Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mapping Greek Toponyms

Keeping track of Greek place names (toponyms), is a difficult endeavor. Related to the previous posting, I want to share some thoughts on how to deal with mapping Greek toponyms especially in relation to the requirements of ArcGIS.


The first and most obvious problem in any database is, of course, linguistic. Given the wide range of transliteration systems, two databases can easily become incompatible if they follow different systems. In general there are two philosophies of transliteration: faithful to the written word, or faithful to the spoken word. The former is followed mostly by classicists and archaeologists (lovers of dead forms), while the former is followed by anthropologists and modern historians (lovers of living forms). My favorite is the Library of Congress system (tending more towards the written word) because it offers bibliographic standardization. More recently, I've been experimenting with the guidelines for the American School of Classical Studies publication office,
which offers somewhat of a compromise. Since there is no consensus on the matter, one should be very careful about which system to use. I have made the mistake of switching systems mid-project. First I used a Germanic system based on the Tabula Imperii Byzantinii volumes, then I switched to Library of Congress, and now I'm switching again to Hesperia's guidelines. There is only one thing that drives me crazy about the Hesperia system: the transliteration of Greek "u" (upsilons) into "u" rather than "y" (Library of Congress system).


The constant abandonment and resettlement of Greek settlements means constantly shifting name usage. Through "metoikesis," a phenomenon that goes back to antiquity, communities moved through the landscape. Often they took the original name with them, but other times they embraced a new toponym. In the 1830s, Jacob Fallmerayer (Geschichte der Halbinsel Morea während des Mittelalters) used the presence of Slavic toponyms to disinherit modern Greeks from their classical ancestors. He argued that Slavic words presented evidence of huge Slavic migration (during the 6th-7th c. C.E.) and the bastardization of the local population. This left the Germans as the premier inheritors of the Aryan race. A more nuanced understanding of abandonment and re-foundation practices makes Fallmerayer's thesis (and, for that matter, the nationalist Greek counter-thesis) superficial and irrelevant. Fallmerayer has been superseded by Max Vasmer's study,
Die Slaven in Griechenland (Berlin, 1941). Nevertheless, keeping track of toponymic change is a difficult historical challenge.


Just as Fallmeryer argued for modern Greek inauthenticity, the modern Greek state rebutted with exaggerated authenticity. Using official bureaucratic mechanisms, the Greek state changed place names from vernacular and Turkish sounding words to proper Greek works during the 1890s-1920s. For example, a village named Mophkitsa was suddenly renamed Taxiarches, based on the village's patron saint. The
Megali Idea of the 1920s encouraged the use of ancient site names, even if the name had been completely forgotten. Any village that was near an archaeological site was artificially rebaptized. For instance, a village known by its inhabitants as Koumpouthekras was renamed Artemida. Such self-conscious renaming by the state has lead into all kinds of unstable village names. My favorite problem arises with the misidentification of sites. An ancient town of Leontion, for example, is mentioned by Strabo and Pausanias, but its location was not known. Two schools of interpretation developed. The one that prevailed in the 1920s, as it turns out, was wrong. Nevertheless, the nearby village Gourzoumista (very Turkish sounding) is now stuck with the 1920s renaming Leontion, although the correct site of Leontion is closer to Ano and Kato Vlassia. Yannis Pikoulas, the world expert on Arcadian roads, has published a thick volume showing the simple correspondences between old and new names, Λεξικό των οικισμών της Πελοποννήσου. Παλαιά και νέα τοπωνύμια (Athens, 2001). The book has received little circulation because it's simply a list. The only reason that I have seen it at all is because Pikoulas gave a copy to David Romano, who shelved it in the Corinth Computer Project Library. Frankly, it would have been much more useful in a digital format and it may have even reached a large audience. I'm sure Pikoulas produced the book from a database, to start with.


Even if the central government renamed a site in the official records, this doesn't mean that the locals followed the directive. Imagine how you would feel if the Federal U.S. government told you one day that your hometown is not called Kutztown anymore but Artemida. Wouldn't you be suspicious of some subversive usurping of local power? This is the case in countless Greek villages, where the locals refused to adopt the decreed names and continued to use the old name. The Greek National Archives contains some fascinating correspondence between villages and the government, showing extensive resistance by locals in adopting archaizing nationalist names. Fred Cooper's students (last name Konstantinidou) was studying these letters

The name that one choses to use marks him/her along a political/intellectual spectrum. This can get tricky. Byzantine scholars, for example, resist the archaizing re-namings even in the official state publications. Names are indeed political. You can just imagine the mess in territories such as Macedonia that included multi-ethnic and multi-lingual populations. My experience is limited to Serres, where the Greek-Buglarian power struggle is palpable even on icons. The name-wars are not unique to Greece, of course. One North American example comes to mind from Waterloo, Ontario. In 1916, the city of Berlin was renamed Kitchener thanks to World War I alliances. The original name revealed the ethnic makeup of its original settlers, but in 1916, the city did not want to be associated with Canada's enemy. In the U.S., the political renaming of streets is very common. A most recent example is the appearance of Martin Luther Kings streets in every city.

Keeping track of Greek village names may be initially frustrating, but it is interesting from a historical point of view. Maps are unstable. The simple action of listing territories or places quickly becomes political, whether one likes it or not. So what should one do? My advice is to rely on the most "official" of documents, the 1:50,000 Greek military maps. They are particularly valuable in names where political power has less at stake, such as in names of smaller natural features, creeks, hills, valleys, neighborhoods. For a consistent coverage, use the 1:250,000 Statistical Service maps. As discussed in the previous posting, they have the added advantage of a unique numerical system. What we should all strive for is making all this data openly available on the web to avoid all future headaches.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Kourelis:

Thanks for another interesting post. I just wanted to mention that the United States Board on Geographic Names does indeed make available our list of Greek toponyms, in digital format. It is free and publically available from this URL: We would encourage any and all to make use of it, as this furthers our own mission of standardization of place name spellings. We have derived the spellings of the place names in this file from the most official and up-to-date Greek sources which are available to us. We rely most heavily on the map series from the Hellenic Navy Hydrography Service, and the Hellenic Army Map service.

I'll apologize in advance for any errors and inconsistencies in the data. As you can imagine, keeping it current is a daunting task! We also welcome any comments and suggestions at

Best wishes,
-Peter Viechnicki
United States Board on Geographic Names

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States