Sunday, 24 April 2016

Egypt 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 to cast my net a little wider. This time Egypt and a look at some of its largest settlements and most interesting names and starting with the capital.

Cairo is not only the capital but also one of the largest and oldest of places. Fittingly the name is most interesting. Egyptians will often refer to the place as Masr, the local name for the country and emphasising the importance of the place. Officially the city is known in Arabic as al-Qahirah meaning literally 'the defeater' which is said to be a shortened version of the original name Al Najm Al Qahir and refers to the planet Mars rising at the time of the city's founding. Yet we also see this interpreted as 'the vanquisher' or 'the victorious', here said to refer to Caliph al-Mu'izz Ii Din Allah, he arriving here in 973; as Khere-Ohe and meaning 'the place of combat' and said to be a reminder of the battle between the Egyptian gods Seth and Horus; and we also find a reference to the place as Umm ad-Dunya or 'the mother of the world'.

Alexandria, unlike Cairo, has the simplest of names to define - as many will know it remembers its founder, Alexander the Great. Yet this was not the first settlement here, before 331BC the city of Rhakotis already existed here and referred to 'that which is built up' and continues as a region in the current city.

Giza is a famous nam and a simplistic albeit informative one. The name comes from gaza meaning 'to cross' and tells this is a good place to cross the Nile.

Shubra is a city of three million people, yet the place name comes from the Coptic word Sopro meaning either 'a small village' or possibly 'a small field'.

Port Said first appeared in 1855 and chosen by a committee. That committee, featuring representatives from Great Britain, France, Austria, Russia, Spain and Piedmont, came up with the obvious 'port' (although originally it signified 'a market') adding the name of the (then) Egyptian ruler Sa'id.

Suez, better known as the name of the canal, is found almost on the same site as a town named Kolzum in the 7th century. This town stood at the eastern terminus of a canal linking the Nile to the Red Sea built by Amr ibn al-'As. From 770, when the canal had closed to prevent access by enemies, the town's fortunes dropped but continued to act as a trading post between Egypt and Arabia. The name Kolzum is an Arabic form of the earlier Greek klysma meaning literally 'wash, rinse out' and a reference to a river or some water course taking away the town's detritus - hence this early place name referred to its sewage system. When the town of Suez grew nearby it became known from the Arabic as-suways meaning 'beginning' and a reference to the port being at the head of the Red Sea.

Luxor comes from the Arabic al-'uqsur and describes 'the palaces'. There is some evidence to suggest this may be a loanword from Latin castra meaning 'fortifications'. Luxor is not its original name, this famous archaeological site previously known as Thebes. This earlier name has been influenced by both Roman and Greek culture and known as Thebae and Thebai respectively and coming from ta ipet or 'the shrine' and earlier known as waset or 'city of the sceptre'.

Mansoura was named to mark the Egyptian victory over Louis IX of France in the Seventh Crusade, its name means 'victorious'.

Asyut is derived from the earlier Egyptian Zawty and ultimately from a name meaning 'wolf city'.

Faiyum is ultimately from the Coptic ep'iom meaning 'the sea or lake' and a reference to nearby Lake Moeris. The name of the lake comes from the Egyptian mer-wer and means 'great canal'. Because its fossils have been found here, Faiyum has given its name to a species of early elephant which went extinct some 30 million years ago - the genus Phiomia serridens meaning 'the saw-toothed animal of Faiyum'.

Aswan is a name most often associated with the dam, however it is also a city and an ancient one. Originally it was known as Swenett, itself from an Egyptian goddess of the same name. She was associated with childbirth and, with the Nile flowing north and Egypt beginning at Swenett, both were seen as 'the opener'. This is also said to be derived from the ancient Egyptian symbol for trade and/or market - and likely both meanings have a common root.

Minya has its roots in Sahidic Coptic Timoone and Bohairic Thome, both meaning 'the residence'.

Damanhur is the modern form of Dmi en Hor or 'the city of the god Horus'. Later the Greeks called it Hermou Polis Mikra or 'the lesser city of Hermes', while the Romans knew it as Apollonopolis to refer to the god Apollo.

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

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