Crescent and Star

Banner of Constantinople(image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Looking at the banner above with the crescent moon and star, the first thought that comes to mind is either “Turkey” or “Islam” and it would make perfect sense. However, as you may have already suspected, things are not that simple. As a matter of fact, the banner above of the white crescent moon and star on a red field is the banner of the city of Constantinople!

The crescent moon has been in use for centuries before Islam was even an idea or the Prophet born. Though it may seem surprising at first, it makes perfect sense once you start thinking about it. The crescent moon is a natural symbol and has been visible to human for millenia in the night sky. Stars as well have enthralled our species since we first gazed to the heavens. So, why has this symbolism been associated with Turkey and Islam?

In this post, we will explore the history of the crescent and star and reach to today’s situation.

The specific combination of the crescent and star has been in use, as mentioned before, for centuries. Specifically, this symbolism was most prevalent in the Hellenistic and Persian worlds. We find this on pottery, art and coinage of the region during the pre-Islamic and pre-Christian epochs.

Banner of Byzantium(image courtesy of Wikipedia)

There are records indicating the city-state of Byzantium first started using the crescent and star in coinage and just the crescent on the state’s banner some time in 4th century BC. It is said that the Byzantines (city) used the crescent as a way to pay tribute to their protector goddess Artemis who, they believed, helped them defeat a mighty enemy.

In post-classical Greece, we see art where Artemis is adorned with the crown of the crescent moon and much later, in the Renaissance do we find her adorned with crescents. This raises the question of why is the crescent associated with Artemis. My personal belief is that the crescent was originally a hunter’s bow which later evolved to become the crescent. As it is well known, Artemis was the goddess of the hunt and her ascribed skills with the bow and arrow were unequaled.

An alternative theory is that it was not Artemis at all but rather Hecate, an ancient, cthonic goddess. Hecate, according to Hesiod’s Theogny, was the only daughter of Asteria (“stars” in Greek) who in turn was the sister of Leto, mother of Artemis and Apollo. Hecate was linked to the dark side of the moon and, more importantly, Phoebe, the mother of Asteria and Leto, grandmother to Hecate, Artemis and Apollo was the personification of the moon.

In any case, by the 4th century AD the symbol was unequivocably a crescent moon and the banner of the city of Byzantium was a white crescent on a red field.

It was in 330AD that Emperor Constantine I of Rome refounded the city as his new capital calling the city Nova Roma. It was Constantine who added the six pointed star to the flag to honor the Virgin Mary.

Constantine rebuilt the city almost completely and because of all the work he did there and the emphasis he put into his “new Rome”, it became known as Constantine’s City or in Greek “Κωνσταντινούπολη”/”Constantinople” (note that in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the Greek language was more prevalent than Latin). This name became official after Constantine’s death in 337AD and remained so until the city was renamed once again in 1930 by the new Republic of Turkey to “Istanbul”.

On May 29, 1453 the Ottoman forces of Mehmed II the Conqueror entered Constantinople, finally eradicating the Byzantine Empire. As Mehmed considered himself to be the Emperor of Rome, he wanted to incorporate the Roman symbolism into that of his empire. A note should be made here that it wasn’t until the 16th century that the Eastern Roman Empire came to be known as “Byzantine”. Until then, it was still known alternatively as the “Roman Empire”, the “Eastern Roman Empire” and the “Empire of the Greeks”. This explains why Mehmed considered himself the “Roman Emperor”. However, the Western Europeans dismissed this claim, a fact that did not sit well with the new “Emperor”. To settle this once and for all, he attempted to capture the “old” Rome in Italy. Though he was successful at first, capturing parts of the Italian peninsula (such as Otranto and Apulia), the Ottoman forces withdrew after Mehmed’s death in 1481.

Flag of Turkey(image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Of course, Turkey is the successor state of the once mighty Ottoman Empire, created by Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk”, who replaced the previous form of government under the powerless Ottoman Sultan in 1923. The national emblem of the new republic are displayed above.

The story so far is interesting and explains how the crescent moon and star became associated with Turkey. But, how about the general association with Islam?

In Islam, there is the concept regarding the political leadership of the Muslim world (or ummah) called the ‘caliphate’. The head of the caliphate is called the caliph or Amir al-Mu’minin (“Leader of the Believers”) and is considered the successor to the Prophet Muhammed.

COA Ottoman Empire(image courtesy of Wikipedia)

There have been many caliphates from the inception of Islam, the first one, of course, being that under Muhammed himself with the capital in Medina in present day Saudi Arabia. However, the largest caliphate of them all was the Ottoman Empire itself.

All the Ottoman rulers used the title of Caliph but, it wasn’t until 1517 when the title was solidified. This was the year the Ottomans conquered the Mamluk Sultanate and took over the Arab lands. The Mamluk Sultan (of the Abassid faimly) also considered himself the Caliph and when he was defeated in 1517, the last Abassid Caliph, al-Mutawakkil III, turned over the title to the Ottoman Sultan, Selim I.

Now, considering that the Ottoman Empire was the sole caliphate in the world for three centuries and all of Islam centered around the Ottomans, it is easy to understand how Muslims came to associate their faith with the symbol of the empire. With the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the new countries that sprang were also Muslim and based their national symbology on that of the Ottomans.

Flag of Pakistan

The conclusion is that the crescent moon and star has a rather recent link to Islam (from the 15th century) and it shouldn’t dissuade any prospective armiger from using this combination on their arms. I bet that if the Prophet Muhammed had seen, say, the flag of Pakistan (above) he’d dismiss it as a Roman banner!

One Comment

  1. […] ve mimarimiz dahil birçok şeyimiz Yunan medeniyetinden ödünç. Hilal&Yıldız; Konstantin bayrağı. Sembolik mimarimiz büyük ölçüde Ayasofya’dan esinlenilmiş. Bizans’tan yani. […]

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