Whitney Smith: Flags of the Arab World, 1958

It was 57 years ago this month that the word vexillology first appeared in print, in an article by the founder of flag studies, Whitney Smith, in the now discontinued journal The Arab World.

Whitney Smith, Jr. Flags of the Arab World. In the journal The Arab World, volume 5, October 1958, pp. 12-13.
A photocopy of Smith’s two-page article.  Click for a larger image.

Here is a transcription of the article.



One of the most interesting phases of vexillology — the study of flags — is the important contribution to our heritage of flags by the Arab World. The fringes and tassels so often used on banners are derived from those that decorated the robes of religious leaders of the ancient Middle East; triangular flags are another Arab innovation. The custom of attaching one end of a flag to a pole while the rest is allowed to fly free is Arab in origin: the Romans and Greeks suspended their ensigns from cross-bars affixed to staffs or spears. And the designs in use today in many countries have been directly influenced by an Arab tradition, unfettered by European heraldic rules, which developed new and striking flags to command the allegiance of millions. Pictured below are the present-day National Flags of the members of the League of Arab States.

League of Arab States. The League flag has a green background symbolizing the fertile lands of the Arab World, such as the Nile and Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys. The prosperity of the members of the League is represented by the white wreath of grain and their solidarity by the golden chain; the white crescent has long been a symbol of the Islamic religion and of Arab states. In the center the Arabic words “The League of Arab States” appear in conventionalized form.

Algeria. At the time of the landing of the French army of invasion in Algeria, and when Emir Abdel-Kader led the resistance of the Algerian people against the French forces, the Algerian flag was half green and half white, with a golden open hand (signifying friendship). The green was the color of the prophet, while the white meant purity. In the early twenties, when the first nationalist movements for independence were organized, the Red Crescent and Star replaced the golden hand. The Crescent and Star are symbols of Arab lands in general and they fly in the skies everywhere.

Iraq. The Iraqi tricolor of black, white, and green is the newest Arab flag; it was first used officially on 14 July 1959, the first anniversary of the Republic of Iraq. In the center is a red star surmounted by a white-bordered yellow circle, this being a modification of the new National Seal. These designs replace a flag and coat-of-arms of the same colors, but different design, which had been used since 1924.

Jordan. The Jordanian flag is like that of Iraq with stripes of black (top), white (middle), and green (bottom), but there is only one star and a red triangle replaces the trapezium at the hoist of the Iraqi flag. These so-called “Pan-Arab” colors are sometimes interpreted as meaning the fertility of Arab lands (green), the past centuries of disunity and oppression (black), the hope for a great future (red), and Arab chivalry and hospitality (white).

Kuwait. Kuwait, although not presently a member of the League of Arab States, has recently participated in various activities of the Arab League. Since the word “Kuwait” which is in white on the flag reads from right to left and shows through on the other side, the flag must be pictured with the pole to the right. The flag has the characteristic red field of Arab flags and was first hoisted in 1914.

Lebanon. The green cedars of Lebanon mentioned in the Bible have long been an emblem of that nation and it is appropriate that there should be one on the National Flag which was adopted in 1943 when the country gained its freedom. The red stripes symbolize self-sacrifice for the nation, the white denotes peace, and the cedar tree is a sign of immortality, strength, and holiness.

Libya. Libya became an independent nation in 1951 after many decades of foreign rule. The flag designed at this time was based on the black flag with a white star and crescent used by Cyrenaica (one of the Libyan provinces); a red stripe was added for Fezzan and a green one for Tripolitanian. The star and crescent motif has been used by Arab countries for 500 years and appears on flags of countries stretching from Morocco on the Atlantic to the Malay States near the Pacific.

Morocco. A red background has been employed in many Moroccan flags; one of these had two crossed white yataghans (a type of sword) and a border of white triangles and one was solid red with no device at all. The present flag, adopted in 1915 and now flown from Tangiers to the Sahara, has in the center a green five-pointed star with interlaced sides which also appears in the National Coat-of-Arms.

Saudi Arabia. On the green background of the Saudi National Flag is written the Muslim creed la illaha illah allah wa muhammad ur-rusul allah — there is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God. The white Arabic script reads from right to left and must be sewn separately on each side of the flag so that it does not appear backwards. The basic design is like that of a banner carried centuries ago by an Arab general in the time of Omar.

Sudan. The Sudan flew the Egyptian and British ensigns together for the decades that it was under their condominium. Then, upon gaining independence in 1956, a new National Flag was adopted of three equal horizontal stripes. The blue (top) stands for the Nile River that enriches the nation, the yellow (center) for the deserts found there, and the green (bottom) for the fertility of the land.

Tunisia. Long under the domination of the Ottoman Empire, Tunisia continued to employ the red banner and star and crescent used by the Turks but put a distinctive white circle in the centre when independence was won. This flag, like that of Libya, is pictured as flying from right to left because a waxing moon (increscent) is considered more favorable than a waning one (decrescent). The true heraldic crescent has the horns pointing upwards, as in the League flag.

United Arab Republic. The United Arab Republic was created last year by the union of the independent nations of Syria and Egypt; a flag for the new nation became official on April 10, 1958. It retains the four colors of the former Egyptian and Syrian flags by having three horizontal stripes of black, white, and red (from top to bottom) and two green stars in the center to represent the two geographical regions of the country.

Yemen. For centuries Yemen had flown a red flag with Arabic script on either side, but in 1927 this became the King’s Standard and Ensign of the National Guard. The new flag adopted then is still red but carries five white stars, one for each of the geographical regions that the country is composed of, and surrounded by the stars a white sabre much like that on the Saudi flag.

[Published in the journal The Arab World, volume 5, October 1958, pp. 12-13.]

Whitney Smith in 2007.
Whitney Smith in 2007.

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