The ancient names of 10 famous places

The ancient names of 10 famous places

The ancient names of places and features contain a wealth of information about the past, how they have changed, and how ancient civilizations thought about the world.



1.   Mediterranean Sea – known by the Ancient Egyptians as…

the Mediterranean Sea

…Wadj-Wer (the Great Green).  Wadj-Wer was an Egyptian god of fertility personified by the Mediterranean Sea.


2.   Iceland – known by the Ancient Greeks as…


…Thule (the place where the sun goes to rest).  The Greek geographer Pytheas made a voyage of exploration to northwestern Europe around 325 BC.  He is the first known scientific reporter of the Arctic and its phenomenon such as the Midnight Sun.  He also introduced the idea of the far-distant island of Thule to generations of map-makers.  He described it as the outermost of all countries which could be reached by sailing north from Britain for 6 days.  Thule was mainly associated with Iceland (but could have been Trondheim in Norway as well).


3.   Arctic sea ice – known by the Ancient Romans as…

Arctic sea ice

…Mare Concretum (Concrete Sea).  There is no record of Roman explorers following Pytheas up to the Arctic Circle, but Roman authors do quote Pytheas’ description of his travels in later works such as Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and Strabo’s Geographica.  Their term for the solid pack ice of the Oceanus Septentrionalis (the Northern Ocean) which Pytheas said lay north of Thule needs little translation.


4.  The Roman Empire – known by the Ancient Chinese as…

Roman Empire

…Da Qin.  In Chinese records the Roman Empire was known as Da Qin, literally meaning ‘Great Qin’ (Qin being the name of the founding dynasty of the Chinese Empire).  The Chinese apparently thought of Great Qin as a sort of counter-China at the other end of the world, and that the Chinese and Roman Empires balanced each other in East and West.


5.   North America – known by the Iroquois Native Americans as…

North America

…Anowara ko’wah (Turtle Island).  The name Turtle Island reflects the Native American creation story about the continent of North America.


6.   Istanbul – known by the Vikings as…


…Miklagard (the Great City).  The city of Istanbul (known for most of its history as Constantinople) was, at the time of Vikings, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.  With a population of between 500,000 and 800,000, it was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe.  It would have been an incredible sight for the visiting Norsemen, so their name for it isn’t surprising.  Many Vikings went into the service of the Byzantine emperor as members of his elite Varangian guard; their best known commander was Harald Hardrada.


7.   Atlantic Ocean – known by medieval Arabs as…

Atlantic Ocean

…Bahr al-Zulamat (the Sea of Darkness).  The 11th century Islamic geographer al-Biruni wrote of the Atlantic:  “No seafaring is done on this sea, for the air is dark, the water is thick, the navigable channels in confusion, and here there are many ways of losing oneself.”  Some Arabian geographers depicted the Hand of Satan rising from the ocean to grab and destroy shipping.


8.   South America – known by the Ottomans as…

South America

…Antilia.  The 16th century Turkish geographer Piri Reis, drew a map in 1517 which presented great deal of detail on South America, whose coasts are named as the shores of Antilia.  Reis noted on the map that it was based on the reports of “a Genoese infidel named Colombo”, who had discovered Antilia at the end of the Western Sea.  On medieval charts Antilia was marked as a legendary island to the west, to which seven bishops, fleeing the Arab invasion of Spain, supposedly sailed with their flocks and where they founded seven flourishing cities.  The name itself may be an Arabic corruption of Atlantis, but later lent itself to the Spanish Antilles in the Caribbean.


9.  Broadway, New York City – known by the Algonquian Native Americans as…


…Wickquasgeck (birch-bark country) trail.  Broadway, known worldwide as the heart of the American theatre industry, is the oldest north–south thoroughfare in New York City.  It dates to the first first New Amsterdam settlement and its name is an English translation of the original Dutch Breede weg.  Before the Europeans arrived, however, it was the Wickquasgeck Trail, used daily by Manhattan’s Native American inhabitants.  The trail snaked through swamps and woods along the length of Manhattan Island.


10.   Sydney Cove – known by the Cadigal Aboriginal Australians as…

Sydney Cove

…Warrang (scars in the back).  It is thought that the Sydney region has been inhabited by Aboriginal Australians for at least 30,000 years, with Sydney Cove being the home of the Cadigal people.  Its name came from its use as a place of initiation for young boys, who would have their backs scarred.  When British settlers arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788 and asked the Cadigal where they came from, they answered “Eora”, meaning “from this place”.  The British called them the Eora people.


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Posted by Abroad in the Yard on Friday, 14 August 2015