Coptic Toponymy


The study of ancient place-names is one of the most interesting domains of historical research, since the names of hamlets, villages, and towns of the past often give brief but valuable indications, usually absent from historical records, about the creation of those urban centers and the reasons for their founding, whether economic, political, religious, or otherwise. This is especially true in regard to Coptic Egypt, inasmuch as historical texts pertaining to these centers are scanty and form only a small percentage of the available data, most of it biblical or liturgical. Coptic toponymy is an important link in the long chain of recorded toponymy of Egypt from the pharaonic period down to the present. Together the links of this chain—ancient Egyptian, Demotic, Greek, Coptic, and Arabic documents—provide a rich mass of place-names that have survived four thousand years.

Gauthier’s Dictionnaire des noms géographiques contenus dans les textes hiéroglyphiques (1925-1931), in seven volumes, illustrates the extraordinary richness of the toponymy of ancient Egypt, and Amélineau’s La Géographie de l’Egypte a l’époque copte (1893; 1973), which is always informative despite being incomplete and in need of revision, gives an idea of the relative abundance of Coptic place-names. Naturally, one cannot take into consideration the names of the various more or less big estates, which, like the ‘izbas in modern Egypt, were named in ancient and Coptic Egypt after their successive proprietors.

One should also exclude the names of small districts of a rather too local use and concentrate on names of localities that had a reasonable economic and urban infrastructure. This information has also to be examined in the light of two Mamluk surveys of agricultural land, al-Ruk al-Husami, ordered by Husam al-Din Rajun (1297-1299), and al-Ruk al-Nasiri, ordered by al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun (1309-1340). They give valuable indications about the toponymy of Egypt in the late Middle Ages. It is hoped that the recent work on these surveys would enhance research on Egyptian toponymy in general and especially on Coptic place-names.

The privileged position of Coptic toponymy in this long chain has always attracted etymologists. In spite of the normal alteration due to the long history of these place-names, to the diversity of the phonetic characteristics of the languages in question (Egyptian, Coptic, Greek, Egyptian Arabic), and to the diversity of their scripts, one could trace the evolution of place-names. This helped to identify and localize many ancient Egyptian names and to link them to the actual toponymy of Egypt, thus throwing light on the survival, the shifting, or the disappearance of urban centers, not only in the Coptic period but through the centuries.

Coptic etymological dictionaries by Spiegelberg (1921), Cerny (1976), Westendorf (1977), and Vycichl (1983), as well as the tremendous work of Crum (1939), illustrate the fruits of these researches, an identification that is certain in many cases but only probable, possible, or doubtful in others.

There is no doubt that in the Coptic period, when Christianity had already triumphed over the deities of pharaonic Egypt and temples had ceased to celebrate their cults, very few Egyptians realized that a great number of their towns bore names that glorified pagan deities. This is also true for the Muslim period and for modern Egypt. No concerted, native movement to change those pagan names has been recorded, and it is certain that none has been successful. Such names have continued to be used and borrowed for centuries.

Following are the different categories of names that illustrate the rich heritage of the past and examples of each. Their literal translation derives from ancient Egyptian through the Coptic names.

Towns Named After a Divinity

  • ermont (Ermont), Inu of (the god) Montu, now Armant or Erment in Upper Egypt.
  • ]minhwr (Timinhor), town of (the god) Horus, now Damanhur in the Delta.

Towns Named After a Temple

poucire (Pousire), House (or temple) of (the god) Osiris, an abbreviation of full names as they appear in Arabic Busir or Abusir. Such full names are ABUSIR BANA or ABUSIR AL-MALAK.

Towns Named After Mansions of Deities

  • hw (Ho), from Hwt, an abbreviation of full names like Hwt-Shm, mansion, now HIW in Upper Egypt.
  • ayr/bi (Athrebi), mansion of the Land of the Middle, now ATRIB (Atripe) in the Delta, also called Kom al-Atrib or Tall Atrib (tall and kom are synonyms; the first is Arabic, the second is given by the inhabitants to mounds of old villages or towns and is derived from the term komé, which the Greeks used to designate small villages inhabited by Egyptians).

Towns Named After Chapels

  • tabenn/ci (Tabennesi), Chapel of (the goddess) Isis, probably Dafani, which is an island in the Nile near the aforementioned Hiw.

Towns Named After Their “Land”

  • ptenetw (Pteneto), “The Land of (the goddess) Edjo, now Kom al-Dintaw in the Delta.

Towns Named After Their Islands

  • pounemou (Pounemou), the Island of Amun, now Tall al-Balamun in the Delta.

Towns Named for the Creation of Divinities

  • peremoun (Peremoun), that which Amun has made, al-Farama or Tall al-Farama in the Delta.

Towns Named After Gifts from the Gods

  • petemout (Petemout), (the town of him) whom (the goddess) Mut has given, Madamud or Tall al-Madamud in Upper Egypt.

It is important to remark here that the number of such place- names greatly exceeds that of those named after ancient Egyptian kings, such as cbwn (sbon), mansion of (King) Snefru, now Asfun al-Mata‘nah in Upper Egypt. From this fact, one can deduce that religion was a more important factor than politics in Egyptian civilization.

The geographical, topographical, and economic factors that usually condition the choice of place-names were also found in Coptic toponymy. But here again, in spite of the fact that the same factors were at play during the Coptic period, such place-names were used in ancient Egypt, and most of them still survive, as is shown by the following examples:

  1. tber[wt (Tbercot), a loanword from the Semitic, commonly used in the toponymy of the New Kingdom to mean “pond,” now Farshut in Upper Egypt.
  2. lehwne (Lehone), mouth of the lake (of the Fayyum), now al-Lahun in the Fayyum.
  1. viom (Phiom), the sea (i.e., the lake of Fayyum), now al-Fayyum.
  1. cobt (Sobt), wall or fortress, an abbreviation of full names with additions to identify the “walls” of different localities, now Saft, as in Saft Maydum and Saft al-Hinnah.
  1. couan (Souan), the name of the city of Aswan, at the southern border of Egypt, which served in ancient Egypt as a market.
  1. tkwou (Tkoou), high mountain, Qaw al-Kibli in Middle Egypt, where the eastern mountain is a prominent element.
  2. touho (Touho), the settlement, now Taha, in Upper Egypt.
  3. tehne (Tehne), the peak, now Tihna in Middle Egypt.

Toponymic survival is evident in almost all the cases of important towns in the Coptic period. And apart from the towns that were created by the foreign masters of Egypt, those urban centers continued to have more or less the same political, economic, or administrative importance as before. Each was the seat of a bishop. A large number of these towns is also noticed in modern Egypt, where they are the center of administrative divisions. Here are but a few examples:

  1. keft (Keft), now Qift in Upper Egypt
  2. embw (Embo), now Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt
  3. ecn/ (Esne), now Isna in Upper Egypt
  4. ciwout (Sioout), now Asyut in Upper Egypt

Apart from the aforementioned categories of place-names that belong in fact to one and the same Egyptian substratum, Coptic toponymy provides the historian with other groups of equally interesting names. One of these groups presents only very few examples, which, while being Coptic, are built differently from all those above. Other groups are formed with special loanwords added to Coptic designations.

Place-Names with the Prefix man- (Man-)

The prefix man-, “place of,” is added to a second element, which, while not always easy to translate, seems to have been a designation of the characteristic product of the locality in question. Three examples are attested:

  1. manbalot (Manbalot), translated as Mawdi‘ al-Fara (’), place of fleeces, now Manfalut in Upper Egypt. Manfalut is the center of an area that produces the well-known kilims (rugs made of wool).
  2. mankapwt (Mankapot), translated as “place of pots,” now MANQABAD (but locally pronounced Mangabad also) in Upper Egypt.
  3. manlau (Manlau), place of the textile (lau), probably Mallawi, in Upper Egypt. This town is known for its textile industry.

Further research may more precisely date these “economic” place-names and determine whether they replaced older Egyptian names of the towns. They may also initially have been given to new workshops or markets for these products at or near these towns before being extended to the whole locality. If these three names deal with wool or woolen rugs, pottery, and textiles—which were, in fact, the main industrial products of Egypt—the limited percentage of these place-names (only three are attested) could perhaps be an indication that the appearance of new centers of those industries, or perhaps the shifting of existing ones to new places, was a limited phenomenon at that time. This conclusion seems to be in harmony with the gradual deterioration of the economic situation in the Arabic period.

Place-Names Formed with the Loanword jevro(Jephro-)

This loanword, from the Semitic word meaning “village” (originally, “farmstead”) and related to the Egyptian Arabic kafr, forms the first element in several place-names. The second element could either be a geographical designation, as in jevronr/c (Jephronres), or otherwise, as in jebromenecina (Jebromenesina). Papyrological and Coptic sources seem to shed little light on the origin and date of these villages or their original inhabitants. But it seems that the Semitic origin of the word means that these names were given to settlements inhabited at least at the beginning by Semitic elements, either partly or totally.

These elements, either peacefully or with invading Persian or Greek armies, were later sent with the garrisons that settled in the country. It is more plausible than attributing the origin of these settlements to bedouin tribes that the Umayyads transplanted from North Arabia to different places in Egypt to serve as paramilitary forces after the first series of Coptic revolts. Such places were named after the nome of the tribe in question, either with a nisbah (affiliation) form or with the prefix bani (tribe) attached to it.

It seems that these settlements did not disappear in the Arab period. The numerous examples given by the Arab geographer Yaqut show the relatively high number of so-called villages in his time. The majority of the names he mentioned have Coptic designations starting with shubra, village, as in Shubra Bakhum and Shubra Damanhur. Others with Arabic designations seem to have been drawn from the flora, as is often the case in toponymy in general: Shubra Nakhlah (Village of the Palm Tree), Shubra Zaytun (Village of the Olive Trees), Shubra Nabaq (Village of the Jujube Tree).

This is a promising subject for future research, which might determine why these Shubras are concentrated in the northern part of Egypt (the Delta and Giza). Is it an indication of Semitic elements? Some of these places have lost their importance, but others do survive, in the form found in the Coptic period, as with Shubramant (Shubra Rahmah from [aprohbw, Caprohbo); with Egyptian Arabic designations, as with Shubra al-Khaymah (Village of the Tent) and Shubra al-Nahlah (Village of the Bee); or only the abbreviated form Shubra, an important suburb of Cairo.

Place-Names Formed with the Loanword tmoone(Tmoone-) or ymon/- (Thmone-) from the Greek mone

The long Greco-Roman presence in Egypt left its mark in Coptic toponymy in the form of place-names beginning with the above prefixes and their variants, which mean “a stopping place of a journey, a hostel” or a “monastery.” These places normally developed small settlements around them with a more or less limited infrastructure that would grow in time, under favorable circumstances. This explains the number of such localities. But once more the actual data do not allow the historian to define the social or economic reasons that favored the formation of these tmoone- (Tmoone-) localities and the real differences or resemblances between them and the [wpro- (Copro-) localities.

Was the first category initially begun by Greek elements (perhaps among the merchants who dominated the commerce of the country), or was it merely inhabited by a higher percentage of Greeks? What was the role of administrative considerations? Or is it only a question of loanwords that had nothing to do with the composition of the population of these localities or with their administrative status? This leads to the delicate question of the raison d’etre of loanwords, which is particularly complicated in the case of place-names, and to the problem of the social, economic, or political factors that concurred in maintaining them.

Perhaps one should consider in this regard the difficult economic circumstances and particularly the crushing burden of taxes that pushed many people to become FUGITIVES, that is, to give up their fields and houses, leave the villages in which they were registered, and roam around the country trying to find a place in which to settle. This problem, which had its beginnings in the Roman period, flared up again in the Umayyad period, and it may have been one of the factors behind the formation of the tmoone-villages, which numbered more than 250 in the Middle Ages. Some of them still flourish, such as Al-Minya in Middle Egypt and other towns elsewhere, whose names have changed little since the Coptic period.

Coptic Toponymy and Foreign Place-Names

For over one thousand years—from the Ptolemaic period until the end of the Byzantine period—the Greek administration in Egypt had the habit of transcribing the majority of Egyptian place names in Greek with certain modifications more or less pronounced in accordance with the phonetic differences between the two languages. This habit produced varying results as is shown by the following examples: PR-WSIR > Dem.

P-WS’R boucire, Bousire (S), poucire, Pousire (B) was transcribed in Greek as BoÚsirij, Bousiris, which is not really different; NT-MN sm/n, Shmin (SB), ,min, Khmin (S), was transcribed as Cšmmij, Khémmis, by Herodotus; and GBTYW k/bt, Kebt (S), keft, Keft (B) gave the Greek Koptos; TB-NTR (var. Tbn-ntr) jemno], Jemnoti (B) became sebénnytos and DN‘T > Dem. D‘NY > janne, Janne (S), jan/, Jane (B) was altered in the Greek form to Tanis.

This is not the place to discuss conclusions about these alterations and their phonetic significance for the toponymy of Egypt in the Coptic period, nor to define their guidelines. But it is perhaps interesting to note that they bear comparison to the modifications effected by twentieth century Greek residents of Egypt in their pronunciation of present day Egyptian toponymy and proper names.

The administrative system’s practice of rendering more or less faithfully Coptic toponymy for almost a thousand years apparently did not affect Coptic place-names, which continued to be close to their initially transmitted forms.

In certain cases, Greeks diverted from this general rule and gave to some place-names purely Greek equivalents, as with Thebai or Dios Polis for Egyptian niwt > n/ (ne) and (Thebes) Laton Polis or Latopolis for Egyptian Sn > ecn/ (Esne, Isna). But here again Copts only used the original toponymy, which resisted this modification.

In the case of totally new place-names, Copts transcribed them into Coptic: alexandria (Aleksandria) for Alexandria, tapoy/k/ (Tapotheke) for Apotheke (Abutig), and vuctatwn (Phystaton) (al-Fustat), the first Arab capital of Egypt.


  • Amélineau, E. La Géographie de l’Egypte a l’époque copte. Paris, 1893; 2nd ed., Osnabrück, 1973.
  • Gauthier, H. Dictionnaire des noms géographiques contenus dans les textes hieroglyphiques. 7 vols. Cairo, 1925-1931.
  • Cerny, J. Coptic Etymological Dictionary. Cambridge, 1976. Crum, W. E. A Coptic Dictionary. Oxford, 1939.
  • Roquet, G., Toponymes et lieux-dits égyptiens, enregistrés dans le Dictionnaire Copte de W. E. Crum. Cairo, 1973.
  • Spiegelberg, W. Koptisches Handworterbuch. Heidelberg, 1921. Vycichl, W. Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue copte. Louvain, 1983.
  • Westendorf, W. Koptisches Handwörterbuch. Heidelberg, 1977.


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