2017 in Flag History: The Philadelphia Pride Flag

Skærmbillede 2017-12-28 kl. 17.17.40

This year, a new flag was introduced in the LGBT community. It adds a black and a brown stripe to the iconic 6-color Rainbow Flag to represent people of color. Received by many as a positive new addition in the rich culture of LGBT flags, it also ignited debate. The colors of the rainbow don’t represent any specific groups, but already includes everyone in the community, critics underline.

The new 8-color rainbow flag was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 8 June 2017 as part of the campaign #MoreColorMorePride at a kickoff event at the beginning of the city’s Pride Month. The flag was created with the help of Tierney, a Philadelphia-based advertising and PR agency. Patrick Hardy, Executive Creative Director, explained:

“The rainbow flag is an iconic symbol of the LGBTQ community. In the spirit of Gilbert Baker’s original design, we believe that adding black and brown to this historic flag will fuel a continuing dialogue about diversity in a community that celebrates inclusion, and help to acknowledge the contributions people of color make every day.”

American artist and activist Gilbert Baker, who created the original LGBT Rainbow Flag, also known as the Gay Pride Flag, in 1978, died on 31 March 2017 in New York City, a little over two months before the introduction of the new Philadelphia Pride Flag.

Charley Beal, a friend of Gilbert Baker told NBC: “The stripes were not chosen for skin color. They were chosen to reflect the spectrum of color in nature”. Baker’s Rainbow Flag originally had eight colors which didn’t represent specific groups within the community but rather concepts such as life, healing, nature, magic, art, spirit etc. (The colors turquoise and pink were omitted around 1979.)

Read more about Gilbert Baker’s iconic Rainbow Flag here.

The new Philadelphia Pride Flag became a popular new LGBT flag in 2017 and was seen at Pride events in many cities around the world in June, July and August. However, the flag was also the cause of heated debate within the LGBT movement. Critics warned that the original Rainbow Flag shouldn’t be changed as it is an iconic brand and a powerful symbol of pride and inclusion for everyone in the community.

Amber Hikes, Director of the Office of LGBT Affairs at the Philadelphia City Hall, commented on the criticism in an interview with NBC:

“White people do not know what racism looks like, because that’s the definition of racism. The vast majority of critics are gay white men, a sector of the LGBT community that doesn’t necessarily understand the issues that LGBT people of color might face. There is a presumption among gay white men that the rainbow flag already represents everyone.”

Hikes also said about the Philadelphia Pride Flag: “It’s a push for people to start listening to people of color in our community, start hearing what they’re saying”. A 2017 report from the Philadelphia Commission on Human Rights pointed out that homosexual and transgender people of colour are more likely to experience discrimination in the city, also within the LGBT community itself.

Read more about 2017 in flag history: Mauritania’s New Flag.


2017 in Flag History: Mauritania’s New Flag

Skærmbillede 2017-12-31 kl. 13.01.58

This year, one of world’s 193 UN member states made changes to its national flag: The Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Two red horizontal bands were added to its flag, effective from 15 August 2017. The changes have been criticized because the President of Mauritania failed to include the country’s opposition in the decision and because of low voter turnout in the flag referendum on 5 August 2017.

It was in 2016 that the President of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, announced that  a referendum on constitutional changes and changes to the country’s national flag and national anthem would be held before the end of the year.

“Two red stripes will be added to the top and bottom of the national flag to honour the sacrifice of the nation’s martyrs,” it said in the accord from the 2016 political talks ment to end years of political instability in Mauritania. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, twice elected as President of Mauritania, has also lead two military coups against two of his presidential predecessors.

Read my report from 2016 on the announced changes to the Mauritanian flag.

However, the process of changing the constitution and the national symbols was delayed, not least because of opposition from the Senate which was to be abolished. Opposition parties and political opponents of the President rejected the referendum altogether.

In the national referendum on 5 August 2017, 85 % voted in favour of constitutional changes and changes to the national symbols. However, voter turnout was only about 50 %, so the changes can’t be said to have widespread national support.

The changes to the national flag and the national anthem have been criticized as a mere political gesture compared to the much larger issues facing the nation. Many Mauritanians suffer the consequences of unemployment, malnutrition, corruption and the government’s abuse of power. Even slavery remains a problem in parts of the Mauritanian society. Only in 2007 did Mauritania become the last African country to criminalize slavery.

From a vexillological point of view, Mauritania’s new flag is less remarkable and less unique than the old flag. The now defunct national flag of Mauritania, in use from 1959 till 2017, was made up of only two colours: green and yellow. Thus, it was one of only a few national flags in the world which doesn’t contain the three most common flag colours: red, white and blue.

As of August 2017, only Jamaica has a national flag which doesn’t feature either of the colours red, white or blue.

Read more about 2017 in flag history: The Philadelphia Pride Flag.

100 years ago: Finland declares independence

Skærmbillede 2017-12-06 kl. 06.38.31

The white and blue Nordic Cross flag was not yet Finland’s national flag when the country declared its independence on 6 December 1917. The white-blue Finnish flag was adopted by law on 29 May 1918. In the winter of 1917-1918 Finland’s temporary flag was a red heraldic banner with the Finnish coat of arms.   

Top left: National flag of Finland since 1918

A white flag with a blue Nordic Cross has been the Finnish national flag for almost a century. The colour combination white-blue became popular in the 19th Century and were already established as the, albeit inofficial, national colours of Finland at the time of the country’s declaration of independence in December 1917.

However, red and yellow, the colours from Finland’s coat of arms, also played an important role in the Finnish flag debate in the winter of 1917-1918. The Finnish Civil War January–May 1918 between the conservative Whites and the socialist Reds made it impossible to solve the flag issue. Following the White victory, the Finnish Parliament decided on a national flag featuring white and blue rather than red and yellow

Bottom left: Temporary national flag 1917-1918

When Finland declared its independence on 6 December 1917, it was a banner of the coat of arms of Finland that was hoisted on the flagpole of the Finnish government, the Senate.

Finland’s arms stem from around 1580 and feature a yellow lion on a red background surrounded by white roses. The lion treads on a sabre while raising a sword over its head. (Expressed in proper heraldic terms, the blazon of the arms of Finland is as follows: Gules, a lion rampant crowned Or, trampling a sabre in base proper, his dexter foreleg in the form of a man’s arm vambraced and embowed Argent, garnished Or, bearing aloft a sword proper, nine roses Argent.)

A banner of these arms, “the Lion Flag”, was proposed by the Senate’s Flag Commission on 8 December 1917 and it was used as a temporary national flag during the winter of 1917-1918.

Bottom right: Provisional merchant flag in the spring of 1918

The Senate decided to adopt a provisional civil ensign to be used by the merchant navy on 27 February 1918. It was a red flag with a yellow Nordic Cross fimbrated by thin lines of white and blue. This design combined the competing red-yellow and white-blue, but it played no lasting role in Finnish flag history. In May 1918 “the Blue Cross Flag” became the new official national flag for use on land and at sea.

A Nordic Cross flag in the colours of the Finnish coat of arms, red with a yellow cross, is used by the Swedish speaking minority in Finland. This flag is very similar to the flag used by Scanians in Southern Sweden; also a red flag with a yellow cross.

Top right: State flag of Finland 1918-1920

The first official Finnish state flag, adopted on 29 May 1918, had the crowned coat of arms of Finland in the middle of the blue cross. The grand ducal crown was removed on 12 February 1920. Finland was a Grand Duchy in personal union with Russia from 1809 until the abdication of the last Emperor of Russia, Nicholas II, in 1917. Officially, Finland has been a republic since the Constitution Act of 1919.


Read also: Finns fly the flag at night to celebrate Finland’s centenary.

Finns fly the flag at night to celebrate Finland’s centenary

Skærmbillede 2017-12-04 kl. 17.37.39

If you illuminate it properly, you’re allowed to fly the Finnish flag from the evening of December 5 and through Independence Day on December 6. Normally, flying the flag in the middle of the night is not allowed in Finland. But an exception to the rule will be made this year as the country celebrates 100 years of independence.    

In Finland, it’s prohibited by law to fly the flag during the dark hours. Being a country in the Northern Hemisphere, the northernmost part of the country lying north of the Arctic Circle, Finland has to live with plenty of dark hours in December.

On December 6, Finland’s Independence Day, the sun rises in the capital city of Helsinki at about 9 am and it sets approximately 6 hours later. In Northern Finland, Rovaniemi (the village known as Santa Claus’ Village) enjoys only three hours of daylight at this time of year.

So, in order for the national flag to play a more prominent role in the festivities marking the 100-year anniversary of Finland’s independence, the Finnish Ministry of the Interior has announced that the Finnish flag, if properly lit, can be hoisted during the dark hours from Tuesday evening at 6 pm until Wednesday evening at 10 pm.

“Flying the flag through the night is only allowed if the flag can be illuminated so that the blue is blue and the white is white,” Mika Mäkinen, Communications Director of the Ministry of the Interior, said in an interview.

“No street lighting or car lights are sufficient,” Mr. Mäkinen made it perfectly clear. “There should be proper lights if the flag is to be flown all night long.”

The ministry has also announced that a large Finnish flag will be hoisted in front of the City Hall in Helsinki’s Market Square (Kauppatori in Finnish, Salutorget in Swedish). It will fly day and night for a year to celebrate the centenary of Finland’s independence and the flag will be illuminated during the dark hours.

“It’s a bit odd that the only flag you see in this central square in Helsinki is the blue and yellow flag on the Swedish Embassy. Now we’ll get a more beautiful flag in that place,” Communications Director Mäkinen explained.

Finland declared its full independence on December 6, 1917. Since 1809 the country had been a Grand Duchy in personal union with Russia. But when Emperor Nicholas II abdicated during the March Revolution of 1917, Finland no longer had a Grand Duke. After the October Revolution later that year, members of the Finnish Government travelled to Saint Petersburg (then Petrograd) to secure the acceptance of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. In January of 1918, Russia as well as other European countries formally recognized Finland’s independence. Finland has been a parliamentary republic since 1919.


Read the original interview and news story in Finnish here and in Swedish here. Read also about Finnish flag history: 100 years ago: Finland declares independence.

Remembrance Sunday: Flags on the Whitehall Cenotaph

Skærmbillede 2017-11-09 kl. 22.30.02

In London today, members of the Royal Family and a wide range of political, military and religious leaders lay wreaths at the Whitehall Cenotaph together with a large parade of veterans. Every year on the sunday closest to 11 November, the Cenotaph is the centre of a nation’s respect and mourning for its fallen men and women in the two World Wars and other military conflicts.

The Cenotaph on Whitehall in London is the official war memorial of the United Kingdom. It stands in the middle of the street between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Health and it has the words THE GLORIOUS DEAD inscribed at both ends.

It was built after WWI for the fallen of the British Empire in this war, but the monument commemorates everyone who has died in the service of the United Kingdom in all wars and military conflicts since then. The different types of service are represented by six flags on the Cenotaph:

On both sides there is a British Union Flag. They represent the fallen of the British Army and civilians who lost their lives in the service of the nation. The official, but non-ceremonial army flag, red with the badge of the British Army, is not used on the Cenotaph.

On the east side the Union Flag is flanked by a British White Ensign and a British Blue Ensign. The White Ensign represents the Royal Navy. The Blue Ensign represents the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and other government services like, for example, the police and the emergency services.

On the west side the Union Flag is flanked by the ensign of the Royal Air Force and the British Red Ensign. The Red Ensign represents the fallen of the merchant navy and the fishing fleet.

The Cenotaph was designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. A temporary structure was erected on Whitehall for the celebrations following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the summer of 1919. The permanent structure which stands today was built from Portland stone and unveiled on 11 November 1920.

Following WWI, cenotaphs were erected in other cities in Britain and around the British Empire, e.g. in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. The word cenotaph derives from Greek and means “empty (kenos) tomb (taphos)”.

WWI ended on the Western Front on 11 November 1918 when an armistice was signed between Germany and the Allies in the railroad carriage of Ferdinand Foch, Marshal of France in the forest of Compiègne outside Paris. According to the agreement the armistice went into effect at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”.

This date has been marked ever since as Armistice Day, but it is also known as Remembrance Day, Poppy Day or Veterans Day. Remembrance Sunday is held on the second sunday of November in the United Kingdom and in other Commonwealth countries. Here, from the beginning of November until Remembrance Sunday many buy and wear small artificial poppies to honour the sacrifice of the fallen and to support veterans in need of help.

On Remembrance Sunday 2017, Queen Elizabeth II will not lay the first wreath at the Cenotaph on behalf of the nation. This duty will be carried out by her son Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. The Queen and her husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, now 91 and 96 years of age respectively, will watch from the Foreign Office balcony.

Soon every German will have heard of the Jamaican flag

Skærmbillede 2017-09-26 kl. 19.30.17

Jamaika, Jamaika, Jamaika. Not a day goes by in Germany without the name of one Caribbean island nation being mentioned in the news. This is because a new federal government in the colours of that country’s flag is about to be formed by black Christian Democrats, yellow Free Democrats and Greens.

The federal elections in Germany on 24 September 2017 will be remembered for three things: 1. Chancellor Angela Merkel lost. 2. Chancellor Angela Merkel won, and a black-yellow-green government under her leadership will likely be formed. 3. AfD, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland, is now firmly established in German politics.

Measured in mere votes, Merkel was this election’s biggest looser. Her Christian Democrats lost a fifth of their voters and landed on the worst electoral result since 1949. Measured in options for power, Merkel won the election in the sense that she will also lead the next government. Germany’s chancellor for the past 12 years will get her chance to get to the top of the list of the Federal Republic’s longest serving heads-of-government.

Angela Merkel only has two options however to form a governing majority. Either the conservative sister parties – CSU in Bavaria and CDU in the rest of Germany’s 16 states (party colour: black) – broker a deal with the yellow liberals of the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP) and the green Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, or the “grand coalition” of CDU, CSU and SPD continues.

The latter option was ruled out in no uncertain terms on election night by the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) Martin Schulz who failed in his own bid to become Federal Chancellor. With their worst election result in the history of the Federal Republic, Germany’s second largest party has very little appetite for a renewed “grand coalition” in the shadow of Angela Merkel and the Christian Democrats.

Other two-party majorities are not possible. A red-green government of Social Democrats and Greens ruled Germany from 1998 till 2005 under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD). Since then, both parties have lost ground and last Sunday, 15 October, a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens lost their governing majority in Lower Saxony, Germany’s second largest state.

A black-yellow majority was in power 2009-2013 with CDU, CSU and FDP. The Free Democrats suffered a blow in the 2013 federal elections and weren’t represented in the Bundestag for four years. However, even though the FDP is now back, Christian Democrats and Free Democrats didn’t get the 50 % necessary to form a new black-yellow government.

Also, a number of possible three-party coalitions won’t be able to muster the 50 % of the members of parliament required to form a governing majority. Thus, a so-called “traffic light coalition” of red Social Democrats, yellow Free Democrats and Greens isn’t on the table. A red-red-green coalition of SPD, the Left Party (Die Linke) and the Greens is also not possible.

On the state level, Germany already had a “Jamaica coalition” in Saarland 2009-2012 and as of 2017 there is a black-yellow-green government in the northernmost German state of Schleswig-Holstein, wittingly dubbed “Jamaica in the North”. On the federal level, coalition talks began in Berlin this week and negotiations in coming months will be tough.

As Social Democrats opt for an opposition role, Germany will likely get its first federal government of Christian Democrats, Free Democrats and Greens. That, in modern German political lingo, spells Jamaika.


Read also The Flag Coalitions In German Politics.

A Quick Guide To Catalan Flags

Skærmbillede 2017-10-17 kl. 15.55.22

With the Spanish constitutional crisis over the October 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia, there are Spanish and Catalonian flags in the streets and in the news on a daily basis. Here are six Catalonian flags you need to know.

1. La Senyera is a yellow flag with four red horizontal stripes. This is the official flag of Catalonia. It is used by Catalonians who are in favour of independence and by Catalonians who are against.

In Catalan, the word senyera means banner or ensign, or simply flag. It is a banner of the arms of the Crown of Aragon to which Catalonia belonged. The arms of Aragon are four red vertical stripes in a golden shield (in proper heraldic terms: Or, four pallets Gules). They are part of the modern coat of arms of Spain. As a symbol, these red barras de Aragón are almost a thousand years old. Today they can be found in the flags of countries and regions which have historical ties to the Kings of Aragon and the Counts of Barcelona: Spain, Catalonia, Valencia, Aragon and the Balearic Islands, Andorra, Roussillon and Provence.

2. L’Estelada Blava means “the blue starred” in Catalan. This flag is the primary symbol of Catalonian separatism and, thanks to coverage from international news media of recent events, it has fast become widely known outside Spain.

The so-called Blue Estelada adds a blue triangle with a white five-pointed star to the Senyera. It was designed in 1918, influenced by the flags of Cuba and Puerto Rico. These two countries had fought for independence from Spain and inspired Catalonians who wanted to cut ties with Spain, too. In the 1930s a Catalan Republic was declared twice. After the Spanish Civil War Catalonian identity, the Catalan language and the use of the Estelada flag were subdued for decades.

3. L’Estelada Vermella is “the red starred” flag of Catalonia. Whereas the Blue Estelada is the main separatist symbol and the preferred flag for most centre-right and centre-left republicans, the Red Estelada has been the preferred flag for most Socialist and Communist separatists since the late 1960s.

4. La Bandera de Barcelona is the official flag of Catalonia’s capital city. It’s a banner of the city’s arms combining the red stripes from the Senyera with the Cross of Saint George (in Catalan, Creu de Sant Jordi). He is the patron saint of Barcelona and the white flag with a red cross has played an important role in the history of Catalonia and Barcelona since the Middle Ages.

5. L’Estelada Blaugrana is the “the blue-carmine starred” version of the Estelada flag which is sometimes used by FC Barcelona fans and players. Dark blue together with deep, almost purplish red are the team colours of the world famous football club.

No-one who knows and follows FC Barcelona or have been present at a football match in the club’s home stadium of Camp Nou would say that football has nothing to do with politics. You can always count on Baa fans (in Catalan, Blaugranes) to wave the flag for Catalonian independence. Flags are a constant point of contention between Catalonia’s number one football club and Spanish sports authorities. FC Barcelona fans not only use the blue and red Esteladas, they also have their own Estelada of dark blue and carmine red.

6. L’Estelada Periquita is a newcomer among Catalonia’s separatist flags and it immediately caused trouble. It is used by pro-independence fans of the mostly Spanish unionist football club RCD Espanyol.

The Reial Club Deportiu Espanyol de Barcelona is the city’s second football club. Only four times did Espanyol win the Spanish Copa del Rey tournament; FC Barcelona has won the title 29 times. This local rivalry is not just about football. Traditionally, fans of Espanyol are much less nationalist and separatist than Baa fans. RCD Espanyol is known as Periquitos (the parakeets) or Blanc-i-blaus (the white and blue). So, of course, with the rising number of Catalonians in favour of independence from Spain, there is now also an Estelada flag in the Espanyol team colours.

Soviet Republics

Skærmbillede 2017-07-31 kl. 00.21.00

In the highly centralized, one-party-ruled Soviet Union (USSR) ethnic, religious and linguistic differences were played down and even suppressed. Accordingly, the flags of the Soviet republics were designed not to look too distinct from each other and not to be too heavily rooted in the history and culture of each republic.

In 1947, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR recommended that the Union’s republics adopt national flags. The constituent republics adopted such flags in the years 1950-1954. The design of all these flags adhered strictly to guidelines laid down by central authorities. So, in the end, the flags of the Soviet republics became quite similar to that of the Soviet Union.

Like the flag of the USSR, a red flag with a golden hammer and sickle emblem under a gold-bordered red star, the flags of the republics were also predominantly red. All but one, they had the star, hammer and sickle in gold; only on the flag of the Georgian SSR the emblem was red, on a blue sun with red rays. The distinguishing features of these flags were vertical and horizontal stripes or wavy lines in the colours blue, green and white. To an untrained eye, the flags of the Soviet republics looked remarkably alike.

National, cultural and historical references in the flag designs were kept at a minimum. So, for example, the flag of the Belorussian SSR had a vertical stripe of a traditional pattern at the hoist. The Usbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Azerbaijani Soviet republics had a stripe of blue or sky blue, a colour traditionally representing Turkic peoples. The red-white-green in the flag of the Tajik SSR are the Pan-Iranian colours, but the colours were also ment to stand for Tajikistan’s agriculture and cotton production.

At the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 there were 15 republics. Today, only two of the now independent former USSR republics use the old flags: Transnistria, officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, refused to leave the Soviet Union together with the majority of the Moldavian SSR, now Moldova, and 25 years later this small strip of land is a mostly unrecognized republic which uses exactly the same flag as the Moldovan SSR. The present flag of Belarus is a slight modification of the flag of the Belarussian SSR.

In the heyday of the USSR, the flags of the Soviet republics were on the album covers of several different singles, EPs and LPs with recordings of the national anthem of the Soviet Union and oftentimes also the anthems of the 15 republics and the international Socialist anthem The Internationale. They were released from Melodiya (Μелодия), the major state-owned record label of the USSR.

On the cover in the picture, the 15 flags are arranged in rows of three. From left to right, beginning with the largest of the Soviet republics, 1: The Russian SFSR, the Ukrainian SSR, the Belarussian SSR. 2: The Uzbek SSR, the Kazakh SSR, the Georgian SSR. 3: The Lithuanian SSR, the Azerbaijani SSR, the Moldavian SSR. 4: The Kyrgyz SSR, the Latvian SSR, the Tajik SSR. 5: The Armenian SSR, the Turkmen SSR, the Estonian SSR.

On the albums with national anthems were typically also the Soviet Union’s state coat of arms with the Communist red star and the hammer and sickle over the globe and the rising sun. The emblem was surrounded by a wreath of wheat and a red ribbon with the Union’s motto in Russian and the other official languages of its constituent republics: “Workers of the world, unite!”.

Muslim Bosnia

Skærmbillede 2017-07-18 kl. 22.09.53

I have recently become aware of the existence of a flag for Muslims in Bosnia. It’s green with a white crescent and star. These symbols are not purely Islamic and Ottoman in origin. In fact, they’re also related to the Illyrian heritage of the western Balkans.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is among the most diverse countries in Europe, ethnically and religiously. It’s held together by a 22-year-old peace agreement and strong outside pressure from the EU and the UN. For example, the national flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina was introduced by the UN High Representative in 1998.

On paper, the country functions as one republic with one flag. In reality, the population is heavily divided between Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. Cultural and religious divisions that existed for centuries were made physical and political by civil military conflict and many instances of war crimes and ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian War of 1992-1995.

Today, half of the country is the Rebublika Srpska which is 80 % Serb and uses a red-blue-white horizontal tricolour similar to the flag of Serbia. The other half is the Federacija Bosne i Hercegovine which is three quarters Bosniak and one quarter Croat. Following a ruling by the Bosnian Constitutional Court, this part of the country has no official flag. Among Bosnian Croats, however, Croatian flags are in widespread use.

The medieval Christian Kingdom of Bosnia was conquered by the Islamic Ottoman Empire in 1463. Four centuries of Turkish rule left its mark; the history of Bosnia is full of animosity between people who share the same South Slavic language and the same beautiful land.

In 1878 the country was annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in 1914 led to World War I. After the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina became part of Yugoslavia. World War II brutally opened up old wounds along ethnic and ideological lines. At the beginning of the 1990s socialist federal Yugoslavia as well as multicultural Bosnia disintegrated.

Muslim Bosniaks, part of the patchwork that is the Balkans, also share in the heritage of the much larger Islamic world. The political and cultural ties which once connected Bosnia with Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East are still visible, especially in Sarajevo. Here, the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, Bosnia’s largest historical mosque, is a prime example of Ottoman architecture and an important centre for the Islamic community in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Green flags with a white crescent and star decorate the entrance to the mosque. I haven’t been there myself; I know this thanks to a holiday photo of a Facebook friend of mine, Michael Sinan Amir Aslanes, who visited Bosnia not long ago.

At first glance, these flags look like Turkish flags where the colour red have been replaced by green, the colour of Islam. They may be inspired by the national flag of Turkey, but green flags with a crescent and star were used in Bosnia already in the second half of the 18th Century in the struggle for autonomy from the Ottoman Turks, and later the Austrians and Hungarians.

Around the same time, a red flag with a white crescent and star became the flag of the Ottoman Empire. The crescent was already a long-established symbol of Islam. The inspiration to use the crescent and star together may have come from Constantinople or from the Illyrians, the ancient people of the western Balkans. Illyricum was a Roman province roughly corresponding to 20th Century Yugoslavia.

In the first half of the 19th Century the Illyrian Movement drew on the name and memory of the ancient Illyrians in an effort to unite all South Slavs. The common Serbo-Croatian language, spoken today in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, was a result of their efforts.

A star and crescent is the oldest known symbol of Croatia from the 12th Century; it can still be found in the current national flag of Croatia. A star and crescent in a field of red represented Illyria and (Christian) Bosnia in medieval (fictional) heraldry. Three stars and a crescent in a field of blue represented Slovenia in the royal arms of Yugoslavia.

So, stars and crescents have been used by both Christians and Muslims in the Balkans for hundreds of years. On a field of green, the crescent and star represent the Muslims of Bosnia.

Cross of Saint John the Baptist

Skærmbillede 2017-06-21 kl. 21.32.51

In medieval Italy bloody battles were fought between white flags with red crosses and red flags with white crosses. The former is known as the Cross of Saint George, the latter as the Cross of Saint John the Baptist. Both flags stem from the time of the Crusades and their simple designs spread to all of Europe and the rest of the world. 

Top left: Order of Malta, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland

The state flag of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) is red with a white cross. Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint of the order and the flag with the Croce di San Giovanni Battista (as it’s called in Italian) can be seen in Malta, on the SMOM headquarters in Rome and at SMOM embassies around the world. The order is a charitable organisation and a subject of international law at the same time. Since 1798 it doesn’t rule an independent territory, but the order enjoys diplomatic recognition by many countries and issues its own passports, license plates, etc.

The Order of Malta which is Roman Catholic and the different Orders of Saint John which are Protestant trace their roots back to the hospitaller knights of Jerusalem, founded around 1099 to provide medical care to pilgrims and to protect Christians against Islamic prosecution. The SMOM is the world’s oldest surviving chivalric order and its state flag, a Crusader flag basically, has remained unchanged for 700-800 years.

According to legend, the Danish flag fell from the sky during a battle in Estonia in 1219. A far more reasonable explanation for the Dannebrog with its white cross on a red field is the Crusader flags of the 12th and 13th Century. The banner of the Holy Roman Empire (Reichsfahne, in German) during this time was also red with a white cross. This early German war flag may have inspired the flags of two neighbouring nations: Denmark and Switzerland.

The Swiss city of Lugano in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino flies a white cross on red, too. Its name (Luganum, in Latin) is spelled with the letters L, V, G and A in the four quarters of the flag.

Top right: Savoy, France and Italy

A red flag with a white cross is also the popular flag of the French historical region of Savoy (Savoie, in French). Savoy borders Italy and Switzerland and for eight centuries it was ruled by the House of Savoy, one of Europe’s oldest dynasties. Amadeus III may have been the first Count of Savoy to use a Crusader flag with a white cross on red. He participated in the Second Crusade in 1147. The flag of Savoy, therefore, shares the same origins as the flags of Malta and Denmark.

The city of Chambéry is the historical capital of Savoy. The only difference between the city’s and the region’s flag is a golden 5-pointed star. Also the flag of Valence, capital of the Drôme department, have a white cross on red (with a blue tower in the centre).

The Counts, later Dukes, of Savoy extended their rule across the Alps into Northern Italy. Amadeus VI of Savoy (Savoia, in Italian) fought the Turks under a blue flag with an image of the Virgin Mary in 1366. Since then sky blue, or Savoy blue, has been the livery colour of the Savoyard dynasty.

In the 19th Century Italy was unified under the Savoyard crown. The Kingdom of Italy from 1861 till 1946 made use of the white cross on red and a border of Savoy blue. These arms appeared in the white middle stripe of Italian flags and a banner of these arms was the naval jack of Italy’s Regia Marina.

Bottom left: Veneto

Northern Italy was part of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages. For centuries cities, towns and noble families battled over their loyalties: On one side the pro-imperial ghibellini with their German-inspired red flags with white crosses (John the Baptist’s cross), on the other side the pro-papal guelfi who used flags of reversed colours (George’s cross). For example, the cities of Milan and Genoa used and still use white flags with red crosses.

Around Venice the Croce di San Giovanni Battista is in the municipal arms of e.g. Vicenza, Mirano (with an added cross in the first quarter), Treviso (with two 8-pointed white stars) and Oderzo (with a pair of 6-pointed stars). The arms of Vicenza and Treviso appear together with arms of other provincial capitals on the tails of Veneto’s elaborate regional flag, adopted in 1975.

Bottom right: Piedmont

In the North Italian region of Piedmont (Piemonte, in Italian) flags of several cities and towns are red with white crosses. Examples of cities which have a Cross of Saint John the Baptist in its municipal arms and flag are Asti and Novara.

The regional arms of Piedmont are the same as those of the Principality of Piedmont. The heir of the Dukes of Savoy, later the Kings of Sardinia and later still the Kings of Italy used the title of Prince of Piedmont. This is why the arms of Piedmont are the same as the arms of the House of Savoy differenced with a blue so-called label. In heraldry, a label is used to mark the elder son.

In Piedmont three versions of the regional flag are in use: One which is a heraldic banner of the region’s arms, another with an added blue border and yet another which has both a border of blue as well as fringes of gold. The latter of these is the official regional flag, adopted in 1995, the most common is the version with the blue border.


Read also about the Cross of Saint George (Saint George’s Day) and the Cross of Saint Andrew (Saint Andrew’s Day and The Russian Connection).