I concluded my previous post on the Ancient star and crescent symbol by mentioning the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire, both political and cultural realms that used and carried the star and crescent symbolism from Classical Antiquity into the Middle-Ages. With the 7th century’s demise of the Sassanid dynasty, their dualistic interpretation of the star (Mithra) and crescent (Anahita) decreased almost immediately in importance and relevance. Sassanid royalty was no more, so the original function of featuring these astral symbols as part of the royal regalia to claim divinity and religious legitimacy had withered away. The Umayyads retained the Sassanid coins for a while to use as silver dirhams, which featured the star and crescent as it has been since their introduction in Persian coinage. It’s important to note that the Umayyads did not attach any meaning to these symbols, other than copying them on their own struck coins, leaving these symbols as a mere reflection of the fading Sassanid existence in the new conquerors’ coinage.
Neither the Umayyads or the Abbasids did as a matter of fact use the star and crescent, a mistake often made in popular culture, most notably in video games like Knights of Honor, Civilization V and Medieval II Total War. The star and crescent only entered Muslim political and cultural imagery from the 11th-12th century onward and became popular in the 14th century. As described in the above mentioned post, it was the Byzantine Empire that had really adopted the star and crescent as one of its major symbols native to its capital Constantinople (former Byzantium). From churches to armor, banners to religious art, the two heavenly bodies seem to be ubiquitous within the cultural and political reach of the state. When the Seljuk Turks arrived in the Middle East and invaded the Byzantine Empire during the 11th century, the contact with their new enemies was one of both enmity and cultural exchange, a phenomenon especially true for those Turks that settles in Anatolia, the so called Rūm Sultanate.
Andrew Peacock and Sara Yildiz describe in their The Seljuks of Anatolia (2015) how the identity of the Anatolian Muslims was extremely complex, especially the elite, and how it included Byzantine (Greek and Christian) elements. A member of the Seljuk elite could even at times act as a Byzantine. Additionally, they mention that the preservation of Christian identity by Greek brides in non-Christian environments was a normal practice. They conclude that Christianity and the Greek language were not foreign to local Muslim culture, but rather formed some of its constituent elements. This leads researchers to believe that the star and crescent, being an integral part of Byzantine culture, was adopted as well by the Seljuk elite of the region. Indeed, some 14th century European manuscripts depict Seljuk knights clashing with Crusaders with crescents on their shields and on their horse sheets.
It’s interesting to notice that the crescent is used in European art by the 14th century to generalize Muslim banners. In another 14th century manuscript (Hayton of Corycus – Fleur des histoires d’orient), a Mongol force besieging the city of Sidon is depicted brandishing a blue banner with a white crescent. The Mongol army, led by the Christian Kitbuqa, consisted mainly of Armenians and Georgians, making it unlikely they were fighting under a crescent banner. Even more unlikely is an illustration by the same author of the Battle of Yarmūk (636), in which the Muslim forces wave a red banner with star and crescent, which was in the 7th century completely non-existent among Muslim forces. We could witness the same in the 14th century Catalan Atlas, a map of the entire known world by Majorcan cartographer Abraham Cresques. He identifies the realm of the Grand Khan with a banner of three red crescents on a dark background, as far as the country of Cathay (China) and thus encompassing the whole Mongol Empire. There’s no historical evidence that the Grand Khan used a flag with such design. It’s more appropriate to some other khanates, whose rulers had converted to Islam by the time of Cresques’ Atlas. This suggests that a flag of a Muslim khanate might have been attributed to the Grand Khan in particular, and his empire in general, by the cartographer.
The star and crescent did, however, reach the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and the Levant. The Mamluks, themselves mainly of Kipchack and Cuman Turkic descent, appear in an illustration of Hayton of Corycus in his 14th century History of the Tatars fighting some Mongol knights during the Battle of Wādī al-Khazandār (1299). They can be seen brandishing a red banner with a black crescent and star. This is confirmed by Abraham Cresques in his Catalan Atlas, in which he shows the Mamluk sultan being surrounded by several golden yellow banners that feature a white crescent. Yet another contemporary source confirms this combination of yellow and white, which became a characteristic dynastical Mamluk color. The 14th century Castilian Book of Knowledge of All Kingdoms, a geographical manual written in the form of imaginary autobiographical travelogue, states that the flag of Damascus is a golden yellow banner with a white crescent. Damascus at the time was part of the Mamluk Sultanate.
There was another faction to use the star and crescent during the Crusades, and not a Muslim one. As early as the 12th century, these two astral symbols appear on coins struck in the County of Tripoli. Count Raymond III of Tripoli started to mint such coins after 1173, the city being a famous mint for silver deniers. Similar coins were found in Antioch, more specifically a silver denier featuring a helmeted knight flanked by a crescent and star, a coin minted under Raymond of Poitiers (1099-1149). A theory offered by some authors on the subject is the idea that the Crusader lords would’ve wanted to appeal to their Muslim subjects and find their immediate recognition by adopting their symbols. This would seem unlikely, however, as the star and crescent only became popular among Muslims much later. The second theory is much more plausible. Jonathan Harris describes in his Byzantium and the Crusades (2003) how “Latins” (Western Europeans) were much more visible in Constantinople than the centuries before because of their increasingly extensive recruitment as mercenaries by the Byzantines against the Turks and as a result of the expansion of the pilgrimage traffic to Jerusalem. It should also be mentioned that the Byzantine Empire retained a high influence on cities like Antioch, in addition to the existence and spread of its churches, coins and imagery featuring the star and crescent, which all facilitated the spread of these two symbols.
It gets even more interesting, as several important Crusader figures adopted the star and crescent on their personal seals during their time in the Outremer. The three lions on the famous Second Great Seal of Richard I of England were only used after his reconquest of Normandy in 1194. His First Great Seal, however, was adopted during his time in the Holy Land, right after him defeating the Byzantine Isaac Komnenos of Cyprus in 1191. The obverse of this seal shows him seated on a throne, flanked by a star and crescent. The grandson of Alfonso Jordan and great-grandson of Raymond IV of Toulouse (both Counts of Tripoli), Raymond VI of Toulouse, used a star and crescent in his personal seal. His fourth wife was the Byzantine daughter of the aforementioned Isaac Komnenos. Many returning Crusaders introduced these symbols in Europe as a sign of honor and a token of their experiences. As a result, the star and crescent occasionally appear in European heraldry and personal/dynastic coats of arms by the late 13th century.
The most important nation, however, to have fixed the star and crescent symbol into the current modern-day popular collective consciousness is without doubt the Ottoman Empire. It’s imperative to understand the key position the Byzantine Empire played with regard to the Ottoman royal symbolism. Daniel Goffman describes in his The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe (2002) how the Ottoman Empire was in fact the Byzantine Empire reborn, considered by both Europeans and Ottomans themselves as a part of the European world. Olsen and Gray state in their The Practice of Strategy (2011) how Muḥammad II declared himself Caesar, the heir of the Byzantine emperors and lord of the two lands (Anatolia and the Balkans) and two seas (the Black Sea and the Aegean). Constantinople played a huge role in that decision, forming an irresistible attraction and an effective switch from the Ottoman nomadic past towards an imperial future. The Ottomans were in fact in some way the inheritors of the Roman heritage in its eastern Byzantine form. For these aforementioned reasons, it’s natural that the Ottomans added Byzantine symbols, among which the star and crescent that their Turkic predecessors already used, to their cultural register.
From the 16th century onward, the Ottomans started to use banners on a large scale, especially in their navy. Among their most popular symbols were the Seal of Solomon and Dhū al-Faqār although the (star and) crescent became increasingly popular towards the 16th and 17th century. Several paintings, among which a famous 17th century painting of the Battle of Lepanto (1571), depict the Ottoman warships with several different banners on which different combinations of stars and crescents appear. The same goes for another, 16th century, painting by an anonymous painter currently at the National Maritime Museum in London. The naval Ottoman banners are a constant subject of international vexillological and naval art, be it the 18th century Atlas Novus, the Histoire de la Marine Française or the 19th century Flags of all seafaring powers and nations in the entire world, the star and crescent were almost ubiquitously present in the Turkish navy. The fact that their maritime symbols swiftly conformed with international customs, both for ships and their commanders, enabled the Turkish naval flags were to be so extensively described in foreign literature.
This is less so on land until the adoption of a national and standardized Ottoman flag in the 19th century. Nevertheless, the crescent (and star) did occasionally appear among military regiments and on religious buildings. The pole top of the typical Turkish tug (a banner of horse tail hairs) developed into a crescent, as could be witnessed on two etchings engraved by Dutch artist Romeyn de Hooghe in 1684 depicting the siege of Vienna by the Ottomans. The same is true for Medieval Ottoman and Mamluk mosques, on which the crescent became a popular decorative element. The famous The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus, a 1511 painting from the workshop of Gentile Bellini, shows the minarets of Damascus, then under Mamluk control, with crescents on top. This was also the case for Constantinople in the same era, as seen on a 16th century Ottoman manuscript, depicting a market in the Jerrāḥ Pasha district. You can see golden crescents on the domes of te mosque in the background. This architectural tradition spread rapidly post-1453.
In conclusion of this extensive read, on which I could write several more paragraphs, I have to note that the modern-day association of the star and crescent with Islam and its appearance on so many Muslim nations’ flags is the direct result of its extensive use by the Ottoman Empire which, as a caliphate, represented Islam and Islamic rule of law for many believers up until the 20th century.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.