Place names of Palestine

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Place names in Palestine have been the subject of much scholarship and contention, particularly in the context of the Arab–Israeli conflict. The significance of place names in Palestine lies in their potential to legitimize the historical claims asserted by the involved parties, all of whom claim priority in chronology, and who use archaeology, map-making, and place names as their proofs.[1]

The importance of toponymy, or geographical naming, was first recognized by the British organization, the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF), who mounted geographical map-making expeditions in Palestine in the late 19th century. Shortly thereafter, the British Mandatory authorities set out to gather toponymic information from the local Arab population, who had been proven to have preserved knowledge of the ancient place names which could help identify archaeological sites.[2]

Palestinian place names are generally Arabised forms of ancient Semitic names or newer Arabic language formations,[3] though since the establishment of Israel, many place names have since been Hebraicised or are known officially by their Biblical names.[4] The cultural interchange fostered by the various successive empires to have ruled Palestine is apparent in its place names. Any particular place can be known by the different names used in the past, with each of these corresponding to a historical period.[4] For example, what is today known as Tzippori, was known under Hellenistic rule as Sepphoris, under Roman rule as Diocaesarea, and under Arab and Islamic rule as Saffuriya.


The preservation of place names in Palestine "with amazing consistency" is noted by Yohanan Aharoni in The Land of the Bible (1979).[5] He attributes this continuity to the common Semitic background of Palestine's local inhabitants throughout the ages, and the fact that place names tended to reflect extant agricultural features at the site in question.[5] According to Uzi Leibner, this preservation of names is "a function of continuity of settlement at the site itself, or at least in the immediate region," and most of the sites in question were inhabited during the Byzantine and Middle Islamic periods.[6]

The indigenous population of Palestine used Semitic languages, such as Hebrew, Samaritan, Palestinian Syriac, Jewish Aramaic and Arabic, for thousands of years.[7] Almost all place names in Palestine have Semitic roots, with only a few place names being of Latin origin, and hardly any of Greek or Turkish origins.[7] The Semitic roots of the oldest names for places in Palestine continued to be used by the indigenous population, though during the period of classical antiquity in Palestine, many names underwent modifications due to the influence of local ruling elites well versed in Greek and Latin.[4] With the Arab expansion into Palestine, many of the preclassical Semitic names were revived, though often the spelling and pronunciation differed. Of course, for places where the old name had been lost or for new settlements established during this period, new Arabic names were coined.[4]

In his 4th century work, the Onomasticon, Eusebius of Caesarea provides a listing of the place names of Palestine with geographical and historical commentary, and his text was later translated into Latin and edited and corrected by Jerome.[8] Though oft visited by European travellers in the centuries to follow, many of whom composed travel accounts describing its topography and demography, towards the end of Ottoman imperial rule, there was still much confusion over the place names in Palestine.[9] Existing Turkish transliterations of the Arabic and Arabicized names made identification and study into the etymology of the place names even more challenging.[9]

Edward Robinson identified more than 100 biblical place names in Palestine, by pursuing his belief that linguistic analysis of the place names used by the Arab fellahin would reveal preserved traces of their ancient roots.[10][11] The PEF's Names and Places in the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, with their Modern Identifications (1895) lists more than 1,150 place names related to the Old Testament and 162 related to the New, most of which are located in Palestine.[12] These surveys by Robinson the PEF, and other Western biblical geographers in late 19th and early 20th centuries, also eventually contributed to the shape of the borders delineated for the British Mandate in Palestine, as proposed by the League of Nations.[10]

With the establishment of Israel, in parts of Palestine, many place names have since been Hebraized or are referred to by their revived Biblical names.[4] Even sites with only Arabic names and no pre-existing ancient Hebrew names or associations have been given new Hebrew names.[13]

Roots of place names in Palestine[edit]

Agricultural features are common to roots of place names in Palestine. For example, some place names incorporate the Semitic root for "spring" or "cistern", such as Beersheba or Bir as'Saba, ("Be'er" and "Bir" meaning "well" in Hebrew and Arabic respectively) and En Gedi or 'Ayn Jeddi ("En" and "'Ayn" meaning "spring" in Hebrew and Arabic respectively).[14]

Other place names preserve the names of Semitic gods and goddesses from ancient times. For example, the name of the goddess Anat survives in the name of the village of 'Anata, believed to be site of the ancient city of Anathoth.[15]

Evolution of names by place[edit]

  • Battir: During the Bar Kochba revolt, this site was known as Betar.[16] Its Arabic name Battir is evidently related to the ancient name. The village was also identified by an ancient mound in the vicinity called Khirbet el-Yahud ("ruin of the Jews").
  • Beit Ur al-Fauqa (Arabic: بيت عور الفوقة‎‎, "Upper house of straw") and Beit Ur al-Tahta (Arabic: بيت عور التحتى‎‎, "Lower house of straw") preserve parts of the original Canaanite names for these sites: Bethoron Elyon ("Upper Bethoron"), and Bethoron Tahton ("Lower Bethoron"). Bethoron means the "House of Horon", named for the Egypto-Canaanite deity Horon mentioned in Ugaritic literature and other texts.[17][18][19]
  • Beit Jibrin: Depopulated during the 1948 Arab–Israeli war, this village was originally known by the Aramaic name Beth Gabra ("house of the strong men").[20] The Romans gave it the Greek name of Eleutheropolis ("city of the free") but it is nonetheless listed in the Tabula Peutingeriana of 393 CE as Beitogabri.".[21][22] In the Talmud, its name is transcribed as Beit Gubrin (or Guvrin). The Crusaders referred to it as Bethgibelin or simply Gibelin.[23] Its Arabic name Beit Jibrin ("house of the powerful") is derived from the original Aramaic name.[24]
  • Indur: Depopulated during the 1948 Arab–Israeli war, this village preserves the name of the ancient Canaanite city of Endor.[25] Though the precise location of the ancient site remains a source of debate, the preferred candidate lies 1 kilometer northeast of Indur, a site known as Khirbet Safsafa.[26]
  • Jericho: Known among the local inhabitants as Ariha (Ar-riha, meaning "fragrance"), it is described in the 10th century Book of Josippon, as "Jericho: City of Fragrance" (ir hareah).[27] It is thought that the current name is derived from the Canaanite name Yareah, meaning "moon".[28]
  • Jenin: In Canaanite times, its name was Ein Ganeem or Tel Jenin. Its name was changed to Ginat or Gini. The Arabicized name Jenin derived from the original.
  • Jib: Jib preserves the name of its ancient predecessor, Gibeon.
  • Tulkarm: Founded in the 3rd century CE as Berat Soreqa, it name in Aramaic was Tur Karma, meaning "mount of the vineyards". This name was then Arabicized to Tul Karem.
  • Nablus: Originally named Flavia Neapolis since it was founded in 72 CE by the Romans; in 636 CE, it was conquered by the Arabs, who Arabicized its name to Nablus.
  • Ramallah: Founded in the mid-16th century, its original name was Arabic, as it is today.
  • Qamun: Depopulated prior to the outbreak of the 1948 war, Qamun's original name was the Canaanite Jokneam, from which the Arabic Qamun (meaning "cumin") was derived. The Romans called it Cammona and Cimona, while the Crusaders called it Cains Mon ("Cain's Mountain") reflecting a popular local tradition that Cain was slain nearby.
  • Yalo: Destroyed during the 1967 war, this village was originally known by the Canaanite name Aijalon. The Arabic name Yalu, by which it was known for centuries, is derived from the Canaanite original.[29]
  • Yazur: Depopulated prior to the 1948 war, the village's name in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE is recorded in Assyrian texts as Azuru.[30]
  • Yahudiya (known as Al-'Abbasiyya since 1932) means "the Jewish (city)" and is thought to be related to the biblical town of Yahud, mentioned in the Book of Joshua.

Use of place names as personal names[edit]

Since the exodus of 1948, Arab Palestinians have begun a tradition of naming their daughters after destroyed Arab villages.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kramer and Harman, 2008, pp. 1–2
  2. ^ Benvenisti and Kaufman-Lacusta, 2000, p. 16.
  3. ^ Cheyne and Black, 1902, p. 3318.
  4. ^ a b c d e Miller and Hayes, 1986, p. 29.
  5. ^ a b Cansdale, 1997, p. 111.
  6. ^ Leibner, 2009, pp. 395–396.
  7. ^ a b Ellenblum, 2003, p. 256.
  8. ^ Richard, 2003, p. 442.
  9. ^ a b Kramer and Harman, 2008, p. 128.
  10. ^ a b Swedenburg, 2003, p. 49.
  11. ^ Davis, 2004, p. 6.
  12. ^ Macalister, 1977, p. 79.
  13. ^ Swedenburg, 2003, p. 50.
  14. ^ Rast, 1992, p. 25.
  15. ^ Hitti, 2002, p. 120.
  16. ^ Glass, 2005, p. 279.
  17. ^ Eugenio Alliata (2000-12-19), Bethoron (Bayt Ur), Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, retrieved 2007-09-12 
  18. ^ William Albright (December 1941), "The Egypt-Canaanite God Haurôn", Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 84 (84): 7–12, JSTOR 1355138 
  19. ^ John Gray (January 1949), "The Canaanite God Horon", Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 8 (1): 27–34, doi:10.1086/370902, JSTOR 542437 
  20. ^ Sharon, 1997, p. 109.
  21. ^ Robinson and Smith, 1856, p. 67.
  22. ^ 1911
  23. ^ Richard, 1921, p. 140.
  24. ^ Khalidi, 1992, p. 209–210.
  25. ^ Negev and Gibson, 2005, p. 166.
  26. ^ Freedman et al., 2006, p. 406.
  27. ^ Milgrom, 1995, p. 127.
  28. ^ Bromiley, 1995, p. 1136.
  29. ^ Robinson and Smith, 1860, p. 253–254.
  30. ^ Maspero et al., 1900, p. 288.
  31. ^ Sylomovics, 1998, p. 202.