Posts Tagged greek

My Web of Words – 5 – Greek

I wrote in my last post that in the Levant, the words roumi and roum were sometimes synonymous with ‘Greek’. I had planned to make some further points, but then decided to save these for a separate post so as not to burden the article with overlong digressions.

While roum describes those Christians that adhere to the Greek rite and, in historical texts, the Byzantines, the everyday Arabic word used for Greece is al-Yunan, while its corresponding adjective is yunani. We find the word again in Persian, Urdu, Hindi and Mandarin; and we can find its cousins in the languages of many Asian countries, from Azerbaijan to Indonesia.

It’s generally accepted that the Arabs, and probably all those other Eastern nations mentioned above, followed the example of the Turks, who call Greece Yunanistan, literally ‘the land of the Ionians’.

Yet Ionia nowadays is not in Greece but in Turkey, on the shore of the Aegean Sea, with the city of Izmir (formerly Smyrna) at its centre. Ionia is the region of Asia Minor that remained ethnically Greek for the longest, so much so that at the end of the First World War, when it looked like the defeated Ottoman Empire was about to be carved up, Athens tried to annex Ionia. Ataturk took up arms against them, and the Greeks’ rash venture ended in tragedy: massacres, a massive exodus, and a huge fire that, in September 1922, ravaged Izmir, destroying the greater part of the city and, according to some sources, more than 100,000 people.

The name Yunanistan, and all those derived from it, could therefore be explained by the fact that Ionia was one of the principle Greek strongholds in Asia Minor, at a time when the Turkish population was becoming the majority1.  Whatever the case, the region was an important centre of civilisation and encompasses places that left their marks on history, places such as Ephesus, Phocaea, the island of Samos, the Meander River and Miletus, home of Thales, one of the ancient world’s great scholars2.

It should come as no surprise that the Turks, Arabs and other nations of the Orient have their own names for Greece and its people, given that the nations of the West don’t know that country by the name its inhabitants give it either. Greeks call their country Ellada or, in a historical context, Hellas, and call themselves Hellenes, whereas most European languages know that country as Greece and its people as Greeks, or by some variant of these.

In this, the Greeks are far from alone; many people are surprised, amused and at times horrified when they hear the name given to their country by people in other regions of the world.

  1. AUTHOR’S NOTE: Yet the word could be even older, since the Bible knows Greece as Yavan, phonetically close to Yunan; if this is in fact the case, however, one would have to assume that the Greeks’ assimilation with the Ionians occurred long before the Turkic migrations, which brings to mind this article in the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. []
  2. AUTHOR’S NOTE: At certain moments in history, the name ‘Ionia’ included what is now known as Greece, encompassing Athens, Attica and the northern Peloponnese. Yet it seems the ‘Ionian’ Islands such as Corfu, Ithaca, Kythira and Cephalonia had nothing to do with that Ionia — the two words are simply homonyms and are not written the same way in Greek. []

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My Web of Words – 4 – Roumi

This word has travelled far, both in the trail of the Roman legions and beyond. I should properly say these words, for though in Arabic roum is the plural of roumi, the two words have not evolved the same way at all.

The word roum is among those I heard continually in Lebanon, whereas the word “roumi” was unknown to me until I saw it used – in French – to describe Tintin during his adventure in the Land of Black Gold (unless it was in the Cigars of the Pharaoh). It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the great 13th-Century mystic poet who bears the same name: Jalal ad-Din Rumi.1

As you might expect, the origin of this word takes us back to the Romans. But to which Romans, exactly? The Roman Empire known to the Arabs and Turks wasn’t that of Rome, which disappeared in 476, but of Constantinople, which survived another millennium, until 1453. Nowadays we call the latter the Byzantine Empire, but this is a recent designation, unknown before modern times. The Eastern emperors always proclaimed themselves to be Romans, and that is what their neighbours called them.

Yet they were actually Greeks, which explains why, in Arabic and other oriental languages, calling them ‘Roman’ eventually came to mean ‘Greek’. I remember once reading a headline in a Beirut newspaper announcing the marriage of Constantine, the former King of Greece; he was described as the King of the Roum. I smiled, because it was a quaint turn of phrase that no one used anymore. In Lebanon, the word roum is now applied only to two Christian religious communities: roum orthodox, meaning Greek Orthodox, and roum catholik, meaning Greek Catholics. Use the word roum on its own and it is understood to mean the former. Note, however, that the singular is never used in this context; asked to which faith he adheres, a Greek Orthodox will say that he is roum, not roumi. The latter hasn’t followed the same route.

Mysticism and comic books

The peoples of the Maghreb knew all about the Western Roman Empire and, more recently, French colonisation; what’s more, the region has never had local communities adhering to the Greek Rite, and here the word roumi is used to describe a European Christian. In French military slang, it used to denote a young recruit newly arrived in the city2. To my mind, Hergé drew inspiration from this term when he had the Egyptian Arabs or those from the ‘land of black gold’ call the tufted young reporter a ‘roumi’.

In fact, the inhabitants of the Levant and of the Arab peninsula would actually have called him a franji — meaning ‘Frank’, the word commonly used to describe a European. When the word roumi is used in these parts, it is to describe someone as a ‘Greek’ or sometimes, paradoxically, a ‘Turk’. And is it indeed in this latter sense that we should understand the name of the mystic poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi.

This shift in meaning is explained by the fact that the region known today as Turkey was long part of the Eastern Roman Empire. In Arabic, it was call bilad er-roum, meaning ‘the land of the Roum’, and its inhabitants were therefore known as roum, singular roumi or rumi. When the Turkic migrations to Asia Minor began around the year 1000, the historian ibn al-Athir tells us that they came from China, by which he means what is now the province of Xinjiang — still sometimes called Chinese Turkistan — and that those who settled in Anatolia, within the Eastern Roman Empire, were called roum. Given that vast numbers of Turkic peoples migrated to this region, the word roum eventually came to be synonymous with ‘Turk’ in Persia as well as in certain parts of India3.

The mystic poet Rumi himself was not a Turk. Born in 1207 in Balkh, in the north of what is now Afghanistan, into a family of educated Persians, he fled with his people from Genghis Khan’s hordes and settled in the ‘land of the Roum’, in the city of Konya, which is in the centre of what is now Turkey. Here he would remain until his death in 1273, and it is here that he would study, write and teach, winning in his lifetime an immense prestige that remains undiminished to this day.

Now as then, people sing his poetry, meditate on his wisdom and, more than anything, venerate the incomparable generosity of his spirit, a generosity that drove him to write:

Come, come to us, whoever you are,
Wanderer, idolater, worshipper of fire,
Come, even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come to us, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.

  1. TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Roumi in French. []
  2. AUTHOR’S NOTE: As we are reminded by the website of the Centre National des Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales, which I often visit. []
  3. AUTHOR’S NOTE: The illustration used in this article comes from the Historical Museum of Textiles in Lyon. I found it on this site, to which I am profoundly grateful. []
  4. TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Translation cited in Malak, Amin, Muslim Narratives and the Discourse of English, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005, p. 151. []

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