Capital toponymies, the city as organised remembrance

Hanna Arendt Platz/Square in Hanover, capital city of Lower Saxony, Germany. Source: Wikipedia.

This article stems from The Centre and the Name, readings in Beirut’s toponymy, a thesis defended at the Sorbonne in May 2018.

Hannah Arendt is not very present in studies and research related to geography. Yet the German-American political theorist, maybe one of the greatest of the 20th Century, did offer a political theory applicable on geography and spatial studies.

Hannah Arendt. Source: Transcend Media

One of the best applications on geography is Hannah Arendt’s reflection on the city, the polis, being an organised remembrance (ARENDT & CANOVAN, 1998):

In other words, men’s life together in the form of the polis seemed to assure that the most futile of human activities, action and speech, and the least tangible and most ephemeral of man-made “products,” the deeds and stories which are their outcome, would become imperishable. The organization of the polis, physically secured by the wall around the city and physiognomically guaranteed by its laws—lest the succeeding generations change its identity beyond recognition is a kind of organized remembrance. It assures the mortal actor that his passing existence and fleeting greatness will never lack the reality that comes from being seen, being heard, and, generally, appearing before an audience of fellow men, who outside the polis could attend only the short duration of the performance and therefore needed Homer and “others of his craft” in order to be presented to those who were not there.

According to this self-interpretation, the political realm rises directly out of acting together, the “sharing of words and deeds.”

In this regard we propose to study the city as a organised remembrance: the city/polis is not only the construction and the infrastructure, but also the political system that emanates from and in it. By the same token the centre politic is not only the leading part of the political community, it is also the place where this leading part resides and from which it operates. First, we introduce our notion of centre politic, then we continue to search the “organised remembrance” of this centre on the map, that is, how the city/polis writes a formal authorised version of its history on the map.

The centre politic of the body politic

We define the centre politic as “the spatialised sovereign part of the body politic: power itself and its seat within the space where it is sovereign.” Thus a centre politic is power itself and the place where it is seated. It is a capital city, or a seat of government, or even a residenzstadt. 

The state is not the whole body politic: it is the “upper part” of it, that is, the sovereign part, the “head” of the “body”. This is how we comprehend the centre politic and its relation with the body politic. Here we point out to the original Greek sense of the word centre, κέντρον, kéntrôn, meaning “prick”, or “goad”, from the ancient Greek verb κεντέω, kéntéo, “to pierce” or “to sting”, as an attribute of supreme power and of sovereignty of gods[1][2]. According to Strong’s Concordance of the Bible, the word is used for the “negative form” of power, power that kills (but at the same time stimulates, it is translated as stimulus by Jerome of Stridon in his Vulgata). The word used later (by Basil of Caesarea) to denote two different things: the origin of all things and the mesure of all; and the “gaod of power” in the hand of monarchs, to use prudently, without abuse. In this sense “centre” is then the “head”, the most eminent extremity of something.

In this respect and in our work the State is the “uppermost part” of the body politic, the “part which specialises in the interests of the whole” (MARITAIN, 1951, 12).

The organised remembrance that is/of the centre politic

Memory is a fundamental element in power. According to Hannah Arendt (ARENDT, 2007), authority, that is, legitimate exercise of power, is an organised remembrance. In every exercise of power there is a narrative: the “good” and the “bad”, those who are judged good, and others deemed bad, “heros” and “villains”. The remembrance is organised: the same authority embeds its space and the territory it controls with its values. This embedding is of a repetitive nature (BARTHES, 1973).

This centre shapes space, not only in its effective dimensions (borders, taxes, taxing, etc), it also shapes the symbolic space and representations of the territory under its sovereignty. It shapes the map, this sovereign document that is a representation, an actor, and a result of that space. it is itself as an organised remembrance. It chooses what to remember according to the political system and era.

Urban toponymy as an organised remembrance of the centre politic

In this regard, urban toponymy – official toponyms written on official maps – are themselves the organised remembrance of power written on space. As we have just seen, the centre politic organises its representations in space and on the map. It is the organised remembrance of the above, but, arguably, lacking villains: a lacking narrative (AZARYAHU, 1996). According to this reading, no villain of the narrative is commemorated: decommemorating a villain becomes a political tool to show the new political direction.

It reflects the organised remembrance that the centre is, then itself becomes an organised remembrance: a narration in which “there are no villains” (AZARYAHU, Ibid.). We can say that urban toponymy is itself an organised remembrance and a dimension of the centre politic. As structured power, that is, the state, hold a discretionary power on the whole body politic, it also holds the same supreme power over place names: he who decides on the exception (SCHMITT, 2005) decides also on place names.

Readings in urban toponymy

We propose to read toponymies of some capital cities around the world. This reading is not exhaustive, nor comprehensive. It is rather a “spotlight” on some fact, a side of the truth than the whole truth itself. We do believe in the words of Symmachus to Ambrosius of Milano: “Uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum.”

Our methodology is simple: we look at the map of the city, we find some great lines of its toponymy and we find the references to the founding texts (constitutions, basic laws) of the polity seated in this capital city. Then we find the political, religious, and historical elements of this toponymy. Some toponyms might be exceptions. But exceptions are significant to our work and our qualitative research in toponymy.

We have run through some capital cities of our world, and we describe our readings here. We begin by four capital cities of the world: Athens, Paris, Rome, Washington DC. Progressively, we will add more readings, and we thus will constitute a whole project with readings in many capital cities and seats of government in the world.


This centre politic and de facto capital of the Hellenic Republic is the official residence of the Greek head of State and the Boule, the Hellenic Parliament, in the Constitution Square (ancient Royal Palace). The city still commemorates some figures of the Greek royal family, reigning till the dictatorship of the colonels and the change of 1974: King Constantine, Queen Sophia, Queen Amalia, Queen Alexandra, amongst others. The Okhi Day (28th October) is commemorated, too. Many cities and isles constituent of this body politic created in 1830 have their streets in Athens.

Important figures, mythical and “real”, of Graeco-Roman Antiquity are everywhere in the city: Sophocles, Hippocrates, Homer, Militiades, Herod Atticus, Archimedes, Achilles, emperor Hadrian, goddess Athena, god Hermes, and many others. The other side of the Graeco-Roman Antiquity, Christianity, is also present: hagiotoponymy is omnipresent in street names and metro station names. Saints John, Luke, Stephen, Thomas, Demetrius, George, Theodore(s), Irene, Catherine, Marina, and others. All these saints were born under the Roman Empire. The first Roman emperor in Constantinople, Constantine the Great, is present in the Athenian toponymy, and thus Constantine XI Palaiologos, last Roman emperor in the East. So is Constantinople, the eastern capital of the Roman Empire between 330 and 1453. The eastern Roman Empire is thus present by its spirituality and its romanitas/rhomiosini present by its great lines.

The figures of the Greek Revolution are everywhere in the Greek capital: Theodore Kolokotronis, Ioannis Kapodistrias (Capo d’Istria), Ambrosios Frantzis, Constantine Lagoumitzis, Lascarina Bouboulina, and Theodortis Vresthenis, amongst many others, have their roads and streets in the Hellenic capital today.

The narration is thus profoundly Graeco-Roman and Christian. It also narrates the Hellenic nation since its foundation by the Revolution of 1821. The body politic represented in this toponymy is much bigger than the current Greek state.



Paris is the de facto capital of France: it hosts the Houses (The Assemblée nationale and the Sénat) according to an executive order of 1958.

All presidents of the Cinquième République till Jacques Chirac have their names written on the official Parisian map. Marianne, the personification of the French Republic, has her République and Nation toponyms on the map of Paris. Many of France’s “friends” abroad have their names written on the Parisian map too: George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Queen Victoria, Tsar Alexander III of Russia, King George V, Léopold Sedar Senghor, are among foreign heads of state whose names are transformed into Parisian toponyms.

The sacred is omnipresent in the capital of the Laïc Republic: te great saints of Paris and of France are present. Saint Genevieve, patron of Lutetia/Paris, is present in the toponymy. And so are saints James the Greater, Martin, Denis (Dionysius), Anthony, Germanus of Auxerre, Germanus of Paris, Honoratus, Louis IX of France, Joan of Arc, Francis Xavier, and many others are present in Parisian toponymy. Read in the Parisian toponymy (supposed to represent the whole French nation), France is still the Fille aînée de l’Eglise, that is, the Eldest Daughter of the Church. And that in spite of all the emphasis on the laïcité. The Parisian toponymy can thus remind us that no laïkos without clerikos: this distinction between God and Caesar is as old as the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea. The Nicene Canons 5 and 19 speak of the distinction between laity and clergy, and that laity is rather the affairs of the world. Here the French laïcité has its theological origin, and also the sacred Parisian toponymy. The Laïcité itself has its square since 2015.

The military component is also omnipresent in Parisian toponymy. Paris is surrounded by the Boulevards des maréchaux, boulevards having the names of te Second Empire army marshals. Battles, considered founding in French national narrative, have their names written on important features of the Parisian map: Austerlitz, Iéna, Tolbiac, Alésia, Bir Hakeim, and many others.

So, the French national narrative in the Parisian toponymy is mixed: on one hand there is France, Fille aînée de l’Eglise who grew up and found her own Republican and humanistic values. On the other hand the military aspect of the French Empire is still present and military violence is widely celebrated in this toponymic narrative. The French body politic is present in this toponymy by different places of France having their toponyms, and also names of different personalities of this body politic written on Paris.


In the Italian Constitution, the Catholic Church is sovereign in her sphere:


Lo Stato e la Chiesa cattolica sono, ciascuno nel proprio ordine, indipendenti e sovrani.

I loro rapporti sono regolati dai Patti Lateranensi. Le modificazioni dei Patti accettate dalle due parti, non richiedono procedimento di revisione costituzionale.

It is normal: the Holy See is sovereign since the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, and its sovereignty is independent from the Vatican City State’s. Thus Rome, constitutional capital of Italy, is the seat of two sovereignties: the Holy See (since times immemorial), and the Italian State (since 1871). The Italian presidential Palace, the Italian Parliament, the Italian government, and the Roman Curia, are all in Rome.

The Risorgimento itself has its square on the walls of the Vatican, to the north of Saint Peter’s Square. And the famous Plebiscito, that result was the official annexation of Rome by the Savoyard kings, has its via des Plebiscito in the heart of the city, by the Piazza Venezia (The Serenissima was also annexed by the Piedmont kings). Other figures of the Risorgimento are written on the Roman space: the Vittorio Emanuele Street and Bridge commemorate the first king of this unified Italy. A Via Cavour commemorates Camillo Cavour, the “enigneer” of Italian unification. Giuseppe Mazzini is commemorated by a bridge honouring his name, and the Battle of Solferino, resulting in the annexation of Lombardy to the nascent kingdom, has its Via Solferino.

The Conciliation between the Italian State and the Holy See happened in the Lateran Accords of 1929, after which a very beautiful Via della Conciliazione [Road of the Conciliation] was opened between the Castle Sant-Angelo and Saint Peter’s (and constructed between 1936 and 1951): it was the Latran Accords written on the space of Rome and symbolising the new synergy between Church and State on the space of the Eternal City.

The sacred part of Rome, out of the millennial presence of the Apostolic See and the inseparable history of Christianity in Rome. Saints and popes live in Roman streets by their names since late Antiquity.

We list all papal commemorations in Rome since 1870:

-Pius IX, adversary to the Italian State, is commemorated by a Piazza Pio IX and Via Pio IX, to the west of the Vatican.

-Leo XIII, a “social pope”, nonetheless hostile to the Italian State of his time, is also commemorated by a beautiful Via Leone XIII to the south-west of the Vatican.

-Saint Pius X has a Via San Pio X, connecting the Via della Conciliazione to the Tiber.

-Benedict XV is commemorated by a small Via Benedetto XV to the north west of the Vatican.

-Pius XI, pope of the Lateran Pacts, has his Piazza Pio XI, not far from the Via Leone XIII.

-Pius XII, the World War II pope, has his Piazza Pio XII, in front of Saint Peter’s Square.

-Saint John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council pope, has a Largo Giovanni XXIII, separating the Via della Conciliazione from the Sant’Angelo.

-Paul VI, who concluded the council, is comemmorated by a Via Paolo VI, around the southern colonnade of Saint Peter’s.

-John Paul I has a small Via Giovanni Paolo I in Marino, in the metropolitan region of Rome (He might be the exception, because of his very short pontificate?).

-Saint John Paul II is commemorated by a Piazza Giovanni Paolo II, a part of the square around Saint John of Lateran, the cathedral of Rome and the cathedra of the popes.

Saints are everywhere, and more numerous to be counted here. All Christendom is represented by its saints in the Eternal City: not only saints, but also cardinals, prelates and personalities related to the Church have their names written on the Roman map. It is interesting to point out to the existence, since 2015, of a Piazza Martin Lutero in the heart of Rome: Martin Luther has his “voice” in Rome, and among all popes, saints, and prelates he does stand.

Ancient Roman traditional place names and viae consulares are still on the map today.

Rome is thus “God and Caesar”: the Eternal City hosts two sovereignties and does reflect them on her map. Needless to say that the Holy See preexists the Italian State by at least 1500 years (if not more): it is natural that it be more represented on the map.

        Washington, District of Columbia


Washington DC is constructed to be the centre politic of the body politic that are the United States of America. We can say that it is a “semi-constitutional” centre politic as it is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, The Constitution says

The Congress shall have Power… To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;—And

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

The name of Washington, the District of Columbia is in itself a greatly significant toponym. The Residence Act of 1790 establishes a permanent seat of government of the United States on the Potomac river (while establishing a temporary seat in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). “Washington” is after the first president of the United States, and “Columbia” is a poetic name of the country, after Christopher Columbus.

The Federal government of the United States is written on the map of its seat: the President’s Park is the most central part of the city, around the White House. To its south, the National Mall, surrounded by the Constitution and the Independence Avenues, connect it to the Congress, its Union Square and the Supreme Court to its east. The same Park is bordered by the West Executive Avenue, while the East Executive one leads to the White House itself. And, on the diagonal Pennsylvania Avenue connecting the Congress to the White House, a Freedom Plaza is situated, to honour this founding principle of the United States. A Franklin Square is named in honour of this founding father of the country.

Many presidents of the United States have their names written on the map: beginning by George Washington himself, who, plus the city itself, have his name on a Washington Circle and Washington Parkway. We can also add a Mount Vernon Square, after George Washington’s famous property to the south of DC. Abraham Lincoln has a Lincoln Park, Jackson and Madison their Places, Kennedy his street,

Washingtonian toponyms are the summum of the United States written on space: not only the peak of the body politic but also the summum of its onymic dimension. All the states have streets named after them in Washington DC. The commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the unincorporated territory of the United States, has a street named after it, too. The White House is situated in Pennsylvania Avenue, the “grande avenue” of the city, maybe as that state hosted the temporary seat of government of the United States?

Military chiefs are less present. Nonetheless, an important square (in front of the White House) is named after the Marquis de Lafayette, the French military and one of the leaders of the American war of Independence.

This representation of the whole United States is not extended to the very local population: “Taxation without representation is tyranny”, exclaims James Otis during the American Revolution (FRADIN, 2009, 15). This founding principle of the United States does not apply to the inhabitants of Washington DC: they pay taxes but they are not represented in the Congress, thus cannot decide with the rest of the USA. This fact resonates a biblical curse/problem of the centre politic : “Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?” (Matthew 12:5). This curse can also be toponymic: the share of the very local is very reduced and the toponyms are made to reflect the whole body politic of the sovereign entity (In the DC case it is of course the United States as a whole), but not the local one. Sovereign power weighs much more than local powers in the centre politic.

The Washington DC is not a unique case in this regard: but, arguably, the most eminent one.

The Centre writes the Name

The centre politic writes on the space: it does write its founding principles, founding texts, ideology, its authorised version of history, and the names of its heroes. The whole map is shaped by the centre politic, yet its weight is always at its “heaviest” within its own space, in the centre politic itself. Readng capital toponymy allows us to read better into power relations and authorised-version-of-history narratives of political power and how this last shapes its own space.

The Centre and the Name, the thesis

As said before, this project stems from The Centre and the Name, readings in Beirut’s toponymy a thesis defended at the Sorbonne in May 2018: here we put the Abstract/résumé:

I narrate toponymy of Beirut, considered as a revelator and a marker of the Lebanese body politic, constructed in Beirut since 1920. This memoir begins by reflecting on the rapports between the centre politic (capital city or seat of government), its founding principles, and toponymy : the toponym is the ultimate insertion of the political in everyday’s banality. Beiruti toponymy writes the Grand-Liban (1920), the Lebanese Constitution (1926), on the city’s maps. Also it inscribes political confessionalism, resulting of the Lebanese National Pact (1943) and its sacred symbols, thus a confirmed presence of « East » and « West » and a Lebanese national narrative partially re-invented and presented as a « continuum ». It also presents signs of a visible continuity of the local elite. We put the Beiruti example in perspective with those of Damascus and of Dubai : the Damascene one is « re-written » by the Baath rule since 1963 and presents a toponymic rupture with the Syrian pre-baathist past but a confirmed presence of pan-Arabism; the Dubaian one is invented in order to give a historical depth to the map of Dubai and a commercial dimension to its place names. Study of toponyms, in parallel with that of founding principles of the centre, can inform political systems, their ideological background, and their urban policy. 

Nous narrons la toponymie de Beyrouth, considérée comme partie intégrante de l’idéologie du corps politique du Liban, installé à Beyrouth depuis 1920. Nous commençons par une réflexion sur les rapports entre centre politique, ses principes fondateurs, et toponymie: l’inscription toponymique est l’insertion ultime du politique dans l’aménagement. La toponymie beyrouthine inscrit le Grand-Liban (1920), et la Constitution libanaise (1926), sur les cartes. Elle inscrit le confessionnalisme politique résultant du Pacte national (1943) et ses symboles « sacrés », ainsi qu’une présence confirmée des « Orient » et « Occident » et un récit national libanais partiellement réinventé et présenté « en continuité ». Elle présente les signes d’une continuité urbaine visible. Nous mettons l’exemple beyrouthin en perspective avec ceux de Damas et de Dubaï : le premier est « réécrit » avec l’avènement du Baath en 1963 et présente une rupture toponymique avec le passé syrien pré-baathiste, ainsi qu’une présence triomphaliste du panarabisme; et le deuxième inventé afin de donner une profondeur historique à la carte de l’émirat et une dimension commerciale à ses noms des lieux. L’étude des inscriptions toponymiques, en parallèle avec les principes fondateurs du centre politique, permet d’approfondir la connaissance des systèmes politiques, leurs idéologies, et leurs politiques d’urbanisme.


[1] See Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, the “Centrum” entry on the word history in Latin and its Greek origin. You can also see the Perseus databsae online.

[2] See the The Online Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon,

Arendt, H., & Canovan, M. (1998). The Human Condition (p. 366). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, H. (2007). Between past and future: Eight exercises in political thought (p. 300). New York: Penguin Group (USA).

Azaryahu, M. (1996). The power of commemorative street names. Environment And Planning D: Society And Space, 14(3), 311-330.

Barthes, R. (1973). Le plaisir du texte (p. 112). Paris: Seuil.

Fradin, D. (2009). The stamp act of 1765, Turning Points in U. S. History Series (p. 48). Marshall Cavendish.

Maritain, J. (1951). Man and the State (p. 219). CUA Press.

Schmitt, C. (2005). Political theology (p. 116). University of Chicago Press.

Cite this blog post
Jack Keilo ( Jacques Keilo ) (2018, July 30). Capital toponymies, the city as organised remembrance. Centrici. Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

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