Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Egypt's real name

Reading Amitav Ghosh’s remarkable book In An Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale (1992) is eye-opening in many ways. Here’s one small instance: the Egyptian name for “Egypt” isn’t Egypt, or even anything close. Apparently the term “Egypt” “is related to the word ‘Copt’, the name generally used for Egypt’s indigenous Christians.” (32) Ghosh, no friend of Western power, says that “Europe’s apparently innocent ‘Egypt’ is … almost as much a weapon as a word.” (33)

Egypt’s own name for itself is Maṣr. (I’m not sure what the sound of that “s with a dot under it” is, but I’m guessing it’s a somewhat thicker sound than the “s” of “slither.”) Apparently that’s also the name by which everyone in Egypt outside Cairo calls Cairo; in this sense, as Ghosh says, “Cairo is Egypt” and the Egyptian name is a kind of metaphor, equating city and nation (33). It’s an old name, predating Islam; Ghosh says it's been used as the name for the country "for at least a millennium." (32)

All this is interesting. Ghosh observes that “most of the cultures and civilization with which [Egypt] has old connections” use a name for Egypt derived from this name, and he cites three Indian languages as examples. What’s also interesting is something Ghosh does not note, which is that the Egyptian name for Egypt seems to be preserved in at least one other tongue, namely Hebrew, in which the word for Egypt is “mitzrayim.” That usage would date the Egyptian name back much further than a single millennium, but the coincidence of the sounds of the Egyptian and Hebrew words is hard to ignore.

According to the text on Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, the name is derived from m’tzarim, meaning “narrow straits” (mi, “from,” tzar, “narrow” or “tight”). When God took us out of Mitzrayim, He extricated us from the place of constricted opportunities, tight control, and narrow-mindedness, where movement was severely limited.  

This is a poetic reading, but as actual etymology it strikes me as unlikely. “Mitzrayim” looks to me as if it is simply a variant on the Egyptians’ name for Egypt itself – which is what you would expect in an account of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt. They didn’t like life in Egypt, but they certainly knew the name of the country in the local language, and they pretty accurately carried it over into their own.

One more thing: the Egyptian word has its own etymology, and it’s far from the Hebrew words for constriction. Ghosh writes that it is “a derivative of a root that means ‘to settle’ or ‘to civilize.” One of Ghosh’s themes is the invention of history, and if a name connoting “civilization” has been reframed as one implying “oppression,” that's an irony of historical invention that he would appreciate.

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