The Turkish Flag

You’ll never be confused about what country you’re in when you’re visiting Turkey. The Turkish flag is everywhere – on government buildings, of course, but also on mosques, businesses, and private homes. Large ones can serve as awnings over street markets. I thought Americans loved their flag but we have nothing on the Turks.

Why should this be? Well, one of the main reasons is that it is a great design, simple and recognizable. I’ve referenced this video before, but it’s worth doing so again, particularly its invocation of Ted Kaye’s Five Basic Principles:

  1. Keep It Simple. The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
  2. Use Meaningful Symbolism. The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
  3. Use Two or Three Basic Colors. Limit the number of colors on the flag to three which contrast well and come from the standard color set.
  4. No Lettering or Seals. Never use writing on any kind or an organization’s seal.
  5. Be Distinctive or Be Related. Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

As you can see, the Turkish flag certainly follows all of these principles, surely one of the reasons why it has “complete buy-in from an entire cross-section of the [country],” and produces a “positive feedback loop between great symbolism and civic pride” (4:35 and 5:45 in the video). I would add that the flag’s field is a dark color, which contrasts nicely with the sky as it flies, and furthermore the way the star is positioned makes it impossible to fly the flag upside-down – always a useful thing to remember when designing a flag!

But I think there’s even more to the flag than just the cleanness of its design. The fundamental political divide in Turkey right now is between Kemalists and “Erdoğanists” – that is, between those who favor a secular Turkey, as established in the 1920s by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and those who want more official acknowledgement of Islam, the religion of 99% of Turks, as currently promoted by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey since 2014 (and Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014). An Islamic state, of course, was the previous dispensation, the state ruled by the Ottoman sultans from Constantinople until 1923. Yet the flag is not seen as the flag of either the secular or the religious faction, but as the birthright of every Turk. For as much of a modernizer as Atatürk was, he retained the Ottoman flag as the flag of the Republic of Turkey, with only minor modifications in the shape of the star and crescent.

Nineteenth-century Ottoman flag. Wikipedia.

Thus, I would say that the flag bridges the gap between Turkey’s two political poles, and even its specific symbols work on more than one level. To most Americans, the star-and-crescent device instantly evokes “Islam,” and indeed it appears in many Islamic flags: Tunisia, Pakistan, and Algeria all come to mind. But the star-and-crescent does not actually have Islamic origins. Apparently it derives ultimately from Anatolian paganism, specifically the cult of Artemis, protectress of Ephesus. So the symbolic progression seems to be: Anatolia > Ottoman > Islam. As religious as the device may now be, it seems that secular Turks can take pride in it as well, as representing the heritage of their land.

As an emblem you can also have a little fun with it: