Egyptian cities and markets: What's behind a name?

Sherry El-Gergawi, Thursday 28 Jun 2012

Zamalek, Boulak, Saqqara, Khan al-Khalili are landmarks that date back centuries. Ahram Online looks at the stories behind the names of Egypt's towns and famous markets

Zamalek (Picture: courtesy of Ahl Misr Zaman on facebook)

Some of the names we use today for our streets, neighbourhoods, markets, and towns, go centuries back.

In his 1940 groundbreaking book, “Al-Qamus Al-Goghrabfi Lil Bilad Al-Masria” (The Geographical Lexicon of Egyptian Lands), Mohamed Ramzi says that Egypt has 675 towns and villages bearing the name kafr, or small village; 315 called minya, or port; 90 called mit, or path; and 162 called shobra, or field.

Egypt, the country’s English name, is a corruption of the Greek Agiptos, which is a variation of the much older hat-ka-ptah, or “from the soul of Ptah,” the most celebrated deity of the ancients.

Ein Shams, now a northeast suburb of Cairo, was once the famed City of the Sun, or Heliopolis in Greek. The ancient Egyptian word for sun is on, hence the current derivation which means either Spring of the Sun or Eye of the sun.

Tora, now a southern suburb of Cairo, was ta-ra-wa for the ancients, or “land of the caves”. It is from Tora that the stones used to build the Pyramids were taken. In WWII, the British used the caves to store arms and ammunition.

Bulak, now a centrally-located neighbourhood on the Nile’s east bank and home to the Foreign Ministry’s Building, was called so because the name means “island” in ancient Egyptian.

Saqqara, an hour or so south of Giza, is named after Saqar, the ancient deity of death.

Damanhour, the city in the northeast Delta, was named after Hur or Horus, a main character in the ancient Egyptian trinity (along with Isis and Osiris).

Damanhour (Picture: courtesy of Ahl Misr Zaman on facebook)

Fayyum, a major oasis two hours to the southwest of Cairo, was known as Bayyum, or sea, in ancient times.

Tahta, a town  near Suhag, had the same name in ancient times, which may be translated as “Temple of the Land.”

Bani Suweif, a city three hours south of Cairo, used to be Hanu in ancient times. Its current name is that of an Arab tribe which settled there a thousand years ago or so.

Bahr Moris, in Fayyum, was called Mar-Or, which means “big lake” in ancient times. The Greeks changed the name to Mar-Oris, which was later shortened to Moris.

Abu Qir, the eastern suburb of Alexandria, was known as Kanup in ancient times, before the name was changed to commemorate Amba Kyr, a third century Christian martyr who is buried there.

Abu Qir
Abu Qir (Picture: courtesy of Ahl Misr Zaman on facebook)

Abnub, a town near Asyut, got its name from Anubis, the deity of embalming.

Tal Basta, a town in Sharqia, was Bubastis in ancient times. Its name comes from Bastet, the cat deity.

Sa al-Hagar, a town in Delta, used to be called Sa by the ancients and Sais by the Greeks. Its current name is a combination of the old name and the Arab word for stone, a reference to the stone ruins still standing there.

Qus, a city near Qena in south Egypt, got its name either from a word meaning “cemetery” in ancient Egyptian or a word meaning “church bell” in Coptic language.

Abu Tisht, a town near Qena, maintains a trace of its old name Batist, meaning “Path of Gold” in ancient Egyptian.

Nagada, a town near Qena, was called Ni-Ka-Dai in ancient Egyptian, a phrase that denotes the acquisition of knowledge.

Atrib, a town near Banha in the Delta, used to be called Hat-Hri-Eb, which means “Palace of the Middle Land” in ancient Egyptian.

Midom, used to be called Martum in ancient times, a name that means “Beloved of Atum".

Midom (Picture: courtesy of Ahl Misr Zaman on facebook)

Kom Ombo, a town near Aswan in south Egypt, used to be called Ambos in ancient times.

Athar al-Nabi, in Cairo, used to house a temple for Hatur in ancient times. The temple had a gold statue called Nub, so the temple was known as Hatur-Nub, or Atur-Nub. It was corrupted into Athar al-Nabi, or “Trace of the Prophet” in Arabic.

Aswan, the city in south Egypt, was called As-Angi in the Nubian language, means “Source of Water.”

Abu Tig, a town near Asyut, still bears a trace of its Greek name, Boutica, which means a storehouse.

Suez, used to be called Kalsima in Greek, which the Arabs pronounced Qulzum, but its current name is derived from a tiny village that has long disappeared.

Sinai, the peninsula connecting Africa and Asia, managed to keep its ancient Akkadian name, meaning Land of the Moon.

Inshas, a town in Sharqia, obtained its name from La chasse, the French word for hunting. The area was full of lakes which attracted migratory birds. The current name was adopted when General Kleber of the French Expedition began hunting there.

Zamalek, the island in central Cairo, is named after the huts built there in the mid-nineteenth century. Zamalek is Turkish for huts.

Mostorud, a suburb of Cairo, owes its name to a friend of Khedive Abbas II whose name was pronounced by the locals as Miss Trod.

Al-Salhiya, a town in the Delta, was named after the thirteenth century Ayyubid King al-Saleh Negmeddin, who built it in 1246 as a precaution against invasion by the Crusaders.

Al-Monira, in central Cairo, got its name from a 40-day wedding celebration for the children of Khedive Ismail (1863-1879), during which the whole district was illuminated for weeks on end;  hence the name which means “the shining” in Arabic.

Saqiet Makki, a district in southern Cairo, was once owned by the noble families of the prophet’s tribe, the Qoreish of Mecca. The name Saqiet Makki, meaning the Waterwheel of Mecca, became common in Ottoman times.

Khoronfesh, a section of Gammaliya in Fatimid Cairo, is named after khoroshtof, or the dried dung used oven fuel in medieval times.

Qantaret al-Dekka, in Faggala in central Cairo, is named after the bridge built there by Amir Shams al-Din, a fifteenth century. The said bridge, or kantaret, which crossed the canal feeding Birket al-Azbakiya (Lake Azbakiya, now Opera Square), featured a seating bench or dekka.

Geziret Badran, now a street in Shobra, used to be called Geziret al-Fil (Island of the Elephant) after a ship called al-Fil  which sunk there in the eleventh or the twelfth century. The name Geziret Badran (Island of Badran) comes from a saint by the name of Badran who lived there.

Al-Tabbalah, a district in central Cairo, was named so because the land was given as a gift by the Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir to a drummer woman, or Tabbalah.

Al-Hod al-Marsud, in Sayyed Zeina in central Cairo, owes its name to an ancient drinking trough. The trough, made of stone, is now in the Brisish Museum. The name al-Hod al-Marsud means “the Haunted Basin”.

In her book “Hamasat Masriya” (Egyptian Whispers), Jihan Mamoun describes some of the markets of medieval Egypt:

Suq al-Morahhalin, or the Market of the Travellers, was dedicated to selling camel accessories, in demand for caravan travelling.

Suq al-Sanadiqiyin, or Market of the Box Makers, was a furniture supply market, for medieval furniture was basically made of boxes, cabinets, and beds – all variations on the box theme.

Suq al-Shammayin, or Market of the Candle Makers, lived up to its name, as it was the best lit of all medieval markets.

Suq al-Fahhamin, or the Market of the Coal Sellers, is now inhabited mostly by textile merchants.

Suq al-Nahhasin, or Market of the Copper Workers, maintains its name and character in the northern part of Gammaliya.

Suq al-Nahhasin
Suq al-Nahhasin (Picture: courtesy of Ahl Misr Zaman on facebook)

Khan al-Khalili,or the Hotel-Market of Khalili, was named after Jarkas al-Khalili (Jarkas from Hebron) who built it around 1400.

Khan al-Khalili
Khan al-Khalili (Picture: courtesy of Ahl Misr Zaman on facebook)

Suq al-Halawiyin, or Market of the Pastry Makers, used to sell a wide range of pastries in Mamluk times, especially those fashioned in sugar in teh shape of birds, horses, lions, and cats.

Suq al-Halawiyin
Suq al-Halawiyin (Picture: courtesy of Ahl Misr Zaman on facebook)

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