Ancient Empires, Modern States

It seems natural for countries such as Egypt and India to have those names. But what we don’t realize is that the names that we use for these countries actually have no connection to the modern country but in fact take their name from historical names of countries that no longer exist.

Take Egypt. The ancient Egyptian name of the country is Kemet,, and the modern Arabic name of the country is Misr (or Masr), a word with Semitic origin. Egypt comes from the the Latin Aegyptus, which in turn derives from the ancient Greek Aígyptos, which means “below the Aegean [Sea]“.

Then in the Caucasus, ethnic Georgians call themselves Kartvelebi, their land Sakartvelo, and their language Kartuli. Georgia comes from a belief that came back to Medieval Europe from the Crusades that the country is the home of St. George, a Roman Christian martyr. And in Armenia, the native name for the country is Hayk, which in the Middle Ages was extended to Hayastan, by addition of the Iranian suffix -stan (land). The name Armenia derives from old Persian and Ancient Greek.

Modern-day Iran was known as Persia for centuries, following the name of the ancient Persian Empire that the Greeks know. Yet the people of that country have called their country Iran since Roman times, and it was not until 1935 that the country became known as Iran internationally. Part of the reason was that the Shah at the time, reluctantly subordinate to both Russia and Britain, sought to identify his country with the homeland of Germany, which had adopted the Aryan race as their national myth.

The name India is derived from the name of the Sindhu (Indus River) and has been in use in Greek since Herodotus in the 4th century BC. As it happens, the lands comprising the Indus Valley are presently entirely in Pakistan, this being the only region ancient Greeks had contact with (and in which Alexander fleetingly took control of during his conquest of Asia. The term appears in Old English as early as the 9th century, and again in Modern English since the 17th century.

How do these people feel about having such different international names? Indians accept the name India as one title of their country. Georgians are also pleased to be associated with St. George. Armenians and Egyptians appear indifferent. But there are some Iranians who are offended by the use of the word Persia from both a religious and ethnic nationalist viewpoint, as it was a pre-Islamic.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
This entry was posted in General and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Ancient Empires, Modern States

  1. McKellar says:

    I had a Chinese student who was offended that his country was named after porcelain, and it took me a while to explain about Roman contact with the Qin emperor and 18th century European demand for Ming ceramics.

    I’ve always wondered what American white-supremacists thought about the real Aryan Nation…maybe they can work with Israel to carve out a state of their own in the ancient Aryan homeland…

  2. Pete says:

    The United States of America are not quite so ancient, but we have managed to get interesting names abroad.

    China calls the USA “Meiguo” (美国): “Beautiful Country”.

    Japanese usually refer to the USA as “Amerika” (アメリカ), but it used to be called “Beikoku” (米国): “Rice Country”.

  3. Bob Harrison says:

    I always thought Iran adopted its name in place of Persia because Persia refers more specifically to the area around today’s Fars province. Iran refers to all the Iranian regions in addition to Persia such as Khorasan and Medea (and probably other places I’ve left out).

  4. On an only very slightly related note, I had someone over doing work on my TV the other day. He had an accent I couldn’t quite place, and being very curious asked him where he was from. He said what I heard as, “I am a Syrian.” I said, “Oh, ok, I- wait. Syrian, or Assyrian?” He seemed quite pleased that I knew the difference and confirmed he was actually Assyrian and from Northern Iraq. He then went on to talk about how his people’s land had been stolen way back when and I’m thinking, “Is he bitching about Alexander?” It was fascinating, and kinda cool.

  5. Shirshendu Mandal says:

    Another common name for India is “Hindustan”. Persians translated Sindhu (Indus) to Hindu in their language. Also, “sthanam” meaning “land” in Sanskrit got translated to Persian as “stan”. Combining these two, they called the land of Indus “Hindustan”.

  6. charlerk says:

    Chris, that reminds me of the total delight of watching a Greek and a Macedonian argue about who gets to claim Alexander. Also the endless naming controversy of modern Macedonia.

  7. s says:

    well…most (if not all) chinese don’t care (or know) about the origin of China/Chin=Qin~porcelain. in fact, some government literature took pride in being credited with the invention of porcelain.
    mckellar’s friend is certainly in the minority of the minority.

    also…japan is not really nippon, but i bet not many people really care in japan.

  8. In the beginning of the nineties me and a friend did a tour on a motorbike. Yoguslavia was falling apart and one couldn’t keep up with all the new countries. Suddenly we came upon a border to Hrvatska Republik. Amazed we passed the border to this unknown country. Only later we discovered that we had visited Croatia.

    @Chris: I have had the same experience with Assyrrians. I love to see their content faces when they see that some people are not ignorant of their existence.

  9. Joe Jones says:

    “Some people” = “frequent Civilization players.”

  10. Pingback: Tweets that mention » Ancient Empires, Modern States --

  11. Er… *eyes his laptop where “Civilization IV” is up and going* Uhm… I need to get back to my game now. :P

  12. Oliver says:

    Iran isn’t preislamic?

  13. Richard says:

    Actually Chris Swanson, the Assyrians were dispossessed quite a bit more recently:

    They are currently being persecuted in Iraq where there was a significant number of them prior to the US invasion. They have been targeted by Islamic extremists and criminals. Consequently many hundreds of thousands have left Iraq.

  14. kurt9 says:

    But there are some Iranians who are offended by the use of the word Persia from both a religious and ethnic nationalist viewpoint, as it was a pre-Islamic.


    The Persians I met told me pointed that they prefer to be called “Persian” and not “Iranian”.

  15. Ed says:

    I’m coming around to the viewpoint that we should just use whatever name the locals call their country or city. It means undoing years of conditioning, but its actually not that difficult once you get used to the word in the other language.

    However, we should resist adopting obviously political inspired name changes, that are pushed by governments but which most of the locals themselves reject.

  16. Rommel says:

    Yes, Iranian-Americans often prefer Persian. Probably because it reminds most of the great old Empire of yore whereas Iran connotates that vile Islamic tyranny we know today. My personal opinion is that many (including me, but I’m not Iranian) prefer it because Persian is just a more beautiful word. Beautiful like many of the women!

  17. kurt9 says:

    Not just the Iranian-Americans. I was told this by Iranian people living and working in Japan during the 90′s.

  18. SJ says:

    Also, Albania is called Shqipëria in their language. Native word for an Albanian is Shqiptar.Interestingly, when non-Albanian uses ‘Shqiptar’ in non-Albanian language (e.g, Serbian or English), it is considered offensive by Albanians.

  19. ԱAՐR ԷEՆN says:

    As an Armenian, I am content with the cosmopolitan use of the toponym Armenia. Given that both the terms Armenia and Hayk -subsequent Hayastan- stem from the native names of ethno-deities “Ar” (supreme father god) and “Ea” (Primordial, Pre-Neolithic fertile mother goddess), the ar- root denotes the centrality of the Armenian Highland in the development and spread of the ari/arian people (avoiding the y to dissociate with the widespread, corrupt Nazi term), known today by the lingua-cultural umbrella term ‘Indo-European’.

  20. Yehudit says:

    “the modern Arabic name of the country is Misr (or Masr), a word with Semitic origin”

    The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzrayyim” (both Biblical and modern Hebrew), which is usually translated as “the Narrow Place” referring to the fact that the actual population of the country is concentrated in the Nile floodplain. I would be interested to know if “Misr” relates to that.