Egypt: The Origin of the Name, Egypt

The Origin of the Word, "Egypt"
by Nermin Sami and Jimmy Dunn

Over the millenniums, Egypt has had many names in many different languages. Today, its official name is Junhuriyah Misr al-Arabiyah, which in English means the Arab Republic of Egypt. Egyptians themselves refer to Egypt as Misr, though this can also be a name for Cairo. Interestingly, it is common for Egyptians to refer to Egypt as Misr, if they are resident in Cairo, but if outside of Cairo, then they will refer to Cairo as Misr. In a certain respect, this is a custom that dates to the earliest times of ancient Egypt.

Nile Valley

Nile Valley: Photo by Nancy Awbrey

Basically, we can examine three groups of names which have applied to Egypt. In the early period of Egypt, during the Old Kingdom, Egypt was referred to as Kemet (Kermit), or simply Kmt , which means the Black land. They called themselves "remetch en Kermet", which means the "People of the Black Land". The term refers to the rich soil found in the Nile Valley and Delta. But it was also sometimes referred to as Deshret, or dshrt , which refers to the "Red Land", or deserts of which Egypt is mostly comprised.

Later, Egyptians referred to their country as "Hwt-ka-Ptah" (Ht-ka-Ptah, or Hout-ak Ptah) , which means "Temple for Ka of Ptah", or more properly, "House of the Ka of Ptah" Ptah was one of Egypt's earliest Gods. As in modern Egypt, this was both a name for the administrative center of Egypt, what we call Memphis today, as well as the name of the country as a whole.

Egypt, as many people of the world refer to the country today, is a derivative of this ancient name. Even today, people who speak one language often change the spelling of words in another language because of the difficulty they may have in pronouncing some of the sounds of that foreign language. Hence, in pronouncing Hwt-ka-Ptah, the Greeks changed this world to Aegyptus (Aigyptos), which they used in their literature as the name of an Egyptian King (perhaps Ramesses, though in a fictional manner), the Nile River and for the country itself. We find the word used by Homer in his famous "Odyssey. We believe the Greeks had difficulties with the Egyptian pronunciation of the letter "H" at the beginning and end of Hwt-ka-Ptah.

Today, the word Egyptians often use for their country is Misr. This is probably derived from an ancient term, Mizraim which may have itself been derived from an ancient Egyptian word, md-r mdr , which people in the region called Egypt. Misr is an Arabic name simply meaning "country", and part of the tradition of this term in as a name for Egypt comes from the Islamic Quran. The term can also mean "fortress", or "castellated" , which refers to the natural protective boarders of Egypt which protected the country from invaders. This name can be extended as Misr El Mahrosa.

As a final note, it is interesting that the origin of "Coptic", a word which we today use to refer to the Christians of Egypt (and actually, the principle Christian church of Ethiopia, as well others throughout the world related to this form of Christianity), actually is derived from the word Copti. The Arabs who invaded Egypt in, like the Greeks, had problems pronouncing the term, Aegypti, which means "Egyptian citizen". Essentially, they changed the word to Copti. Of course, at that time, Egypt was a Christian nation, so the term became limited to actual Egyptian Christians as the country became more and more Muslim.