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My Web of Words – 9 – Baghdad


I intended to devote this post to ‘baldachin’, a word that originated in Baghdad. But I changed my mind because it is the city itself – and its name – that interests me. That name, so familiar to us today, has a long history that goes well beyond that of a rarely used word such as ‘baldachin’.

This last word is a vestige of a bygone time, a touching literary relic. It survives in a number of languages – baldaquin in French, baldachin in German, baldaquino in Spanish and Portuguese, baldakin in Swedish, baldakiini in Finnish and so on. All these forms have the same ancestor, the Italian word baldacchino, once used to describe the silk imported from Baldacco, that is to say Baghdad.

This old pronunciation of the city’s name doesn’t much surprise me, as an Arab. I have in my library a 13th Century work entitled Mo’jam al-bildan, ‘The Dictionary of Countries’, a geographical encyclopaedia that a scholar named Yaqut1 completed in 1223, 35 years prior to the fall of Baghdad to the Mongol leader Hulagu.

Under the heading for ‘Baghdad’, Yaqut’s ‘Dictionary’ gives no less than seven different pronunciations for the city’s name. One of these triggered in me a memory from childhood. My father had a remarkable command of classical Arabic poetry, and one day he recited a verse singing the praises of the beauty of Boghdan. He then explained that this was a literary name for Baghdad, that there were others, too, and that the reason for this was that, since the word wasn’t originally an Arabic one, everyone pronounced it their own way.

Yaqut confirms that the city’s name is originally Persian. This is an established fact, though its exact etymology is still debated, as all etymologies inevitably are, ipso facto. The most plausible hypothesis, however, is that bagh or bogh is a root word meaning ‘god’; and that dad comes from a verb meaning ‘to give’. The name of the Iraqi capital, therefore, means ‘gift of God’.

Persian is an Indo-European language, so one shouldn’t be surprised by the similarity between ‘Baghdad’ and Slavic names such as Bogdan, which has a similar meaning. Moreover, this idea of ‘gift of God’ can be found in a number of proper names derived from Latin, such as Déodat, Donnedieu or Dieudonné in French; or from Greek, such as ‘Theodore’ and, for a woman, ‘Dorothy’. The Arabic equivalent is Atallah, while in Hebrew it’s ‘Jonathan’.

Arabs, Persians, Greeks, Assyrians

Returning to the Iraqi metropolis, the once-prevalent variations of both the pronunciation and spelling of its name could also be explained by the fact that ‘Baghdad’ was simply the word used in everyday language, and that the city’s official name was something else. When Caliph al-Mansur founded the city in the 8th Century, intending it to be the capital of the Abbasid Empire, he called it Madinat as-Salaam, ‘City of Peace’. It was also called Madinat al-Mansur in his honour; and, because of its rounded layout, al-Zaoura, ‘the Oblique’.

Moreover, the Caliph didn’t found his capital in a place unknown to history, and all these names were simply added to others already extant. A number of renowned cities already existed on or near the site, and though their names are forgotten today, they all had their moments of glory, and their memories survive sometimes in odd ways. There was, notably, Seleucia, a Greek city founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, and her sister city Ctesiphon, a Persian city that the Sassanid shahs made their capital until the Arab conquest in the 7th Century.

Those two names have remained linked, and the great Mesopotamian metropolis of Seleucia-Ctesiphon is frequently mentioned in ancient texts. The Assyrian Church, one of Christianity’s oldest, was founded here. It was long known as the Nestorian church, after the bishop Nestorius, whom Rome condemned as a heretic.

The Church still exists, and History continues to give it a rough ride. It is still torn between East and West, still persecuted, still little known. Its patriarchate long ago had to abandon its original residence on the banks of the Tigris, but its ecclesiastical texts still carry the hyphenated name of the twin cities.

It is touching to come across the following in a modern text: “Drafted on the 15 August, 1997 in Seleucia-Ctesiphon”. The toponym is purely symbolic, of course, since the city that this ancient name refers to, the city where the patriarchate of the Assyrian Church is now based, is none other than … Chicago.

  1. AUTHOR’S NOTE: His biography specifies that his name was Yaqut al-Hamawi al-Rumi al-Baghdadi – meaning that he came from the Syrian city of Hama, from the land of the Greeks and from Baghdad. []

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  1. #1 by Meam Wye on November 18th, 2009

    I am delighted to know that you have got a copy of Mo’jam al-bildan in your library! I’m presently writing a blog post on this great book. I would be very grateful if you could kindly provide me total number of entries in his book (if possible) and the total number of pages of the book.

    Thank you very much in anticipation.

  2. #2 by oriol on December 3rd, 2009

    Mr. Maalouf

    I am glad to write you and I wish you the best. I’m in search for an e-mail of yours on account of the Publishing House Logos A Macedonia, which publishes in the albanian language, in order to recieve from you the copyrights of the book “The crusades through Arab eyes”. Waiting forward to hear from you.

    Best regards
    Oriol Guni
    logos-a.com.mk

  3. #3 by oriol on December 5th, 2009

    Please, Mr. Maloufi, can you tell me an e-mail where to address the request for the copyrights of your book The crusades through arab eyes. Please, I’m looking forward for your reply, because some has already translated the book and we, the publishing house Logos A, are ready to publish it in Macedonia, in the albanian language, but we are not making any contact with your copyrights agency, because we don’t know where to address the request. (albanians in Macedian comprise 30% of the population).

    Sincerely yours
    Oriol Guni
    Logos A

  4. #4 by Ayad Rahim on March 25th, 2012

    I just read, in Bernard Lewis’s book “The Arabs in History,” that a Persian village called Baghdad already existed, near the site where Abu-Ja’far al-Mansur would found his city.

    In the book, Lewis quotes a passage from the geographer Ya’qubi, telling “how Mansur halted by the village of Baghdad in the course of a journey and said”:

    “This island between the Tigris in the East and the Euphrates in the West is a market place for the world. All the ships that come up the Tigris from Wasit, Basra, Ubulla, Ahwaz, Fars, ‘Uman, Yamama, Bahrain and beyond will go up and anchor here; wares brought on ships down the Tigris from Mosul, Diyar-Rabi’a, Adharbaijan and Armenia, and along the Euphrates from Diyar-Mudar, Raqqa, Syria and the border marshes, Egypt and North Africa will be brought and unloaded here. It will be the highway for the people of the Jabal, Isfahan and the districts of Khurasan. Praise be to God who preserved it for me and caused all those who came before me to neglect it. By God, I shall build it. Then I shall dwell in it as long as I live and my descendants shall dwell in it after me. It will surely be the most flourishing city in the world.”

    All the best,

    Ayad Rahim

  5. #5 by emel kurma on December 29th, 2012

    Such an inspiring travels among words. Sevan Nisanyan – writer, researcher, columnist – from turkey has been doing similar tracking of the adventurous journeys of words in Turkish. He’s done that in his previous column; collection of the articles published in two volumes, with the title “kelimebaz”. My mother tongue is turkish, and I’ve always been intrigued by the hybridity of vocabulary in our different languages. What a pity that majority of fellow speakers of turkish in modern turkey today choose to believe in, favor and even blindly insist on the purity of their ethnicity, of the language. It was Kemal’s great invention to embark on the purification of turkish. Very few people know how to cherish and enjoy the hybridity of the language.

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