The beauty and elegance of the Arabic language shine forth in many a world place name that does not always surrender its meaning on first perusal. Here is my first sampling of six places with Arabic names.
Gibraltar, known to locals as Gib or The Rock, is a slight English mangling of the Arabic phrase jabal Tāriq which means ‘the mountain of Tariq,’ named after the Moorish general who led the first force of Muslims to invade Spain in 711 CE. Tariq ibn-Ziyad was a Berber Umayyad. Or Gibraltar may derive from gibr al-Tariq ‘the rock of Tariq.’
The Latin motto of Gibraltar is nulli expugnabilis hosti literally “capable by no enemy of being conquered.” If a motto could take a prize for effrontery, if I were handing out the Casselman Medal for Heraldic Mendacity, this little item would win in a trice. Gibraltar was not conquered by any enemy? Oh no, none except the Iberians, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Moors, the Spanish, the British! Puh-leeeeese, give us a truth break, you Gib fibbers.
Riyadh is the plural form of the Arabic word rawdah ‘garden’ or ‘meadow’ and takes it name ‘gardens’ from the greenery of a riverine locale, for indeed a river runs through it. In remotest antiquity this capital city of Saudi Arabia was founded beside the once-verdant banks of Wadi Hanifah, a river now being lovingly restored to pristine aquatic vibrancy.
Wadi Hanifah only flows for three or four weeks of the year and for the annual remainder it is a dry bed. Wadi in Arabic signifies a watercourse that is dry for part or all of the year. Now Wadi Hanifah welcomes back to its waters fish like the predatory Blue Tilapia. Among the wadi’s delightful streamside residents is that pert trotter, the fennec, a big-eared but petite desert fox.
Fennec (Fennecus zerda, formerly canis Zerda)
There are other words for garden in Arabic, one of the most important being Jannah, which is the Koranic word for paradise. Jannah too means ‘garden’ and reminds us of another paradise, the biblical garden of Eden. The name Eden was probably borrowed by the Jews from ancient Sumerian where edhen is a word for ‘fertile plain’ implying a ‘land of plenty.’ Typical of most religions, this nebulous bounty becomes available after death.
Incidentally, the very word paradise is ultimately a Persian word for garden, made up of two Avestan roots pairi ‘around’+ daeza ‘wall’ hence ‘place with a wall around it’ or a garden. During the wars against ancient Persia, Greeks picked up the word easily because it sounded almost Greek to them. Periteichios* could be a Greek adjective meaning ‘surrounded by a wall.’ The Greek paradeisos ended up in Late Latin as paradisus, then in Old French as paradis and was borrowed into Middle English as paradis and in modern English gained a terminal e. The word is still in modern French. Consider the dulcifluent title of a classic French film, Les Enfants du Paradis.
Guadalupe was first a river in the Spanish region of Extremadura named by the Moors in Arabic wad(i)-al-hub ‘river of love,’ due to the reputedly aphrodisiac qualities of its water. This river gave its name to the original sanctuary of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe which contains a portrait of the Madonna as a woman with dark, Spanish features, nicknamed La Morenita ‘the little Moorish woman,’ the patron saint of the Spanish world. The Spanish town of Guadalupe in Cáceres province is still a centre of pilgrimage.
The Virgin of Guadalupe in the New World
Columbus’ Spanish sailors and clerics introduced this cult into the Americas. The miracle of La Virgen de Guadalupe occurred in 1531 CE on the outskirts of Mexico City when an apparition of Mary appeared to an Indian man and told him to tell the local archbishop to build a church nearby. According to the legend, the archbishop refused to believe the man until a wondrous image of Mary appeared on the tilma or mantle of the peasant. The portrait shows Mary as a dark-skinned, indigenous woman.
Interestingly, the apparition appeared at the foot of Tepeyac Hill where Aztec peoples worshipped a goddess named Tonantzin ‘mother of God.’ The portrait of Mary bears a no doubt totally fortuitous resemblance to ancient depictions of Tonantzin, and the promotion of this dusky BVM by Roman Catholic worthies did much to hasten the conversion of local Indian peoples. Ah, how convenient a little miracle at the proper moment can be!
The mantle today is the focus of the most famous religious shrine in Mexico, and the Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico. Guadalupe is naturally one of the frequent names for girls in Mexico. The diminutives and pet forms are also much used as given names: Gualupita, Lupita, Pita, and Lupe.
Famous as a battle place in World War Two, Guadalcanal is one of the Solomon Islands where the war in the Pacific was fiercely fought. The island was named after a town in Spain, in Seville, in Andalusia. During the Muslim conquest of Spain, the Moors set up what today we might call a ‘food fair’ in one of the dry riverbeds and called this place of refreshment stands and what were in effect ‘take-out restaurants,’ Wadi al-Khanat ‘river bed of the food stalls.’ Spaniards heard this Arabic place name as ‘Guadalcanal.’
Arabic ‘river of shit, river of sewage’
Guadalajara is a Spanish city near Madrid, capital of the province of the same name. Because the Arabic name is negative there has been a 1,000 year effort to alter or mistranslate the Arabic. The usual ploy, stated in many Spanish and Mexican tourist brochures, is to say that its meaning is ‘river of stones.’ No, it is not. It’s shit and so was the wadi to the ancient Moors who named it. Just why they named it ‘Shit River’ has been lost to history. Perhaps, strewn with refuse, the wadi was an early victim of pollution, a defecatorium for Moors and camels?
The Degollado Theatre, Guadalajara, Mexico
Far more fascinating is the Mexican city of the same name, the capital of the state of Jalisco. Mexico’s Guadalajara does not give a fetid agave what its name means. Fair weather, good employment and a sweet perch on a high plain ringed by mountains have made it one of the most populous and idea-fertile ciudades in Mexican history. In Guadalajara, mariachi bands first trumpeted their brassy existence and tequila first soothed a lime-juiced larynx.Later this winter I’ll dip again into Arabic place names around the world.
© 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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