Identifying the Flags of the Souvenir of Egypt

The Flags of the Souvenir of Egypt

Flags are historically rich artifacts because they usually signify a specific location in space and time in which they were in use. The Souvenir of Egypt,a textile of uncertain origins that is part of the Travelers in the Middle East Archive, includes rich visual imagery, including seven unidentified flags.

Souvenir of Egypt

By determining their periods of use, we can narrow down the period in which the Souvenir of Egypt might have been produced and thus make a more informed argument about the silk's significance. Some of these flags you may recognize right away, and some may be completely foreign to you. Even a familiar flag, however, could be subtly different from the one you are identifying with it. Consider how the flag of the United States has changed over time.

Flags of the United States Over Time

Our search will be all the more interesting in that we have almost no information about these flags other than their appearance. It will require a very creative use of the resources available to us, including combining several resources to corroborate our findings. As we explore resources such as flag histories and flag databases, note the different ways that these tools can be used and in what situations one tool may be better than another.

Let's start with the most prominent flags in the image: the top two in the middle, taking the one on the left first, then moving clockwise around the image.

Flag 1

Flag 1

Note the key features of this flag: it includes three crescent and star pairs in white on a red background. In our search for the identity of this flag we will be drawing heavily on the resources available at Rice's Fondren Library. However, the same techniques are applicable at most libraries.

Let's begin with the online catalog to see what sort of resources are available there for us to use. Visit WebCat, enter "flags of the world," select the keyword bubble above the box, and then select the Search Everything option. If you would like a review of using online catalogs please visit our library catalog module. Results two, three, and four look promising.

Search results 2-4: "National flags of the world," "The New Rand McNally college world atlas," and "Flags of the World."

Result six reminds us that flags change over time, often into completely different designs than the previous flag.

Search result 6: "Flags through the ages."

Results eleven and twelve also seem to address the history of flags and the way they change over time. An earlier publication might contain information that newer books would leave out in favor of more recent developments.

Search results 11-12: "Flags of the world, past and present" and "The flags of the world; their history, blazonry, and associations."

Getting an exact match for our flag will require a bit of browsing. Let's gather up several of these resources so that we can review their contents for the information we need in one sitting. Besides, you will notice the similarities in their call numbers. Remember that similar books are grouped together for their content. When you visit the stacks, you should always look around for other related material.

We have settled on three works to begin with--those of W.J. Gordon, F. Edward Hume, and Whitney Smith. Let's work from oldest to most recent. It is important for research involving such time-dependent artifacts as flags that we pay close attention to exactly when the information we are gathering on each flag was published.

"The Flags of the World; Their History, Blazonry and Associations" written by F. Edward Hulme in 1897 In 1897 the world was a very different place. Consider for a moment the position of Britain. In 1897 the British Empire stretched over the entire globe and claimed a hold over the lands of hundreds of thousands of people who, today, recognize themselves as citizens of independent nations. This is an aspect of Hulme's perspective that we may want to consider when reading his work.

A brief author search in the catalog reveals that Hulme wrote quite a few books in his time and on a variety of subjects. Although we do not know if he was an expert on the subject we are researching, we do know that he felt qualified to write on wildflowers, symbolism in religious art, the meanings of proverbs, interpretations of natural formations in European architecture, and floral design for the home and garden, and, as the listing on the title page of Flags of the World says, &c., &c.".

Other works by Hulme, from title page to "Flags of the World"

What does this tell us? We know that the author felt qualified to write about a variety of things, not an uncommon self-attribution in Hulme's day, but yielding a less expert analysis than, say, someone who has spent his or her life studying one subject.

On the first page of the introduction, Hulme offers his perspective on the nature and function of heraldry:"So soon as man passes from the lowest stage of barbarism the necessity for some special sign, distinguishing man from man, tribe from tribe, nation from nation, makes itself felt; and this prime necessity once met, around the symbol chosen spirit-stirring memories quickly gather that endear it, and make it the emblem of the power and dignity of those by whom it is borne... the distinctive Union Flag of Britain, the tricolor of France, the gold and scarlet bars of the flag of Spain, all alike appeal with irresistible force to the patriotism of those beneath their folds, and speak to them of the glories and greatness of the historic past, the duties of the present, and the hopes of the future..." We have here several imperial motifs, such as the path from barbarism to civilization, the association of patriotism with emblems, etc. Although these observations do not immediately relate to our current task of identifying the flags, they could suggest a direction for a project examining, for instance, the social and political function of flags.

We do not locate our flag specifically in Hulme's book, but we do find this:

Flags similar to flag 1

Notice the two flags on the bottom of the page. We have a paired crescent moon and a star on a red background, but not three crescent/star pairs.

We check the appendix for our plate number (listed atop the images), 21

Plate 21

and find the region of origin, Turkey. If we then look to the index at the back of the book...

Turkey in index

we find Turkey's location in the text. Let's see what Hulme has to say about the flags: "The crescent moon and star... were adopted by the Turks as their device on the capture of Constantinople by Mahomet II, in 1453. They were originally the symbol of Diana, the Patroness of Byzantium, and were adopted by the Ottomans as a badge of triumph. Prior to that event, the crescent was a very common charge in the armorial bearings of English Knights, but it fell into considerable disuse when it became the special device of the Mohamedans, though even so late as the year 1464 we find Rene, Duke of Anjou, founding an Order of Knighthood having as its badge the crescent moon, encircled by a motto signifying 'praise by increasing.' This historical information may prove relevant, particularly the association of the star and crescent with Constantinople since 1453. Let's move on the next work.

"Flags of the World, Past and Present : Their Story and Associations" written by William John Gordon in 1926 Published thirty years after Hulme's book, Gordon's work likely includes all that has changed after World War I. This is important for our research in particular because of the marked impact that WWI had on the borders and national identities of the Arab World. Let's jump to the table of contents and see about our options.

Table of contents

Flags of Africa and Asia seems to be the most promising section for our purposes, considering what we have learned so far about our flag.

Plate XXVIII, Flags of Africa and Asia.

Note that flags 11 and 12 closely resemble our flag. Let's see where the appendix lists these flags as originating from.

Labels for Plate XXVIII, Flags of Africa and Asia

We discover that flag 11 is Egypt's, while 12 is Turkey's. Let's see what Gordon has to say about Egypt, looking it up in the index.

Gordon writes: "The crescent is more a symbol of Constantinople than of the Turks, and it dates from the days of Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. When, so the legend runs, that enterprising monarch besieged Byzantium in 339 B.C he met with repulse after repulse and tried as a last resource to undermine the walls, but the crescent moon shone out so gloriously that the attempt was discovered and the city saved. And thereupon the Byzantines adopted the crescent as their badge, and Diana, whose emblem it was, as their patronness. When the Roman emperors came, the crescent was not displaced, and it continued to be the city badge under the Christian emperors. In 1453, when Mohammed the Second took Constantinople, it was still to the fore, and being in want of something to vary the monotony of the plain red flag under which he had led his men to victory, he, with great discrimination, availed himself of the old Byzantine badge, explaining that it meant Constantinople on a field of blood..."

"Where the star came from is not so clear. A star within a crescent was a badge of Richard I more than two hundred and fifty years before Constantinople fell, which implies that the crescent was adopted by the Saracens if, as we are told, the device was emblematic of the crusades and the star stood for the star of Bethlehem. In his badge Richard placed the crescent on its back and the star above it; but when Mohammedanism became triumphant the Turks took the star and placed it with the upright crescent where the dark area of the moon should be, from which on some flags it has emerged. Others tell us it is the star of piercing brightness, the morning star, Al Târek, the star which appeareth by the night of the eighty-sixth chapter of the Korân..." More embellishment on the story we read in Hulme. But what of the history of our flag? Let's try the third book.

“Flags Through the Ages and Across the World” written by Whitney Smith in 1975 Smith's book promises to provide useful historical perspective. By 1975 the world had witnessed national conflict of all kinds, including a second world war and countless localized skirmishes dividing existing nations and producing new ones. A brief Author search in the catalog tells us that Smith has written many books, every one about flags.

Let's take a look at the table of contents for our options.

National Flag Histories

Just what we are looking for, National Flags and their Histories. But Smith's book has much more to offer than that, as we shall see. Looking in the index we find an interesting option: Star(s) and moon, symbolism of, 316-317. If we skip to p. 316, we find a collection of such flags,

Star & crescent flags

as well as a numbered index for their origins.

Index of flags

However, when we scan the page for our flag we find an unpleasant piece of evidence...

Missing page!

It is not often that the one page in a book that you need is the one that has been torn out. But such frustrations serve as a reminder of the care required of us when we are permitted to use such resources. With a stiff lip and the resolve of the determined historian, we move on.

As we continue to browse this book we find our symbol in this fascinating chart.

Chart of flags, grouped by categories such as "Flora," "Fauna," and "Abstract Form"

It seems that Smith has categorized the flags in the work by symbol and form as well, the footprint of a specialist indeed.

A scan of the index brings us to the pages on Egypt, the nation of origin for our flag.

Egypt in index to Smith's "Flags"

We have a number of options; let's go right to the history page.

History of Egyptian flag

The first thing we see is our flag along side many other similar flags, an indication of its evolution over the years.

Mehmet Ali

A closer look reveals the handwritten words "Mehmet Ali." The adjoined paragraph explains: The Ottoman flag in the nineteenth century normally bore a white star and crescent on its red field, although both Turkish and Egyptian ships very frequently displayed the old, plain red ensign. Muhammad Ali did introduce one distinctive new flag which eventually became the first real Egyptian national flag. Perhaps to symbolize the victory of his armies in three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa) or his own sovereignty over Egypt, Nubia, and the Sudan, Ali set three white crescents and three stars on a red field. Technically only the personal standard of Muhammad Ali--and of those who followed him as hereditary rules of Egypt under the title of khedive--the flag was at least a mark of distinction between Egypt and Turkey. But it is the next page that fully satisfies our immediate needs.

Egyptian Flags 1914-1923

This chart identifies the period and location of this flag's use. Based on this evidence, we can determine that our flag served as the flag of Egypt and Sudan from 1914-1923. We have gained a good amount of information and gathered a few valuable resources. Let's move on to the next flag.

Flag 2

Flag 2

Here we have the second of the two most dominant flags on the silk. Let's note a few key details about the flag: it includes a red cross bordered with white on a blue background, with another tilted cross (or X) across it. Since we have already explored some print resources, let's look for more resources online.

Let's perform a basic search on line for "flags of the world"; any search engine will do. The first link to come up looks promising:

World Flag Database:

Visit the site and select the search option.

Now we are presented with a truly unique kind of search page. The problem of having to search for images rather than for words has been solved by this site in a very creative manner, as you can see. The options are pretty general, so you can search for the same image in a variety of ways. We have chosen the following:

Searching for flags with cross, red, and blue.

The results bring up more questions than answers, however. There seems to be a variety of applications for the motif of our flag and in a number of places.

Sample flags with our patterns

But there are a few that seem to be a close match.

Selecting the image entitled United Kingdom provides us with the following information.

Information about the United Kingdom from World Flag Database,

A little short of what we have found in other resources. But we can take this information and perform a new search for more extensive information. Let's enter "flag united kingdom" into Google to see what we get.

History of Flag of United Kingdom from

Here we are, the flag and its history. The page on the flag's history tells us that the "Modern flag" of the United Kingdom was adopted in 1801.

Of course, when we are using online sources, we need to make sure that they are credible. By visiting the site home page, we find that is a member of the official organization for the study of flags (called vexillology) and that there is an editorial staff that maintains the pages, so we can probably trust this information.

Flag 3

Flag 3

We note that flag three includes green, white, and red stripes. Within the white field is what appears to be a white cross on a red shield (?) topped with a yellow or gold crown of some sort. Rather than browse through pages and pages of illustration plates, let's see what the World Flag Database can tell us about this combination of colors and bars. First we search for vertical stripes with white or grey, red, and any green.

We find a few options, most having to do with Italy, but none is an exact match. For instance

National Flag of Italy

Let's take the information we have gathered from this source and use it to explore other sources.

Our most recent publication, Whitney Smith, presents us with the following image of Italian flags that is close to ours but missing a few important elements.

Flag of Kingdom of Italy, 1848-1946, Smith

We also find this description of the flag's history: "On 23 March 1848 King Charles Albert of Sardinia ordered his troops about to go to war with the Austrian forces who occupied northern Italy, to carry the Italian Tri-color. In actual practice many variations appeared, but officially the center of the white stripe was to bear the red shield and white cross of the House of Savoy, surrounded by a blue border. The same model on 15 April 1848 replaced the former Sardinian civil ensign and, with the crown above the shield, also became the war ensign. Subsequently, civil and military regulations were issued dealing with certain details of the usage and design of this flag." >Although we find no crown over our ensign, we find it described in the notes. Let's try Hulme's work to find out more.

Hulme also provides with a similar image:

Italian flag with shield, Hulme

He also gives his own historical description of the flag, but no insights into the appearance of the a crown in the image on the silk.

Gordon's book finally provides us with the closest image we have yet to find in any of our sources:

Italian flag with shield and crown, Gordon

He also offers us an explanation for its appearance. "Thus Italy regained the old tricolour for its merchant flag, which would be as Napoleon left it, were it not for the difficulty about that of Mexico, to distinguish it from which it bears the Savoy shield without a crown. The ensign has the crown. The jack is square, being a white cross on red with a broad blue border taking the place of the border of the shield." It would appear that the flag with the shield and crown was in use by Italy from 1848 until the disagreement with Mexico over the rights to use the image, but that date is not given in any of our sources. We know from Smith, however, that the Savoy shield was in use until 1946.

Flag 4

Flag 4

This flag of three vertical stripes with no emblems proves relatively easy to find in all of our sources. The World Flag Database furnishes us with its nationality:

National Flag of Belgium

Personal Confession A flag of three vertical stripes did prove easy to find in our sources. However, probably because I am more familiar with the national flag of Germany,

Germany's Flag

I am willing to confess that I did spend a handful of hours searching for the portrait that we find next to this flag on the silk in our resources on German history. It wasn't until I had exhausted all of the resources at hand that I even considered the possibility that I had made a mistake in identifying the flag as German. This is an excellent place to remind ourselves that making these kind of mistakes is not silly, but par for the course; we all make mistakes. Its only when we find ourselves denying our mistakes despite the inconsistencies they cause in the research that we become truly silly people.

We find the dates for Belgium's flag quickly in the Smith book.

Belgium's flag "dates from 1913, while the Flemish lion can be traced to the twelfth century"

We have the national flag of Belgium, in use since 1913.

Flag 5

Flag 5

Interestingly, none of our sources can provide us with an exact match for this flag, which features the British "Union Jack" in the upper left, adjacent to five white stars of varying sizes on a field of blue. And yet every one of our sources can provide us with dozens of flags that resemble it very closely. Consider this figure from Smith:

Flags resembling Flag 5

The style, called a canton, is relatively old; it includes an image in the upper left hand corner approximately one quarter the size of the whole. According to Smith, the use of the Union Jack as a canton designated everything from the position of a particular ship in a fleet to the identity of a protectorate, dominion or colony in her Empire. The closest to our flag is that of Australia, but we will need to explore other sources for the identity of this elusive flag. Suffice it to say, at this point, that the flag is in line with our collected references to the British Empire and leave its official identity until we have collected more information about the rest of the flags and their relationship to one another.

Flag 6

Flag 6

After quite a bit of searching for this flag both online and in our reference material we have hit a wall: a flag bearing three vertical color bars of white blue and red (in that order from the flag pole out) simply does not seem to exist.

Recall the mistake made a little earlier, when we read the color bars horizontally instead of vertically and came up with Germany instead of Belgium. Let’s investigate the possibility that the artist who painted the design on the silk may have done the same thing.

After entering the new arrangement into the World Flag Database we quickly locate a match.

Russian Federation Flag

Hulme and Gordon, however, list the flag in two different ways, as a commercial and a merchant flag respectively.

Smith offers this caption:

Smith on Russian flag: "Adopted as a civil ensign in 1799 and as an alternate civil flag in 1883, the white-blue-red was used by imperial Russia until 1917. The Russian Republic of that year used it unofficially as its national flag and ensign."

This suggests that the flag would have been in use from 1799 until 1917 by "imperial" Russia, followed by its brief use during that year by the Russian "Republic." This date falls in line with what we have found so far. We will need to wait for our investigation of the portraits to be absolutely sure, though. As we move through our series on the Souvenir of Egypt, we will be exploring the meaning of the dates and analyzing the flags as we build an argument about the significance of the silk. Right now, these rough dates are enough for our purposes here.

Flag 7

Flag 7

Our last flag, which features vertical stripes of blue, white and red, is relatively easy to locate in all of our sources. Although the World Flag Database lists many similar flags, it associates their derivatives to this one:

National Flag of France

Smith offers this genealogy:

Genealogy of the French Flag. Note that the national flag dates from 1848.

This list gives us some variants on the same design and places our flag in the silk at any point beyond 1848.

Dating our Flags Let's summarize what we have so far.

Flag one: in use in Egypt from 1914-1923 as a mark of distinction from Turkey, both of which were under Ottoman rule during the period.

Flag two: In use in the United Kingdom from 1801 and remains the national flag today. Also appears in the canton of many regional flags in areas previously colonized by the British.

Flag three: The national flag of Italy from 1848 until 1946, losing the crown above the shield at an undetermined point sometime during that period.

Flag four: The national flag of Belgium from 1913 until today.

Flag five: Our least fruitful investigation, this flag resembles flags used by the protectorates, dominions or colonies of the British Empire, but we have no exact match as of yet.

Flag six: Listed as the commercial, merchant and national flag of the Russian Federation, we know that it was in use from 1799-1917 as a civil ensign, an alternate civil flag, the imperial standard of Russia and, for one year, that of the Russian Republic.

Flag seven: The national flag of France since 1848, in use as such today.

From these dates we can narrow down the date of the production of our silk, or at least the event or relationship that it represents. It seems like the earliest date for the silk is 1914, when the Egyptian flag first came into use. The Russian flag appears to have gone out of use in 1917. The next cut off date would be the falling out of use of the Egyptian flag in 1923. These are only speculations, of course, but we will certainly benefit from this information when we begin trying to identify the faces in the images in the next section.

We should also reflect on what we have learned about the process of identifying these flags. We have found that both print and online resources can be valuable for historical research. Online resources such as the map database can offer handy tools for quick identification, while print resources often provide historical perspective and offer more in-depth analysis.