Elephants of Khartoum

On Language

Pack Your Khartum: The Sudanese
capital takes its name from the
Arabic word for ‘elephant’s trunk.’
Getty Images
Pack Your Khartum: The Sudanese capital takes its name from the Arabic word for ‘elephant’s trunk.’

By Philologos

Published January 19, 2011, issue of January 28, 2011.
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Zvi Rabbie writes from Los Gatos, Calif., to ask:

“With the impending partition of Sudan in the news lately, it would be interesting if you could address the multiple uses of the Hebrew word ḥartom. Besides resembling Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, it’s the word used in the Book of Exodus for Pharaoh’s magicians, while it also designates an elephant’s trunk, the prow of a ship, and the nose cone of a rocket. What, if anything, is the relationship among these?”

How the City Got Its Name: A plan of
Khartoum, with graphics added for clarity.
Forward/Wiki Commons
How the City Got Its Name: A plan of Khartoum, with graphics added for clarity.

Mr. Rabbie is mistaken about one thing: Ḥartom does not mean an elephant’s trunk in Hebrew, in which the word for that appendage is ḥedek. Khartum does, however, mean this in Arabic, a fact relevant to Mr. Rabbie’s question. The city of Khartoum began as an army outpost established in 1821 by the Egyptian ruler Ibrahim Pasha, who chose for it the strategic point at which the White Nile, flowing northward from Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile, flowing westward from the highlands of Ethiopia, join in one river. At their confluence is an island that, surveyed from the heights on the river’s banks, lacks only an eye to look exactly like the trunk of an elephant attached to the lower jaw and forehead. Called el-khartum, “the elephant’s trunk,” this gave Khartoum its name.

In Hebrew, the original meaning of ḥartom is a bird’s beak, and the word’s earliest textual appearance is in a discussion in the mishnaic tractate of Teharot. Yet since birds’ beaks and elephants’ trunks are anatomically analogous, khartum and ḥartom are clearly related, as they also are to Hebrew ḥotem and Arabic khatm, both meaning “nose.” And since the prow of a ship is, so to speak, its beak or nose, ḥartom in modern Hebrew came to mean a prow, from which its further extension to the nose cone of a rocket was but a small step.

This leaves us with Pharaoh’s “magicians,” as the King James Version of the Bible calls them. Lately, their antics in vying with Moses and Aaron at such tricks as turning staffs into snakes, described in the weekly Torah portions from the first chapters of the Book of Exodus, have been entertaining the synagogue-goers among us. In the Hebrew Bible, the term for them is ḥartumim, a word that always appears in the plural but whose form in the singular would indeed be, as Mr. Rabbie observes, ḥartom. Is this connected to elephant trunks, bird beaks and rocket cones?

I’m sorry to say it isn’t. The ḥartom of Exodus is a word, unrelated to any other in Hebrew, that comes from ancient Egyptian. Although the biblical commentator Avraham ibn Ezra surmised this back in the 12th century, it was not until our own times that scholars managed to confirm Ibn Ezra’s guess. The first to make a start at it was the Orientalist A.S. Yahuda, who suggested in the 1930s that the ḥar- of ḥartumim was the Egyptian word ḥry, a prefix denoting a person in charge of or at the head of something. Hry probably comes from the preposition ḥer, over or above, the hieroglyphic symbol for which is a human head.

Subsequent generations of Egyptologists and hieroglyphicists have succeeded in showing that the term that Yahuda was looking for is hry-hb-hry-tp. (The absence of vowels in such words is due to our not knowing what they were.) Hry-hb means “he who is in charge of the papyrus scroll” — that is, a priest who read the sacred liturgy at religious ceremonies — while hry-tp means “he who is first in charge.” A hry-hb-hry-tp, in other words, was a chief ceremonial priest, and shortened to hry-tp, with its final “p” changed by Hebrew speakers to an “m,” this resulted in ḥartom and ḥartumim. In Assyrian cuneiform texts the word appears as ḥartibi, with the Egyptian “p” voiced, but not nasalized as it was in Hebrew.

In no Egyptian hieroglyphic text does hry-tp, or hry-hb-hry-tp, specifically denote a magician. Yet “magician,” as we have said, is the King James Bible’s term for ḥartumim, one stemming from the rabbinic understanding of the word as reflected in the second-century C.E. Aramaic translation of Onkelos, which renders ḥartumim as ḥarashaya, “sorcerers.” To the original author of Exodus (ḥartumim also occurs twice in the story of Joseph, in Genesis), the word may simply have meant “chief priests.” Anyone skilled at magic in ancient Egypt would have been a priest anyway, since the magic arts were a priestly monopoly.

The only link between Khartoum and the ḥartumim of the Bible, then, is Egypt and the Egyptians. It was a pharaoh of antiquity who summoned his priests to joust at magic with the leaders of the Hebrews, and it was a latter-day pharaoh who founded the future capital of Sudan. If he is looking for connections, Mr. Rabbie will have to make do with that.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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