10 Significant Places That Changed Their Names

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A Brief History

On March 28, 1930, the Turkish cities of Constantinople and Angora changed their names to Istanbul and Ankara.  You may remember Constantinople as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and the capital of the Ottoman Empire (as well as the Latin Empire and Byzantine Empire), but if you are not familiar with Angora/Ankara you are hereby informed that this city is the capital of Turkey.  Many cities, countries, and even regions have undergone name changes throughout history for many different reasons.  Here are some of the most significant.

Digging Deeper

10. Peking to Beijing (1958).

The many dialects of the Chinese languages compounded by European mistranslations had resulted in most of the rest of the world calling the capital of China Peiping, Pekin, or Peking, when the natives of the city have consistently called it Beijing.  China made the name Beijing official in 1958 and western countries were slow to follow.  Beijing has a metropolitan population of over 21 million people and is the longest running political and or cultural capital city in the world, over 3000 years! (Note, Tokyo, changed from Edo in 1868, has a metropolitan population of over 32 million, but that is another article…)

9. Russia to Soviet Union (1922) to Russia (1991).

Any time the largest country in the world changes names, that means a lot of new maps are sold!  Changed from variations of Russia to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922 shortly after the communist takeover, the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union resulted in a reversal back to Russia.  Of course, with the USSR breaking up, many other countries that had previously not been independent countries became their own nation, just ask Borat.

8. Ceylon to Sri Lanka (1972)

Ceylon was a European colonial name bestowed upon the island nation by the Portuguese in 1505 and carried over by the British Empire who “owned” Ceylon until 1948.  The name was finally changed in 1972 to shed the colonial connection, a not uncommon sentiment by former colonies.  This nation of over 20 million people has a nickname of “The Nation of smiling people.”  This nation of “smiling people” has just recently ended a 30 year civil war!

7. Burma to Myanmar (1989).

A name change to eliminate colonial influence on place names (cities and the country’s name) the old name, Burma, is still used by dissidents and opposition groups, as well as some other countries that do not recognize the legitimacy of the current government.  A neighbor of Thailand, Myanmar has a population of about 60 million people.

6. St. Petersburg to Petrograd (1914) to Leningrad (1924) to St. Petersburg (1991).

Czar Peter The Great founded this grand city in his own name in 1703 and it remained the capital of Imperial Russia until 1918 when the Soviets took over an moved their capital to Moscow.  When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, so did the city’s communist name and the old name was resurrected.  With 5 million people St. Petersburg is Russia’s second largest city and definitely the center of Russian culture.

5. Siam to Thailand (1939).

Another place given a name by outsiders, the name Siam was never historically what the Thai people called their country. Changed in 1939 to reflect the name the native people used, the name actually went back to Siam from 1945 to 1949 when it was changed back once again to Thailand.  The King of Thailand has reigned since 1946, the longest time ruling a country of any world leader today.

4. Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City (1976).

Not called Saigon until the 1600’s (previously known as Prey Nokor), Saigon was the capital of French Indochina (Cochinchina) and was known as “The Paris of the Orient.”  Renowned for its beauty and charm, Saigon was renamed shortly after being seized by communist forces after the Viet Nam War.  With an urban area of over 9 million people, Ho Chi Minh City is expected to continue to grow for at least the next decade or more.

3. Persia to Iran (1935).

The name Persia was never really the name the people that lived in that country called it, but was the accepted name the rest of the world referred to it by.  In 1935, the reigning Shah changed the name of the country to Iran and requested the world recognize the change.  By 1959, popular sentiment caused many to start referring to their country as Persia again, and both names were used. By the time the 1979 Islamic revolution came, the country’s official name became The Islamic Republic of Iran.   Iran means “Land of the Aryans,” one more clue that the Nazi’s did not know what they were talking about as far as race goes, because Germans are not Aryans!

2. Constantinople to Istanbul (1930).

One of the world’s most historic and major cities, Constantinople was the capital of 4 empires and was fought over numerous times.  The name change in 1930 was to reflect the Islamic nature of Turkey, whereas the original name was in honor of Constantine, a Christian.  Istanbul has the 3d largest urban area by population in the world.  Prior to being called Constantinople, the city was a Greek colony called Byzantium (660 BCE to 324 CE).  Perhaps you have heard the song about the name change?

1. New Amsterdam to New York (1664).

The most populous city in the US and the financial center of the world, this massive port city was first settled by Dutch trappers in 1624 who named it after their capital in Holland (The Netherlands).  When the English took it over in 1664, a proper English name was bestowed on it, and the home of the Yankees became New York City.  New York has been the most populous city in the US since 1790.  Despite its size and importance, New York City is not the capital of New York State (Albany is).

Question for students (and subscribers): What places with name changes do you think should be on this list?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

And now for your listening pleasure…

The Four Lads.  Istanbul (Not Constantinople) (Album Version).  Columbia, 1989.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.