Queen/Shabanu Soraya, Tehran 1953
Queen Soraya, 1953 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She’s an Arabic import with a celestial meaning.

Thanks to Christina for suggesting Soraya as our Baby Name of the Day.

Soraya has never made the US Top 1000, but she was given to 217 girls in 2011 – only a few dozen short of the Top 1000.  She’s heard internationally, too, as far afield as Brazil, Algeria, and Japan.

But Soraya is mostly a Middle Eastern appellation.  Soraya comes from Thurayya – the Arabic name for the Pleiades, derived from a word meaning gem or jewel.

The Pleiades are a cluster of bright stars in the constellation Taurus.  The number counted and named varies over time, and different cultures have read all sorts of meanings into the stars.  In Greek myth, they’re the Seven Sisters, daughters of Atlas and a sea-nymph.  In Japan, they’re Subaru – the source of the auto manufacturer’s name.  In the ancient days of the Andes, the return of the constellation coincided with the harvest, so their name translates roughly to “storehouse.”  In Norse mythology, they were Freyja’s hens.

In the Islamic world, because Muhammad himself saw the stars, and once referenced them while speaking about the messiah.  There’s rich meaning to this name.

Born in 1899 in Syria, Soraya Tarzi was a feminist leader, influenced by her reformer father.  Soraya was also Queen of Afghanistan.  She and her family encouraged the education of girls and discouraged the wearing of veils.  But the times were difficult ones, and the changes didn’t stick.  Soraya was photographed on a visit to Europe, dining in the company of men without even a token head covering, and it caused a scandal.

And yet her name caught on.

Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari was the daughter of a Persian father and Russian-German mother.  She married the Shah of Iran in 1951, but it was not a happy union, and the couple divorced by the end of the decade.  She lived the rest of her years in Europe, trading the title Queen for Princess.

It’s this second Middle Eastern Soraya who gets credit for boosting the name in the Western world.  Soraya saw some use in the US beginning in the 1950s.  And the princess stayed very much in the public eye.  There was an autobiography in 1964, a brief film career, a sunflower named in her honor, and a high profile for years, including an Italian biopic in 2003.

While Soraya is the dominant spelling in the US, there are plenty of other possibilities, including:

  • Zoraya, in use in the US since the 1970s, and given to 19 girls in 2011.
  • Thoraya, worn by Thoraya Obaid, a former Under Secretary General of the United Nations and citizen of Saudi Arabia.
  • The name takes on a literary sheen thanks to The Bookseller of Kabul, the tale of an Afghan merchant and his family beginning shortly after the September 11th attacks.  The booksellers’ wife is Suraia.
  • In the X-Men comics, Sooraya Qadir is better known as Dust.

At the same time Soraya attracted notice in the English-speaking world, she was embraced by Spanish speakers, too.  More than a few Sorayas come from places like Mexico and Spain.

All of this makes Soraya a logical choice for parents seeking a Spanish-Arabic appellation, or simply for those looking for a truly international name.  There’s lots to love about the glittering Soraya.

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About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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  1. My grandfather named me after the Iranian princess. In Perto Rico, my name was a known name and never mispronounced. In the US, however, it was butchered. I struggled to like my name as a child. Now, I absolutely love my name mostly because I loved my grandfather, and I miss him…also because of how exotic and unpopular the name is. Thank you for the article…it answered some questions for me.

  2. I was born in 1971 & named soraya after the shah of persia’s (Iran) wife, mine is pronounced
    So ray a although teachers at sch ect pronounce it so ri ya (sounds like rye) which always annoyed me but that is how it’s actually pronounced in Iran etc,
    I wasn’t overly keen as a child due to the above but I grew to like it as I got older, my family call me Raya which is also cool

  3. I was named after the princess in the 60’s,born N raised in Germany – Italian,my mom knew Soraya after both fled from there Husband’s N met in Berlin.She promised Soraya.when her next Daughter was born she would name her Soraya..People in America. Always ask me where the name originated,I just say it belongs to the Beautiful green eye Princess Soraya..Get her Book to know her life,she loved N died alone..

  4. I honestly hate my name, my mum spelt it as souraya
    I’m Moroccan , Algerian and German my mu being Moroccan and German and my dad being Algerian. I always frowned upon their choice of name for me.

  5. Really pretty name – I know a little girl named Soraya whose mum is really into Persian culture, there’s no other connection otherwise. She gets a lot of compliments on her name, and nobody has ever problems pronouncing it, but a couple spelling it.