Either India or China invented them. The Roman Empire helped popularize them. Armies and soldiers used them to identify who was in charge, and everyone from pirates to military ships have flown them to proclaim their loyalties. Every nation has its own flag. Here are five sovereign banners with interesting histories.
1. SWITZERLAND: THE NEUTRALITY OF BEING SQUARE
It seems only appropriate that Switzerland, with its neutral position on international conflicts, should share similarities to the international rescue group the Red Cross. Both have similar flags. Switzerland's flag is unique for being square rather than rectangular. Its stubby white cross on a red background evokes the Red Cross, which employs the same design but with the colors reversed.
The Swiss flag, which is one of only two square national flags (the Vatican has the other one), traces its heritage to banners used by the Holy Roman Empire and adopted by the cantons of Switzerland after they were granted sovereignty. The flag has come to represent peace, refuge, democracy, and neutrality. Though Switzerland has had democratic traditions since 1291, political struggles within the confederation of cantons and a French invasion in 1798 prevented the formal adoption of a national flag. The creation of a constitution for a federal state in 1848 established the national flag, which was formalized in 1889 by the Federal Assembly.
2. NETHERLANDS: HOIST THE RIBBON! IT'S PARTY TIME!
The Dutch tricolor national flag has three horizontal stripes of red, white, and blue positioned from top to bottom. What's unique is that the flag is festooned with an orange pennant whenever the royal family has special occasions such as birthdays. And for families throughout the kingdom, it is customary to place a schoolbag atop the flagstaff to indicate students who have graduated.
Like the flags of many nations, the Dutch flag has roots on a battlefield. It was used for the first time in the 16th century during the Dutch revolt against Spain, which was led by prince William of Orange. His followers called the banner the Prinzenvlag, or "prince's flag". Orange, white, and blue at the time, the flag's orange stripe was eventually changed to red. The flag was officially recognized by the Netherlands Council in 1937.
3. FRANCE: THE HOLY TRICOLOR
Like that of the Netherlands, France's flag, created in 1790, is also distinguished by the tricolor design in red, white, and blue, but in this case the stripes are vertical. The colors come from the city flag of Paris that was used the day French radicals stormed the city's Bastille prison in 1789 to usher in the French Revolution and overthrow the aristocracy of King Louis XVI. The Marquis de Lafayette is said to have designed the flag, which fell out of favor after French emperor Napoléon Bonaparte was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. However, it came back into vogue in 1830 and was flown over France ever since (except for two weeks in 1848 when it was changed, and then changed back). The colors represent three religious figures important to France: blue for St. Martin of Tours, a French-Roman officer who gave his cloak to a peasant suffering in the cold; white for the Virgin Mary; and red for St. Denis, the patron saint of France.
4. TURKEY: THE MOON STAR FLAG
The Turkish national flag is mostly red, with a white star and crescent in the center, and dates back 700 years; Sultan Selim III formalized the look in 1793. The crescent and star have been adopted by many other Muslim nations since then. What is not so well known is that in Turkish history, the crescent symbolizes Diana, the patron goddess of the ancient Turkish city of Byzantium, and the five-pointed star at the mouth of the crescent symbolizes the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of Byzantium after it became Constantinople in AD 330.
In 1453, when the city was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and renamed Istanbul, the flag remained unchanged, though other myths arose to explain the meaning of the star and crescent. One explains that the moon and star were conceived as the reflection of the moon and Jupiter in a pool of blood from the sultan Murad I, who was assassinated after the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Another says it came about as a dream of the first emperor of the Ottoman Empire. Today, citizens of Turkey refer to their seminal national flag as ay yildiz -the "moon star" flag.
5. NEPAL: THE LIVING FOSSIL
The national flag of Nepal is the only one that is neither rectangular nor square. It's in the shape of two pennants sewn to one another. The pennants are symbolic of the Rana dynasty's two branches that ruled the mountainous country from 1846 to 1951. In the 19th century, the two crimson pennants were joined to represent the nation of Nepal, and in 1962 the conjoined form was officially adopted by Nepal's constitutional government. To the Nepalese, the pennants denote the two religions of Nepal -Hinduism and Buddhism- existing side by side. Set against the red background are the shapes of the sun and moon, which represent permanence and the hope that the nation will last as long as these celestial bodies.
The shape of the flag is not odd in the context of Nepal's history and isolation. For centuries, pennants were the common shape for regional flags in Asia. The form of a rectangular flag that eventually took hold worldwide was European in origin. But in Nepal, the idea of a pennant flag never seemed unusual to citizens cut off from the world by the towering Himalayas. Today the outside world views the flag as "the living fossil flag."
WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
1. Mozambique: My Bullets Beat Your Sword and Machete.
Angola has a machete on its flag, Saudi Arabia a sword. The African country of Mozambique, however, goes a step further. It's got an AK-47 machine gun on its national flag. The weapon is superimposed over a crossed hoe and a book; the three symbols represent defense, production, and education. The emblems are centered over a red triangle on the left side jutting into three broad stripes of green, black, and gold.
Why the AK-47? It was the primary weapon used in 1964 when the nation began its bloody but successful war for independence from Portugal.
2. Bosnia and Herzegovina: I raise you half a star.
It's difficult at a glance to decipher the meaning of the flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina. An upside-down yellow isosceles triangle juts through the center of a blue banner. A ribbon of white stars flows along the long edge of the triangle, with half stars at both ends. What does it all mean?
The flag of the newly formed nation (once part of the former Yugoslavia) was imposed on the country by the NATO armistice that ended the Bosnian War of 1992-1995. Carlos Westendorp, international high representative to the peace talks, came up with the flag when the parliament of the country couldn't agree on a design that would meld the passions of Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. Westendorp hoped that his design would emphasize unity among the nation's three primary constituents. The points of the triangle supposedly represent a theoretical union of each group. The yellow, the color of the sun, represents hope. The blue corresponds to the color of the European Union flag and, along with the stars, represents Europe.
3. Libya: Plain But Proud.
The flag of Libya is the only one in the world with a single color: green. That's it. Just green. No animals, no weapons, no dragons, no stripes, no stars, no moon. Just green. Adopted in 1977, green has long been the national color, representative of Libya's devotion to Islam. Libya went green after leaving the Federation of Arab Republics in 1977.
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