Between Ṭarābulus and Aṭrābulus. The journey of the toponym and difficulties in determining its form / بين طرابلس وأطرابلس: رحلة الطوبونيم وحيرة في ضبط شكله

Mohamed GHODHBANE (University al-Manar/Tunis, Tunisia)


The actual capital city of Libya is called Ṭarābulus al-Ġarb. It was Ṭarābulus under the Hafsids and Aṭrābulus under the Umayyads, but we find both for the Fatimid-Zirid period. Arabic sources, official documents and numismatics account for a long and complex travel of the toponym. The decision belonged to the authorities. The late Ottoman practice prevailed, hence its name today.

I. The toponym and the coinage

1. Under the Governors

The first occurrence was أطرابلس , as the arabization of the ancient term Tripolis. It dates back to 100/719. It is a bronze fals and it persisted at least until 130/748. Unfortunately, we have no specimen for the Abbasid governors. We simply suppose that it remained unchanged.

2. Under the Fatimids and the Zirids

This era is marked by the coexistence of both spellings between 364/975 and 431/1040, indicating that the workshops had no problem with this dual situation. A clear turning point can be observed from 431/1040 onwards when the initial ا fully disappeared, a phenomenon that lasted until the beginning of the 6th/12th century. It might have reflected a general local consensus when the people used to pronounce the name without hamza. No coin was minted with the toponym under the Almohads as far as we know.

3. Under the Hafsids

The extant corpus only comprises 6 items, ranging from 709/1309 to 863/1458. Among them, only the first one — chronologically speaking — bears the initial hamza.

4. In the modern period

With the establishment of the Ottomans in the region, the final appellation won, i.e. طرابلس الغرب , as testify documents of various natures.

II. The toponym and the Arabic sources

1. The spelling طرابلس

Based on seven different authors — Yāqūt (d. 626/1229), Ibn Ḫallikān (d. 681/1282), al-Tiǧānī (scr. ca 711/1311), al-Fīrūzābādī (d. 817/1415), Ibn al-Ḥanbalī (d. 971/1563), Ibn al-Ṭayyib al-Fāsī (d. 1171/1757), Ibn Ġalbūn (scr. 1st half 12th/18th c.), al-Zabīdī (d. 1205/1790) —, we see a good sample of Ṭarābulus. 

Al-Tiǧānī, having lived in Tripoli one and a half year (709-711/1309-1311), mentions that this variant is the most common at his time, even if some people still put the initial hamza, a practice he attests since the 2nd/8th century and that he sees as the old way to write the toponym. The tension between both طرابلس and اطرابلس continues in the later centuries. Besides, one may add fuel to the issue when comparing Ṭarābulus al-Ġarb to Ṭarābulus al-Šām, without reaching any decisive opinion. Ibn Ġalbūn repeats for the 12th/18th century what al-Tiǧānī had said 400 years before…

2. The spelling أطرابلس

Here too, the inventory stretches over the late Middle Ages — al-Bakrī (d. 487/1094), Ibn al-Qaysarānī (d. 507/1113), the unknown writer of K. al-Istibṣār (scr. 591/1195), Ibn al-Aṯīr (d. 630/1233), al-ʿAbdarī (d. 8th/14th c.), al-Qaṭīʿī (d. 739/1338), al-Qalqašandī (d. 821/1418), al-Saḫāwī (d. 902/1497) — to enable a case study that parallels the other orthography.

Al-Bakrī does not vocalize أطرابلس , from which we could deduce that it was the dominant spelling in his area around the millenium. It seems that in the 6th/12th century, the alif disappeared from the Eastern Tripoli, as Ibn al-Aṯīr explains. Al-ʿAbdarī shows us that he “discovered” the spelling without hamza when he left his al-Andalus and crossed Ifrīqiya on his way to perform the pilgrimage. 

To summarize, we notice that something happened during the 6th-7th/12th-13th centuries, when starting the toponym with an alif was no longer the norm, but was more and more perceived as an archaism, or the indication that you were not aware of this regional evolution. The file is closed with the Ottomans at the end of the 10th/16th century.

3. The toponym between coinage and sources

The name of the city had been in its inception the result of arabization, أطرابلس , with an alif as testify the coins quoted before. We hypothesize that it remained so in the 2nd and 3rd centuries of Hegira. In the course of the 4th century, the other spelling, طرابلس , begins to compete with it. We witness a lasting dual system, as retrieved from the Fatimid-Zirid period. 

Of course, this brings us to the following question: who decided for one spelling or the other? The minter (naqqāš)? Highly improbable. The caliph (from Cairo)? The emir (from Kairouan)? 

Under the Hafsids, the dust cleared and only the form without the initial alif was maintained. This is true for coinage as much as for literature (e.g. al-Tiǧānī, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa). What did the Turcs add to the file? The difference between West and Šām. Ṭarābulus al-Ġarb — for they controlled both towns. A look into the chancery documentation (firmans, correspondence, registers, etc.) corroborates these data.


Aṭrābulus is the arabized name of Tripolis. Abū ʿUbayd al-Bakrī — relying on M. b. Yūsuf al-Warrāq — provides a valuable landmark (around the 5th/11th century), a conscious glimpse into what would become an archaic use and a key to grasp the forthcoming changes.

It was in use until its concurrent Ṭarābulus emerged with the Fatimids. The coexistence of the two versions puzzles the reseacher with simple questions like how? why? On top of that, some direct informants, from al-Tiǧānī (beg. 8th/14th c.) until al-Fāsī (end 12th/18th c.), detail how locals could still disagree on the spelling.

After the alif/hamza fell, there was no way back. The ultimate addition of al-Ġarb reminded the reader that the Ottoman Empire had two Tripoli-s within his territories.

Citer ce billet
Sébastien Garnier (2024, 23 mai). Between Ṭarābulus and Aṭrābulus. The journey of the toponym and difficulties in determining its form / بين طرابلس وأطرابلس: رحلة الطوبونيم وحيرة في ضبط شكله. LibMed. Consulté le 23 juin 2024, à l’adresse

Vous aimerez aussi...

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur comment les données de vos commentaires sont utilisées.

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search