The last couple of weeks I have looked at the origins of the names of the nations of Asia, the largest continent on the planet. As previously I shall continue by looking at the origins of the capital cities of those countries, again split into two groups. I shall use the alphabetical order of the nations, as it makes it easier to compare the two – especially as the names of the capital cities will not be as well known.
Afghanistan – the capital city is Kabul, which shares its name with the River Kabul. The river was certainly named first but, unless this is an Iranian word meaning ‘red’, the origins are unknown.
Armenia – and the capital is Yerevan, one of the oldest continually inhabited city in the world and thus one of the oldest names. This does not seem to be from the Armenian king Yervand, although possibly from the Urartian military fortress of Erebuni which did stand around the same area by 782 BC. As two languages blended the pronunciation evolved from Erebuni to Yerevan and thus likely to be ‘abode of Aru’ a local god. Note the Armenian phrase yerevan is used to mean ‘to appear’ and has led to suggestions this came from the words spoken by Noah as it was the first city to emerge, from his perspective on Mount Ararat, resting place of the ark, from the receding flood.
Azerbaijan – where the capital is Baku and a name of uncertain meaning but not without a couple of ideas. Perhaps this is of Arabic and/or Persian derivation where baadku or ‘mountain wind’ gives ‘windswept’, or if this is Iranian abad ku this would speak of ‘town of fire’ and refer to a culture of fire-worshippers.
Bahrain – where the capital city of Manama comes from the Arabic al-manama referring to either ‘the place of rest’ or ‘the place of dreams’, depending upon one’s interpretation.
Bangladesh – has Dhaka as its capital and largest city. A name of uncertain etymology, there is certainly no shortage of suggested origins. Locally the dhak tree is a common sight and perhaps the most likely source. There is also the goddess Dhakeshwari, there is a shrine to her in the city. A dhak was also a musical instrument, held to have been played when the Bengali capital was inaugurated in 1610 under the orders of Subahdar Islam Khan I. Lastly there is the Prakit dialect, where Dhaka Bhasa or Shakka is used for a ‘look-out point’.
Bhutan – has a recent capital named Thimphu, itself from a district name already in use by the fourteenth century and of unknown etymology.
Brunei – with its capital and largest city of Bandar Seri Begawan has a name from two sources. Originally this was Bandar Brunei or ‘Brunei town’, the addition comes from the Sulatan’s late father Seri Begawan, itself from the Sanskrit bhagavn or ‘god’.
Cambodia – the capital is Phnom Penh which, in the Khmer language, means ‘mountain of abundance’.
China – and today the capital is correctly said to be Beijing, this from Chinese bei ‘north’ and kintsing ‘capital’, a comparison with Nanking or ‘southern capital’.
Cyprus – has the capital Nicosia, a corruption of the Greek name of Lefkosia meaning ‘grove of poplars’.
Georgia – the city of Tbilisi is derived from the Georgian tbili meaning ‘warm’ and referring to the local mineral springs.
India – has the present capital of New Delhi, named from what is officially known as Old Delhi, becoming capital in 1947. The name began as a territory, the origins uncertain but possibly from Hindi dilli or ‘threshold’ and a reference to it being close to Hindustan.
Indonesia – the capital city is Jakarta, either from Sanskrit jaya-kerta ‘the place of victory’ or Iranian kert ‘built place’.
Iran – and its capital is Tehran, named from the Old Persian teh ran or ‘warm place’.
Iraq – Baghdad is thought to come from the Iranian words bag dad to describe ‘God’s gift’.
Israel – Jerusalem has been found in Assyrian cuneiform as Urusalimmi, this from Old Hebrew shalem ‘peace’ and from the root ‘stone’ ieru ‘house’ or perhaps ‘people’. Thus it is difficult to know if this is ‘house of peace’ or, if earlier, ‘house of stone’.
Japan – as crossword buffs will know this was formerly known as Edo, literally ‘estuary’. The modern name is from the Japanese to kio ‘the eastern capital’, a comparison with ‘the western capital’ of Kyoto.
Jordan – has its capital city named after the Egyptian god Ammon, used in the sense of ‘protected by Ammon’.
Kazakhstan – has Astana from an early Proto-Indo-European word sta ‘to stand’ shared with the suffix for the country, the Iranian stan ‘land’.
Korea (North and South) – two countries and two capital cities. Pyongyang is the centre for North Korea, a name literally meaning ‘flat land’ and understood as ‘peaceful land’. In South Korea it is the city of Seoul, another literal name translating as ‘capital city’.
Kuwait – shares an origin with the country. Kuwait City is also from Arabic Al-Kuwayt and refers to the former Portuguese fort as ‘the enclosed’.
Kyrgyzstan – the capital is Bishkek, traditionally from the Kyrgyz word for a churn used in the fermentation of mare’s milk, the national drink. Such etymology seems at the very least creative and designed to deflect from the name of Frunze in the Soviet era, itself coming from Mikhail Frunze, a close associate of Lenin who was born in Bishkek.
Laos – the capital is Vientiane, or in the local form Viengchan, meaning ‘town of sandalwood’.
Lebanon – the capital is Beirut which has two equally plausible explanations. Either this represents the Roman Berytus, the Latin version of the hoenician word beroth meaning ‘wells’ or it is directly from Aramaic berotha or ‘pine trees’.
As previously M to Z will follow next time.