If the land of Lebanon could speak, it would tell a lot about its rich civilizational past. And one of the best ways a land can speak to us of its bygone influences is through its toponyms… provided one is curious enough to scrutinize them.
When I started to become inquisitive vis-a-vis the real meanings of our seemingly meaningless – and generally bizarre-sounding – village names, I discovered they were overwhelmingly Syriac. With the years, a postulate set in which considered Syriac as the origin of most of Lebanese toponyms. However, I have recently stumbled upon an even earlier etymological layer, thanks to… Apples!
Last summer as I was driving along the Tarshish road linking central Mount Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley focusing solely on the potholed winding road ahead, I left to my husband the freedom to take in the landscape from the passenger’s seat. As we reached the town of Hazzerta, I heard him say: “Look how many apple plantations there are in this place!”. Though I could not look sideways to check for myself, I willingly agreed: “It figures. Actually, Hazzurto in Syriac (ܚܰܙܽܘܼܪܬ̊ܳܐ) means just that. Apple!”
A few months later, I came across a tweet about the southern Lebanese town of Habboush claiming its name derived from Syriac ܚܒ̥ܳܫܳܐ (Hbosho), meaning “cell” or “prison.” However, recalling that Hazzurto had a synonym – Habbusho – I was skeptical as to the accuracy of such claims. A quick checkout of the geographical location of Habboush shows it at the entrance of a district called Iqlim al Touffah (in Arabic), which translates as… The Apple District! Yet my doubts lingered on as to the actual origins of the word Habbusho ܚܰܒ̊ܽܘܼܫܳܐ since it does not occur in all of the Syriac dictionaries I looked up. Further research led me to a Jewish Neo-Aramaic glossary of the Aramaic dialects of southwestern Iraq (a.k.a Mesopotamia) which mentions Xabusa as the equivalent of “apple. Considering all of the above leads, it is most certain that Habboush means apple in neo-Aramaic and not prison in Syriac.
Lastly, an acquaintance from the south Lebanese town of Tefehta wondered to me about the name’s origins. Even though Touffah exists in Arabic, the tree itself could not be originally from Arabia due to the unfavorable desert climate. The word/root was nowhere to be found in Syriac sources either. Delving deeper I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the word Tph is Canaanite, present in both Phoenician and in Hebrew תפוח, meaning simply: apple! Our Lebanese Teffeha is hence much more native than we ever thought. Come to think of it, this is not really surprising: apple, a native Eurasian species, has been historically THE top crop among Lebanon’s produce and has always been associated with it in regional literature and folk culture since centuries. The variety of semitic apple-related toponyms only goes to prove that.
To conclude, while Lebanon’s spoken languages showcase the multiple layers of cultures, native and foreign, that have impacted it, this Apple connection reveals the interesting variety of intra-semitic layers that have marked our land. From Canaanite, to Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic, the land of Lebanon is a live witness to its rich semitic past, an aspect that should be further scrutinized and documented.