What’s in a Name? Etymology of Countries in the Middle East

A recent article in Forbes online suggested that “almost every country in the world gets its name from one of four things: a feature of the land, the people from that area, an important person, or a directional description of the country”.

However, many Middle Eastern countries, whose names have been translated over the millennia by Greeks, Romans and so on, have no definite explanation for their names. The change in languages has led to confusion about certain names and original meanings have been lost over the years.

We do have clear accounts of some names; particularly those named after geographical features, as the name seems to have persisted with the landscape.

Read the following account for an insight into Middle Eastern geography, history, and the Arabic culture and language…


Middle East – Geography

There are several Arabic regions which take their names from geographical features, these include:

Algeria – the Algerian capital, Algiers, is named from the Arabic phrase “Al-Jazir” meaning “the islands” due to the numerous small islands dotted along the coast near the city.

Tunisia – Tunisia takes its name from its capital city, Tunis. It was known as Tunes by the Greeks, which is believed to be derived from the Berber for “halt” or “camp”.

Kuwait – Kuwait’s capital city (Kuwait City) takes its name from the Arabic word “Kut”, meaning fort.

Bahrain – is Arabic for “two seas”, referring to the water on both the east and west of the island

Iraq – in Arabic, Iraq means “bank” or “shore” which presumably refers to the rivers the Euphrates and the Tigris.

Jordan – is named after the river which runs through the country but it is unclear as to why the river was named “Jordan”. It may simply mean “river of Dan” after a son of the biblical Jacob. Land to the west of the river Jordan is known as the West Bank, while Gaza (the rest of the Palestinian territory) derives its name from the Hebrew word “az” meaning strength.

Fujairah – one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is named after a stream which runs through the region.

Sharjah – another of the emirates within the UAE, has a name which means eastern, due to its position at the eastern end of the Gulf.

Ras al Khaimah – in the UAE, means “head of a tent” in Arabic and could be due to the emirates position at the head of the country, or it could be linked to the headland where the original settlement was located.

Sahara – the name for the desert derives from the Arabic for desert, “sahra”.

Lebanon – “levan”, meaning ‘white’ in Arabic refers to the country’s snow-topped mountains.


Middle East – Gods and People

There are numerous countries in the Middle East named after the people of the region and their gods. Some names have derived from the original peoples while others have been superseded by those conquering the area.

Ajman – another of the emirates within the UAE, takes its name from what the locals were not – Arabs. The name derives from the Persian word “ajam” meaning “non-Arab”.

Saudi Arabia – so named after the Al-Saud family, who ruled Arabic lands in the region from the 18th century. The current kingdom was founded by King Abdulaziz Al-Saud in 1932.

Mauritania – named after the Mauri (or Moors, as Europeans know them).

Sudan – means “land of the blacks” and once referred to a far larger area of Africa for Europeans.

Israel – named after the Biblical Jacob who was renamed Israel, from the word “Yisraeel” meaning to preserve with God.

Iran – means “land of the Aryans” from the Persian “aryanam” meaning noble or highborn.

Turkey – the ruling people of Turkey were called the Ti-Kiu or Tu-Kue by Chinese sources in the 6th century. The word was used to describe people from central Asia.

Palestine – comes from the Greek “Palaistine” and the Hebrew “Peleshet” meaning invaders. This is a reference to the Philistines who invaded in the 12th century.

Egypt – comes from the ancient Greek “Aegyptos” which in turn comes from the Egyptian “Hut-Ka-Ptah” meaning Temple of the Spirit of Ptah. It was once the name of a city but spread over time to encompass the whole country. Ancient Egyptians referred to their country as “Kemet” meaning “black land” and now call their homeland “Misr” meaning “country”.

Syria – named after the Ottoman province of the same name, which was probably a development of the older area name Assyria. Ashur was the capital city, named after a deity.


Middle East – Myths and Legends

There are many territories where the origin of the name is uncertain, or there is dispute about its source. The following place names are ones based in myth and legends.

Abu Dhabi – means “father of the gazelle” and possibly arose due to a legend, dating to 1761, regarding a gazelle drinking from a spring where a fort was later built.

Dubai – possibly derives from the word “yadub” meaning “to creep” with regard to the slow flowing river which is a central focus of the city to this day. But, it could also be a reference to baby locusts.

Umm al Quwain – another state within the UAE, means “mother of the two powers” but there is no information regarding these two powers or to what they may refer.

Libya – in Greek mythology, Libya was the daughter of Memphis and Epaphus, and the name was once used by the Greeks to describe a wider area of Africa. However, the ancient Egyptian word “Levu” described one of the Berber tribes so it may derive from this source.

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