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F - 101 : Two Flags in the Aegean

Sunday’s piece about Russia’s presidential flag made me wonder about the Greek and Turkish Flag. The horizontal stripes of the Greek flag look very much like the stripes on the American flag. Turkey’s white crescent reminds me of Muslim symbols. Do these assumptions have any base? The origin of flags is often shrouded in mystery and legends. It is not easy to find out. The more popular a flag, the more mystical the story becomes. With a bit of digging though I guess we can get close.

Roman Emperor Hadrian (74 - 136 AD) minted coins using Crescent and Star at the Back

The “Star Spangled Banner”, the US flag, is perfect to illustrate my point. When independence was declared in 1776, each of the 13 union states had its own flag. But the young Continental Navy immediately needed a banner to fly. Sail ships all looked the same thus a flag to identify friend from foe was essential. The young US mariners thus took the Royal Navy’s red war flag and added six white stripes to make it easily distinguishable. The six white and seven red stripes symbolized the 13 states of the new Union.

The Royal Navy Flag Flown on the Stern

The Flag flown by the First US Navy Ships

The Final American Flag - 2nd Congress

Unfortunately, the flag now looked almost identical to the flag of the British East India Company. Some congress members like Benjamin Franklin were aware of this due to their business connections – the US was a big tea importer - hence the Boston Tea Party! Thus, the 2nd Congress resolved that “the flag of the 13 United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union of the thirteen stars, while in a blue field, representing the new constellation.” Et voilà!

Persian Coin from the Sassanaid 3rd Century BC

Crescent and Star to the left, right and at bottom

The Ottoman Empire and Army had various imperial insignias and flags over the centuries. But a crescent with one or several stars is continuously present for almost all the time. They were not linked to Islam though. The “Crescent and Star” goes back to Sumerian time & symbolizes Moon and Sun representing day and night or the entire universe. Crescent and Star were widely used throughout the Middle East. It became an important symbol in the Bosporan Kingdom of the Crimean and the Sea of Azov, was officially used in Greek Byzantium around 300 AD and can be found on many coins of Roman Emperor Hadrian. For a while, it was also used in the Heraldry of Europe but by around the 12th century it petered out. Could not find a reason why.

Zulfikar Flag similar to the one Sultan Selim I

used in 1510 - with 6 Crescents and Suns - was

the original War Standard used by Ottomans

In the Middle East Crescent and Star continued to be used. The adoption of Crescent and Star by the Seljuk Turks may have started in the 9th century AD when they fought as mercenaries for the Caliphs of Baghdad. Later, when they established their own short-lived Empire of Rum, they used the symbol officially.

Ottoman War Standard used in the war of

1788 with the Austrian Empire

Assume the Ottoman Turks, one of the Seljuk’s Baylics (regional governors) adopted it when they expanded their rule on the ashes of the Seljuk Empire. After Constantinople became the Ottoman Capital in 1453, we find several versions of the theme on flags and insignias but towards the end of the 19th century, the flag we know today, emerged. It was officially adopted by the Turkish Republic in 1923.

Since Erdogan leads Turkey, many Flags were raised on Hill Tops throughout the Country

That many people associate Crescent and Star with Islam – as I did first – may have more to do with the fact that the Turkish Sultans became in 1534 the protectors of the holy sites of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. That year they defeated the Persian Safavids and conquered Baghdad. For the following four centuries, the Ottoman’s banner flew without interruption over the holy sites. Pilgrims got used to the presence of Crescent and Star. They morphed into religious symbols of Islam despite having no foundation in the Koran.

The original Greek Flag flying on a house in Corfu

The origin of the Greek Flag is more challenging to establish. Very little is documented. Its pattern were laid down on 15 March 1822 by the Greek Provisional Government. The new Greek Flag was to be light blue with a white cross in the center. The naval flag was to have 9 blue and white stripes. The new design had to replace the multitude of revolutionary flags which had popped up everywhere. The Greek uprising against their Turkish Lords was a local affair. There was no central command. The Greek revolutionaries also pursued egalitarian and social goals following “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” of the French, Revolution. This did not go down well with European Monarchs who supported the Greek cause. The new Greek Flag was part of their effort to rein in republican tendencies and establish a traditional monarchy instead .

The Flag of the Greek Sipahi (Cavalry)

Regiment during the Ottoman Empire

Why there is a cross in Greece's flag is far better documented. Greek cavalry units under Ottoman command traditionally used white flags with a blue cross and Saint George at the center. The flag decree in 1822 just reversed the colours – probably to make a difference. How the naval flag got its stripes though is unclear as well. In 1822, there was only one flag in the world with white stripes – the American flag. Would not be surprised an enthusiastic official just copied the American design. America had fought its own war of independence only thirty years earlier and the Greek government studied it carefully. Legend though has it that the nine stripes stand for the nine letters of the Greek word freedom. Maybe.

The Greek Navy Flag eventually became the Greece's

Official Flag in 1978 - here flying over the port of Simi

Seeing Turkey’s big red flags flying throughout the country and the Greek flag above all the white washed villages in the Aegean is quite photogenic. I love the fact that they both represent more history of their country than meets the eye first. In the Turkish case the multi-ethnic base of the Ottoman Empire, in the Greek case a revolution tamed to gain independence.

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