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Home » Cartography, Historical Geography, Place Names, Sub-Saharan Africa

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

Submitted by on December 5, 2011 – 9:18 pm 11 Comments |  
Map of Relocated African Place NamesSeveral 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, confusion can result.

The historical displacement of place names is especially pronounced in Africa. “Africa” itself is a prime example. “Afri” was originally a Latin term for either the Carthaginians, a people of Phoenician descent, or a group of their Berber neighbors; under Roman rule, the province of Africa encompassed modern Tunisia and part of northwestern Libya. After the Muslim conquest, the same area came to be called Ifriqiya in Arabic. In the late classical European imagination, the area called “Africa” gradually expanded. By medieval times, the word had come to denote one of the three major divisions of the world, alongside Europe and Asia.

Reconstruction of the Mental World Map of Herodotus Ancient Greek geographers had previously devised this three-fold continental scheme, but they called the African landmass “Libya.” Greek scholars, however, disagreed over where Libya should be bounded. Some limited it to the lands west of Egypt, and others placed the continental divide on the Nile itself, splitting Egypt between Libya and Asia. Herodotus and his followers considered such usage absurd, and thus applied “Libya” to the entire landmass. The term eventually dropped out of use, replaced in Greek itself by a variant of “Africa” (Αφρική). In the early twentieth century, Italian imperialists, fixated on classical precedents, revived the name. In 1934, they combined their North African colonies of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania into a single “Libya,” which later became the independent state of the same name.

Although the ancient Greeks used “Libya” as the continental place name, they tended to restrict the term “Libyan” to North Africans of Berber background. They called peoples living further to the south “Ethiopians” (or Aethiopians), just as they called the lands below the Sahara “Ethiopia,” including the upper Nile Valley south of Aswan. As the only people of this region familiar to the Greeks were the Nubians of what is now northern and central Sudan, “Ethiopia” often functioned as a synonym for the Nubian kingdom of Kush (or Meroë). The country now called Ethiopia vaguely fit under the same designation, but knowledge of it was scanty at best. The ancient Greeks also used “Ethiopia” to signal other unknown or quasi-mythical lands located to the south or east of the Mediterranean. As a result, even parts of India came to be regarded as “Ethiopia” in some accounts.

Map Showing Ethiopian Ocean In the early modern period, European geographers generally located Ethiopia in the unknown (to them) African interior, as can be seen on the map posted above. In certain circumstances, however, they applied the name to sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. As a result, the eastern South Atlantic was commonly dubbed the “Ethiopian Ocean” (or Sea) through the 1700s. In many maps of the time, the Ethiopian Ocean was depicted as extending from the South Atlantic into the western Indian Ocean. The modern concept of discrete oceanic basins dates only to the 1800s; previously, named oceans and seas were often conceptualized as strips of water wrapping around landmasses.*

In European usage, “Ethiopia” did not refer to the modern country of that name until the second half of the twentieth century. Previously, the Ethiopian kingdom (or empire) was generally called “Abyssinia,” a term derived from the Arabic ethnic designation “Habesh.” Yet in both Ge’ez, the sacred language of Ethiopian Christianity, and the modern Ethiopian Semitic languages (Amharic and Tigrinya), the country has long been called Ītyōṗṗ. Ītyōṗṗ is generally thought to be derived from the Greek “Ethiopia.” Some experts reject the connection, however, arguing that the “Book of Aksum, a Ge’ez chronicle first composed in the 15th century, states that the name is derived from ‘Ityopp’is,’ a son (unmentioned in the Bible) of Cush, son of Ham who according to legend founded the city of Axum.” Regardless of its ultimate origin, “Ītyōṗṗyā” certainly sounds as if it were a cognate of “Ethiopia.” Yet even in Ethiopia itself, the Arabic-derived word “Habesha” still denotes the core Semitic-speaking ethnic groups, and is sometimes applied more broadly to all peoples of the country.

Wikipedia Map of the Periplus of the Erythrean SeaThe “Habesha” people are not limited to the modern state of Ethiopia, as they extend into Eritrea. By the same token, “Abyssinia” historically included much of northern Eritrea as well. The separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia was largely the result of Italian imperialism; in the late 1800s, the Italians conquered the area now known as Eritrea, but failed to annex Ethiopia proper. Just as they did in Libya, the Italian imperialists adopted a classical name for their new colony. “Eritrea” derives from the Greek Erethria, meaning “red land,” associated historically with the Erythraean, or Red, Sea. As the modern country of Eritrea fronts the Red Sea, the term seems geographically appropriate. But to the ancient Greeks, the Erythraean Sea was what we would call the Indian Ocean. The ancient Greek maritime manual called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, for example, details trade routes extending to eastern India. The water-body now called the Red Sea was then deemed the Arabian Gulf.

The term “Sudan” has undergone its own migrations. This place name derives from the Arabic bilâd as-sûdân, or “Land of the Blacks,” essentially referring to Africa south of the Sahara. “Sudan” was later used by Europeans to cover the relatively fertile and well-populated belt of land south of the Sahara and the Sahel. In the late 1800s, a vast track of land in West Africa was organized as the “French Sudan Territory.” Further to the east, the British designated their corresponding sphere the “Anglo-Egyptian Sudan,” which became the independent country of Sudan in 1956 before splitting into Sudan and South Sudan in 2011. In environmental terms, only a small portion of Sudan and South Sudan are within the Sudan (or Sudanian) eco-region, a zone defined by its distinctive savannah vegetation.

The places referenced by many place names have shifted over vast distances, with toponyms taking on different meanings as they are translated and as basic geographical conceptualizations change. Such transformations are unsurprising, as change is intrinsic to language itself. But they do present pitfalls for unwary readers. For years I assumed that when ancient Greek writers mentioned “Ethiopia” they were referring to the highlands of the Ethiopian Plateau, and I was dumbfounded to discover that they actually meant the lowlands of the Nile Valley to the south of Egypt.


* I have written about this topic in “Dividing the Ocean Sea,” The Geographical Review, 1999. Vol. 89, number 2.


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  • Ryan Lord

    I’m not sure if you noticed, and simply left it off for space reasons, but there’s also ‘Zanguebar’ on the first map posted. A quick Google search indicates that this is related to Zanzibar.

    The etymology of Africa is very interesting, it reminds me of Indonesia, which is also a name with a European origin. I guess this is fairly common? I wonder how local nationalists feel about this.

    • Zanguebar probably refers to the Sultanate of Zanzibar in fact, which ruled all the Zendj. However Zanzibar and Zendj (the Swahili country) are etymologically related.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Excellent point regarding Zanzibar. I have never read of nationalists objecting to the name “Indonesia,” but it is notable that many like to use the word “Nusantara,” an Old Javanese  word meaning “archipelago.” Maps of Nusantara are often identical to those of Indonesia.

  • An obvious correlate is Asia, which was at least used in time to refer only to Asia Minor or Anatolia peninsula.

    But it has recalled in my mind examples of name migration much closer home:

    The term Aquitania was for Caesar the Basque-speaking country that is now roughly Gascony, yet later it expanded northwards and the region would eventually adopt another name from beyond the Pyrenees: Vasconia.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Yes, the place name “Asia” originally seemed to have referred only to an area in Asia Minor, and the Roman province of Asia was limited to the western half of Asia Minor. The term was used in a broader, continental sense as well, in the classical period. 

      Thanks for the information on Aquitania/Vasconia, which is new to me. 

      • You’re welcome. Just to be sure you understand the details, Caesar’s Aquitania (which spoke a language close to modern Basque according to the epigraphic evidence) was later expanded a lot to towards the North, placing its border at the Loire. This province was later divided in three, one of them being identical to Caesar’s Aquitania and known as Aquitania Tertia (Third Aquitaine) or Novempopulania (the land of the nine peoples or tribes).

        The Vascones (sing. Vasco) meanwhile were a tribe from south of the Pyrenees in what is now Navarre and nearby areas. Upon the fall of the Western Empire the name Aquitaine was retained by the lands controlled by the Visigoths and later the Franks North and East of the Garonne, while the independent tribal areas south of it were known as Vasconia, specially after the Franks created a Duchy of that name, eventually independent.

        In parallel, the Visigoths of Spain created a Duchy of Cantabria for the same purpose of containing or conquering the Basque tribes, which probably had no correlation with the historical country of the Cantabri but was instead more like modern La Rioja or historical early Castile (this is controversial and unclear). Neither is coincident with the modern borders of the Cantabria autonomous region which was created out from the province of Santander, adopting the name of Cantabria just like Guinea did, a bit arbitrarily (the territory only partly overlaps with that of ancient Cantabri). In this case the maps of Wikipedia are quite useless because they are ideologically biased trying to reconcile falsely or without evidence, the historical land of the Cantabri and the Duchy of Cantabria with the modern region of the same name.

        From Vasconia (also Wasconia) the name Gascony derives, which refer to a distinct Romance-speaking country that was once Basque-speaking and is genetically very much like Basques. The name of Aquitaine has been recycled in the 20th century to be that of the new, rather artificial, SW region of France.

        Another curious change of name is that of Aragon: the County of Aragon was initially a subdivision of the Kingdom of Pamplona around the city of Jaca (high Aragon River valley, all the rest of the Aragon river runs through Navarre). In the 11th century it was detached and became a kingdom, incorporating other two Pyrenean counties (Sobrarbe and Ribagorza). Later, in the 13th century, it conquered the Muslim realm of Zaragoza, which was at first treated as a distinct kingdom but later fused. And that was the real birth of Aragon as we know it today. The name Aragon is most likely a Basque variant for “high valley” (aran goi-a in modern Basque) or maybe “of the valley” (aran-go, like the true surname of Pancho Villa) and initially referred to the river.


  • This is not directly related to the topic of “moving placenames”, but just an example of geographic/cultural ignorance — still, I thought I’d mention it. In an old episode of “So you think you can dance” (happily, the show isn’t called “So you think you know geography”!) a professional dancer contestant referred to “Viennese waltz” as “Vietnamese waltz”…

  • Frederico Freitas

    This “movement” of place names also happened with a couple of toponyms that are originally “African.” The historic Ghana empire existed where today Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal are located, far from the modern nation-state of Ghana. The Benin Empire too, was located in what is modern-day Nigeria, not in the neighboring modern country of Benin. Finally, the two contemporary Congo nation-states have some of their territory where once the historic Kingdom of Kongo existed. However, most of the historic Kongo’s territory was locate in contemporary Northern Angola.

    • The Ghana and Benin cases were adopted by mere prestige reasons, wanting
      to remove colonial names but not having alternative ones of their own.
      Unlike what may have happened with other migrating names, where
      ignorance or casual sloppiness was the main reason, these were done with full knowledge.

      The case of Congo is more complex: it’s true that the residual Kongo (or
      Congo) kingdom was restricted to parts of North Angola but at its
      apogee, c. 1500, it included all the Bakongo ethnic country, i.e. the area where the Kikongo language is still dominant.
      Correct if I am wrong but the Congo ethnicity looks a lot like the Bambara or the Swahili: an ethnicity forged by a historical state.

      • Martin W. Lewis

        Good points — I will try to address them when I turn to these issues. 

    • Martin Lewis

      You have anticipated one of my planned posts.  The next will focus on “Guinea,” and the one after that will look at Ghana, Benin, Kongo/Congo, and Mauritania/Mauretania. 

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