Crimes against history
Toponymics of political change
October 24, 2003
essay reviews in general terms the shameless and yet understandable
practice of the Iranian rulers in the past seventy-five years to
engage in toponymic exercises for purely political motives. First
some vocabulary -- The term "toponym" means "place
name" and "toponymy" is the study of place-names.
The word "toponymics" coined here refers to the principles
and practices of naming places and "toponymicide" also
coined here means the "killing of a place-name." This
last one is meant to refer to a conscious state activity designed
to erase a place-name for political reasons, among which one may
include the erasure of a prior personal or dynastic glorification
of a leader or the simple disassociation of a place-name from its
historical connection, which often is undertaken to erase the memory
of an ancien regime.
This essay's premise is that an inorganic or forced toponymic
change distorts and disrupts the ethno- and anthropo-geographical
continuity which is at the
heart of a people's sense of geographical origin and historical identity. The
artificial and arbitrary name-change, while keeping the cartographers employed,
also creates difficulty in the systematic study of historical and geographical
sciences pertaining to a particular group of people or location. Therefore, toponymicide
or even a mere name-change should be avoided if at all possible.
us about physical and human geography in a historical context.
In a political context, toponyms also tell us about the vanity
of rulers, often
sustained by the sycophancy of the ones who serve the egocentric one. While a
newly established city may be deserving of the name of its founder, the re-naming
of a place in one's own name is an act of theft, by which one steals from history
in order to finance a personal legacy. This presentation focuses primarily on
the toponymic indulgences of the Iranian rulers, but it also will offer connective
examples from the other parts of the Caspian basin.
The Iranians of the last three
and even four generations are well acquainted with many examples
of the names that replaced the names of their childhood streets
and neighborhoods, their springs, lakes and the sea, and their "villages,
towns, cities, provinces, mountains, rivers and islands," wrote Seyed-Hassan
Amin, a member of the Iranian and Scottish legal profession in 1981. The Iranian
policy of renaming places has been timeless and pervasive, wrote Amin, and the
name-changes that ensued, by ruler after ruler, has littered the Iranian landscape
with colossal absurdities and resulted in many toponyms which are devoid of geographical
rationale, ethno- or anthropo-geographical markers, or historical content.
of the Vanities
The toponym named after a person of consequence is
often a tribute to the founder of a place or a rededication to the memory
of a new
cult leader. In either case, the personal toponym reflects an absorption with
the self. Of the two, however, the former is excusable by reason of the human
condition but the latter is not because it distorts history. The cases of Bandar
Shahpur in Iran, Saint Petersburg in Russia and Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan
offer good examples.
Bandar Shahpur on the Persian Gulf was built by Reza Shah
in 1929. The name "Shahpur" evoked a kingly reference (shah) to a township
(pur) and at the same
name of several Persian kings from the pre-Islamic Sassanid era -- one among
which in particular, Shahpur II, was famed for his exploits in the Persian
Gulf. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, the port was renamed Bandar Khomeini,
the Ayatollah Khomeini, the new Iranian autocrat.
While the original naming
of Bandar Shahpur was a legitimate toponymic exercise, the renaming of
as Bandar Khomeini was an outright theft and historically insensitive.
If one were to ask any pupil in Iran today to explain the name
it is likely that most should believe that Imam Khomeini built it!
practice in regard to St. Petersburg is equally demonstrative of
a blend of legitimate name-calling and absurdity. The city of St.
was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and named as such after Saint Peter,
whose name was borne also by the oldest structure at the site, a modest church.
cannot be dismissed as a sheer coincidence that the name of the city should
contain the same name as Peter, the Tsar, whose legacy would include a number
named after him, including one Petrovsk, on the Caspian Sea, which today
Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan.
One can only imagine: if Peter the
Great were called
Francis, the name of St. Petersburg may well have turned out to be San
Francisco. In 1914, Saint Petersburg was renamed Petrograd. This
toponym managed to
preserve the reference to its founder and at the same time strip it of
connection to Saint Peter and the non-Russian locative "burg."
the Soviet state changed the name of Petrograd to Leningrad, after
the communist leader Vladimir I. Lenin and with this toponymicidal act
the city lost
all vestiges of its original toponymic identity. This colossal absurdity
in the Soviet practice was rivaled only by the toponymy of Stalingrad.
Tsaritsyn and dating back to the 16th century, this place on the banks
Volga River was named Volgograd in 1925, retaining in its new toponym
some of the essence of its identity and political geography. The
city was renamed
some time around Word War II to honor Joseph Stalin the Soviet leader
but, subsequently, as Stalin's memory lost luster so did the toponym
1961 the city was renamed,
Volgograd, again. It would not have been uncommon therefore for the identity
papers of a single individual born in Tsaritsyn in 1920 to show four
toponyms as his place of birth!
There is now the reflection of a new face in the Caspian's mirror
of the vanities. The case involves the port of Krasnovodsk on the
before the arrival of Russian imperialism there in the 18th century,
this sleepy port was known to its Turkmen inhabitants and neighbors
in the Turkic language meant "red water."
The Russian imperialists changed
the name to Krasnovodsk, retaining however the literal translation
of the original toponym. Was it the reddish hue of the water at
sunset that justified the keeping
of the name? Or was it the memory of a battle turning the water into
the color of blood that required some historical preservation?
Regardless, we learn from
the 18th century Englishman traveler and merchant Jonas Hanway
that the place's name, Krasna Woda, derived from the high reddish
that overlooked the harbor,
extending into the coastal plain, whence sand and gravel of the
same color washed into the bay. Today, the port is called Turkmenbashi,
a bombastic toponym honoring
the Turkmenbashi himself, "the chief of the Turkmen," the
first president of the independent Turkmenistan. I predict (and
hope) that one day after the
demise of the autocracy that rules Turkmenistan, the name of this
port will revert to Qizil Su.
The Tale of the Two Donkey-towns
We know about the toponymic
origin of Krasnovodsk because someone bothered to ask and register
information close to the
time of its origination. In contrast, alas, we know very little
origin of Turkmenistan's capital Ashgabat.
The present-day city
was founded as Askhabad by the Russians in 1881, which they then
until 1927, when it came to be called Ashkhabad. Neither Askhabad
nor Ashkhabad was an original Russian toponym, as abad is a locative
happening place" in the Iranian language system, much the
same as the terms "ville" or "burg" in
the western languages.
On the one hand, one may suppose that the
toponymic progenitor of Ashgabat was Ashk-abad, perhaps a throw
back to one of the many Parthian kings
named Ashk, who may have built the first Ashkabad. One may equally
suppose that Ashgabat derived from Eshqabad, literally meaning "City
of Love," from
'ishq meaning love in Turkish, Persian, and Arabic. Or should one
suppose the place received its name from the notion ashk, literally
meaning "tear," because
of some tragic or lamentable event that befell it?
In this essay's estimation, the toponymic progenitor of Ashgabat
may well have been Ishak-abad, a compound name consisting of the
abad and ishak, which in Turkic means "donkey," an undignified
lesser beast. The toponym Ishakabad would have been a reference
to a mart or station, most
likely on the highway to Central Asia, where a messenger, caravan,
merchant or itinerant could procure a beast of burden or exchange
a tired one for a fresh
one. When the place gained some significance, its name would have
been changed to ensure that the dignity of the inhabitants and
ruler would not be compromised
by the unseemly and pejorative affiliation with the "donkeytown."
The Ishakabad of Turkmenistan has its parallel in the city of
Astarabad (known presently as Gorgan) in northern Persia. The toponym
is a compound
name consisting of the aforementioned abad and the word astar,
which in Persian means "mule." If writings of the late
Massih Zabihi, an expert on Gorgan, is any indication, much has
been written about the toponymic origin of Astarabad.
By some accounts the name derived from a Persian queen named A-E/st/a-e/r,
either the Esther of the Purim fame in the Jewish tradition or
the wife of another Persian
king. By another account the toponym derived from the name Astarak,
a place built in the days of the Ummayyid Caliph Suleiman. By
another account the name of Astarabad
derived from Astar-abad, in which astar (and derivative setareh)
is "star" in Persian.
Certainly the star-filled summer skies over Astarbad or a meteor
shower of some significance in the area could have accounted for
Yet in this essay's estimation, the most likely explanation for
Astarabad is found in the very mundane conjecture that the place
a grazing ground or mart for mules and other quadrupeds. According
century Persian geographer, the place came to be known as Astarabad
because the mules (astaran) and horses (ostooran) of the founder
of the city
of Gorgan were
left to roam and graze there.
The single most important
common denominator of a nation is language. Toponyms are linguistic
as experienced by people. It is therefore understandable why a
to nation-building would marginalize, if not outright ban, all
languages and induce a wholesale change in toponyms. It is arguably
a valid point
that the admixture of nationalism and modernism on the part of
Reza Shah's government served to produce many toponymic changes
in Iran.Many of
the names survive to
this day, but many others have been swept away by yet another tide
of political change.
Under the heading of "toponymic modernization" one
can cite the celebrated cases of Sakhtsar and Dozdab. The first
one, referring to a location on Iran's
Caspian coast, meant "the hardened or untamed." The can-do
government of Reza Shah built a palace there and renamed the town
Ramsar, meaning the "the
tamed." In the other example, the name Dozdab or Abdozdan
meant literally "the
place of water thieves." The law-and-order government of Reza
Shah renamed it Zahedan, meaning "the place of the pious,
In forging a national Iranian identity,
Reza Shah's government sought also to cleanse the Iranian toponyms
of their foreign influence.
No better illustration
of this is offered than in the wholesale changing of the country's
name in the international parlance from Persia to Iran, thereby
had begun thousands of years earlier by the Greeks to refer to
all of Iran.
Internally, Amin wrote, the changes in the domestic
a conscious policy
to erase the Turkic- and Arabic-origin toponyms, or simply to convert
them into Persian names by changing their spelling. The anti-Turkic
component of the policy
owed much to the unruly Turkmen and their support of the earlier
Qajar dynasty. The anti-Arab component of the policy was born out
enmity in general but it was informed more specifically by the
fear that the British support of the Arabs in the Persian Gulf
Iran's territorial integrity by promoting separatism on the basis
of Arab ethnicity and Arabic-sounding toponyms.
In the pre-Pahlavi times (before 1921) the southwest corner of
Iran was called Arabestan (or Arabestan-e Iran), which literally
meant "the place were Arabs
dwell (in Iran)." To negate the obvious suggestive lure of the name for
pan-Arab nationalists and masters of separatist intrigues, the province was renamed
Khuzestan. Iranians in general are familiar with this name-change but are less
aware of its ersatz quality. A part of Iran which once was called Susiana (Sush)
was named Khuzestan, as if the land of an ancient indigenous people called the
Khuz. In fact, khuz, meant "sugar cane."
Iran's main port on the Shatt al-Arab River in the pre-Pahlavi
era was a place called Mohammareh. The origin of this toponym is
readily ascertainable. According to Masoud Kazemzadeh, who teaches
term is undertood
by the locals to refer to the red hot round of the setting sun
behind the Basra Park. Etrymologically, no doubt, the name derived
meaning "rubefacient." It is not implausible for the place
to have received its name from the Arabic hamm, meaning "heat," due
to its severe hot and humid climate, or even from the Arabic hamar,
shot," perhaps in reference to a blood-letting episode in its distant past.
It is equally plausible that the name Mohammareh derived from the Persian form
Mohammad-deh, meaning "Muhammad's village."
the government of Reza Shah presumed Mohammareh to be an Arabic
toponym and had it changed to
Khorramshahr, a name which conjured the image of a shahr (town)
that is verdant and pleasant. Khorramshahr name-change was an appropriate
toponymic exercise in that the root word khorram was a familiar
toponym, such as for
in Lorestan, which was itself called Dej-e Siyah (Black Fortress)
until the 14th century.
The toponymics of present-day Abadan however
whimsical and with
little rationale. According to Lorimer's Gazetteer of the Persian
Gulf, for example, the place had been known and written as Ebadan,
from the Arabic 'abd, meaning "prayer," and with a similar
significance in Persian. The Persian government traded in the letter
ain for alef and in the
process changed the toponym from Ebadan, meaning "the place
of the pious and prayer-givers," to Abadan, presumably playing
off the Persian morpheme /abad/ meaning "a happening place."
problem for the Persian lexicon was that the name Abadan as such
was without precedent,
the closest word being
abadani, a noun, which referred to any kind of rural or urban development.
A more appropriate substitute-name for Ebadan and in keeping with
the notion conveyed
by the name Abadan would have been the name Abdan, a Persian toponym
word of long-standing, according to Seyyed Zahir al-Din Mara'ashi
(d. 1486), which consisted
of ab (water) and dan (catchment).
I say 'Tomato,' you say 'Tomato.' Both Persian and
Arabic alphabets contain the letters ta and t even though in spoken
Persian the two
letters are sounded identically as t. Yet with the Iranian
hyper-nationalists the very sight of ta produces an allergic reaction.
To this sensitivity
one owes two orthographic changes which rendered two perfectly
meaningful toponyms into
meaningless names. One case involves the name of Tehran and the
other name of the Tonb Islands in the Persian Gulf.
In the pre-Pahlavi era the toponym "Tehran" was written
with ta. In this form, the name could claim derivation from the
word thahr which, in Persian
and Arabic, meant "clean, untouched or unsoiled." This
also connected it with the legacy of its settlement by the refugees
who fled from Reyy in the
face of the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. In its current
spelling, the toponym Tehran has no etymological or historical
context, other than what the
government's toponymicists would fabricate for it.
Another example of mindless and overboard-nationalism is noted
in the toponymy of the Tonb Islands. In the pre-Pahlavi period,
in both Persian and Arabic with a ta. In that form, the name could
have derived from the Arabic thunb meaning "a place of residence, a settlement."
to the original research of Ahmad Eqtedari, an Iranian authorty
on the languages of the Persian Gulf (reported in 1962), in the
spoken Persian of southern Iran
as well as in the larger Iranian language system stretching to
Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, the sound tonb and tonbu referred
to a "hill" or "modest
elevation," for which sound (phoneme) there was no set spelling. Regardless
of whether the Persian-dialect toponyms tonb and tonbu were known to the toponymicists
in Reza Shah's government, the government sought to "Persianize" the
islands' name by changing the ta to t.
Two German cartographical works from the early 19th century identified
the Tonb Islands by their Arabic/Persian orthography as the Thunb
of the ibn
in all likelihood "the settlement of the ibn Hule." According
to J.B. Kelly, John Malcolm and Samuel Miles, all three being auhtorities
on the Persian
Gulf region, the ibn Hule themselves were a loose grouping of Persianized
Arabs who had lived on the Persian Coast from Kangan to Bandar
Abbas since time immemorial.
This evidence of the ethno-geographical association of Tonb with
the Persian Coast was severely compromised therefore when the Iranian
the despicable ta to presumably Persian t.
The revolutionaries who took power in
Iran in 1979 wasted little time to turn the Pahlavi toponyms to
in Gilan and on the Caspian Sea, Lake Rezaieh in western Azarbaijan,
and Pahlavi Dej in the Gorgan region reverted to their original
forms -- Anzali,
and Aq Qalah, respectively. This toponymic "restoration" delights the
purist, yet the exercise itself by the Ayatollahs masks a morbid fear of a regime
unable to come to grips with the history of the nation which it rules.
the name-changes under the Islamic Republic have shown one or more
of the following motivations, (i) to buff the vanity of the Ayatollah,
(ii) to disassociate a
toponym from the ancien regime, and (iii) to obliterate any connection
between the toponym and the word shah, which besides its recognizable
meaning as "king" also
happens to mean "main" or "big" in the Persian
In the pre-Ayatollah era, the city of Shahi, meaning "royal," was a
quaint and ancient location in the province of Mazandaran, which had borne the
name since the times of Shah Abbas Safavi (circa 1600). Presently, the city is
called Qaemshahr, meaning literally erectople or "the town that stands tall
or erect," but it is a toponym with no historical context. Any allusion
to its being renamed after the Hidden Imam must explain why the name is not "Qaebshahr," even
though the vulgar pronunciation of the qaeb could be qayem.
Similarly, the old cemetery town of Shah Abdolazim in southern
Tehran is renamed
Imam Shahr, while
Shahabad in the west of Tehran is called Eslamshahr.
The verdant and vibrant prairies that spread north and west of
the city of Gorgan had been so pleasing to the Qajar kings of Persia
that by the
the 19th century the landscape had come to be known as Shahpasand,
literally meaning "king's delight." Even though not of Pahlavi origin, the present
regime in Iran has agglomerated Shahpasand and a few nearby towns into a division
called Azadshahr, meaning "free town." This toponym is
farcical in that it has absolutely no supporting historical or
geographical context and certainly
given the regime's oppressive nature the new toponym is equally
devoid of political merit.
The present regime's allergy to royal toponyms is further evident
in the name-change for Bandar Shah, a port on the southeastern
the port is renamed Bandar Torkaman, meaning "port of the Turkmen." While
the appellation honors the Turkmen, the predominant ethnic grouping
that inhabited the northern Astarabad region, the toponym itself
is fictional in that this location
or any other port on the Iranian side of the Caspian does not seem
to have ever been called "Turkmen."
Is Nothing Sacred? When Persia turned into Iran and the Anglo-Persian
Oil Company was renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the question
Gulf too should be renamed the "Iranian" Gulf. The British government
resisted the notion on the grounds that the name "Persian Gulf" was
a historical and geographical name, while calling it "Iranian Gulf" would
connote some contemporary Iranian proprietary interest in the whole
of the gulf and that would enflame the Arab sentiment already suspicious
of the Iranian government's
aggressive stance toward the Trucial sheikhs.
In 1979, the Ayatollahs offered to rename the Persian Gulf as "Islamic
Gulf." According to Amin, the Iranian nationalists at home and
abroad and the Arab governments rejected the idea: the first group
apprehensive about the erasure and sell
out of the Persian patrimony to Islamicism and Arabism; the Arabs,
who were apprehensive about the Ayatollah's motives and exportation
of his revolution, thought that
the proposed name-change was yet another vehicle for promoting
good old Iranian hegemony.
The situation is not without irony. The thought on the part of
the Iranians to re-name the gulf as "Iranian" or "Islamic" diluted the very
immutability of the name "Persian Gulf" which most Iranians hold dear.
Successive Iranian governments have argued consistently in defense of the "forever" character
of the name "Persian Gulf," particularly in the face of the term "Arabian
According to the record of the proceedings of the Royal
Central Asian Society following the presentation by John Marlowe
on Arab-Persian Rivalry in
the Persian Gulf (1964), the "Arabian Gulf" label began as a tease
by the Bahraini nationalists in the early 1930s when Tehran sought
to regain its sovereignty over the Bahrain archipelago.
anyone possessing a
modicum of intellectual consistency and some elemental appreciation
for precedent can appreciate the irony of an Iranian government
willing to rename the Persian
Gulf for its own political expedience but denying the non-Persian
inhabitants of these shores the benefit of the same freedom.
The absurdity evident in the Iranian practice of
changing place-names is a direct consequence of the paranoia that
the ruler of the day.
Nowhere is this better shown than in the Pahlavi era's allergic
reaction to Turkic
and Arabic names and the more recent rulers' pathology toward toponyms
containing the word shah.
Recall please the tongue-in-cheek comment about the birth certificate
issued to the citizen of Tsaritsyn, aka Volgograd aka Stalingrad
-- a similar absurdity may soon befall one Mr. Shahrudi who labors
as a parliamentarian
or judicial functionary in the Islamic Republic. His nisba refers
to Shahrud, a city northeast of Tehran, shahrud itself meaning
this toponym were to change to Imamshahr, Mr. Shahrudi will be
Similarly -- the word for jugular in Persian
vein," which may well become one day imamrag, or shahluleh,
main trunk of a pipeline system," may become imamluleh,
and perhaps, much to the chagrin of the lovers of black mulberries,
one day the Persian name for
the king of all mulberries, the word shahtut, could become something
The one who seeks a memorial to himself by renaming place-names
shall not see his own legacy washed away in the tide of historical
enduring toponymic legacy for any ruler is to coin and leave behind
a name that captures the essence of a place's geography or a people's
Based on a paper presented at the Middle
East & Central
Asia Conference, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, October 18,
Guive Mirfendereski practices law in Massachusetts (JD, Boston
College Law School, 1988). His latest book is A
Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea: Treaties, Diaries, and Other
Stories (New York and London: Palgrave 2001)
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