Untold Stories

Z is for Zagreb

Have you ever wondered what Zagreb means? The truth is, no one knows for sure. There are several theories and legends, but the name still remains a mystery.

I met a couple once who told me they collected destinations. They wanted to visit all of the capitals, but they weren’t sure whether they would be able to do that in their lifetime. Instead, they changed their goal into a more achievable one: to visit at least the capitals that start with each letter of the alphabet. They had been to more than 26 cities in their lifetime. Still, it was impossible to finish the alphabet until they came to the capital that starts with a Z - and that is Zagreb! They were excited as can be - being in Zagreb was their dream come true!

It got me thinking. Not just about the diversity of people’s dreams. I was thinking about how I never noticed that Zagreb was the only capital in the world with a name that starts with a Z. Then I went on to think about the word.

Zagreb. How does that word sound to you? Does it sound typically Croatian? Is it unusual? I live here and pronounce the word a few times a day. However, when I wrap my thoughts around it, sometimes the name feels distant and mysterious. Have you ever wondered what Zagreb means? The truth is, no one knows for sure. There are several theories and legends, but the name still remains a mystery.

The most popular explanation is hidden in a folk tale. At the location of the main city square, there used to be historical water well, now turned into a fountain. A long time ago, a young woman called Manda came to pick up some water from the well. At the same time, an army was passing through the area, exhausted from long battles. The governor saw the maiden by the well and asked her to give them some water. “Zagrabi, Mando” (Scoop up, Manda), he said. And she did. Ever since, the well has been called Manduševac, after Manda. The word zagrabi supposedly gave the name to the city.

Reenactment of the Manduševac tale is a part of Zagreb Time Machine, Photo: M. Vrdoljak, TZGZ

If you’re having difficulties pronouncing the word Zagreb, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Local kids often get it all wrong when they say Zabreg. There is even a popular kids tune about how Zagreb didn’t pronounce its name properly when it was a baby. Instead, it said Zabreg, and now all the children do the same.

The mixed word Zabreg could mean beyond the hill. It is widely believed that that’s the actual meaning of the word. People who lived on the other side of Zagreb’s mountain Medvednica, probably said they were heading “to the other side of the hill, or beyond the hill”.

Speaking of the other side... There’s another idea: it could mean za grebom - beyond the grave. An uncomfortable fact is that Zagreb used to have twenty-ish graveyards in the narrow city center before the magnificent Mirogoj cemetery was constructed in the 19th century. Roman graves and other prehistoric traces of life and death were also found all around the city.

It could also be that a convent named after St Gabriel had been in Zagreb before the diocese was founded back in 1094. The archangel’s long name was turned into a simplified version - Zagreb.

The area around nowadays cathedral was formed into a town in 1094. It seems that the name of the city is even older.

Let’s go back to my friends. They listened to the stories about the name origin, relieved to find out that the German word Agram, which was often used throughout the ages, didn’t stick around. That would make their task impossible. Now you know: if you ever decide to collect the alphabet of capitals, you will have to come to Zagreb eventually!

Later that day, I went for a walk alone and got caught in another train of thought. Can you really collect destinations? I can’t even truly understand the name of my own hometown, let alone truly know each and every corner of the city. Am I even allowed to say that I have Zagreb as a part of my personal collection of towns? Finally, I realized that I did collect Zagreb. You can do it, too. Just take some time to explore it, go for long contemplative walks in some quiet areas, such as the side alleys of the Upper Town. Trust me - that’s the best way to add Zagreb to your favorite collection, a collection of places that grow on you and never stop calling you back.   

A quiet walk enchanted by the hissing sound of the gas lamps is the best way to connect to Zagreb

Author: Iva Silla