Flags of the Ottoman Empire

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The Şeyhülislam declaring a Holy War against the Entente Powers in 1914,[1] with Ottoman flags placed in front of the podium.

The Ottoman flag refers to any of the flags used by the ruling Sultans of the House of Osman. Various flags were used within the Ottoman Empire during its existence, and the sultan also used different personal flags on different occasions of state. Due to the complex social and political organisation of the Ottoman Empire, throughout most of its history there was no single proper national flag, until 1844. In 1844, as part of the Tanzimat reforms, the first official national flag of the Ottoman Empire was adopted. This flag, which had a five-pointed star and crescent (Turkish: Ay-yıldız), also formed the basis of the present-day flag of the Republic of Turkey. The crescent moon in the Ottoman flag was often thicker than its present form (see photo).

Foundation and rise (1299–1453)[edit]

The early years were a time of the Ottomans defining themselves, a process which did not come to a conclusion until they took Constantinople in 1453. Osman I, a ghazi warlord in Söğüt and the founder of the Ottoman Empire, was acclaimed the Khan of the Kayıhan in 1299 and it was this title that he bore to his death, establishing the backbone upon which the empire was founded. He inherited this title from his father Ertugrul, who inherited it from his father Suleyman Shah, who inherited it from his father Kayaalp, this going back to when the Kayihan were a roving tribe of Oghuz nomads who inhabited the area surrounding Mount Khan Tengri.

Osman's grandson Murad I, who bore the level of Roman legitimacy his father could only dream of, ironically reversed his father's policy and forged a completely new identity for the domains, casting off any claim to Roman legitimacy or tribal affiliations and founding the Ottoman Empire. It is unknown why red was chosen for the new flag. It has no bearing to traditional tribal colours (which were white and gold) or popular Turkic colours (usually blue, white and gold).

Growth and stagnation (1453–1793)[edit]

From left to right: Flag of Algerian pirates; Flag given to Osman I by the Seljuk sultan Mesud II (1289); Ottoman naval flag (16th century); Ottoman army flag (16th century); Ottoman army flag (17th century)

The original flag changed very little, the gold crescent merely makes its appearance for the first time. By the 18th century this began to be flown as a rectangular as opposed to triangular flag, but remained essentially unchanged. The gold is actual gold-woven silk, and in lieu of this white cloth as opposed to yellow-dyed cloth was used, as not everyone could afford such luxury.

In some Turkish tribes and states, the crescent-shaped symbols were used extensively. The crescent was quite popular in Persia, which was the origin of most of the non-Roman Ottoman culture at that point, and it was remarkably similar to the Kayi clan tamgha from which Osman was descended and the Khanate of which the Ottoman state emerged. The crescent for the Ottoman Empire therefore was a powerful message.

With control of Constantinople and the Bosphorus came new commercial opportunities and new threats from Venice and Genoa, who feared for their interests and colonies in the Aegean and Black Sea. The Ottomans felt the need for a strong navy and merchant marine, and instituted a number of reforms. These included naval identification flags, including flags signifying command ships, and a set of merchant flags based on religion, each of which was treated differently by the legal system.[citation needed] The Ottoman Navy also had flags for individual ships and commanders.

With the conquest of Syria and Egypt, the Sultan was no longer a successor of Rome in a mostly Christian land, but also the sovereign of Egypt and Caliph of Sunni Islam. So a disc of the color green, the color of Islam, was placed upon the imperial flag. The many-crescents motif was maintained, but was reduced to three upon the disc, and now represented the three titles and three continents that the house of Osman ruled over: Egypt in Africa, the Caliphate in Asia, and Rûm in Europe.

Decline and dissolution (1793–1923)[edit]

Declaration of the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 by the leaders of the Ottoman millets, with a pair of Ottoman flags.
The Ottoman Navy on a postcard from WWI, with an image of Sultan Mehmed V.

The flag of the Ottoman navy was made red as red was to be the flag of secular institutions and green of religious ones, following the New Order reforms. All religious institutions were "spun off" and while the emperor remained caliph and retained religious roles, the sultanate secularized itself. The navy went through radical modernization reforms.

The army was completely restructured. The janissaries were disbanded and some were killed as they resisted modernization. This restructuring was accompanied by a new flag design, without the colour, religious overtones, and excess of the janissaries, and in the style of European armies of the day it was a bicolour flag containing the two, now official, Ottoman colours.

Furthering the New Order reforms, the Empire was centralised and all the various sub-sultanates, pashaliks, beyliks and emirates were abolished, including the Ottoman Sultanate. A new flag was designed to replace all these flags with one single national flag. The result was the red and white flag with the crescent moon and star, which is the precursor to the modern Turkish flag. Secularisation made the religions equal under law, doing away with the complex hierarchy of religions in relation to taxation and mercantile pursuits, so a plain red flag was made the civil flag for all Ottoman subjects.

Imperial Standard of the Sultan[edit]

The imperial standard displayed the sultan's tughra, often on a pink or bright red background. Some Ottoman flags were dark green (either simple green flags, or bearing the star and crescent in white or yellow). Many royal banners picture the legendary Zulfikar sword. As of 1862 the flag of the sultan was green with seven thin, red, horizontal lines.

Imperial Standard of the Caliph[edit]

The standard used by the last caliph, Abdülmecid II, consisted of a green flag with a star and crescent in white on a red oval background within a rayed ornament, all in white.

Flag poles[edit]

The flagpoles were often decorated by a crescent, a wolf's head, a horsetail or a Qur'an box. In addition, banners were always accompanied by a number of smaller flags, pennants, icons and various other items with symbolic meaning (for example, the Janissaries used to parade with their cauldrons).

Relation to the flag of the Republic of Turkey[edit]

Main article: Flag of Turkey
The current flag of Turkey, almost the same as the last Ottoman flag but proportionally standardised by the Turkish Flag Law on 29 May 1936. Also notice the thinner crescent.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I (1914–1918) and the foundation of the Republic of Turkey (1923) following the Turkish War of Independence (1919–1922), the new Turkish state maintained the last flag of 1844 of the Ottoman Empire, but introduced proportional standardisations in 1936. The flag of Turkey bears, on a red background, the white crescent moon and a five-pointed star with definite geometrical proportions, established and regulated by the Turkish Flag Law (Turkish: Türk Bayrağı Kanunu) of May 29, 1936.

See also[edit]


  • Catalan Atlas, Cresques Abraham 1375
  • Topkapı Museum, Flag Exhibit, Istanbul
  • Ottoman Painted Miniatures, Turkish Ministry of Culture
  • Portolan Chart, Petrus Roselli, 1466
  • Portolan Chart, Albino de Canepa, 1489
  • Flags of the World, Ottoman Empire

External links[edit]