An Arabic Citrical History

Yusuf Effendi, stylized by Maïra al-Manzali

One day, I realized that the Arabic words for citrus fruits just don’t add up.

In Arabic, the word for orange is burtuqal (or, depending on the dialect, burtuqan, burduqan, burdaqan…), which comes from “Portugal” (bortughal). That seems fine, since this is the case for many other Eastern languages; Turkish (portakal), Greek (portokáli), Persian (porteghâl). And yet: the word for orange, in English as well as in Portuguese (laranja) comes from the Arabic (originally Persian) naranj.

Skimming through an Arabic dictionary, my eyes stumbled upon the translation for tangerine: yusuf efendi. What? That’s surely the name of a person, not of a fruit! I assumed it was a mistake, and checked other dictionaries: indeed, yusuf efendi, or yusfi for short. And yet: didn’t the word tangerine come from Tangier, Morocco? I asked a Syrian kibbeh vendor how to say tangerine, and asked if it was yusuf efendi. He didn’t understand what was “tangerine”. He didn’t understand what was “yusuf efendi“. When I showed him a picture, he said “ah, that’s limun“.

So what’s what? The best way is to start from the beginning.

Of Lemons and Oranges

Citrus fruits, that is, lemons, oranges, tangerines and the like, all originally come from China and India. Lemons and bitter oranges (Citrus aurantium) were brought by traders to the Levant in the early Middle Ages; they passed through Iran: hence, the Arabic words for lemon (limun) and orange (naranj) both come from Persian, and are both cognates with the original Sanskrit (nimbu and nāraṅga). In Morocco, however, the furthest Arabic-speaking country from Persia, bitter oranges are referred to by their country of origin: tcheena (from “China”) or l’tcheena. Ironically, today it is Morocco which exports citrus fruits to China.

These were both rare delicacies in Europe, known in the 13th century through the French and Italians who bought them from Arab traders. The naranj orange is deeply rooted in Middle Eastern cuisine. the name of bitter orange jam conserves this, turunç in Turkish and mrabba naranj in Palestinian Arabic. Lemons, of course, are ubiquitous  throughout Mediterranean cuisine. Impossible to make a good hummus or taboulleh without adding a pinch of limun

It was in the 16th century that this changed. The Portuguese arrived in China brought a different kind of orange, Citrus sinensis, the sweet orange, directly to Europe. This “Portuguese orange” was then diffused and became an important staple in various Arab countries: hence, burtuqal. The burtuqal sweet orange eventually became a staple in the Levant, and of major economic importance for 19th century Jaffa. Perhaps due to Palestine’s economic success with sweet oranges, Palestinians call bitter oranges khashkash, the Arabic word for opium poppy, and are the only ones to do so.

Genetic Hybrids: Tangerines, Mandalinas and Clementines

The common mandarin, Citrus reticulata, a small orange easy-to-peel fruit from mainland China. Although lemons and bitter orange had long before spread to the Middle East, these only became popular in the 19th century, when they were exported directly to Europe, cultivated mostly in Italy and southern France.

Common mandarins were only brought to Morocco in 1889, from France by the Grand Vizir Mohammed El Mokri. They embellished the gardens of Marrakech and Aïn Taouidat. Morocco’s climate proved optimal for the growth of mandarins, where they were developped into a slightly different variety called Citrus tangerina. By the early 1900s, Tangier had become the primary port of mandarin export to Europe and Florida: hence, tangerines.

As Budgett Meakin wrote in his 1901 description of “the land of the Moors”:

“One modern introduction, misnamed, is known as the “Tangerine” as well in London as in Tangier, and Laraiche exports large quantities to Seville.”

Despite being known as “tangerines” outside of Tangier, when they’re not called yusuf efendi, tangerines are known as mandalina (mandarines, from Italian), in Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco. The only area in which they are known as yusuf efendi is actually in Egypt and sometimes in neighboring countries.

And now to Yusuf Effendi                                                                                                               

Yusuf Effendi is by far the most interesting ingredient in the citric history of Arabic. He is one of the forty-four Egyptian students who boarded La Truite to reach Marseille in 1826, sent by Egypt’s Albanian ruler Muhammed Ali Pasha to bring back linguistic, military, engineering, and botanical knowledge to Egypt. Yusuf Effendi, at the time an utterly unknown student, was the one who rose to linguistic fame, by bringing mandarines to Egypt. How did this take place? Some scholars say he brought it on his way back, via Malta; others claim he worked on an experimental farm near Roville, near Nancy, where he developed the variant of the mandarin known as tangerines. 

What is most interesting about Yusuf Effendi is his heritage: Armenian. The form of his name “Yusuf Effendi al-Ermeni” was only noted by a journal called The Armenian Review, and may or may not be historically accurate. Yet Yusuf’s Armenian heritage has been ignored to such a point that it is scrapped in most publications, which wonder whether he is Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish, or even Italian. 

In any case, Yusuf Effendi, the man who planted tangerine trees at Mohammed Ali’s Shubra Palace, has entered the realm of folklore. As related in Marco Polo Remembers by Mary Parket Dunning (1968):

.. every hand we saw great piles of thin-skinned tangerines, bursting with juice. They are called Yusuf Effendi, or “Mr. Joseph.” I asked Harry why they were called that. He said, “Don’t you read your Bible? Don’t you remember Potiphar’s wife?” It seems that when Joseph was in Egypt he served in the palace and Potiphar’s wife fell in love with him. There was great scandal in the palace, so Potiphar’s wife invited all the women of the palace and many of her outside friends from the great city and provided them with luscious thin-skinned oranges and sharp knives with to peel them. Then Joseph, in all his manly beauty, strolled by the open door and every lady present cut herself with a sharp knife. Potiphar’s wife said, “Am I not pardoned?


Just as the Mediterranean climate of Morocco provided optimal growing grounds for tangerines by French and Spanish colonists, so did that of the Algerian coast. In the 1890s, the French doctor Louis Trabut dedicated himself to botanical experimentation in the Agricultural Orphanage of Misserghin, a small village near Oran. After mixing seeds of Citrus deliciosa with Citrus sinensis, the quasi-seedless variety of Citrus clementina was born. Trabut named them “clementines” after Brother Clément, the manager of the garden.

Trabut published his discoveries in 1902, and by 1925 clementines were exported by the Cooperative des agrumes de Boufarik. To this day, they are mainly grown in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, even though most Americans think they come from Florida.


These historical factors explain why, as a general rule, people in the Maghreb eat kalamantinas, people in the Mashreq eat mandalinas, but Egyptians eat yusufis. Of course, human eating habits are never so simple. For instance, why did my Syrian friend call tangerines “lemons”? This is most likely due to the Citrus limonia osbeck, an orange-colored lemon with a taste somewhat between a sour tangerine and a sweet lemon: it is in fact a hybrid of the mandarin and the lemon. In Brazil, some people call it limão, some people call it laranja. Leimun just works as a catch-all phrase for various citrus types, which may very well work better than the Aristotelian compulsiveness to give a specific to name to each and every variety and to understand why this is called that and why that is called this. 

Summary for Aristotelians like you and me

Citrus aurantium: bitter orange, called naranj in Arabic and Persian (but tchin in Moroccan Arabic), turunç in Turkish, and has existed in the Middle East since the early Middle Ages (from China/India). For some reason, is called khashkash in Palestinian Arabic.

Citrus sinensis: sweet orange, called bortuqal (and variants) in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Brought to the Middle East in the 16th century by Portugal, from China.

Citrus reticulata: the original mandarins, also called “dancy tangerine” brought from China to Europe in the 19th century.  Called mandalina in Turkish and Levantine Arabic– The word came to Turkish via Italian (mandarino), and from Turkish to the Ottoman colonies.

Citrus deliciosa: mandarin x pumelo, developed in 1800s Italy, then taken to Egypt by Yusuf Effendi. Bodrum or yerli (Turkish); baladi (Algerian Arabic, meaning “from the country”); Yusef Effendi (Egypt and Levant). The “Mediterranean mandarin”.

Citrus tangerina: offshoot of Citrus reticulata, called tangerines in English by mistake. Almost identical to Citrus reticulata and Citrus deliciosa.

Citrus clemantina: mandarin x sweet orange, developed in Algeria. Clementines, or kalamantina and derivatives.



  1. Thank you for this very interesting historical and ethymological investigation. I heard the word albortughal for the first time in a documentary about the oranges of Jaffa. At first I thought that maybe the word Portugal come from Arabic? But then I also learned there is a similar story with apricot, coming from the greek precoccum, then in Syria became al-barquq, albercot in catalan, and abricot in french.


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