Meanings Behind The Names Of 6 Middle Eastern Nations

How well do you know your geography? And how about words origins—do consider yourself an etymology buff?

Well, put both to the test in this slideshow. In it, we travel to the Middle East, a land with rich cultures and ancient histories, and track down the origins of some of the names of the countries that make up this important region of the world.


What today is Syria, officially called the Syrian Arab Republic, was ruled by Ottoman Empire from 1516–1918.

Modern day Syria has been the site of many important civilizations, including the Phoenicians—whose writing system gave rise to Western alphabets, including our own! The name Syria comes to English from Latin and Greek, apparently based on a Phoenician name for Assyria.

Assyria was a Mesopotamian kingdom that thrived in the 700s–600s bc.

Continue on to the next slide to learn which country straddles two continents.


The Republic of Turkey is situated between three seas, the Black, the Mediterranean, and the Aegean, and is divided between two continents. The great majority of Turkey lies in western Asia, but the rest of the country has its toe in southeast Europe.

For centuries, Turkey was the cornerstone of the Ottoman Empire until it became a republic in 1923. The name originates from a self-designation of Turkic peoples.

As for turkey the bird? It was originally the name of the guinea fowl, which was historically imported through Turkey. It was later confused with the American bird we now know as the turkey.


Like Turkey, Iran is derived from a self-designation from Old Iranian meaning “of the Iranians.”

Located between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, Iran was denoted in the West by its Greek-based name Persia for centuries, but in 1935 the government of Reza Shah Pahlavi called for the country to be called Iran. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the country has been officially the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Which country might be named for being a desert oasis? Click on!


Iraq is located between Saudi Arabia and Iran around the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The name has been popularly thought to be from an Arabic word meaning “deeply rooted, well-watered,” apparently referring to the lush river-land emerging from Iraq’s desert. But, its name may also originate from Uruk, an ancient Sumerian city.

Can you guess which country is guarded by a giant beast that is part woman and part lion? Find out on the next slide.


Officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Egypt is located in northeast Africa on the Mediterranean and Red Sea.

With a rich history that dates back over 5,000 years, Egypt is home to the Great Pyramids of Giza and the legendary Sphinx, an enormous stone statue of a winged lion with a woman’s head. Though much of its land is desert, the life-giving Nile River runs through the country. Its name originates in the Greek name Aigyptos meaning “the river Nile, Egypt,” ultimately said to be from an Egyptian word meaning “temple of the soul of Ptah.”

Our final country borders Egypt …


With its coast on the Mediterranean Sea, Israel was established in 1948 as Jewish state.

The name Israel ultimately comes from the Hebrew “God perseveres,” a name conferred to the biblical Jacob, who wrestled with the angel and considered the patriarch of the Jewish peoples.

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Word of the Day

Can you guess the definition?


[ haw-rip-uh-ley-shuhn ]

Can you guess the definition?

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[ haw-rip-uh-ley-shuhn ]

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