Friday, January 14, 2011

Khartoum and hartumim

Reader Zvi writes:

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


In Exodus 7:11 and 7:22, it's the word used for the Egyptian magicians.

In modern Hebrew, it's used for the prow of a ship, an elephant's trunk, and a rocket nose cone

And it's also the name of the capital city of Sudan.

What, if anything, is the relationship between these?

Good question - I've been meaning to write about this for a while.

First of all, chartom חרטום meaning "beak, nose, trunk", as well as the borrowed meanings you mentioned, is, as Klein writes, "enlarged" from the Hebrew chotam חוטם, meaning "nose, snout".  (I discussed earlier the background to the more popular word for nose, af אף.)

The name of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, is certainly related, as described in Placenames of the World:

Founded in 1821 as an Egyptian army camp, the city has an Arabic name, from al-khurtum, a short form of ras al-khurtum, "end of an elephant's trunk," from ra's, "head," "end," al, "the," and khurtum, "trunk." The reference is to the narrow stretch of land here between the White Nile and Blue Nile.
But what about the hartumim חרטמים of Egypt? There are a number of theories. Ben Yehuda, in the footnote to his dictionary entry, writes that the etymology is unclear. He says that some derive from the root חרט, to engrave. Those that follow this theory claim it refers to their ability to write the hieroglyphics. He then quotes a theory that the word is related to chotam, "nose", because it was the practice of these sorcerers to speak through their nose. In the end, however, he says it is likely a word borrowed from Egyptian, even though no such word has been found yet. (Interestingly, Ibn Ezra in his commentary on Bereshit 41:8, says perhaps the word is from Aramaic or Egyptian. However, I'm not sure what form of Egyptian Ibn Ezra is referring to.)

I'm not sure when this footnote was written (although I believe most of the footnotes were written by Tur-Sinai, not Ben-Yehuda, so it could have been well after the latter's death in 1922). Driver makes the same comment in his 1900 commentary on the Book of Daniel - perhaps that influenced the dictionary footnote.

In any case, at some point since that was written, there have been such Egyptian inscriptions discovered, for we now find quotes such as in On the Reliability of the Old Testament:

The term for Pharoah's scholars or sages is hartummim, which goes back to the Egyptian term hery-tep, best translated "expert" and often found in the combination  kheri-hab hery-tep, which means "lector-priest and expert" and not simply "chief lector-priest" as was formerly thought
(A challenge to this theory is discussed in footnote 25 in this book.)

So while the hartumim and Khartoum both have Egyptian origins, it appears they are not connected. Now we need to see whether Sudan itself will stay connected...

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