Arabian city names and the meanings behind them

The origins of these names will probably surprise you.

Arab city names: you know many of them, but do you know the meanings behind them?

The answers will probably surprise you.

1. Cairo – The Victorious

Al Qahirah (Cairo in Arabic). While it literally means “The Subduer”, it is also often translated to “The Victorious.”

Also, it is said to take it’s name after Mars (Al Najm Al Qahir in Arabic) which is said to have been rising on the day Cairo was founded in 972 CE.

2. Amman – Once known as Philadelphia

Amman derives it’s name from 13th century BC when the Ammonites named it “Rabbath Ammon”. Rabbath means the “King’s Quarters.”

Over time, Rabbath was dropped and it became known as  Ammon. The influx of civilizations that conquered the city eventually changed its name to “Amman”.

From 283 to 246 BC, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the Macedonian ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, conquered the city and renamed it to “Philadelphia”.

3. Beirut – The daughter of Adonis & Aphrodite

There are many versions to the story of why Beirut got it’s name.

One of them is that the name Beirut derives from the Canaanite-Phoenician be’erot (“wells”) which refers to the underground water table that is still used today by the locals. Another version is that Beirut was named after the Phoenician daughter of the Greek Gods Adonis and Aphrodite, Beroe.

The first mention of Beirut dates back to 14,000 BC, when letters (written on tablets and cuneiform) were sent to the pharaoh of Egypt.

4. Aleppo – Of white soil and marble

During the Crusades (religious wars sanctioned by the Latin Church between 11th and 16th centuries) the name “Alep” was used. Aleppo is an Italian version of that.

However, according to the 20th-century historian sheikh Kamel al-Ghazzi, the name “Halab” (Arabic for Aleppo) is derived from Halaba, which means white in Aramaic. This refers to the color of the soil and the abundance of marble in the area.

5. Alexandria – One of many of Alexander the Great’s conquests

Alexandria in Egypt was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Of the 70 cities conquered by Alexander, some 20 of them were named after himself, such as Alexandroupolis, now known as Bulgarian city of Sandanski and Alexandria Rhambacia, modern day Bela, Pakistan.

6. Abu Dhabi – Father of the Gazelle

Abu Dhabi, literally translated, means Father of the Gazelle, which refers to the deer that inhabit the Emirate. An old folk tale speaks of a man who used to chase deer (dhabi) and was named the “father” of the animal.

Abu Dhabi’s original name was Milh, meaning salt, possibly referring to the sea water of the Persian Gulf, or the ancient salt marshes that surround the city.

7. Riyadh – Named for its meadows

Riyadh was not given its name until the 17th century when a chronicler named it so. Until 1737, it was known as Hajr, meaning “rock”.

The city’s name is derived from the plural of the Arabic rawdah, meaning gardens or meadows, and was named so for it’s natural fertility.

8. Muscat – Letting fall the anchor

The origins of Muscat is disputed. Some authors claim it comes from the arabic word moscha, meaning an inflated hide or skin. Other authors claim that the name Muscat means anchorage or the place of “letting fall the anchor.”

Other derivations include muscat from Old Persian, meaning strong-scented and the old Sumerian name Magan (Maa-kan), meaning sea-people in Arabic.

9. Dubai – refers to its souq

One of the theories of the origins of Dubai is that it was used to describe the “souq,” considering it a smaller version of the souq in Daba.

Another theory states that Dubai is the dimunition of locusts. “Daba Dubai” is a proverb that means, “they came with a swarm of locusts,” according to Gulf News.

10. Jeddah – Home of humanity’s grandmother

There are two explanations for how the name Jeddah came to be. One is that it was named after Jeddah Ibn Al-Qudaa’iy, the chief of the Quda’a clan. The more common one is that the name is derived from Jaddah, the Arabic word for “grandmother”.

According to eastern folk belief, the tomb of Eve – considered the grandmother of humanity – is located in Jeddah.

11. Casablanca- The original White House

Casablanca was originally named Anfa in Berber language in the 7th century BC. When Portugal took over Anfa in the 15th century AD, the Portuguese rebuilt it and called it “Casa Branca” which in Portuguese means White House. It was changed to Casablanca when Portuguese kingdom was integrated to the Spanish kingdom, and stayed Casablanca under the French protectorate of Morocco.

In the 18th century, an earthquake destroyed most of the town. It was then rebuilt by the Sultan who changed the name into the local Arabic which is A-ddar Al Baidaa.

12. Baghdad – Given by God

Baghdad is of Indo-European origin and a Middle Persian combination of the word “bagh” meaning God and “dad” meaning “given by” so in translation it means bestowed by God or God’s gift.

The word “bagh” is used in many other countries names, such as  Baghlan and Bagram in Afghanistan, a village called Bagh-šan in Iran and Baghdati in Georgia (the country).

13. Byblos – What came first, the Bible or Byblos?

Byblos is famous for many things. But what it is best known for is as one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. The name of the city started out as Gubal in the Bronze Age, Gebal in the Iron Age and Gibilet during the Crusaders.

Gubal and Gebal, given by the  Canaanites and Phoenicians can be derived from gb, meaning “well” or “origin”, and El, the name of the supreme god of Byblos’ pantheon. The present day Arab name, Jbeil, is a direct descendant of the Canaanite name.

It was given its name Byblos from Greek. Papyrus received its early Greek name bublos from its importation to the Aegean through this city. Ultimately, the Greek word for “Bible” (“the papyrus book”) derives from that name.


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