The Story of How Madrid Got Its Name

The origins of Madrid's name date back to Prehistoric times and have to do with the Manzanares River | © FDV/Wikipedia
The origins of Madrid's name date back to Prehistoric times and have to do with the Manzanares River | © FDV/Wikipedia
Photo of Lori Zaino
18 August 2017

The city of Madrid appears to date back to prehistoric times, as many objects and remains have been found near the banks of the famous River Manzanares. Although the original settlers were most likely Iberian and later Roman, the roots of Madrid’s name actually come from the Arabic culture, which isn’t surprising considering parts of Spain were under Muslim rule for hundreds of years.

Some say Madrid’s name dates back to the 2nd century BC when the Romans were occupying Madrid. They named their settlement which they founded along the river ‘Matrice’. Later, the territory went to the Visigoths and the Barbarian tribes and eventually the Moors. Although the Romans were said to give the city the name of Matrice, the word is actually a pre-Muslim word meaning water.

A painting by Francisco Goya featuring the Manzanares River | © Francisco De Goya/Museo del Prado/Wikipedia

Others say the Moors named the city in the 8th century. Apparently, the River Manzanares was called ‘al-Magrit’, which means water source in Arabic. The surrounding area was then called Mayrit, which comes from the Arabic term Mayra (meaning water or giver of life), which later changed to Magerit, which means ‘place of water’ in Arabic. The name then evolved to Matrit and then eventually, Madrid. This may be the most likely theory, as the name Matrit is still found as a Spanish gentilic.

Madrid Río at dusk | Courtesy of Madrid Destino Cultura Turismo y Negocio

It’s also possible that the city’s name comes from Latin roots. Apparently, at one time, the original name of Madrid was actually Ursaria, which means land of the bears in Latin. Since Madrid was near many forests home to bears, the name was fitting. These forests also had many madroño trees and today this tree is the city’s emblem. However, it’s unclear how the name Ursaria became Madrid, so perhaps this theory isn’t the most logical.

Another theory says that the city was founded by Ocno Bianor, who was the son of a Tuscan king and his wife Mantua. He named the city Mantua Carpetana and slowly this evolved to become Madrid.

In any case, there may never be proof of how Madrid got its name, but it is fun to read the theories and guess. Which one do you think it is?

A statue of the Madroño tree and bear in Madrid's Puerta del Sol | © Maryge/Flickr

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