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.