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Volume 48, Number 3May/June 1997

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Flying High

Written by Edmund Midura

When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, sixteen new nations appeared where the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had stood before. Among them were five Muslim republics and one whose population was just under 50 percent Muslim; five of the six were achieving independence for the first time. Five new flags and one old one eventually joined the banners that wave over the nations of the Islamic world. (See Aramco World, March-April 1978.)

Becoming a nation-state in the modern meaning of the term is a gigantic and complex undertaking that some countries achieve over decades—as Saudi Arabia did—or over centuries, as in the case of China. Others find nationhood suddenly thrust upon them, and that's the way it was for Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the early 1990's. The will to nationhood was there—and had long been there—but its reality found those countries unready in some practical ways.

One of those ways was the existence of a national flag. That apparently superficial trapping of modern statehood can nonetheless serve an important function in the building of a nation, expressing the unity, common ideals and self-identity of the people. Of the six new nations, only Azerbaijan was ready for that.

It took until the end of 1992 for all of these new Muslim states to officially adopt national flags. It was a turbulent and confusing period, and vexillologists owe a debt of gratitude to the Flag Research Center of Winchester, Massachusetts, the world's leading authority on flags, for chronicling those developments in Central Asia and the Caspian region.

Czarist Russia conquered the Turkic peoples of Central Asia during the 18th and 19th centuries, organizing the area into several entities to keep the peoples divided and dependent. (See Aramco World, January/February 1997.) The overthrow of Czar Nicholas in 1917 loosened the Russians' grip on some parts of the empire, but hardly at all on Central Asia. Azerbaijan broke free, with the other Caucasian states of Armenia and Georgia. But Soviet Russia wanted its own empire, and by 1920 the Red Army had reconquered the Caucasus, and Azerbaijan's brief nationhood was extinguished. (The stories are told in the novel Ali and Nino and the French-Georgian film "A Chef in Love.") Under the Soviets the Muslim areas were first organized as "autonomous regions" and then as full-fledged component republics of the USSR. Those territorial divisions of the 1920's and 1930's became the boundaries of the Central Asian nations that emerged in the 1990's.

Each of the republics of the Soviet Union was given a "national" flag, all of them variations on the red all-union banner bearing a gold star, hammer and sickle in the top corner at the staff. The republics were distinguished from one another by stripes and ornamentations on the red banner in colors that had local significance. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan each had a blue stripe on their Soviet-republic flags. Turkmenistan had two blue stripes, Kyrgyzstan two blue and one white stripe, and Tajikistan a green and a white stripe.

In the new nations' earliest days, those were the only flags available, and they continued to be flown for varying periods. Tajikistan hung on to its Soviet-era flag for about a year, and was the last to adopt its own new standard.

Azerbaijan started loosening its ties to the Soviet Union in 1990 and was the first of the Muslim states to declare independence, on August 30,1991. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan declared themselves free the following day. Tajikistan followed in September, Turkmenistan in October and Kazakhstan in December.

Azerbaijan, which had briefly existed as an independent state from 1918 to 1920, had already readopted the national flag of the first republic on February 5, 1991, almost six months before it officially broke free again. The use of that flag, which had appeared on Azerbaijan's first postage stamps in 1919, had been revived in 1989 as a symbol of nationalism when Azerbaijanis and Armenians clashed over the territory of Nogorno Karabakh. (See Aramco World, January/February 1990.)

Thus Azerbaijan's flag is the only one of this group to have a history. It has three horizontal stripes, blue over red over green, with a white crescent and an eight-pointed star"centered on the red stripe. The design goes back to the banner of a political party of 1917, whose slogan was "Turkify, Islamicize, Europeanize!" The blue, a traditional Turkic color, represented the Turkic peoples, the green represented Islam and the red the adoption of European methods, by which modernization and progress were to be brought to Azerbaijan. The star and crescent are a traditional symbol of Muslim nations in general and the Ottomans in particular. Azerbaijan's star was given eight points to represent the eight Turkic peoples.

After Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan declared their independence, the Uzbeks took a month to settle on a new flag and the Kyrgyz six months. In those countries, as well as in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, no flags could at first be found except the old Soviet-republic flags. Dozens, in some cases hundreds, of design proposals were put forth; there was much jockeying by different interests; many flags were unofficially flown; and, finally, a design specified by the new government, or chosen in a competition, was adopted.

Uzbekistan—land of the fabled cites of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand—officially adopted a flag design full of symbolism on September 30, 1991. It has three horizontal stripes, blue over white over green. The stripes are separated by two very narrow bands of red called fimbriations, from the Latin word for a border or fringe. On the blue stripe, starting at the staff, are a white crescent and twelve stars, with the latter uniquely arranged in three tiers of three, four, and five stars. The blue is said to represent fundamental sources of life— such as water—and is the color of the 14th-century Turkic leader Timur (Tamerlane). Peace and purity are represented by the white, Islam and new life by the green, and the life force by the red of the fimbriations. The new moon stands for the rebirth of the nation, and the twelve stars represent the months of the calendar and the signs of the zodiac. In addition, their number symbolizes the multiplication of the four "elements"—air, earth, fire, water—by the three levels of existence—heaven, earth and the between.

Kyrgyzstan's flag was adopted on March 3, 1992 and shows a combination of esoteric and practical symbols. On a field of red—traditional color of the Kyrgyz—is centered a yellow sun with 40 rays, representing the 40 tribes led by the ancient national hero, Manas, who united them to form the Kyrgyz nation. (See Aramco World, May/June 1996.) Centered on the sun is a red circle containing two crossed sets of three curved lines, a stylized representation of the opening at the peak of a yurta—the traditional circular tent of skins used by the nomads of Central Asia and Mongolia. The sun symbolizes light, nobility and eternity to the Kyrgyz. This flag is of particular interest because on the obverse, or front, side the rays of the sun curve in a counter-clockwise direction, while on the reverse of the flag the rays curve clockwise.

Tajikistan was the next republic to declare its secession from the Soviet Union, but was the last to adopt its own national flag, largely because of a tragic period of instability and conflict that came with nationhood. The Tajiks elected Rakhman Nabiyev, their previous Communist ruler, as president in November 1991, but he was ousted the following year and civil war ensued. Tajikistan's Soviet-republic flag was retained as the national flag by Nabiyev's government until it was finally replaced by the design adopted on November 24,1992. That flag has three horizontal stripes of red over white over green, with the white stripe being broader than the other two. Centered on the white stripe is a gold crown with seven stars above it. This device is said to represent the "state sovereignty of Tajikistan; the unbreakable union of workers, peasants and intellectual classes of the nation; and friendship and brotherhood among all nationalities." Represented in the white and green of the flag's colors are two important agricultural crops of Tajikistan, cotton and grapes.

The flag of Turkmenistan is the world's only national flag bearing design elements from Oriental carpets. However, since weaving rugs is such an ancient and important traditional industry for the Turkmens, that shouldn't be surprising. In a design attributed to Gogorkuu Keneshinin, the Turkmenistan flag has a green overall field crossed by a broad, vertical claret band near the staff. On this band are five different black, white and orange guls—symmetrical designs used on rugs—associated with five of the nation's tribes, the Tekhe, Yomut, Sayk, Salor and Ersari. Guls were represented on the arms of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic as far back as the 1920's. To the right of the top of the band are a white crescent moon and five stars representing the regions of Akhal, Balkan, Doshkhovez, Lebap, and Mary.

Across the vast steppe-lands of Kazakhstan, the largest of the new nations, Muslims and the Kazakhs themselves together make up only a plurality of the population.

Chosen in a competition, the Kazakh flag emphasizes peace and beauty. It was adopted on June 4,1992, based on a design by Shaken Niyazbekov. On a sky-blue field symbolizing the "endless sky" over the steppes is centered a golden sun with 32 gold rays. Below it soars a golden eagle of the steppes, symbol of the Kazakh people's love of freedom and their aspirations. The sky-blue field of the flag also stands for peace, unity and well-being. Placed vertically at the staff is a gold "national ornamentation," an abstract graphic design.

How long these new banners will fly, no one can know. For some peoples, national flags seem to come and go. For others, the flag endures for centuries. What is sure is that, no matter how brief its tenure may be, a national flag is a symbol suffused with emotion—pride in and love for the common heritage shared with the other inhabitants of the nation. The Islamic world has welcomed six such new symbols to its family of proudly flying banners.

Edmund Midura is chairman of the Mass Media Arts Department at Clark Atlanta University. Vexillology, the study of the history and development of flags, is among his avocations.

This article appeared on pages 32-35 of the May/June 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1997 images.