What is the deal with the name changes of cities over time? New students of history can get quite confused when a city has had more than one name. I am not talking about nicknames like “The Big Apple” or “The City of Light.” I am referring to actual name changes over the years.
The popular song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” by They Might Be Giants comes to mind (actually a remake, but TMBG made the song famous.)
“Istanbul was Constaninople now it’s Istanbul not Constantinople…
If you have a date in Constantinople she’ll be waiting in Istanbul…
Why did Constantinople get the works? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks…
Even old New York was once New Amsterdam. Why they changed it I can’t say…People just like it better that way…..
It is a fun song but the lyrics are true. You can’t go to Constantinople, it doesn’t exist. The name is now Istanbul. Why is that? Well, this city is only one of many that have changed names over the years due to another culture, state, or empire controlling the city. Borders have been quite fluid in many areas of the world. Names are bound to change. I will share a few famous ones with you in no particular order.
Istanbul – formerly Constantinople, and before that, Byzantium. – Constantinople was named after Roman Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century (300s). The name Byzantium comes from the Greeks who named the city a long time before Constantine. The present-day name of Istanbul comes from the Muslim Turks who conquered Constantinople in 1453 – the official death of the Eastern Roman Empire, which is often called the “Byzantine Empire” (hence “Byzantium”)
New York City – formerly New Amsterdam. – Back in the 1600’s in North America there were two real powers vying for supremacy, the British and the Dutch (the French on a smaller scale.) There were a couple of Anglo-Dutch wars over territory. The Dutch, at one time, held the area of the Hudson River down to present-day NYC. This area was called “New Amsterdam” as Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands. When the British took control of the area they re-named it New York City, the “York” coming from James, Duke of York, who would go on to become James II, King of England.
London – formerly Londinium – Obviously the Roman Empire played a huge part in history. I will use London as the prime example of a Roman city that has survived to the modern day. Londinium was created by the Romans after Rome secured what is roughly the southern half of the modern United Kingdom in the 1st Century. The city eventually became simply “London.” London is the capital of the United Kingdom. Other examples – Vienna was Vindobona, Regensburg was Radasbona, Le Mans was Vindinium, etc.
There is a large list of Roman – modern European names at
Marseilles – formerly Massalia – Prior to the peak of the Roman age, a major player in the Mediterranean were people we call the “Greeks.” They called themselves “Hellenes” but that is another story. – The Greeks controlled more than just the area of and around modern Greece. They controlled hundreds of Islands and lots of miles of coastline around modern Turkey. They also colonized many areas around Europe, all the way west to the Atlantic Ocean, both north and south of the Mediterranean Sea. The example of the southern French city of Marseilles was formerly a Greek colony named Massalia. Beirut was Laodicea, Naples was Neapolis, and Varna and Odessa were both named Odessos.
A good list of Greek – Modern cities can be found at
Ho-Chi-Minh City – formerly Siagon – This former capital of South Vietnam was named after the Viet Cong leader who outlasted U.S. Occupation during the Vietnam War.
Beijing – formerly Peking – formerly many other names… – The impossibly complicated history of China does not get any easier when it comes to names. The names most Americans associate with famous Chinese cities are “Americanized.” Still, the names have changed over the years. Beijing, for instance, used to be called Peking, which was simply the Romanized name of Beijing.
Mexico City – formerly Tenochitlan – The Aztec culture basically created Tenochitlan out of lake Texcoco. The word “Mexico” is of native, not of Spanish origin (the Spanish completely changed the culture of most of Central and South America with the arrival of Hernando Cortez in 1519.) The city was eventually renamed Mexico City or Ciudad Mexico.
What other cities had different names throughout history?
Tunis (Formerly Carthage)
Baghdad (Formerly part of Babylon)
Mosul (Formerly Nineveh)
Medina (Formerly Yathrib)
There are hundreds of names of cities and areas that have changed over time. Google some of these places. Find an map of the old Roman provinces or a map of the old empires throughout history. You will be surprised at what you find.