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Jerusalem Civil Ensign 1333-1921

Last modified: 2013-12-14 by rob raeside
Keywords: jerusalem | palestine | cross: jerusalem | cross: latin (red) | crosses: 5 (red) | cross: potent (yellow) | crosslets: 4 (yellow) | flag of convenience | franciscan custody of the holy land |
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[Jerusalem Civil Ensign 1333-1921 (Palestine)] image by Jaume Ollé and Eugene Ipavec
Flag abolished 1918

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The Crusaders' flag/arms of Jerusalem that became known in heraldry simply as Jerusalem cross has five crosses: one large cross potent and four crosslets, the crosses are yellow and the field is white. I recently discovered that a variant of this flag was used as a civil ensign as late as this century. The story is from a 1968 book about pre-independence shipping in this country and the origin is a story in the Jerusalem Post, so I am translating the Hebrew back to English:

"The most ancient civil ensign of a land-locked city is the Pavillion de Jerusalem, five red crosses on a white field. This flag was first flown on Godfrey de Boullion's Kingdom of Jerusalem crusaders' ships. After the fall of that kingdom it was flown on the ships of the Guardian of the Holy Land whose office was set in Jerusalem in 1333. According to Franciscan monks' documents from 1669 which are in their archives in Jerusalem, the Guardian of the Holy Land had permission to register foreign merchant ships in Jerusalem, providing the captain was catholic. (Note: the Holy Land was ruled by the Ottomans until 1918). According to these documents, 738 ships were registered between 1669-1822. In 1847 Pope Pius XI transferred the authority to register ships in Jerusalem to the Latin Patriarch in the city, and under his auspices a registration office was opened. It operated until the beginning of this century. The registry port of Jerusalem was considered the most convenient port in the world (like today's flags of convenience) because in addition to its various privileges, it involved bribery profits.

"During the 16th century the Jerusalem flag was recognized as neutral by all European states and by the Ottomans, and ships flying it could sail freely in the Mediterrenean during war times. During the 19th century the registration procedure was changed, to give financial preference to both the registration office and the lucky captains.

"The Ottomans were angry that many ship owners avoided paying port duties in Ottoman ports after registering their ships in Jerusalem. Around 1870 they cancelled the Jerusalem registration for all the ships except for 8, that belonged to the city's Church. This was withdrawn following the 1878 Berlin agreement in which France was nominated as protector of all holy places and institutions, including the Jerusalem Patriarch's ships registration office. The Jerusalem ships were again declared neutral, and their number rose from 8 to 280. The registration office was doing good business again.

"The Ottoman government protested occasionally against the abuse of this flag and claimed that ship owners did suspicious deals and that some captains were not even Christians and got the registration for bribery. In 1881 they declared that the illegal activities of the Jerusalem ships would be investigated by the Turkish coast guard and that Turkish warships would stop and search any ship suspected of illegal activity. Since the ships flying the Jerusalem flag were under French protection, this declaration almost caused a Franco-Turkish war. Eventually they reached an agreement that limited the number of ships, required cargo declarations etc.

"By the end of the 19th century only 15 small ships were flying the Jerusalem flag, all of them coastal ships. The last one was registered in 1893. It was a coastal ship that traded along the Mediterranean shores and its home port was Jaffa. The registration expired in 1918, but in practice the use of the Jerusalem flag ended in 1914 when, following the war, Germany declared the ships as associated with France. The Jerusalem merchant fleet was officially ended in 1921 when the Barcelona international shipping convention abolished the Jerusalem flag."

Nahum Shereshevsky, 24 June 1997

The [image above] came, if I'm not wrong, from Flaggenbuch 1905. It's labelled dieselben [w]ird vom Patriarchen von Jerusalem [u]nd levantinische Handelschiffe verlieben. White flag with five red crosses towards the hoist. (...) There's a long article in Vexillinfo 3/82 that I will try to resume:

This flag appear between 1700 and 1710 and is called Vexillum Terrae Sanctae; after XVIII century is named Vexillum Jerosolymitanum or Five Cross ensign. The captain general of the sea of the Venetian Republic has right to hoist this ensign. This flag was used until 1851 by the guardians of Holy Land (The Franciscans) and then by the Jerusalem Patriarch by recognition of the French navy. It is not known if the grant was made by the Pope because this is not a privilegium but a consuetudo. Use was for an indefinite time. French Consul assumed the legalization of the ensign after 1878 and restricted the use only for 25 years; after 1881 only 50 ships can hoist this ensign, and only maximum four ships each year can receive the right to use it. After many years of use the ensign was converted to a neutral sign. In the XX century was hoisted as mark for important people abroad. Last granting was made 19-5-1891, and because the time is for 25 years, expired in 19-5-1916 nominally. But in 1901 only a ship is known hoisting this ensign, and then it is not possible to know when exactly did it come to an end. After 1916 it is used as flag by the Franciscans in the Holy land houses under their custody and, sometimes, in the residence of the Latin Patriach of Jerusalem.
Original source: Dumke 1959.
Jaume Ollé, 24 July 2001

The coat-of-arms of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem was a cross potent between four smaller crosses, all gold on a white background. When I was in Jerusalem (1974) I saw this design all over the place, but red on white. I thought it was for greater contrast, but I understand it has a separate meaning.
Al Kirsch
, 24 July 2001

The description sounds like the Franciscan crosses. Since the Holy Land Commissariat tends to many Christian shrines and runs several schools, could this be what you may have seen? (I recollect seeing a flag bearing similar symbols at the monastery in Washington, but I haven't been there in five years so my recollection may be fuzzy.)
Phil Nelson
, 25 July 2001

Those red on white flags are the flags of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. I saw one of those also in Acco. The crosslets are simple (not potent).
Dov Gutterman
, 31 July 2001

Editor's note: for a discussion on the shape of the crosslets, see the Kingdom of Jerusalem page.

Mistaken Flag Variants

[Jerusalem Civil Ensign 1333-1921, mistaken variant (Palestine)] image by Jaume Ollé and Eugene Ipavec

I don't know where this flag came from, but it is very similar to one published in Flag Report 18, p. 19, seen in Jordan in a dependence of the Franciscan Custody.

I believe that several variants exist in plates but I don't know if some of them are really accurate. In general I believe that they are reconstructions:

  • Latin red cross to hoist and centered
  • potent yellow cross to hoist and centered
  • potent red cross to hoist and centered
  • potent yellow cross and potent red small crosses
  • Latin yellow cross and Latin red small crosses
Not all the crosses pictured in these plates have the same construction, position and size. I see in a old collection devoted to different countries in the world in the start of the XX century, same flag labeled Ierusalem with red Latin cross centered, but with a narrow [green?] stripe (1/6 or so) in the lower border. Because these collections are not very vexillologically accurate I assume that [the] flag with [a] green border is a mistake.
Jaume Ollé, 24 July 2001

The information source of this flag is Steenbergen 1862.
Nozomi Kariyasu
, 29 July 2001