The capital cities of the world are well known names. However how many of these do we understand? Where do they come from? Who named them? Why were they chosen? What do they mean?
Some are obvious, such as Mexico City states it is in Mexico, although the name of the city meaning 'in the navel of the waters of the moon' came first. Similarly Brasilia was created to be the modern city when it was set out in the 1950s, the name of Brazil is a Portuguese word brassa referring the red dye obtained from the brazil wood. Algeria is after the capital Algiers, Arabic for 'the islands' where it was founded. Luxembourg and Luxembourg is a Saxon description of 'the little town'. Monaco and Monaco are from the Greek monoikos meaning 'hermit, monk'.
Andorra and Andorra la Vella, share a name from Basque andurrial or 'heath'. Djibouti was always the name of the capital city of Djibouti, formerly French Somaliland, and from the Afa word gabouri meaning the 'plate' woven from palm fibres for ceremonial purposes. Guatemala and Guatemala City take the name from Tuendal Indian uhatzmahla or 'the mountain that gushes out water', the Agua volcano. Panama and Panama City are from a native tribal name meaning 'many fishes' which was influenced by Spanish pronunciation. San Marino and San Marino are named in honour of St Marinus. Singapore and Singapore are from Sanskrit singa pura, quite literally 'lion town' and thought to refer to 'strength' as lions have never been indigenous to this reason in recent times.
The remainder, listed alphabetically making each easier to locate, begin with Afghanistan's Kabul. itself from River Kabul thought to be a word meaning 'red'. In Albania we find Tirana, which is most likely from Tirania, the ancient name for Tuscany. To Angola where Luanda is derived from 'the place of the net', this is not the internet but a reference to the many fishermen. Antingua and Barbuda's capital is Saint John's, a reference to Christianity and the apostle. Religion is also seen in Argentina and Buenos Aries, wich is the abbreviated form of the original Spanish name meaning 'City of the Most Holy Trinity and port of Our Lady of the Virgin Mary of Good Winds'.
Armenia and Yerevan is thought to refer to 'the abode of the god Aru'. While Canberra, Australia's capital city, is an aboriginal word meaning 'meeting place'. To Austria and Vienna is river name from a Celtic word from either vedunia 'tree' or vindo 'white'. Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan and means 'windswept'. The Bahamas and Nassau is from the house of Orange-Nassau, that of King William III, originally from an Old High German phrase meaning 'marsh land'.
One of the newest independent nations Bangladesh and Dhaka is thought to be named after the temple built in the twelfth century to the Goddess Dhakeshwari. Barbados and Bridgetown took the local name of Indian Bridge with an obvious adjustment. Belarus has Minsk, almost certainly named after a river and thus a simplistic reference to water. To Belgium where Brussels was originally known as Bruoc-sella or 'the settlement in the marshes'.
The name of Belize was also the name of the capital city, until it was destroyed in a hurricane in 1961. The reborn capital took the first syllable of the old name and that of the river on which it stands, the Mopan, to give Belmopan. Benin's captial of Porto-Novo is simply Portuguese for 'the new harbour'. Bolivia has two capitals, its administrative centre is La Paz 'new town of Our Lady of Peace' and its judicial capital Sucre is named after the legendary Antonio de Sucre.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has Sarajevo, a name derived from the Turkish saray ovası and speaking of the 'field around saray'. When the Botswana capital city of Gaborone was founded in 1890 the ruling chief was one Gaborone Matlapin. Similarly Brunei had Bandar Seri Begawan named after the father of the new sultan, who had retired leaving 'the town of the illustrious one'.
Bulgaria's Sofia is taken from the Greek meaning 'wisdom'. Cambodia and Phnom Penh is 'Pehn's hill', said to be after a legendary fourteenth century nun who went to fetch water from the Mekong where she found a hollow tree floating, inside were four bronze and one stone statue of Buddha.
Cameroon and Yaounde is a corruption of the Ewondo ethnic group who inhabited this region. Canada and Ottawa named after the Native American tribe the Outaouacs, here from the region around Lake Huron and whose name means 'traders'. Cape Verde is an old Portuguese colony and the capital city of Praia is Portuguese for 'beach'.
The Central African Republic has Bangui, named after the Ubangi River. Chad and N'Djamena is a local word meaning 'repose'. Chile and Santiago is named after St James, the Spanish settlers referring to it as San Jago. China's capital of Beijing is most simplistic in referring to the 'northern capital'. To Colombia and Bogota, a Spanish-influenced Bacata, thought to represent a Native Indian tribal chief. The capital of the Comoros is a local word meaning 'heart of fire' and recorded as Moroni. Named after Pierre de Brazza, with the French ville or 'town', the nineteenth century founder, Brazzaville is the capital city of the Republic of the Congo.
Costa Rica and San Jose is a Spanish settlement dedicated to 'St Joseph'. Named after Queen Yamousso, Cote d'Ivoire's capital is Yamoussoukro. Croatia and Zagreb is thought to be a result of a Slavonic dialect describing the '(place) beyond the ditch or dam'. Cyprus and Nicosia, said to be a corrupton of the Greek name for the city, Lefkosia. Czech Republic and the origin of Prague depends upon the language, for Czech praziti would give 'place where wood has been burned' while Slavonic prati would refers to 'the workings (of fish dykes in the river)'. In Denmark and Danish kiopman havn speaks of 'the harbour of the merchant' and the name of Copenhagen.
Dominica and Roseau is the French for 'reeds'. Domincan Republic and Santo Domingo is clearly named in honour of St Domingo. After the Native Indian Quitu tribe comes the capital of Ecuador, Quito. With an Arabic name of Misr-al-Qahirah or 'Mars the victorious', the Egyptian city of Cairo is an anglicised version of the last part of the original name. El Salvador and San Salvador both show the Spanish settlers referred to this as 'the Saviour', that is dedicated to Jesus Christ.
Equatorial Guinea and Malabo is thought to be named after Pool Malebo, itself referring to the large palm trees on its shores. Eritrea and Asmara is the Tigre word for 'live in peace'. Estonia and Tallinn takes the local taani linna to refer to 'the town of the Danes'. Ethiopia and Addis Ababa features the Amharic addis abeba or 'the new flower'. At Finland the capital city of Helsinki was originally known as Helsingfors, where Swedish fors or 'waterfall' follwos the name of the local tribe.
France and Paris, where the Parisii were the Gaulish tribe named for being 'sailors', clearly on the River Seine. Gabon and Libreville was where the freed slaves were brought in 1848, the name from French meaning 'free town'. The Gambia and Banjul is thought to refer to the 'rope mats' once produced here. Georgia where Tblisi is a local word meaing 'warm' and a reference to the natural springs which bubble up here.
Germany and Berlin is a very early name in a region which has many links to ancient cultures and could have meanings as varied as 'lake, hill, dam, place of judgement, customs post, sandy place' depending on the original language. Ghana and Accra from akannkran or 'black ant', te name given to the tribe around here. Greece and Athens, traditionally held to be after the goddess Athene, yet the place may have given the goddess and name.
Grenada and Saint George's is a dedication to St George. Guinea and Conakry is a Susu word referring to 'those over the waters'. Guinea Bissau and Bissau is also the name of the tribe which originally inhabited the island. Guyana and Georgetown was named in honour of the ruling monarch, George III, when the British took control. Haiti and Port-au-Prince is French for 'the port of the prince'.
Hungary and few can be unaware that Budapest is actually two cities, both of Slavonic origin and each with two quite diverse potential meanings: Buda 'building, water' and Pesht 'cave, hearth'. Iceland and Reykjavik unites Icelandic reyka and Norse vik describing 'the inlet of the geysers'. India and New Delhi is thought to represent Hindi dilli meaning 'threshold'.
Indonesia and Jakarta is from Sanskrit jaya kerta or 'the place of victory'. In Iran the name of Tehran aptly describes the heat in summer months from Old Persian teh ran 'the warm place'. Iraq and Baghdad is Iranian bag dad 'the gift of God'. In the Republic of Ireland and the Irish dubh linn describes 'the black lake' on which Dublin is built. Not the Irish name for Dublin is Baile Atha Cliath or 'the town of the ford of the hurdle'.
In Israel Old Hebrew ieru shalem describes Jerusalem as 'the house of peace'. Jamaica's capital city is Kingston, named after the British King William III. Formerly known as Edo meaning 'estuary', Japan's capital city of Tokyo speaks of 'the eastern capital'. In Jordan the city Amman is named after the Egyptian god Ammon, much in the way Christian saints are adopted to watch over them. Kazakhstan's Astana is quite simply 'the capital city'. In Kenya the name of Nairobi takes the name of the tribe who, in turn, took the name of the stream meaing 'cold water'.
North Korea's capital of Pyongyang describes the 'flat land'. In South Korea Seoul means, quite simply 'capital city'. In Kosovo Pristina takes the name of a figure associated with this place. Kuwait and Kuwait City gave its name to the country, from Arabic meaning 'the enclosed' and a reference to a sixteenth century Portuguese fort. The capital of Kyrgyzstan is Bishkek, a word thought to refer to a churn used to hold fermented milk from mares.
In Laos Vientiane is simply the French version of the local name meaning 'city of sandalwood'. Riga, the capital of Latvia, is a Slavonic word meaning simply 'river'. In Lebanon the name of Beirut is either Aramaic berotha 'pine trees' or Phoenician beroth 'wells'. Meaning 'the place of red sandstone', Maseru is the capital of Lesotho. Named in honour of James Monroe, the president who liberated many slaves to Liberia, the capital is Monrovia.
Libya's Tripoli is Greek for 'three towns', the ancient cities of Oea, Sabratha, and Leptis Magna. Liechtenstein's Vaduz has several potential origins, however generally all describe its location in the valley or the river which runs through it. Similarly Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is a Baltic-Slavonic word describing the river or the valley as 'winding'.
Madagascar and Antananarivo describes 'the city of a thousand', the number of soldiers ordered to defend it by King Adrianjaka. Malawi and Lilongwe sits on 'the long river' which gave it its name. In Malaysia the 'muddy confluence' is today known as Kuala Lumpur. Maldives capital of Male comes from Sanskrit for 'big house'.
Mali's capital of Bamako tells us it had the rather inauspicious beginnings 'behind Bamma's village'. The island of Malta named its capital Valletta after Jean Parisot de La Vallette, Grand Master of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. Mauritania's Nouakchott comes from Berber 'the place of the winds'. In Mauritius Port Louis was named after the French King Louis XV.
From Moldova and Chisinau speaks of 'the new spring'. Mongolia's Ulaanbaatar describes 'the red warrior', in honour of Dandiimy Suhbaatar who founded the modern republic. Montenegro and Podgorica describes its place 'under the small hill'. North Africa and Morocco and the Arabic word ribat or 'fort' is today seen as Rabat. In Mozambique, Maputo was named after one of the sons of Nuagobe, the local chief in the eighteenth century.
Myanmar has two capitals, that of Rangoon is Burmese for 'end of strife', while the administrative capital of Nay Pyi Taw is from the same language and means 'great city of the sun'. Namibia's capital Windhoek is easy to see as Dutch for 'the windy cape'. Nepalese kath mandir describes the 'wooden temple' traditional built by Raja Lachmina in 1596 using just a single tree has given a name to Katmandu, the capital of Nepal. In the Netherlands there are two capitals, traditionally Amsterdam is from 'the dam on the River Amstel' and the seat of government at The Hague is Dutch for 'the enclosure'.
New Zealand's Wellington is named after the former soldier and statesman the Duke of Wellington. Nicaragua and Managua is from Mana-ahuac and translates to 'surrounded by water'. In Niger the tribe crossed the River Niger to the place where Niamey now stands, itself held to be where a tree stood at the water's edge, the name meaning 'the shore where the tree draws water'. Nigeria's Abujatook its name from the house of the chieftain, a name meaning 'Abu the Red'.
In Norway we find 'the mouth of the River Lo' or Oslo. In the east to Oman where Muscat is a native word meaning 'hidden'. No surprise to find the Pakistan capital of Islamabad meaning 'the city of Islam'. When explorer Captain John Moresby became the first European to see Papua New Guinea, he named Port Moresby after his father Admiral Sir Fairfax Moresby. The name of Paraguay's Asuncion is Spanish referring to 'Our Lady of the Assumption', on whose feast day their original fort here was finished.
The ancient culture of Peru and Lima is named after the River Rimac on which it stands, itself referring to the god whose name means 'he who speaks'. In the Philippines Manila is from the native Tagalog language may nila 'the place where there is indigo'. When defining Poland's captial city of Warsaw we fnd numerous suggestions but only which seems remotely likely. 'the place of Warsz', the founder.
In Portugal Lisbon is thought to be a remnant of the Phoenician merchants where alis ubbo describes 'the joyful bay'. A most unusual name is found for Qatar's Doha, of Arabic origin meaning 'the sticky tree'. The Romanian city of Bucharest is traditionally held to have been founded by the shepherd Bucur in the fifteenth century, however records of the place predate this and it is derived from Albanian bucur 'pleasant'.
In Russia Moscow is named after the River Moskva, itself with a number of possible origins but most often said to represent Slavonic moskva 'marshy'. Saint Kitts and Nevis where Basseterre is French for 'low land'. French is also the origin for Saint Lucia's capital Castries, here describing 'safe anchorage'. Kingstown, capital of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, speaks for itself as being named for the monarch.
The capital of Sao Tome and Principe is Sao Tome, easy to see as St Thomas and comes from Portuguese. Saudi Arabia's capital is Riyadh, Arabic for 'garden'. In Senegal the local Wolof tongue of the native Lebu tribe probably describes Dakar as being founded at the 'tamarind tree'. Slavonic for 'white fortress' describes the fourth century beginnings of Belgrade in Serbia. In the Seychelles the name of Victoria represents Latin for 'victory'.
In Sierra Leone Freetown was an English settlement for liberated slaves. Slovakia's Bratislava was named to honour Prince Braslav and literally means 'Braslav's glory'. To Slovenia where Ljubljana's origins depend upon the language although, if this was Slovenian, would most likely be ljubljena or 'the beloved one'.
When the English arrived at the Solomon Islands, they mispronounced the name of the settlement Nagoniara as Honiara, although this does not change the meaning of 'in front of the wind'. The Arabic name of Mogadishu tells us Somalia's capital means 'the seat of the Shah'. Three capitals in South Africa, Pretoria is administrative and was named in honour of Andries Pretorius the Boar leader, while the legislative Cape Town is named for its position on the Cape of Good Hope, and Bloemfontein is the judiciary capital derived from Boer Dutch 'flowers of the spring'.
Spain's Madrid recalls the Moorish fort of Majrit, meaning 'place of the abundant water'. Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka, Sinhalese mefrom kolon thota 'the port on the River Kelani'. In the Sudan the historic city of Khartoum is an Arabic name meaning 'elephant's trunk' and describing its shape. Suriname's Paramaribo is from the local tongue where para maribo refers to 'the dwellers by the sea'.
Swaziland took the name of the chief Mbabane Khunene as the inspiration for Mbabane, itself the stream name meaning 'that which crushes'. Sweden's Stockholm is an old name but one where the suffix is certainly holmr 'island', the first element is less certain but stak 'bay' is one possibility. Switzerland's Berne is also very old meaning there is uncertainty, the most interesting suggestion is an early Indo-European word ber meaning 'marshy place'.
The Syrian capital of Damascus has genuine claims to be among the world's oldest surviving cities, a fact making definition difficult but may be from a word describing it as an 'industrious' place. Taiwan's Taipei is simply 'the northern capital'. Tajikistan's capital is from the local word meaning 'Monday', presumably the day Dushanbe was founded. Two capital for Tanzania, the traditional Dar es Salaam is Arabic for 'house of peace' while the legislative centre of Dodoma is Gongo for 'it has sunk'.
Thailand's name of Bangkok could refer to simply 'the island' or 'the Java plum tree' depending upon this representing bang kok or bang koh. Lome is the capital of Togo, from Alotime which, in the local Ewe, means 'among the Alo trees'. The Tongan languange named the capital of Tonga Nuku'alofa meaning 'residence and love'. In the Caribbean the chief city of Trinidad and Tobago is Port-of-Spain, founded by the Spanish near the native fishing village of Cumucurapo or 'the place of the silk cotton trees'.
In Turkey Ankara is from an Indo-European ank with Phrygian influence describing 'the crooked ravine'. Turkmenistan gets the name of its capital city, Ashgabat, from a combination of Turmenian uskh and Iranian abad meaning 'the pleasant town'. In Tuvalu the name of Funafuti comes from the wife of the founder Telematua literrally meaning 'the she banana'.
In Uganda Kampala is named after the hill on which it stands, itself describing 'the hill slopes where impala graze'. In Ukrainian the name of Kyiv means 'belonging to Kyi'. The United Arab Emirates' capital of Abu Dhabi means 'the father of the gazelle'. In the United States of America the capital of Washington D.C. is named after one of its most famous early citizens and first president of a united nation, George Washington.
Uruguay's Montevideo is thought to represent Portuguese where the cry monte vidi eo meant 'I saw the mountain'. The Turkish tash and Iranian kent unite to tell us the Uzbekistan capital of Tashkent refers to 'the town of stone'. Another Portuguese origin is seen in Vanuatu where Port-Vila tells of 'the port town'.
Vatican City is not onlya city but an independent nation, whether this qualifies as a capital city is debatable, however the name comes from the Mons Vaticanus, the hill of which it stands meaning 'the place of divination', ironically a pagan shrine. The Venezuelan capital of Caracas is named after the warrior tribe who lived here. Vietnam's Hanoi was originally called Kecho, simply 'capital', the present name describes its position 'surrounded by the river'.
The Yemen capital of Sanaa comes from a local term simply meaning 'well fortified'. Zambia's Lusaka is taken from the name of the former chief who resided at the railway siding at the end of the nineteenth century. Lastly Zimbabwe where Harare is said to be named from the chief Neharare who is held to have been buried beneath the hill on which this city stands.
There are those which are unknown such as Bahrain and Manama, Bhutan and Thimphu, Burkina Faso and Ouagadougou, Burundi and Bujumbura, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kinshasa, Cuba and Havana, East Timor and Dili, Fiji and Suva, Honduras and Tegucigalpa, Kiribati and Tarawa Atoll, Macedonia and Skopje, Marshall Islands and Majuro, Federated States of Micronesia and Palikir, Palau and Melekeok, Rwanda and Kigali, Samoan and Apia, Tunisia and Tunis, and also the United Kingdom and our own capital city of London.
Clearly all have some major significance at the time they were named. Many of these may seem of little importance today, yet these represent the most delightful of meanings and origins. Doubtless these will change with time, spelling is easily corrupted, origins and meanings are misunderstood, even lost. We should ensure that each and every one is recorded for posterity. It would be criminal if the length of the previous paragraph of 'unknowns' grew with time.