Why the Name: Khartoum?

Aerial view of Khartoum in 1936

What comes to mind as you say the name of the capital of Sudan, Khartoum? Well, for me, I imagine the great Nubian Empire with its queen Amanishakheto or King Taharqa; I imagine big sand dunes, and of course history… so much history, the history of one of the greatest African kingdoms, one which dominated ancient Egypt for centuries. So how far am I from the real meaning of the name Khartoum?

The origin of the word, “Khartoum“, is uncertain. There are many interpretations. One of them states that the name khartoum is derived from the Arabic khurṭūm (tuskstrunk or hose) for elephant tusks, or it could be referring to the narrow strip of land extending between the Blue and White Niles [not sure how trunk or hose could be thought to be a strip of land].

Pyramids of Nubia
Pyramids of Nubia (Wikipedia)

Captain J.A. Grant, who reached Khartoum in 1863 with Captain Speke‘s expedition, thought the name was most probably from the Arabic qurtum (قرطم safflower, i.e., Carthamus tinctorius), which was cultivated extensively in Egypt for its oil to be used as fuel [not sure why a city in Sudan will be named for a plant which is cultivated in its neighbor’s country]. Some scholars speculate that the word may be derived from the Nubian word, Agartum (“the abode of Atum“), the Nubian and Egyptian god of creation. Other Beja scholars suggest “Khartoum” is derived from the Beja word, Hartoom (“meeting“). Additionally, the dream interpreting magicians in Genesis 41:8 are referred to as חַרְטֻמֵּ֥י (Khartoumei) [as you can see Black Africans are in the Bible everywhere].

So, which one of these interpretations is the most accurate?

Khartoum, today (Source:Wikipedia)

The city as it is known today was established in 1821, 24 kilometers north of the ancient city of Soba, by Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Egypt‘s ruler, Muhammad Ali Pasha, who had just incorporated Sudan into his realm. Originally, Khartoum served as an outpost for the Egyptian Army, but the settlement quickly grew into a regional center of trade. It also became a focal point for the slave trade. Later, it became the administrative center of Sudan and official capital.

Black Pharaohs of Nubia
Black Pharaohs of Nubia

Khartoum is located in the middle of the populated areas in Sudan, and is part of the tri-cities composed of Khartoum proper, and linked by bridges to Khartoum North and Omdurman to the west, with an overall population of 5 million inhabitants. Khartoum and Sudan as whole, were the home of several ancient flourishing civilizations, such as Nubia, the Kingdom of Kush, Kerma, Nobatia, Alodia, Makuria, Meroë and others, most of which flourished along the Nile. During the pre-dynastic period Nubia and Nagadan Upper Egypt were identical, simultaneously evolved systems of Pharaonic kingship by 3300 BC. Khartoum is home to amazing museums, including the largest museum of Sudan,  the National Museum of Sudan, where one can be immersed in the rich culture of Sudan and the different eras of its history. Among the exhibits are two Egyptian temples of Buhen and Semna, originally built by Queen Hatshepsut and Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, respectively, but relocated to Khartoum upon the flooding of Lake Nasser.

Well, if you visit Khartoum, don’t forget to visit the National Museum of Sudan, and learn of the great African civilizations that flourish there, reclaim your history, African history, and above all enjoy the warmth and hospitality of the people of Khartoum!



10 thoughts on “Why the Name: Khartoum?

      1. Chirchir

        The nilote speaking people are believed to have followed the Nile River, Wich provided water and pasture for their animals. Accoding to nandi tradition, cultural ceremonies we’re done after certain period of time. It is believed that while the nandi people were in Sudan the time to perform culture ritual reached and that they were to perform it in the present day khartum. Basically since they were normards, they moved to other place, but they could reffer or give direction using past events that took places on their way, so if someone was to ask of Sudan, he could be told ”yu kikarur tum” Wich means that places were the rituals were performed and thus named karur tum”. In other words it was modified by other communities to suit their languages.


  1. Dr. Gilbert arap Bor

    In support of Chirchir, I wish to state that there is yet another place in Nandi County with a similar name “Kartum” where a tea factory was built and is operating in the name of Kapsumbeiywo Tea Factory. In the early 1960s, the primary school there was named Kartum Primary School. It is an indication that sometimes in the live of the Nandi community, there was a traditional ceremony that was so successful that it climaxed as “Karur tum”


    1. Thank you for sharing Faith… it is possible… even though Kalenjin people are mostly residents of Kenya, there could have been a migration from the South of Sudan to Kenya… who knows? Do you know if there is a strong Kalenjin population in Sudan? In history, was there ever a talk of migration among them, i.e. from ancestral lands?


  2. Wol Wol Dut

    The word Khartoum is derived from a Dinka word, ‘Khaar Tuom’ which directly translates to “Rivers crossing,” because, in Khartoum, Blue Nile and White Nile meet there.


    1. Thank you for sharing Wol Wol Dut… I truly appreciate your insight, and indeed both the Blue Nile and White Nile do cross in Khartoum, so it would totally make sense… I love it!


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