(Palestine Twitter)-Place names in Palestine have been the subject of much scholarship and contention, particularly in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict. The significance of place names in Palestine lies in their potential to legitimize the historical claims asserted by the involved parties, all of whom claim priority in chronology, and who use archaeology, map-making, and place names as their proofs.
The importance of toponymy, or geographical naming, was first recognized by the British organization, the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF), who mounted geographical map-making expeditions in Palestine in the late 19th century. Shortly thereafter, the British Mandatory authorities set out to gather toponymic information from the local Arab population, who had been proven to have preserved knowledge of the ancient place names which could help identify archaeological sites.
Palestinian place names are generally Arabised forms of ancient Semitic names or newer Arabic language formations, though since the establishment of Israel, many place names have since been Hebraicised or are known officially by their Biblical names. The cultural interchange fostered by the various successive empires to have ruled Palestine is apparent in its place names. Any particular place can be known by the different names used in the past, with each of these corresponding to a historical period. For example, what is today known as Tzippori, was known under Hellenistic rule as Sepphoris, under Roman rule as Diocaesarea, and under Arab and Islamic rule as Saffuriya.
Evolution of names by place
Battir: During the Bar Kochba revolt, this site was known as Betar. Its Arabic name Battir is evidently related to the ancient name.
Beit Ur al-Fauqa (Arabic: بيت عور الفوقة, "Upper house of straw") and Beit Ur al-Tahta (Arabic: بيت عور التحتى, "Lower house of straw") preserve parts of the original Canaanite names for these sites: Bethoron Elyon ("Upper Bethoron"), and Bethoron Tahton ("Lower Bethoron"). Bethoron means the "House of Horon", named for the Egypto-Canaanite deity Horon mentioned in Ugaritic literature and other texts.
Beit Jibrin: Depopulated during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, this village was originally known by the Aramaic name Beth Gabra ("house of the strong men"). The Romans gave it the Greek name of Eleutheropolis ("city of the free") but it is nonetheless listed in the Tabula Peutingeriana of 393 CE as Beitogabri. In the Talmud, its name is transcribed as Beit Gubrin (or Guvrin). The Crusaders referred to it as Bethgibelin or simply Gibelin. Its Arabic name Beit Jibrin ("house of the powerful") is derived from the original Aramaic name.
Indur: Depopulated during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, this village preserves the name of the ancient Canaanite city of Endor. Though the precise location of the ancient site remains a source of debate, the preferred candidate lies 1 kilometer northeast of Indur, a site known as Khirbet Safsafa.
Jericho: Known among the local inhabitants as Ariha (Ar-riha, meaning "fragrance"), it is described in the 10th century Book of Josippon, as "Jericho: City of Fragrance" (ir hareah). It is thought that the current name is derived from the Canaanite name Yareah, meaning "moon.
Jenin: In Canaanite times, its name was Ein Ganeem or Tel Jenin. Its name was changed to Ginat or Gini. The Arabicized name Jenin derived from the original.
Jib: Jib preserves the name of its ancient predecessor, Gibeon.
Tulkarm: Originally founded in the 3rd century CE as Berat Soreqa, it name in Aramaic was Tur Karma, meaning "mount of the vineyards". This name was then Arabicized to Tul Karem.
Nablus: Originally named Flavia Neapolis since it was founded in 72 CE by the Romans; in 636 CE, it was conquered by the Arabs, who Arabicized its name to Nablus.
The preservation of place names in Palestine "with amazing consistency" is noted by Yohanan Aharoni in The Land of the Bible (1979). He attributes this continuity to the common Semitic background of Palestine's local inhabitants throughout the ages, and the fact that place names tended to reflect extant agricultural features at the site in question.
The indigenous population of Palestine used Semitic languages, such as Hebrew, Samaritan, Palestinian Syriac, Jewish Aramaic and Arabic, for thousands of years. Almost all place names in Palestine have Semitic roots, with only a few place names being of Latin origin, and hardly any of Greek or Turkish origins. The Semitic roots of the oldest names for places in Palestine continued to be used by the indigenous population, though during the period of classical antiquity in Palestine, many names underwent modifications due to the influence of local ruling elites well versed in Greek and Latin. With the Arab expansion into Palestine, many of the preclassical Semitic names were revived, though often the spelling and pronunciation differed. Of course, for places where the old name had been lost or for new settlements established during this period, new Arabic names were coined.
Roots of place names in Palestine
Agricultural features are common to roots of place names in Palestine. For example, some place names incorporate the Semitic root for "spring" or "cistern", such as Beersheba or Bir as'Saba, ("Be'er" and "Bir" meaning "well" in Hebrew and Arabic respectively) and En Gedi or 'Ayn Jeddi ("En" and "'Ayn" meaning "spring" in Hebrew and Arabic respectively).
Other place names preserve the names of Semitic gods and goddesses from ancient times. For example, the name of the goddess Anat survives in the name of the village of 'Anata, believed to be site of the ancient city of Anathoth.