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Crimes against history
Toponymics of political change

October 24, 2003
The Iranian

This 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.

Toponyms tell 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.

Mirror 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 time evoked the 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, after the Ayatollah Khomeini, the new Iranian autocrat.

While the original naming of Bandar Shahpur was a legitimate toponymic exercise, the renaming of the place as Bandar Khomeini was an outright theft and historically insensitive. If one were to ask any pupil in Iran today to explain the name of Bandar Khomeini it is likely that most should believe that Imam Khomeini built it!

The Russian practice in regard to St. Petersburg is equally demonstrative of a blend of legitimate name-calling and absurdity. The city of St. Petersburg 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. It 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 of towns named after him, including one Petrovsk, on the Caspian Sea, which today is 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 its religious connection to Saint Peter and the non-Russian locative "burg."

In 1924 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.

Originally called Tsaritsyn and dating back to the 16th century, this place on the banks of the 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 Stalingrad 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 and in 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 coast of Turkmenistan. Long before the arrival of Russian imperialism there in the 18th century, this sleepy port was known to its Turkmen inhabitants and neighbors as Qizil Su, which 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 cliffs 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 the information close to the time of its origination. In contrast, alas, we know very little about the toponymic origin of Turkmenistan's capital Ashgabat.

The present-day city was founded as Askhabad by the Russians in 1881, which they then called Poltoratsk from 1920 until 1927, when it came to be called Ashkhabad. Neither Askhabad nor Ashkhabad was an original Russian toponym, as abad is a locative suffix meaning "a 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 aforementioned 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 their 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 Astarabad 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 this celestial toponymic origin. Yet in this essay's estimation, the most likely explanation for Astarabad is found in the very mundane conjecture that the place was either a grazing ground or mart for mules and other quadrupeds. According to Ebn Esfandiar, the 13th 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.

Nation-building Blocks
The single most important common denominator of a nation is language. Toponyms are linguistic expressions of geographical phenomena as experienced by people. It is therefore understandable why a leadership given to nation-building would marginalize, if not outright ban, all other competing 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, the straight-and-narrow."

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 erasing the toponym which had begun thousands of years earlier by the Greeks to refer to all of Iran.

Internally, Amin wrote, the changes in the domestic toponyms arose from 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 of the original Persian-Arab enmity in general but it was informed more specifically by the fear that the British support of the Arabs in the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia was undermining 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 not readily ascertainable. According to Masoud Kazemzadeh, who teaches at Utah Valley State College, the 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 from the Arabic word muhammar, 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, meaning "blood 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."

Regardless, 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 example in the nearby Khorram-abad in Lorestan, which was itself called Dej-e Siyah (Black Fortress) until the 14th century.

The toponymics of present-day Abadan however was 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, which came etymologically 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."

The 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, the name Tonb was written 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."

According 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 Hule, meaning 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 government changed the despicable ta to presumably Persian t.

Regicidal Restorations
The revolutionaries who took power in Iran in 1979 wasted little time to turn the Pahlavi toponyms to their pre-Pahlavi shine. Bandar Pahlavi 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, Urummiyeh 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.

Many of 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 lexicon.

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 middle part of 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 coast of the Caspian Sea. Presently, 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 arose if the Persian 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 was 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 Gulf."

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.

Regardless, 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 grips 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 aka Volgograd -- 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 "the big river." If this toponym were to change to Imamshahr, Mr. Shahrudi will be rendered rootless.

Similarly -- the word for jugular in Persian is shahrag, literally meaning the "chief vein," which may well become one day imamrag, or shahluleh, meaning "the 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 else.

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 change. The trick to an 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 history.

Based on a paper presented at the Middle East & Central Asia Conference, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, October 18, 2003.


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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