
Map of French West Africa from 1936

As was recently mentioned in the GeoCurrents discussion forum, the names of several modern African countries were derived from former African kingdoms (or empires) located in different places. When the British Gold Coast gained independence in 1957, for example, it was rechristened Ghana, a name borrowed from the Ghana Empire (830-1235 CE) in what is now Mali and Mauritania. In …

The Many Meanings of “Guinea”

By Martin W. Lewis | December 7, 2011 | 11 Comments
Map of West Africa Showing Guinea

Few place-names have been used to refer to more distinct places than “Guinea.” Four countries now share the name, three in western Africa (Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Equatorial Guinea), and one in the western Pacific (Papua New Guinea). Historically, several other places were referenced by the name as well. The Wikipedia disambiguation page lists thirteen “countries” called “Guinea,” in one form …

The Migration of Place Names: Africa, Libya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan

By Martin W. Lewis | December 5, 2011 | 11 Comments
Wikipedia Map of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea

Several weeks ago, GeoCurrents noted that the place name “Afghanistan” had been geographically displaced, as it originally referred to a region in what is now northwestern Pakistan. Left unsaid was the fact that such toponymic displacement is common. Over time, the areas denoted by place names often expand, contract, or move laterally. If one is not aware of such dislocations, …

From Sogdian to Persian to Sart to Tajik & Uzbek: The Reformulation of Linguistic and Political Identity in Central Asia

By Martin W. Lewis | November 28, 2011 | 5 Comments
Wikipedia Maps of Three Turkic Language Sunfamilies

(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for her assistance with this post)
The Turkic-Persian historical synthesis found in Iranian Azerbaijan (discussed in the previous post) extends well beyond Iran’s borders. Through much of Central Asia, the dominant cultural framework is perhaps best described as a hybrid formation. In a fascinating book, Robert Canfield and his colleagues go so far as to designate …

The Afghan “Graveyard of Empires” Myth and the Wakhan Corridor

By Martin W. Lewis | November 9, 2011 | 3 Comments
Map of Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan

The idea that Afghanistan is the “Graveyard of Empires,” a country that perennially entices imperial conquerors only to humiliate and expel them, is often encountered.  This potent cliché has been thoroughly debunked, yet it refuses to die. An October 7, 2011 Time magazine article, for example, opens with the provocative headline, “Afghanistan: Endgame in the Graveyard of Empires.” And as …

Thomas Friedman’s Afghanistan Fantasies

By Martin W. Lewis | November 6, 2011 | 19 Comments
Wikipedia Map of the Persian Safavid Empire

On November 1, 2011, noted New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman implicitly placed the United States in “a long list of suckers,” a roster composed of countries that had been foolish enough to invade Afghanistan. Friedman came up with the idea while on a tour of historical sites in northern India. When told by a guide that in the …

Lozi (Barotse) Nationalism in Western Zambia

By Martin W. Lewis | September 15, 2011 | 6 Comments
Map of Barotseland; Lozi Kingdom at Its Height

The deeper roots of dissatisfaction in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip (discussed in the previous post) extend to the colonial dissolution of the Lozi Kingdom of Barotseland. Centered in what is now western Zambia, Barotseland was one of the strongest indigenous polities of southern central Africa, controlling a broad swath of territory that encompassed the Caprivi Strip

Border Delineation and Geopolitical Wrangling between India and Bangladesh

By Martin W. Lewis | May 30, 2011 | 3 Comments

Progress on the India-Bangladesh border barrier has been slower than expected, due in part to difficulties in determining precisely where the border runs. Such problems might seem surprising. In the standard model of geopolitics, international borders are clearly delineated, one-dimensional lines that absolutely separate sovereign states. In practice, however, borders are often contested and sometimes

Historical Roots of the Crisis in Ivory Coast

By Martin W. Lewis | May 2, 2011 | One Comment
Political Units in West Africa, 1750

The entangled roots of the recent crisis in Ivory Coast extend back to the pre-colonial period. For several hundred years before the imposition of French rule in the late 1800s, the area now known as Ivory Coast contained both relatively centralized, hierarchical kingdoms and decentralized societies organized around kinship lineages. The kingdoms were located in

Mapping Forms of Government in the 18th Century and Today

By Martin W. Lewis | April 19, 2011 |
Forms of government in 18th century Europe

As we have seen, maps from the 18th century typically subdivide Europe in a different manner from historical maps produced today, focusing much less on sovereignty. Cartographers typically divided the region into a dozen or so “countries,” some of which were independent kingdoms and others dependent lands, and one of which was a supranational organization

The Ambiguities of Sovereignty in Early Modern Central Europe

By Martin W. Lewis | April 12, 2011 | 3 Comments
Locator map of the Electorate of Saxony

Most current-day mapping of central Europe during the early modern period (1500-1800) emphasizes the division of the so-called Holy Roman Empire into its constituent states. Detailed maps, readily available online, delineate every kingdom, duchy, principality, imperial city, and politically independent archbishopric and bishopric within the empire, as is evident in the impressive Wikipedia map locating

Our Maps of the 18th Century—and Theirs

By Martin W. Lewis | April 8, 2011 |
Europe of 1700, from Euratlas

Sovereign states provide the building-blocks of contemporary world mapping. A simple image search of “world map” reveals the state-centered focus of our geographical imagination: a few of the maps returned provide land-mass outlines, and a few others depict continental divisions, but most show the world as neatly partitioned into independent countries. At a more local

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