Sunday, 3 May 2015

Algerian Place Names Explained

Having blogged samples of my books on English place names and also examined the etymologies of the nations of the world and their respective capitals I thought it time I cast my net a little wider. This time the African country of Algeria and some of its largest cities and towns which are listed in terms of population and begins with the biggest ....

Algiers reflects the French colonial days and comes from the French name of Alger and the Catalan Alger. In turn this comes from the Arabic name of al-Jaza'ir and translates as 'the islands'. Look at a map today and the islands will prove a mystery, yet until 1525 there were four very distinct islands which became a part of the mainland. Al Jaza'ir is an abbreviated form of the earlier name of Jaza'ir Bani Mazghana or 'the islands of the sons of Mazghana', a Berber people. Earlier this had been a Roman town known as Icosium which, as with just about every place name in the Roman Empire, was there version of the existing name, in this case the Phoenician trading post known as Ikosim. This Phoenician name is derived from a Greek legend, the place said to have been founded by twenty companions of Hercules with this being from the Greek word for 'twenty'.

Oran has a link to the capital city of Algiers in the Berber people and, at least in the example, their language. Here we find the Berber root hr meaning 'lion'. Around 3,000 years ago it is said there were lions to be seen around here. Legend has it the last two were killed on a nearby mountain which is now known as The Mountain of the Lions and large statues of these creatures stand outside the city's administrative centre.

Constantine was named in honour of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, although originally the Romans had known the place as Cirta. To the Phoenicians this was Tzirta, but destroyed by the Romans at the beginning of the fourth century and rebuilt by them. The original name simply referred to this as a trading post.

Annaba has some of the earliest examples of advanced flake-tool techniques in the Middle Palaeolithic and has been occupied for at least 200,000 years. While we have no idea what the place was called for the vast majority of its existence - although it would be surprising to find anything other than the most simplistic names such as 'place' or 'home' - we do know it was settled by the Phoenicians around 1300 BC and later known as Hippo Regius by the Romans. Hippo is from the Punic ubon meaning 'harbour' with Regius 'of the king' referring to this being home to Numidian kings. The present name of Annaba is also from the origin ubon.

Blida is from bulaydah and ultimately from the Arabic word belda meaning 'city'.

Sidi Bel Abbes is named after Sidi bel Abbass a Muslim marabout who is buried here. A marabout being a religious leader and teacher.

Biskra was known to the Romas as Vescera although some records refer to this as Ad Piscinam a reference to the large pool of water heated by sulphurous springs to 45 degrees celsius and literally means 'at the waterworks'. It seems Vescera may have been a rather bad translation of the earlier native name. The modern name is Arabic and also refers to the hot waters, although the literal translation of 'boil' should be seen more as a reference to the bubbling of the hot waters.

Tebessa has seen its name change little over many centuries. The Romans, Arabs, French all simply using the existing name, albeit with a little corruption through pronunciation. This comes from the Greek name for the place which translated to 'one hundred gates'.

El Oued is known as 'the City of a Thousand Domes' and yet the name has a much simpler origin from the Arabic for 'river'. The city is built around an oasis, itself fed by an underground river which gave the place its name and helped the people grow their new home by growing dates and the quite rare production of bricks in the desert.

Tiaret is another name of Berber origin and, like Oran, has its origins in a big cat. However here the meaning is 'lioness', pointing to the Barbary lions once living in this region. Barbary lions, also refered to as the Atlas lion, is a species now considered extinct in the wild. The last recorded death by shooting being in 1942, although the species was certainly still in existence until at least the 1950s and some unconfirmed reports speak of sightings in the 1960s. It is thought to be extinct in captivity but, at least genetically, must survive in some form among the many animals bred in European zoos and a programme is looking at a selective breeding programme to eliminate the hybrid elements.

Note the spellings of the places are mostly English as the piece is written in English.

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