Moroccan place-names of Amazigh origin

Posté par Michael Peyron le 13 décembre 2010

Moroccan place-names of Amazigh origin 

The study of Moroccan place-names can be a fascinating and rewarding pastime, often casting an interesting light on the country’s history. It also brings strongly home to the observer the fact that most Moroccan toponyms are of Amazigh origin. This brief over-view of the topic will be divided into four sections:- 

1/ Amazigh place-names, having undergone little or no alteration, including, a) existing, b) slightly altered, and c) vanished.

2/ Altered and/or translated Amazigh place-names: a) Arabicized or ‘Frenchified’; b) other categories.

3/ ‘Hispanised’, ‘Frenchified’, or historically altered place-names. 

4/ Some facetiously interpreted place-names. 

1/ Amazigh place-names having undergone little or no alteration 

a) Existing  Almou n-Ayt Ndhir, meadow in Tâarâart valley, High Atlas < almu n ayt nðir, ‘pasture of the Beni Mtir’. 

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 ‘Ayyachi seen from Tizi n-Zou (Imtchimen), May 1967 (photo:  M. Peyron)

 Assamer n-Ou Ilourhmane, mountain on south side of Jbel ‘Ayyachi < assamer n iluġman, ‘south slope of the camels’.  Assif Melloul, river in Ayt Hadiddou, High Atlas < asif mellul, ‘white river’. Some claim this is due to its being a snow-fed river, hence ‘white’; others contend that real name was Asif Abkhouch (‘black river’), on account of its frequent devastating floods and was renamed ‘white’ as a propitiatory gesture. 

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  Berber women, Louggagh, Asif Tasfelalayt, Ta’ara’art valley (photo: M. Peyron)

 Assif Tasfelalayt, a river in Ta’ara’art valley (Jbel Ayyachi), ‘shining river’ < asfelaly, ‘shining, shimmering’.  Azaghar, general name given by High Atlas Berbers to the Marrakech or Tadla plain, or by Zaïan tribe to their lowland grazing-grounds < azaġar; also diminutive form, Tazaghart, name of an important flat-topped mountain in Toubkal area.

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   Rare view of Lake Izoughar with water in it, Ighil Waougoulzat (top), Apr. 1966 (photo: M. Peyron; poor definition, taken with a Kodak ‘Instamatic’ camera!).

 There is a plural form, Izoughar (< izuġar), semi-permanent lake and expanse of flat ground near Ayt Bou Gemmaz. The lake dries up by end-June and you get those classic TO brochure views of their clients (un)happily crossing its dusty surface in summer!

Azrou, town and road-junction, Beni Mguild area, Middle Atlas < azru, ‘rock’.  Bou Tserfine, village in Ayt Yahya, Eastern High Atlas < bu tisrfin ‘place of grain-pits’. 

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    Boutferda, Ayt Sokhman village, Aghbala region, Jan 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

Boutferda, village in Ayt Sokhman, bu tferda, ‘lonesome spot’ < aferdi, ‘solitary, lonesome’.  Boukchmir, site of Forestry Hut on upper Oued Beth < bu wqšmir, ‘place of the cliffs’. 

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     Two Ist-Hediddou maidens at the fountain, Imilchil, Sep. 1967 (photo:  M. Peyron)

 Imilchil, town in Ayt Hadiddou, High Atlas < imi n lšil, ‘grain gateway’; Place where southern tribes regularly used to come to buy grain.  Jbel Ayyachi, highest mountain in central Morocco, ‘mountain of Ayyach’, tribal name < εari u εayyaš Jbel Tassemite, hill above Beni Mellal, regularly sow-covered in winter and early spring, ‘cold mountain’ < asemmiḍ, ‘cold’. 

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    Jbel Tazizawt (top L), Bou Imtel hamlet in foreground, Aug. 2005 (photo: M. Peyron)

Jbel Tazizawt (Tazigzaout), wooded hill in Ayt Sokhman, south of Aghbala, ‘green mountain’< tazizawt ; because of the extensive vegetation that covers it. Another interpretation is that name refers to green (azizaw, azegza) turbans of the Derqawa sect, to which Sidi Lmekki belonged, in connection with the famous battle that occurred there.  Tiffert, village on Oued el Abid; Taffert, hamlet in Bou Iblane, ‘the hidden one’< verb ffer, ‘to hide’.  Tiouririne, small hills’ < tiwririn (sing. tawrirt).  Ti n Melwit, ‘Moulouya country’, name given to land between Azerzou and Alemsid near Moulouya head-waters.

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 Mosque, qsar of Ayt ‘Abdi, Tounfit, july 1981 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Tounfit, ‘remote one’, small foot-hill town, Eastern High Atlas < verb nfu, ‘to exile’. 

b) Slightly altered 

   Aïn Ifendassen, spring south of Bou Iblane, litt. ‘spring (where) he escaped from them’ < ifend asn < ifelt asn; probably commemorates some incident where a prisoner parted company with his captors.  Jbel Mouchchene, between Tiddas and Oulmès, central Morocco, ‘jackal mountain’ < žbel muwuššan Tinmal, in upper Nfis valley, High Atlas < ti n mellel, ‘the white one’, a reference to the presence of snow in winter; radical ML (‘white’) present in numerous other Amazigh place-names, Imlil, Titi Mellil, Tizi n-Toumlilt, Tizi Melloul, Ayt Tamellilt, Aïn Amellal, etc.  As instances of other slightly deformed place-names we have: Moulay Idriss > mulay dris; Aït Ishaq > ayt shaq, reflecting Amazigh pronunciation. Also, Afennourir, lake above Azrou, famous ornithological site for migratory birds < ixf n awrir, ‘head of the mount’.

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  Agelmam Afennourir, Middle Atlas, March 2009 (photo: M. Peyron)

  c) Vanished 

Aghmat, ruins some 10 kilometres south-west of Marrakech at entrance to Ourika valley, former regional capital, supplanted by Marrakech. Until half a century ago, some Shelluh still used to refer to Marrakech as Aghmat. Aguz, or Kuz, former Atlantic port of Aghmat at mouth of Tansift river. Day, former name of Beni Mellal; capital of independent 11th-century Zenata princedom.  Errachidia, provincial capital of south-east Morocco, formerly Ksar es Souk < iġrem n ssuq. Goulmima, south-east Morocco, and Goulimine, south-west Morocco, Arabized plural forms both < igulmimn (sing. agelmam), ‘semi-permanent lakes’.  Kasbat al-Makhzen, former name of Ksabi, founded by Moulay Ismaïl on Moulouya river.  Lemsid, instead of Alemsid; attempted Arabisation, alemsid actually reflecting colour of terrain and nothing to do with the msid in a mosque!  Mohammedia, Atlantic seaport, formerly Fedhala < Fidela < fadl allah in medieval times. 

Sijilmassa, ruins near present-day Erfoud or Rissani, former capital of small medieval kingdom famous for trans-Saharan trade.

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  Tafza hamlet, Ayt Sokhman, May 2006 (photo: M. Peyron)

Tafza, medieval town of some importance on one of Oum er Rbia’s L-bank tributaries, mentioned in Leo Africanus; now refers to small hamlet near Jbel Tazigzaout, associated with local epic of Imhiouach marabouts. Tamesna, ‘next to sea’ in old Berber, former name of Chaouia region until 19th century. Wansifn, former name of Oued Oum er Rbia, major Moroccan river < wi n isaffen, ‘the river among  rivers’; note that Tansift, smaller river just north of Marrakech, bears diminutive/feminine form. Yeffren, Middle Atlas town, instead of Ifrane < ifran, ‘caves’ (sing. ifri); famous attempt to de-Berberize a place-name which caused an uproar at the time. 

2/ Altered and/or translated place-names    

 a) Arabized, or ‘Frenchified’  Agelmane Laaziza, above Khenifra in Middle Atlas; reflects attempted Arabisation of place-name, instead of agelmam aziyza, ‘green lake’.  Aïn Taoujdate, forest spring near Ifrane, Middle Atlas; probably translated from taġbalut n tawjdat, ‘source of female Barbary sheep’.  Baqria, Middle Atlas village, reflecting unofficial, Arabised version of Baqrit (Bekrit). Give-away for Arabisation is usually substitution of /a/ for /t/, as in Zawiya Sidi Yahya ou Youssef < zawit sidi hya w yusf

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 Village of Agersaffen, Upper Seksawa, Western High Atlas, March 1967 (photo: M. Peyron)

Bin el Ouidane (local pronunciation bilwidan), river-junction and site of famous reservoir above Beni Mellal; probably translated from Amazigh gr isaffen, ‘between rivers’; incidentally, this is name of village in Upper Seksawa, High Atlas.

  Dayet er Roumi, lake in Central Morocco; probably adapted from Amazigh agulmam n urumi,  ‘lake of the christian’.  Foum Kheneg,  ‘gorge entrance’, situated on upper Gigou, Midle Atlas; probably translated from Amazigh imi n waqqa Oued el Abdi, ‘slave river’, important  Oum er Rbia L-bank tributaty > asif n isexman < asif n isemġan; cf. similarly derived Amazigh tribal name of Ayt Sokhman < ayt isexman Oulad Ali, Middle Atlas village; probably translated from ayt εli Ras el-Ma, ‘head of the waters’, spring in Middle Atlas between Ifrane and Azrou; probably translated from Amazigh ikhf aman, place-name which actually exists in Upper Ziz valley, High Atlas.  Other cases of fiddling with Amazigh place-names give ludicrous results, such as: ‘Fejj Tizi n-Telghemt’; ‘source d’Aïn Aghbal’, or the equally inept ‘Jbel Adrar’. 

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   Ridge of Jbel ‘Ayyachi close to Tizi n-Telghemt (top L), end-May 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)

b) Other categories (French- and Portuguese-derived), etc. 

Al-Jadida, ‘the new one’ < Mazagan, Mazignan < Marzigao < Qaryat Wawzgan.  Agadir, main city and port of Souss region, ‘castle’ < Santa Cruz/ Cruce.  At least two examples of derived place-names:-  abrid trantrwa between Tighessaline an Zeïda, central Morocco < Route Principale 33.  battižan < Petit-Jean, French colonial name (to honour French captain killed in campaign) for former Sidi Qasm, which has since been restored.  Volubilis, ruins of Roman town near Meknès < walili, ‘oleander’. 

3/ ‘Hispanised’ and ‘Frenchified’ place-names Casablanca, ‘white house’, Spanish; original name Anfa, probable capital of the Barghawata.  Chefchaouen, town in western part of Rif mountains < šuf iššawn, ‘see the horns’, a reference to the peaks that overlook the town. Midelt < timidelt, ‘sauce-pan cover’, name of conical, flat-topped hill five miles WNW of present town; former name, Outat n Ayt Izdeg.  Oued Beth < wad baht, major Moroccan river which rises in Middle Atlas between Azrou and Mrirt. 


 Safi < Saphie/Sophia < Asfi < asif, ‘river’; Atlantic seaport formerly colonised by Portuguese.. Tiflet, town inland from Rabat, on edge of Zemmour territory < tifel t, ‘she escaped from him’. 

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    qsar of Tattiwin, foot of Jbel ‘Ayyachi, Dec. 1965 (photo: M. Peyron)

 Tetouan, town on Rif coast < tiṭṭawin, ‘the springs’. Tattiwin, village near Midelt, is similarly derived. Amusingly, probably the most frequently deformed place-name is that of Khenifra, the Zaïan ‘capital’ on the Oum er Rbia, which is pronounced Kenifra by foreign visitores, being thus confused with Kenitra and Khemisset. 

4/ Some facetiously interpreted place-names    

Kerrando < ‘Quarante-Deux’, or Km 42 on Midelt-Errachidia road; however, more likely > kkraġ aneddu, ‘let’s get up and go’, as this was often an unhealthy place for travellers to dally, similar to the spring of šrub u hrub, ‘drink, then clear out’, situated further north just below Tizi n-Telghemt.  Marrakech < Merrakouch < amur a yakuš, ‘your protection we do beseech, O God’; also merrakš, which early travellers equated with ‘Maroc’ or ‘Morocco’, applying name of then capital to entire country.  Mogador < Megdul (Phœnicician origin) < MacDonald, Scots castaway over whose grave a shrine was built (Sidi Megdul); actually old name of Essaouira < swira (ar.), tassurt (ber.) and probably derived from mmu gadir, ‘she of the walls’.  Tarouddant, from tarwa ddant, ‘her offspring has left her’; implying that her ihabitants have emigrated.  Madrid, from ma trid, ma trit, ‘what do you want?’ Probably a form of humour!

 Publishing history :  Unpublished. Based on presentation given at Faculty of Letters, Beni Mellal, Morocco, spring 2002. 

 michael.peyron@voila.fr 

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