Located at the crossroad of Europe and Asia, Turkey has always been influenced by many different cultures throughout its course of history. That is why the crescent moon symbol on its national flag carries many different layers of meaning.
1. History of Turkey
Turkey is a transcontinental country, mostly located in West Asia and a small part located in Southeast Europe. The key position between Europe and Asia makes Turkey an extremely important geo-strategic position. The first major empire in the region was established by the Hittites, starting from the 18th century BC. Then there were the Assyrian, Greek, Thracian, Urartia and Armenian civilizations that in turn existed in this area.
The Hellenisation process began in the time of Alexander the Great and lasted until the Byzantine empire. The Seljuk Turks began migrating to this area in the 11th century, and their victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 marked the formation of Turkey, converting Anatolia from a mainly Christian and Greek region into a Muslim and Turkish region.
The Mongol horseshoes in 1243 divided the Anatolia region into many smaller kingdoms. Beginning in the late 13th century, the kingdom of sultan Osman I became the Ottoman empire and began to unite the Turks, bringing them to their Golden age. In 1453, sultan Mehmed II conquered the capital Constantinople and officially put an end to the Byzantine empire. The power and glory of the Ottoman empire reached its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially during the reign of Suleiman I the Great.
However, from the beginning of the 19th century onwards, the Ottomans began to weaken and join World War I on the Central Alliance side in order to save their position. During the war, the Ottoman government carried out several brutal genocides against Armenian, Assyrian and Greek peoples. After its heavy defeat, the Ottoman empire was divided by the Allies in 1920.
Turkish independence war broke out under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, officially transferred the Ottoman empire to the new Republic. The Turkish Republic was declared to be born on October 29, 1923 in the new capital Ankara. Mustafa Kemal became the first President of the country and began to bring the Republic of Turkey into a new era.
The national symbol of Turkey is a successor to the Ottoman empire in the past, shown in the present national flag of the country: the crescent moon symbol.
2. Symbol of Islam?
The crescent moon and the 5-pointed star often appear on the flag of Muslim countries so many people today still believe that this combination is a symbol of Islam.
In fact, the early Muslim community from the time of prophet Muhammad did not use any symbol. Muslim armies back in that time only used simple solid-colored flags (black, white or green) simply for the distinguishing purpose. In later generations, the Muslim leaders continued to use a simple black, white, or green flag with no writing or symbol on it.The symbol of the crescent moon and the star appeared only later in the time of the Ottoman empire, not symbols of Islam.
The use of a symbol will make the Muslims likely to enter the sin of idolatry so this is absolutely to be avoided. Most Muslims are aware of this, so they oppose the use of symbols. Based on this history, many Muslims reject using the crescent moon as a symbol of Islam. The faith of Islam historically had no symbol, and many refuse to accept what is essentially an ancient pagan icon. It is certainly not in uniform use among Muslims.
However, for hundreds of years, the Ottoman empire ruled the Muslim world and over centuries fighting with the Christian Cross, it is understandable how the symbols of this empire became linked in people’s minds with the faith of Islam as a whole.
The crescent moon coupled with the star is the image of paradise. Moreover, the crescent shape is an incomplete image, it is just about to be completed, so it is both open and closed, there is an exit that opens when it seems to fully close and suffocate itself completely. Along with the moon’s cyclical activity, the crescent moon symbol in Islam also carries the meaning of resurrection.
3. Symbol of the Moon goddess
The origin of Turkey‘s crescent moon symbol today can trace back to the moon symbol of Byzantium city, which later became the capital Constantinople of the Byzantine empire and the city of Istanbul of modern Turkey. According to several scholars, in 339 BC, the Byzantines and their allies, Athens, were besieged by the army of king Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great).
On a particularly dark night, the Macedonian army decided to take advantage of darkness and try to operate a total attack on Byzantium city. But right at that moment, on the sky suddenly appeared an unusually bright crescent moon, revealing the layout of the Macedonian army. With the help of fierce dogs’ barking, the Byzantine army and people were able to immediately alert each other to join the defense and once again repelled the enemy, protected their stronghold. It is said that the bright crescent moon and the loud barking of dogs are the miracle of the Moon goddess Hecate. To express their gratitude, the Byzantium people took the crescent moon, symbol of Hecate, to become the symbol of the city and built a statue called “Lampadephoros” (the one who brought light) on a hill next to the Bosporus to be dedicated to Hecate.
Hecate was originally a goddess in ancient Greek mythology, considered the patron god of Byzantium since its earliest days, and like the legendary founding king Byzas, Hecate was also originally from Thracia, Asia Minor. She was a goddess of the underworld and was often depicted holding a torch and wandering at night along with spirits from hell. Only dogs can see her and if the dogs howl or bark at night, it means that Hecate is coming. Hecate is often associated with intersections, dogs, magic, dark arts, witchcraft, ghosts and necromancy.
In later times, Hecate was incorporated into Greek mythology and is often represented in a 3-formed and identical to the moon goddess Artemis, also represented by the crescent moon symbol.
Artemis, (Diana in Roman mythology), is a Greek goddess especially worshiped in Asia Minor. She is goddess of hunting, wilderness, the Moon, virginity but also a goddess of reproduction. She is the daughter of Zeus and Leto, a twin sister to the sun god Apollo. The temple of Artemis in Ephesus (in present-day Selçuk, modern Turkey) was once one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World and in Asia Minor, Artemis was also considered a Mother goddess. A number of Byzantium coins in the 1st century BC were found showing the image of Artemis with the crescent moon symbol and the 6-pointed star.
Both Hecate and Artemis are Moon goddesses and share the same characteristics as virgin and pure goddesses. Artemis also has the character of a Mother goddess. When Byzantium changed its name to Constantinople and converted into Christianity in 330, the crescent moon became another symbol of the Virgin Mary. The city of Ephesus from Artemis‘ cult center also became the center of Virgin Mary‘s cult, with the first Christian church built to worship her and also considered the final resting place of Maria.
4. Become the symbol of the Ottoman empire
During the times of the Ottoman empire, the crescent moon symbol once again played a very important role in Turkey . The name “Ottoman” is derived from the sultan Osman I, who established the mighty Ottoman Muslim empire in 1299 with territory stretching from the Middle East to some Eastern European countries today. While the other kingdoms of the Turks were dealing with internal conflicts, Osman I was able to extend the borders of the Ottoman settlement to the edge of the Byzantine empire. His reputation was also polished in a story in the Middle Ages of the Turks, known as the “Osman’s Dream“.
According to this story, one night Osman I dreamed of a crescent moon passing through the sky from East to West shining all over the world. Believing that was a good sign that his empire will become one of the greatest, he used the crescent moon as an emblem of the Ottoman empire, and also made it on the flag of his kingdom.
By 1453, sultan Mehmed II ultimately conquered Constantinople, annexing parts of Europe and Asia into the Ottoman empire. The crescent moon became a symbol for the Turkish empire, and with the unstoppable invading army of the Ottoman empire, it conquered the world. At its peak, the Ottoman empire stretched over 3 continents including many different cultures, religions, and languages.
After the Turkish Republic was born in 1923, this young state decided to preserve the traditional flag of the Ottoman empire in the past. The crescent moon on modern Turkey‘s national flag means that the country inherits the traditions and powers of the old Ottoman empire. Some other Muslim countries also use the crescent moon and the star as their national symbol:
5. Origin from Central Asia
However, today scholars in Turkey often reject the Greek Byzantine‘s origin of the crescent moon symbol, and often emphasize the theory that it was originated from the Antiquity in Central Asia. Nomadic tribes in the vast steppes of Central Asia have long had their own crescent moon symbol and the star symbol was added much later.
In reality, the ancient Seljuk Turks in Central Asia began to worship Tengri, the sky god, and their own Sun god and Moon god when they were still living on horseback through Central Asia, West Asia and Serbia. The crescent moon is a symbolic image of the moon god Ay Ata. Coins found in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in the year 576-600 are evidences that ancient Turks had used this symbol long before sultan Mehmed II conquered Byzantium.
Crescent Moon: Symbol of Islam? – http://www.irfi.org/articles/articles_451_500/crescent_moon.htm
Dogan Gürpinar. (2013). Ottoman/Turkish Visions of the Nation, 1860-1950. Springer
Douglas Howard. (2001). The History of Turkey. Greenwood Publishing Group
Franz Babinger. (William C. Hickman Ed., Ralph Manheim Trans.). (1992). Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time, Princeton University Press
Joseph Eddy Fontenrose. (1974). Python: A Study of Delphic Myth and Its Origins. Biblo & Tannen Publishers
Lord Kinross,. (1977). The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire. Morrow Quill Paperbacks
Mehmet Fuat Köprülü. Gary Leiser (Trans.). (1999). Some Observations on the Influence of Byzantine Institutions on Ottoman institutions, Türk Tarih Kurumu
Michael Jordan. (1993). Encyclopedia of gods: Over 2,500 deities of the world. New York: Facts On File.
Sharon R. Steadman & Gregory McMahon. (2011). The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Anatolia: (10,000–323 BC). Oxford: Oxford University Press
Vasiliki Limberis. (1994). Divine Heiress. Routledge
Walter Burkert. (1987). Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Oxford: Blackwell
William E. Phipps. (2008). Supernaturalism in Christianity: Its Growth and Cure. Mercer University Press