In January 1981, I returned to my hometown in southern Illinois after 35 years in the Middle East. I had gone out to Saudi Arabia with my parents as a boy of 11.
Even then, I think, I understood that the names of the towns and villages in the prairie farmlands and wooded hills of my native Wabash River Valley meant something: They told us of the history and hopes of the people who had settled the region. Indians had lived there: thus Shawneetown. Then came French trappers—Vincennes, Terre Haute—followed by English and German merchants and farmers: Allendale, Darmstadt. They had dreamed of prosperity—Eldorado—and studied their Old Testaments: Palestine, New Hebron, Mount Carmel. They had planted crops—Wheat-land—mined coal—Carbondale—and drilled for oil— Petrolia—that last occupation explaining how my family, much later, got to Saudi Arabia.
Now, as an adult who had lived so long overseas, I was surprised by the number of American towns I began to notice whose names struck a familiar Middle Eastern chord. On weekend trips I often found myself driving down Main Street in Lebanon, Cairo or Mecca, USA. During the next 10 years, I kept that connection in mind as I set out to explore the United States as thoroughly as I had the Middle East. In that decade I drove from coast to coast four times, each time tracing my routes on a wall map at home.
When I discovered a town with a Middle Eastern name, I marked it on my map. Often I would spot another just a finger-width away. Related names seemed to cluster along rivers or highways, or within a day's horse-and-buggy drive of a larger town. Winding through eastern Pennsylvania along Interstate 78 between Bethlehem and Lebanon, for example, I passed not too far from Nazareth, Egypt, Jordan, New Jerusalem, Bethel and Hebron. As time went by I found more and more towns and villages bearing the names of classical, biblical or Islamic sites in the Middle East, until I had marked them in all but four of the contiguous United States. The largest concentrations were in the South, but they were also well-represented in the Northeast and Midwest.
The majority, of course, seemed to have been named by religious settlers quick to turn to their Old and New Testaments for inspiration. Others may have been named by well-read frontier romantics, or idealists with classical dreams. Few or none, I suspect, were founded or even populated by Middle Eastern immigrants.
Some of the Middle Eastern names on the us map today are little more than that: names on the map. Abandoned foundations or state historical markers are sometimes the only traces of towns that were once home to the dreams of their early settlers. There's a Bagdad on the old asphalt south of Interstate 40 in California's Mojave Desert, but drifts of cream-colored sand pile against its few remaining stones. The pine woods of East Texas all but envelop an old cemetery east of US highway 59. But someone in the neighborhood—a descendent? a thoughtful farmer?—still keeps the silver paint fresh on the wrought-iron gate of the Damascus Cemetery. An old church, "Established 1811," and its graveyard are all that remain of Nineveh, Virginia, now one with the Nineveh of antiquity, the capital of Assyria, located in present-day Iraq. In a stand of pecan trees, a Georgia Historical Commission plaque identifies the "ghost town" of Palmyra, Georgia, incorporated in 1840. "Intermittent fever [malaria] and the coming of the railroad to Albany caused its decline," the plaque reads. The original Palmyra, in Syria, was a prosperous caravan city during the Roman era.
For this article, I wrote to public libraries in 25 American towns with Middle Eastern names to ask about their origins. The replies show that, in some instances, the founders' inspiration has been clearly traced; in other cases, the connections remain obscure, or appear coincidental. Still, all in all, the local histories are miniatures of the nation's larger history.
One class of American Middle Eastern names was suggested by geography or climate. What river but the ancient Nile could rival the mighty Mississippi? So, on America's Mississippi, you have Memphis, Tennessee, named for the one-time capital of ancient Egypt. Not far upstream, at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio, in a triangle of southern Illinois known locally as "Little Egypt," you find Cairo, where a careful citizen made sure I understood the name was pronounced Care-oh, "just like the syrup." Nearby stand the villages of Thebes and Karnak. By the same measure, in America's desert West, it was only logical for pioneers to think of names such as Bagdad, Arizona, and Mecca, California.
Around the United States, when early settlers built their towns on even the slightest elevation, they turned to the Holy Land for geographical inspiration. The names of Middle Eastern mountains, especially, abound. The Mount of Olives, which overlooks Jerusalem from the east, has namesakes in at least seven states; Mount Carmel, a ridge on the Mediterranean coast south of Haifa, has 17. Other American town names recall Mount Sinai in Egypt and Mount Hermon—Jabal al-Shaykh in Arabic—the snow-crowned, 2800-meter (9200-foot) peak astride the border of Lebanon and Syria.
At the edge of Pisgah National Forest, in the Appalachian mountains, is the village of Nebo, North Carolina. Mount Pisgah and Mount Nebo are two biblical names for the same high ridge in present-day Jordan. From this spot, tradition says, Moses first glimpsed the Holy Land. The Old Testament patriarch—his name is Musa in Arabic—is honored as a prophet by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. At least three US peaks are named Mount Pisgah: one in Connecticut, another in New York and the highest, at 1100 meters (3605 feet), in Vermont.
The founders of other American towns must have hoped the legendary wealth and power of their eponyms from classical antiquity would, in time, touch them, too. Hence the number of towns with names like Carthage (the original is in Tunisia), Troy (Turkey) and Tyre (Lebanon).
Finally, some early settlers may simply have had a fascination for the exotic—or was it just whimsy? How else does one explain Arabia, Nebraska or Aladdin, Wyoming? How about Sultan, Washington, or Pyramid Corners, Oklahoma?
Because of biblical references to the cedars of Lebanon and the widespread varieties of cedar trees in the United States, Lebanon may be the single most common Middle Eastern name in use in this country. Ohio has a Lebanon, a South Lebanon and a New Lebanon in the Dayton area alone and—in the eastern part of the state—West Lebanon. Lebanon, Kansas, is honored on maps as the "geographic center of the coterminous United States."
"Looking through a good encyclopedia for the name 'Lebanon,' one becomes geographically perplexed," begins a historical pamphlet published by the Lebanon [Oregon] Chamber of Commerce. "For in addition to the Biblical Lebanon...there are 35 towns, post villages and counties of the same name [in the United States]." The pamphlet continues in the best tradition of American small-town boosterism: "This is the story of Lebanon, Oregon, most westerly and progressive of all the Lebanons..." In 1847, settler Jeremiah Ralston arrived in the fertile valley, then known as Peterson's Gap, with three wagons drawn by 12 yoke of oxen. He opened a general store, platted a new town, and chose a name born of dual inspiration. The many cedar trees by the river indeed made Ralston think of the cedars of Lebanon. They also reminded him of his birthplace: Lebanon, Tennessee.
That Tennessee town, east of Nashville, was truly named for the land of cedars. It was founded as a county seat in 1802 on 16 hectares (40 acres) of land with a running spring, according to a directory published by the Lebanon-Wilson County Chamber of Commerce. Surrounded by forests of red cedar, one of the most aromatic of evergreens far the early settlers harvested the wood to produce pencils, perfumed cedar chests, fence posts, wooden buckets—and coffins. The 4000-hectare (10,000-acre) Cedars of Lebanon State Park and Forest, 11 kilometers (seven miles) south of the town, is now the largest uncut red-cedar forest in the United States. And coincidentally, within a 40-kilometer (25-mile) radius of the forest are the villages of Alexandria (after the eponym in Egypt), Carthage (in what is now Tunisia), Shiloh and Bethlehem (Palestine), and Smyrna (named after present-day Izmir, Turkey).
Another town on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey is Antioch, today's Antakya. The Antioch Township Library in Illinois sent me an excerpt from The Past and Present of Lake County Illinois, published about 1877, according to which a village slowly grew up around a sawmill built on Sequoit Creek about 1839. Some of the first settlers, wrote the author, "were...very zealous in church matters. Whereupon the wags of the neighborhood..., rather in a spirit of ridicule, suggested various Scripture names for the place. Among them Jericho and Joppa [Jaffa]. Finally, during a general assembly of the church...it was agreed to take the suggestion of their mischievous neighbors and adopt a Scripture name, and that it should be Antioch...."
Bethlehem, so prominent in the New Testament, is today inhabited by Christian and Muslim Palestinians and, like the city of Jerusalem a few miles north along the spine of hilltops, it is a center of world pilgrimage. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was founded on the banks of the Lehigh River by Moravian settlers in 1741. According to the Northampton County Guide, two houses, one a log cabin 12 meters long and six meters wide (40 by 20 feet), had been built by the first 15 members of the community. The story goes that Count Nicholas Lewis von Zinzendorf, a Moravian leader, arrived in town on December 21, 1741. "...[H]e led the settlers into the stable room of the first house, and they joined in the singing of an old German hymn in which occur the words: Nicht Jerusalem, sondern Bethlehem, aus dir kommet was mirfrommet": Not from Jerusalem, but rather from Bethlehem, comes that which is good for us. "From this verse the colonists chose Bethlehem as the name for their settlement."
The story of New Canaan, Connecticut, is less certain. It was established in 1730, under the laws of the Colony of Connecticut. But as Mary Louise King writes in Portrait of New Canaan, published by the New Canaan Historical Society, "neither then nor in later years did anyone record when, how, and why 'Canaan' was chosen as the parish's name.... Congregationalists were not obliged to give parishes religious names.... Canaan was the uppermost ridge in northwestern Norwalk, and I sometimes think 'Canaan' was picked over other possible parish names because the peak of Canaan Ridge is the highest elevation above sea level—the closest to Heaven."
According to Long Island: A History of Two Great Counties, Nassau and Suffolk (1942), Babylon, New York, got its name from a less lofty analogy. A local tradition traces the name to the year 1803, when a certain Nathaniel Conklin built a himself a new home. "His mother regretted its proximity to a public house in which liquor was sold. She suggested that the community would be another...Babylon [a city of sin], but her son replied that this was to be a 'New Babylon'. The name was carved into a stone placed over the Conklin family fireplace, and the community took 'Babylon' for its own." The fireplace stone now rests above the mantel in the Babylon Public Library.
Palestine, Texas, was founded in 1846 as the county seat of Anderson County. According to the 1987 City Directory, it was named at the suggestion of John Parker, one of three settlers who laid out the new city. Although Parker came from the Wabash River town of Palestine, in Crawford County, Illinois, the Texans pronounce the name with a regional twist: It is, they say emphatically, Palesteen . Another City Directory, this one published in 1877, says magnificently that it was a second member of the committee, Micham Main, also from Palestine, Illinois, who named the town "to place his influence and his life upon the side of right and justice in the great struggle for the independence of the peerless, the lone star State."
Although Madinah, the second city of Islam, located in present-day Saudi Arabia, is not among the places mentioned in the Bible, its reputation as the home of a righteous people and a visiting place for pilgrims was known to a Connecticut Yankee named Elijah Boardman, who laid out a town in the great Western Reserve wilderness in 1818. That's how Medina, Ohio, got its name, but it's not the whole story. In fact, according to the History of Medina County, Boardman first called the new town Mecca. Seven years later he had to change it. "The city of Mecca in Arabia was known the world over, because of thousands of pilgrims who made an annual pilgrimage there, until it became a byword for travelers overland to refer to the end of their journey as their Mecca."
The next part of this speculative history is not exactly accurate, but it's the way the early settlers saw it: "After Mohamet [the Prophet Muhammad] was driven from his birthplace, Mecca, he fled to Medina, Arabia, the capital. Here the pilgrims traveled as they had before to Mecca, and still do. Now, when the name of Mecca, Ohio, needed changing because of a town in Trumbull County [previously] having that name, the next most common end of voyage was Medina, after Medina in Arabia."
In Medina (pronounced Medeyena), Tennessee, northeast of Memphis, a police officer handed artist Spence Guerin a flyer describing that town's eponym. "The name was apparently chosen by a student of geography," the pamphlet read, "for the city of Medina in Arabia is situated in a rich farming area about 100 miles northeast of Memphis, Egypt." Now, Medina, Tennessee's physical proximity to its Memphis is real enough, but the "student of geography" evidently hadn't looked too closely at the map of the Middle East: Madinah in Saudi Arabia lies southeast, not northeast, of Memphis, Egypt, and by more than 1000 kilometers—about 650 miles!
Learning that a name was already taken didn't seem to bother some settlers. Three villages named Bethel, after a town just north of Jerusalem, dot the state of Tennessee. Mississippi has two Hebrons—another Palestinian name—located barely 50 kilometers (30 miles) apart. Iowa has a Lebanon in the southeast part of the state, and a second Lebanon in the far northwest.
Another Iowa small town, on the other hand, got its Middle Eastern name when its settlers learned that the name its founder had originally chosen was already taken in the state. The village of Martinsburg was platted in 1856 by Asa T. Martin, owner of the land, who had erected a steam sawmill on the site. A store was opened, then a wagonmaker's and blacksmith shop, but in 1860, when the settlers established the first post office, they learned to their dismay that the name Martinsburg was already in use elsewhere. They requested a list of possible names from Washington, and when it arrived, they settled on the name Tripola. They later changed the spelling to Tripoli, but kept the original pronunciation. Two Mediterranean cities are called Tripoli: One is in Lebanon, the other in Libya.
A few of these American towns acknowledge their Middle Eastern antecedents or establish ties to the cities, countries or geographical landmarks that gave them their names. The results, however, are often peculiarly American.
When the citizens of Karnak, Illinois, turn out to support the local basketball team at Egyptian High School, they're cheering for the Pharaohs. In Bagdad, Arizona, bumper stickers down at the open-pit copper mines proclaim the town the "Home of the Sultans."
Perhaps Memphis, Tennessee, has made the boldest bid to capitalize on the origins of its name, building a 180-meter-high (600-foot) pyramid on pilings driven deep into the Mississippi River mud. While reminiscent of the ancient stone tombs near Memphis, Egypt, the Tennessee structure has interior space for 20th-century urban living: a stadium, restaurants, shops, and offices.
In 1955 the government of Lebanon invited the mayors of all the US cities named Lebanon to visit Beirut as part of a celebration of "international homecoming" for Lebanese emigrants around the world. The uniquely personal way in which Tennessee's Lebanon responded tells something of that city's history.
In 1885 a pack peddler named Charley Baddour settled in Lebanon, Tennessee, followed shortly by two of his cousins. The family, which had immigrated to America from the original Lebanon, soon established itself in the local business community. Seventy years later, when Mayor William Baird received his official invitation to visit Beirut, he proposed an amendment to the Lebanon city charter so his friend, Dr. Frank Baddour, a respected citizen, could be named Lebanon, Tennessee's first and only vice-mayor, and thus represent his city in the homeland of his fathers. When "Doc" Baddour returned from Beirut, he brought with him a cedar tree from the old country that he planted in Lebanon's Baird Park.
Like the stories of other US towns, the stories of American towns with Middle Eastern names speak of the daring, industry, faith and fortitude of the nation's early settlers. Like their Middle Eastern counterparts, some of the American towns and villages first flourished, then faded. Though the United States is only 200 years old, some villages have already been reclaimed by the land. Others barely survive today, going on their quiet ways. But other towns and cities, also like their Middle Eastern namesakes, push ahead, growing with new vision and new energy. If we can speak of America as a cosmopolitan banquet of immigrants and settlers, its Middle Eastern town names, and the rich heritage they represent, are just another part of the feast today—as American as apple pie.
William Tracy, a long-time contributor to Aramco World and its former assistant editor, now edits Al-Ayyam Al-Jamilah, a magazine for retired members of the Saudi Aramco family, at Aramco Services Company in Houston.
Spence Guerin is an artist with "a knack for getting to know people and places from the inside." He divides his time between Florida and Alaska, painting "landscapes, places and the people around us." His work is represented by Hal Katzen Gallery (New York), Capricorn Galleries (Bethesda, Maryland), Stonington Gallery (Anchorage), and Site 250 Gallery (Fairbanks).