One of the most interesting - and certainly the most colorful collection of historical emblems anywhere is cracking in the wind in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York: the flags of the U. N. member nations. And in them, invisibly ,but inspiringly, lies, a rich record of the hopes, aspirations, ideals and varied histories of people all over the globes most notably those of peoples of the Arab world. In few areas of the world are national flags so expressive of these forces as among the Arab countries. For in Arab flags there is the story of islam, of foreign incursions and domination, of struggles for independence, of the Arabs aspirations to supranational unity and of their enduring love for historic lands.
Flags and their precursors go far back into antiquity. Vexilloids - three-dimensional symbols mounted on poles or other supports - appeared in ancient Assyria and Egypt, which used the falcon as its symbol, Greece - where Athens chose the owl - and Rome, which flaunted its famous eagle, but also used bales of hay.
As the centuries passed, streamers of cloth began to be attached to these poles, probably to serve as decorations or to attract attention. But then, around 100 B.C., the Romans began to replace their three-dimensional symbols with small square pieces of purple or red cloth hung from a horizontal bar fixed to a spear shaft; they called it a vexillum - the Latin root for "vexillology" the study of flags. The first real development of cloth flags, however, took place in China, where, carried on bars and poles, they came to symbolize religious and philosophical concepts. From China, the idea of the flag moved to and through India to the Arab lands, where, with the advent of Islam in the early seventh century, it took root and flourished.
Islam gave the development of flags a great impetus. Perhaps because Islamic strictures against human representation encouraged the development of abstract decorative patterns, it was in the Middle East that the concept of associating specific colors with individuals and dynasties developed. Muhammad, for example, adopted two flags, one white, the other black, and the caliphs who succeeded him adopted colors for various reasons associated with him. The Ummayads chose white because, tradition says, Muhammad wore a white turban; the Abbasids chose black because that was the color of the Prophet's own banner; and the Fatimids took green because it was the Prophet's favorite color. Later, other rulers chose red to fly over their Arabian Gulf territories.
These four colors - white, black, green and red - are still the dominant colors of the flags of the Arab world; they have come to be known as the "pan-Arab colors," although additional symbolic meanings have been given them by modern Arab states. Blue, brown and yellow are rare in Arab flags, and orange is nonexistent.
As Islam spread through central and western Asia, through north Africa and into Europe, the Arabs carried their flags with them for the world to see - and to imitate. The Crusaders, for example, were fascinated with the brilliant banners of their opponents and, on returning to Europe, brought back not only the knowledge of the beauty and utility of Middle Eastern flags, but the flags themselves. As one consequence, individuals, cities, states and all manner of other entities began to design and display their own flags - the direct ancestors of today's countless banners.
Among Arab flags four main traditions be discerned, two of them early and two more recent; some, of course, fall outside these groupings, but even they share common elements.
The two early groupings include flags based on the red flags of the Arabian Gulf and on the star and crescent. The more recent groupings are based on the World War I "Flag of Arab Revolt" - raised by Sharif Husain of Mecca - and the Arab Liberation Flag first raised during Egypt's revolution of 1952.
Until the 19th century the flags of the amirates along the Arabian Gulf were all solid red, a fact that made it difficult to distinguish who was flying them. As sailors from these territories ranged far and wide, planting their identical flags as far away as Zanzibar and the East Indies, this tendency toward identical flags caused obvious problems. Eventually, therefore, most of the amirates modified their flags so that one standard could be told from another Kuwait added its name in Arabic script to its red flag; Ajman and Dubai put a white vertical bar on the hoist; Abu Dhabi added a white canton; Ras al Khaimah and Sharjah put a white border around their red; and Umm al-Qaiwain made the hoist a white vertical bar and placed a white star and crescent on the red field. Only Fujeira and the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman retained all-red flags.
Bahrain and Qatar made the hoists of their flags white vertical bars and separated them from the red fields with sawtooth edges. The serrations are not symbolic, merely decorative, and have sometimes not been used at all. Qatar's flag is unique, too, in that the official color has been changed from red to maroon.
The recent adoption of new flags in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates - the 1971 union of the Trucial States - has moved their banners into the grouping of the "Flag of Arab Revolt." Oman, too, has adopted a new flag - retaining the earlier red but incorporating enough national individuality to move it outside this grouping. Thus, only the flags of Bahrain, Qatar and the individual Emirates remain in the grouping based on red.
The star and crescent flags reflected two historical forces: Islam and Ottoman dominion. Even though the star and crescent symbols go further back in history they have become so inextricably a part of Islam that several modern nations whose territory was never under Ottoman rule bear the star and crescent on their flags as symbols of their Islamic heritage. These include Pakistan, Mauritania, Malaysia and some of its constituent states, Brunei, the Maldive Islands and the Comoro Islands.
The crescent has historically been associated with the city that is now Istanbul, even back to the time of Philip of Macedon; the star, at various times and places, has been considered symbolic of the Virgin Mary and al-Tariq, the morning star mentioned in the Koran.
The Ottoman flag waved over Egypt until the British protectorate was established from 1914 to 1922; at that point a khedival flag of three star-and-crescents was substituted. The Egyptian kingdom that followed adopted a green flag with three white stars and a crescent - the stars symbolizing the three "Peoples of the Book" who composed Egypt's population, while the green stood for the nationalist movement, the Hajj and the fertility of the Nile. Then, in 1958, that flag was replaced by that of the United Arab Republic - a banner in the tradition of the Arab Liberation Flag.
Libya, too, when it achieved independence in 1950, chose a star and crescent flag. To the black flag of Cyrenaica, with a white star and crescent, the Libyans added an upper red stripe for the Fezzan and a lower green stripe for Tripolitania. But when Sanusui rule ended in 1969, this flag too was abandoned for the Arab Liberation Flag.
The Federation of South Arabia, born out of the British Aden Protectorate in 1967 also used a white star and crescent imposed on black, green and light blue horizontal stripes separated by narrow yellow stripes. But the Federation was soon replaced by the People's Democratic Republic of Southern Yemen and a flag in the Arab Liberation Flag group.
In the Arab world today, the star and crescent appears only on the flags of Tunisia, Algeria, Umm al-Qaiwain, Mauritania and the Arab League.
The traditional red flags of the Arabian Gulf, and the star and crescent flags, reflect the history and religion of the Arab world. The two 20th-century groups of flags represent far more the rapid changes modern times have brought: freedom from foreign domination and the formation of modern republics.
During World War I, Sharif Husain of Mecca led the successful Arab revolt against the Ottomans in the Hijaz under a banner that has come to be known as the "Flag of Arab Revolt." It bore a red triangle at the hoist imposed on horizontal stripes of black over green over white. The colors in the stripes were drawn from the three caliphates; the red symbolized the revolt against the Turks.
Husain hoped that variations of that flag would someday fly over independent Arab states east of the Mediterranean - with one star in the triangle of Transjordan-Palestine, two stars in that of Iraq, and three in the triangle of Syria-Lebanon. But the dream of independence was frustrated by the League of Nations, which established British and French mandates in all these territories after the war.
Husain's son, Faisal, did fly the flag over a briefly independent Syria in 1920, but then the French took over and Faisal became king in Iraq, where, in 1921, he adopted a version of Husain's flag. It had a red trapezoid along the hoist on which were two white, seven-pointed stars; the order of the stripes was changed to black over white over green. The points of the stars symbolized the seven fundamental verses that constitute the first surah of the Koran.
This Iraqi flag endured until the country became a republic in 1958, when it was replaced by a flag with vertical bars of green, white and black. On the white bar was a red eight-pointed star on which there was a yellow sun outlined in white, intended to symbolize the cooperation between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq. Another revolution in 1963 discarded this flag and adopted a new banner that fits into the Arab Liberation Flag grouping.
In Transjordan another of Husain's sons, Abdullah, became amir and adopted a similar variation on the "Flag of Arab Revolt" - keeping the red triangle at the hoist, putting a white seven-pointed star on it and changing the order of the stripes to black over white over green, the same as on the Iraqi flag of the time. That flag still flies today over the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Except for Jordan's version, the "Flag of Arab Revolt" nearly disappeared, but it has been revived somewhat in recent years by new developments. The Palestinians have adopted the Jordanian version, but without the star in the triangle, as the banner of their homeland. In 1961, at the end of the British protectorate, Kuwait adopted a new flag along the lines of Husain's. It has a black trapezoid along the hoist imposed on horizontal stripes of green over white over red. Black signifies the defeat of enemies, red the blood of sacrifice, white, Arab achievements and green, fertility.
Also in this category now is the recently-adopted flag of the United Arab Emirates, with a vertical red bar at the hoist next to horizontal stripes of green over white over black.
Despite these new additions to the "Arab Revolt" grouping, it is still true that no other category of Arab flags is so widespread as that of the Arab Liberation Flag, versions of which now fly over seven nations.
After the republic was established in Egypt the green star and crescent flag was not discarded. It continued to fly until 1958, but alongside a new banner, the Arab Liberation Flag. This flag was a horizontal tricolor of red over white over black. In the center of the white stripe was imposed in gold the eagle of Saladin, and on the eagle's chest was a shield bearing the Egyptian crescent and three stars. The colors-three of the pan-Arab colors - gained new symbolic meanings that are generally subscribed to by all the nations that now fly versions of this flag. Black stands for the dark days of foreign oppression, and white for the bright future that will replace them through - red - the blood of sacrifice. The use of the eagle of Saladin drew a direct parallel between the present and the days of the Crusades, representing Arab unity in the face of threats from abroad.
Syria, during the French mandate, had adopted a variation of Husain's flag in the form of a horizontal tricolor of green over white over black with three red stars on the white stripe. In 1958 Egypt and Syria joined in the United Arab Republic, and the flag for both countries became the red-white-black tricolor with two green stars on the white stripe substituted for the eagle. The stars symbolized the two nations and restored the fourth, missing, pan-Arab color, green. In 1963, Syria and Iraq both adopted the red-white-black tricolor with three green stars on the white stripe as an expression of Arab solidarity. Egypt retained the two-star flag until 1972, when Egypt Syria and Libya formed the Federation of Arab Republics and each adopted a slightly different new version of the tricolor, now with the hawk of Quraish - representing the tribe of Muhammad - in gold on the white stripe.
The Yemen Arab Republic adopted its version of the Arab Liberation Flag after the revolt against the imamate in 1962, putting one green star, symbolizing unity and independence, in the center of the red-white-black banner Prior to that, Yemen had used a red flag inscribed with white characters, replacing it in 1927 with a red banner on which there were a sword and five stars, all in white. The stars were for the regions of Yemen, the five Pillars of Islam and the five periods of daily prayer.
When the Sudan became independent in 1956 it adopted a flag quite unlike others in the Arab world, a horizontal tricolor of blue over yellow over green. Blue symbolized the Nile, yellow the sands that bordered it, and green the fertility of lands irrigated by the river. But a change in government in 1969 resulted in a competition to design a new flag that would better express the spirit of Arab unity. A Khartoum Art Institute graduate submitted the winning design, imposing a green triangle at the hoist over the red-white-black tricolor. The previous Arab Liberation Flag symbolism was retained, but added to it was the commemoration of the Sudan's own large black population in the black stripe, and the green triangle's symbolism of fertility and Islam. That flag was adopted in 1970.
In 1967 the People's Democratic Republic of Southern Yemen - which displaced the Federation of South Arabia and which is now known as the Democratic People's Republic of Yemen - adopted a flag on which a light blue triangle with a red star on it is imposed on the red-white-black tricolor. The blue represents the people under the leadership of the National Liberation Front, itself symbolized by the red star. This is the only current Arab flag that has any blue in it but it too is part of the grouping of "liberation flags."
The four remaining Arab national flags are outside all of these four historic groupings. They are those of Saudi Arabia Morocco, Oman and Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia's national flag is the only one in the world today on which an inscription is the principal charge. It is a green flag which bears the Shahada or Muslim confession of faith: "There is no god but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God." Beneath is a sword, also in white. The founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, King 'Abd al-'Aziz was an advocate of a reformist movement in Islam, and this banner was traditional with that movement. Early versions had two crossed swords below the inscription. Such religious inscriptions have been a part of many early Arab flags, appearing, for example, on the flag of the Yemen until 1927 and on those borne by the lieutenants of the Mahdi during his successful war against the British in the Sudan in 1885.
Morocco for centuries flew a plain red flag, but three years after it became a French protectorate in 1912 a green pentagram, representing the Seal of Sulayman, was added to distinguish Morocco's flag from other all-red banners. It remains the flag of the Moroccans today.
Oman's and Lebanon's are the only two Arab nations' flags that bear unique national symbols of their own. Oman had retained the solid rectangle of red until 1970, when the incoming sultan decreed a new flag. A vertical red bar at the hoist extends a narrow red stripe to the fly between thick stripes of white and green. In the canton, in white, is the national badge of two crossed swords behind a khanjar, the traditional curved dagger of Oman. The red is drawn from the old Omani flag and symbolizes the battles fought to expel foreign invaders, the white stands for peace and prosperity and the green for the fertility of the land.
During the French mandate Lebanon flew a French tricolor with a cedar of Lebanon charged on the white center bar. But in 1943, with independence imminent a new flag was adopted. It retained the cedar - long a symbol of holiness, peace and eternity - on a broad centre stripe between two narrower red stripes. The red stands for sacrifice and the white for peace.
Thus, throughout the Arab world, history has left its mark - in color, pattern and emblem - for all to read on flags flying proudly in the winds of change.
A vexillologist by avocation, Edmund Midura has spent 20 years teaching and practising journalism. He is presently with the Philadelphia Inquirer.