Saturday, 17 January 2015

Uncovering the origins of the names for every Arab capital

Capital cities in the Middle East are some of the oldest sites of civilisation in the world, offering layers of archeological treasures that attest to the rise and fall of empires, languages and faiths. Below are explanations for the etymological origins of the Arab world's capitals.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates أبو ظبي، الإمارات
Literally meaning "Father of Deer” in Arabic, it probably referred to the herds of gazelle that inhabit the emirate. According to Bilal al-Budoor, assistant under-secretary for Cultural Affairs at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development, "The area had a lot of dhibaa [deer (plural)], and was nicknamed after that." An old story tells about a man who used to chase deer [dhabi (deer - singular)] and was named the "father" of the animal.

Algiers, Algeria الجزائر، الجزائر
Algiers (and Algeria) stem from the Arabic for "The Islands” in reference to the four islands off the city's coast until they became part of the mainland in 1525. Al-Jazā’ir is itself a shortened form of the city's older name جزائر بني مزغانة Jaza'ir Bani Mazghana, "The Islands of the Sons of Mazghana", used by early medieval geographers including al-Idrisi and Yaqut al-Hamawi.


Amman, Jordan عمّان، الأردن
In the 13th century BC Amman was called Rabbath Ammon or Rabat Amon by the Ammonites, thought to be descendent from the Prophet Lot. In the old Testament, it is referred to as Rabbat ʿAmmon, and was renamed as Philadelphia (‘Brotherly Love’) after it was conquered by the Greek Macedoniaaning "Father of Deer” in Arabic, it probably referred to the herds of gazelle that inhabit the emirate. According to Bilal al-Budoor, assistant under-secretary for Cultural Affairs at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development, "The area had a lot of dhibaa [deer (plural)], and was nicknamed after that." An old story tells about a man who used to chase deer [dhabi (deer - singular)] and was named the "father" of the animal.

Baghdad, Iraq بغداد، العراق
Many people ascribe a Persian origin to ‘Baghdad’ as ‘God’s gift’ in Middle Persian, or as ‘the Fair Garden’. However, there are pre-Persian usages of the name as ‘Baghdadu’ on Assyrian cuneiform and Babylonian records going back to at least 2000 BC.

Beirut, Lebanon  بيروت، لبنان
The Semitic origin of the word ‘Beirut’ is ‘pine’, in reference to the famous pine forests of the area. The Arabic word used for ‘pine’ today  is صنوبر ‘snouber’. Lebanon is also famous for another type of tree- the cedar tree (الأرز), the symbol that appears on it’s national flag. 

Cairo, Egypt القاهرة، مصر
The Arabic term al-Qahira means “The Vanquisher” or "the Conqueror”, "the victorious" or, " "the Strong" (al-Qahira) in reference to Caliph al-Mu'izz li Din Allah who arrived in 973. The name is believed to derive from the Arabic name of the planet Mars, "Al Najm Al Qahir," which was rising on the day the city was founded by the Fatimid Dynasty in 972 C.E.



Damascus, Syria دمشق، سوريا
The name of Damascus first appears in the geographical list of Pharoah Thutmose III as T-m-ś-q in the 15th century BC. It is later recorded as Dimašqa in Akkadian, T-ms-ḳw, eventually becoming Dammeśeq (דמשק) in Biblical Hebrew. It is said to have the meaning of "a well-watered place” in Aramaic.
In Arabic, the city is called Dimashqu sh-Shām (دمشق الشام), although this is often shortened to either Dimashq or ash-Shām. Ash-Shām is an Arabic term for "Levant" as well as and for "Syria"; also referred to as Bilādu sh-Shām (بلاد الشام / "land of the Levant”).

Doha, Qatar الدوحة، قطر
“Doha” derives from a local dialect word meaning ‘round’, and relates to the circular bay formation of the city’s location. The word madouh مدوح meaning ‘round’ is still used in Gulf dialects.

Jerusalem, Israel, also claimed by the Palestinian Territories  القدس
The Arabic name for Jerusalem is Alquds as it is the ‘House of Sanctuary’, being the location of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

Khartoum, Sudan الخرطوم، السودان
The origin of the word Khartoum is not clear, but one theory is that khartoum is derived from Arabic kharṭūm خرطوم meaning 'trunk' or 'hose', probably referring to the shape of land where  the Blue and White Niles meet. Captain J. A. Grant, who reached Khartoum in 1863 thought that the name was most probably from the Arabic for safflower, ‘qurtum', which was cultivated in Egypt for its oil for fuel.

Kuwait City, Kuwait الكويت، الكويت
The word Kuwait is the diminutive form (following the pattern (فعيل (ه) of Kut كوت which in dialects of the area refers to a fortress-like house surrounded by a settlement and protected by encircling water. Some scholars say the word originates from Babylonian sources and is referred to in the Old Testament (“And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah”).

Manama, Bahrain المنامة، البحرين
The word Manama comes from the Arabic word for sleep- نوم ‘noum’ via المنامة meaning ‘place of rest’, and may relate to the large numbers of travellers who stop their for rest.

Mogadishu, Somalia مقديشو، الصومال
Mogadishu derives from the Persian «مقعد شاه» i.e. ‘seat of the Shah’, as it was ruled by the Persians in the sixth century after in the Hijri calendar.



Muscat, Oman Oman,  مسقط، عمان
The origins of ‘Muscat’ are disputed. Some historians claim it means ‘inflated hide/ skin’ whilst others link it to its literal Arabic meaning ‘falling-place’, or that it derives from the Old Persian for ‘strong-scented’.

Nouakchott, Muritania, نواكشوط، موريتانيا
Nouakchott derives from a Berber language, meaning ‘City of Wind’.

Rabat, Morocco  الرباط، المغرب
Rabat literally means ‘Fortified Place’ as the location was chosen for its security. 

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia الرياض، السعودية
‘Riyadh’ is the plural of an Arabic word for ‘garden’, as the city was named after its low-lying location where the availability of water allows for well-watered vegetation. 

Sana’a, Yemen صنعاء، اليمن
The name for the current Yemeni capital likely derived from the South Arabian word for “well-fortified”. According to popular legend, it was founded by Shem, the son of Noah. It was known as "Azal" in ancient times, which has been connected to Uzal, a son of Qahtan, a great-grandson of Shem, in Genesis  Hence in Arabic it is known as Sana’a bin Azal bin Yaqtan bin Aabir bin Shaalikh bin Ufkhashad bin Sem [Shem] bin Nuh [Noah]. صنعاء بن أزال بن يقطن بن عابر بن شالخ بن أوفخشذ بن سام بن نوح’

Tripoli, Libya طرابلس، ليبيا
The origin of Tripoli is Greco-Roman, meaning the three cities. Another city in Lebanon shares the name, and is thus known as Turaablus Al-fayha’ طرابلس الفيحاء meaning ‘Tripoli the sweet-smelling’. In turn, Libya’s Tripoli is distinguished as طرابلس الغربية -‘The Western Tripoli’, but is also known rather romantically as the Mermaid of the Mediterranean عروسة البحر  (‘Bride of the Sea).



Tunis, Tunisia, تونس تونس
Some scholars believe the name ‘Tunisia’ as well as that of it’s capital city derive from the Punic (Phoenician) Goddess Tanith. Others claim that it derives from the Berber root ens
which means ‘to lie down’ or ‘spend the night’, named as such due to the hospitality of the locals. Ibn Khaldoun, who was Tunisian, mentions that the name derives from the architectural splendour and economic and cultural prosperity of the town.


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