From ancient gods to a wandering gazelle and a slow-moving stream, there are some intriguing (and possibly false) stories behind many of the names of countries and territories in the Middle East.
There is a theory 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. That may be true on a global scale, but in the Middle East the situation is a bit more complex.
The lack of historical written records is one major reason for this. A lot of names have passed through multiple languages to reach us today, evolving as they passed across the tongues of Greeks, Romans, Berbers and others. As a result, of the dozens of major geopolitical delineations in the region today, almost a third have no certain explanation for their names.
Of those where the etymology is more certain, it is geographic features – both natural and man-made – that often prevail. Another large group have earned their names from the people living in the area or their rulers, and two countries’ names ultimately derive from now-forgotten deities. That leaves more than ten others where the origin of the name is either unclear or, more often, disputed.
Around a dozen of the main geopolitical areas in the region get their name from some geographic or physical feature.
Algeria, Kuwait and Tunisia all take their names from capital cities. The Algerian capital Algiers is based on the Arabic phrase “Al-Jazir” meaning “the islands”, in reference to the small islands along the coast by the city.
Neighboring Tunisia’s capital Tunis was called Tunes by the Greeks, a name which probably derives from a Berber word meaning a “halt” or “camp”.
Kuwait City gets its name from the diminutive of the Arabic “kut” meaning fort, in this case a house built in the shape of a fortress which can be defended and is close to water, according to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Place Names by John Everett-Heath (a key source of information for this article).
Other countries take their cue from physical features of the landscape and, in a dry climate, water is often a significant distinguishing factor.
Bahrain means “two seas” in Arabic, in reference to the waters to the east and west of the island.
Iraq means “shore” or “bank” in Arabic, as in a river bank – probably a reference to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers that run through the country.
Its neighbor Jordan also has a river to thank for its name, although the origin of the River Jordan’s name is itself uncertain. It may mean “river of Dan”, after a son of the Biblical Patriarch Jacob (who himself is responsible for the name of Israel – see below).
Heading in the same direction, the West Bank is simply a description of the land to the west of the River Jordan. (The other half of the Palestinian territory, Gaza, is possibly from the Hebrew word “az” meaning strength, due to a fortress built in the area.)
Fujairah, one of the seven emirates that makes up the federation of the self-describing United Arab Emirates (UAE), takes its name from a stream that runs through the land. Another emirate, Sharjah, has a name meaning eastern, possibly because of its position towards the eastern end of the Gulf.
Also in the UAE, Ras al Khaimah means “head of a tent” in Arabic and is often supposed to be a recognition of its position at the northernmost tip of the country. More poetically, it could be a reference to a large tent which had a light above it and was used as a navigational aid, or it could come from the peninsula or headland where the original settlement was located.
Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, probably takes its name from the Afar word “gaboui” meaning “plate”, a reference to the flat landscape of the area. At the opposite end of the topographic scale, Lebanon gets its name from its mountains via the Semitic word “levan” meaning “white”, in reference to the country’s snow-capped mountains.
At the edge of the region, the disputed territory of Western Sahara is on the face of it a bland description of land on the verge of the world’s largest hot desert, but the name of that sandy expanse comes from the Arabic word “sahra” meaning desert.
Peoples and Gods
The other big category of endonyms is countries named after people, sometimes combining nods to the land too.
Sticking in the west of the region, Mauritania is named after that country’s largest ethnic group, the Mauri (known to Europeans in the Middle Ages as Moors). Across the other side of the continent, Sudan means “land of the blacks” and, before being focused on the current country, was a name Europeans applied to a far larger swath of Africa.
Sometimes, just one person gives their name to a country. As noted above, Israel is named after the Biblical figure Jacob (a grandson of the patriarch Abraham) who was renamed Israel, based on the word “Yisraeel”, meaning “to persevere with God”.
Saudi Arabia is another example, being a combination of the name of the Al-Saud family dynasty and the Arabian lands they rule. The first Saudi state was founded by Muhammad bin Saud in the 18th century; the current kingdom was established by King Abdulaziz Al-Saud in 1932.
The UAE emirate of Ajman, on the other hand, takes its name from what the locals were not; it comes from the Persian word “ajam”, meaning “non-Arab”. The Persian language is also the basis of the name of Iran, meaning “land of the Aryans”, from the old Persian “aryanam” meaning “noble” or “high-born”.
The name Turkey also comes from the ruling people there, called the Ti-Kiu or Tu-Kue by Chinese sources in the 6th century to describe the people of a Central Asian empire.
Others have gained their name from incomers. The name Palestine comes from the Greek “Palaistina” and the Hebrew “Peleshet” meaning invaders, in reference to 12th century invasion of the area by the Philistines.
Beyond the temporal world, at least two countries derive their names from gods.
The name Egypt comes from the ancient Greek “Aegyptos “, from the Egyptian “Hut-Ka-Ptah” (also Hiku-Ptah), meaning Temple of the Spirit of Ptah, a local god. This was the original name of the city that later became Memphis and was adopted to cover the wider region. The ancient Egyptians themselves called their land Kemet, meaning “black land” in reference to the dark soil alongside the Nile River. Modern-day Egyptians call their country Misr, meaning simply “country”
Syria is named after the Ottoman province of the same name, which in turn was probably an evolution of the older area name Assyria. The Assyrian Empire was named after its capital Ashur, which in turn took its name from a deity. Syria is often referred to locally as As Shams, another deity-derived name, in this case the sky-god Baalshamin who was worshipped by the people of pre-Islamic Palmyra.
Myths and legends
After that things get rather hazy and there are lots of countries and territories where the origin of the name is unclear or disputed.
Libya might be named after Libya in Greek mythology, a daughter of Memphis and Epaphus. The name was used by Greeks to refer to wider swathe of Africa. But it could also come from Levu, an ancient Egyptian name for one of the Berber tribes.
Several of the UAE’s constituent parts have uncertain etymologies. Abu Dhabi, for example, means “father of the gazelle” and may come from a legend dating back to 1761 about a gazelle drinking at a spring, where a fort was later built. Equally, it may come from a man who became known for chasing after deer in the area.
The name of the next-door emirate of Dubai could be a reference to baby locusts or derive from the word “yadub” meaning to creep, in refence to the slow-moving creek that is still a central feature of the city-state.
The more obscure emirate of Umm al Quwain means “mother of the two powers”, but no-one is quite sure what powers are being referenced.
Still on the Arabian Peninsula, there are plenty of options to choose from when trying to figure out where Oman and Yemen get their names from.
In Oman’s case, it could come from the Sumarian name Magan meaning seafaring people or shipbuilders. Equally, it could come from the Yemeni town of Uman, where some local tribes migrated from.
Yemen could derive from the world “yamin” meaning “on the right-hand side”, as it is on the right of the Red Sea as one looks north. It could come from “yumn” meaning good fortune or prosperity (a description also used in the Roman name for the area: Arabia Felix). On the other hand, it could be named after one of Noah’s grandsons, Yamin bin Qahtan, or it could come from “al yaman” meaning “the south”.
A little further to the north, the name of Qatar is also something of a mystery. It could come from the word “qatara” meaning “to fall, drip or trickle” in reference to some well or other water source; or it could be from the word “qutr” meaning “region”. Going full circle, the country may even take its name from the most important settlement in the area, the now-abandoned Zubarah, whose name comes from the Arabic for “sand mounds”.
Morocco is another country which takes its name from a city, although in this case it’s the former capital of Marrakesh, known to locals in the past as Marrukus (the current capital is Rabat). The origin of that name may come from the Berber phrase “mur akush” meaning “land of God”. Then again it may not – some have suggested it manes “the land of journey”; others that it means “country of the sons of Kush”.