Ottomans’ flags, banners for battles

Ottomans’ flags, banners for battles

Niki Gamm ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Ottomans’ flags, banners for battles

During the conquest of Egypt in 1517 Yavuz Sultan Selim planted a red flag next to the white flag in front of his imperial tent. The red has been traced back to the time of the Hunic invasion of Europe.

We’ll never know when it was that our ancestors decided a flag, banner or standard was useful, but it certainly must have come from some ad hoc occasion. The modern definition of a flag for instance describes it “as a piece of cloth, partially colored, or of a single color, plain or bearing symbols and flown from a staff or halyard.” Cloth wouldn’t have been available at the time flags first came into being, but how about animal skin or a plant? How about a tree branch instead of a pole or mast? It reminds one of improvised childhood games.

The earliest known flag or standard is a bronze one dated back to the Middle East in the third millennium B.C. It is considered a war standard, judging from the regal imagery on it. Standards, banners and pennants are generally considered to be part of the equipment of organized military troops. They would be carried at the head of the troops or might serve as a rallying point during battle. Sometimes they might have been as simple as a streamer on the top of a lance. Today we might call them military ensigns. They were used among the Assyrians, Egyptians and even the Hebrews. The ancient Greeks apparently did not have flags or banners per se, but used designs on shields to indicate to which city state they belonged.

The Romans are famed for the eagles which were associated with their legions although the very first standard is reported as being a handful of straw.

The first Islamic armies under the Prophet Mohammed carried flags made of a single color - black if Prophet Mohammed himself led, or white if one of his companions was leading. Generally speaking there were no designs and no writing on the early flags. The Fatimids who ruled in Egypt (909–1171) continued this with a green banner that contained no design or writing, while their successors, the Mamluks (1250–1517), it has been speculated had a golden flag.

HDN Ottomans start with flag bearing golden design

In the very earliest years, the Ottomans had a flag with a golden design on a white background that represented their descent from a Central Asian tribe. It was given to Osman Gazi by the Seljuk Sultan Alaaddin and was used as the state flag even during the reign of Kanuni Sultan Süleyman. The design has the look of a very stylized bird with two wings lifted. During the reign of Sultan Murad I (r. 1361-1389), a flag which had the image of a red shield turned on its side on a white ground was also used. This was supposedly used until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. It has been theorized that the Ottomans adopted the Byzantine flag imagery following the conquest, but the banners that remain from the Byzantines don’t resemble Ottoman flags and banners at all. Fatih Sultan Mehmed had a green flag with three crescent moons on his imperial galley during the siege of Constantinople according to historical sources.

During the conquest of Egypt in 1517 Yavuz Sultan Selim planted a red flag next to the white flag in front of his imperial tent. The red has been traced back to the time of the Hunic invasion of Europe. Green was considered more religiously oriented and connoted jihad or holy war.

Sancak-ı Şerif was the most important flag

The most important flag for the Ottomans was the “Sancak-ı Şerif” or Holy Banner which is supposed to have been used in the time of the Prophet Mohammed. It came into Ottoman hands at the time of the conquest of Egypt when the caliphate was taken up by the Ottomans. It was kept in the Treasury at Topkapı Palace and would be taken out with great ceremony to accompany the Ottoman army when the sultan or the grand vizier was leading it into battle. Chronicler Mehmed Raşid wrote in 1716 that the day before the disastrous Ottoman defeat at Petrovaradin the Sancak-ı-Şerif had been unfurled on the battlefield and Grand Vizier Damad Ali Pasa had waited beneath it on his horse for hours for the Austrians to come and do battle but they never arrived. In spite of the defeat the next day, the Sancak-ı Şerif was saved and is kept safely in the Topkapı Palace Museum today.

When the Sancak-ı Şerif was proceeding into battle in front of the sultan, seven imperial horse-tail standards would also be carried in front of him. Following the declaration of war they would be planted in front of Topkapı. Five horse-tails would be planted in front of the palace of whoever led the army into battle, usually the grand vizier. Three-horse tails were also placed in front of the homes of those who were going to be among the army leaders.

A third type of standard was the imperial emblem, which was placed on the top of the imperial tents. They can easily be seen in miniatures depicting the Ottoman army on the march. They often had inscriptions on them from the Quran and sometimes there were floral motifs filling in any empty spaces. They could be made of copper, bronze, brass, iron and gold. Only in the 19th century did these standards started to incorporate a star and crescent moon.

The Ottomans began to change their flags in the direction of today’s Turkish flag in the reign of Sultan Selim III (r. 1789-1807) with a red background and yellow crescent moons in the middle and in each of the four corners. It was in the time of Sultan Abdulmecid (r. 1839-1861) that the stars were added and initially adopted in 1844.

Niki Gamm,