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Tunisia - Historical Flags

Last modified: 2013-12-07 by ian macdonald
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Common historical flag of Tunis

[Tunisian flag of 18th and 19th century] by Mario Fabretto, 13 July 1997

This flag is quite common on flag books and charts from the middle of 18th Century and until the middle of the 19th Century. Among them I remember Norie/Hobbs (1848), Rosenfeld (1883), Flaggen Almanack (ca. 1844). It doesn't appear on Le Gras (1858), so I think that its use ended in the first half of the 19th Century. The only thing we can say is that flags with many stripes and irregular shape were quite common for the ships sailing from north African ports. From many captured flags we also know that similar flags were used on land also, but with different colors and arrangements. The particular use of them is obscure.
Mario Fabretto, 13 July 1997

I recently saw a French encyclopedia, the 'Grand Dictionnaire Universelle du XIXe Siècle' (Paris 1865), which describes some very different flags for Tunisia, Egypt and Tripoli. There are no illustrations, but the text [for Tunisia] reads as follows:

Tunis: "Rouge, avec croissant et étoile dans un cercle blanc." In other words, the current national flag of Tunisia.
Vincent Morley, 15 July 1997

Bey of Tunis

[Bey of Tunis] by Jaume Ollé, July 1997

Flaggenbuch (1939) shows this flag as a rectangular flag of nine stripes, the middle one being of double width and green while others are of equal width and alternating yellow and red, i.e. top to bottom YRYRVVRYRY. The green stripe contains the sword of Ali, a split edge dagger in white with multicoloured handle (to hoist). The yellow and red stripes contain five symbols each equally spaced and regularly ordered, so that the topmost stripe has same elements as the bottommost one, the second stripe same as the penultimate and so on. There are two kind of symbols - a six-pointed star voided with a disk of different colour, and a disk voided with another smaller disk of other colour off-centered toward the fly and down. Each of the two appears in two different colour combinations; the star can be red with green disk or white with blue disk, while the disk can be blue with red disk or green with yellow disk. The first (yellow) stripe contains red star, blue disk, red star, blue disk and red star. The second stripe has the green disk, white star, green disk, white star green disk. The third stripe (second yellow stripe) has the same as the first but the central star is white (actually only above the sword, its red star below). The fourth stripe is then the same as the second one.

The magnificent flag of the Bey shown here, drawn by Jaume Ollé has a few minor differences (stars voided in blue are coloured white in Flaggenbuch, there are also white elements in the sword handle and probably a few even lesser ones; if Jaume was working from Flaggenbuch as source, these might be result of white elements being rendered as "transparent" by some error, or some other source might have such differences).

This flag was originally reported as dating from the 19th Century. There have been some 15 beys since the beginning of 19th Century until the proclamation of the republic in 1957. In 1881 Tunisia became a French protectorate, but the flag may be older than that as Tunisia was de facto independent from the Ottomans entirely since 1871 and even before that much autonomy was practiced since before 18th Century. So, it is hard to assume anything about the adoption dates, while the abandonment should be easier: in 1957 the republic was proclaimed, so the bey's standard was used, presumably, for a year after the end of the French protectorate. (Or was it?)

I recalled the beylical standard was mentioned in an article on Tunisian flags in The Flag Bulletin, no. 195, Sep.-Oct. 2000, pp. 171-194. Quoting Smith from pp.185-186:

"Another flag (Fig. 15), possibly introduced by Bey Hussein II, served on many occasions -- including the proclamation of the new Ottoman constitution on 21 March 1840. Referred to as the "state standard of the Regency," (32) this flag was more than simply a personal banner of the ruler, although it appeared at  ceremonies and visits in which the bey participated (33). It was regularly used on the Bardo Palace, on the Citadel of Tunis, and on navy ships (34).

"The design of the standard (35) varied somewhat over the years, but the basic elements were constant. (...) A simplified version of the standard (four stripes alternately green and red with sword of Ali overall in white) appeared on the white oval shield in the arms of the Regency, officially adopted in 1861 but in use earlier (Fig. 16) -- a rare example of a flag serving as the principal charge in the coat of arms of a country."

Footnotes are:
(32) Henri Hugon, "Les Emblèmes des beys de Tunis" (Paris: Leroux, 1913), p. 64
(33) Si Hassen Hosni Abdel-Wahab, "Note on the History of the Tunisian Flag" (Tunis, 1957), p. 3. The author claimed the standard was already three centuries old.
(34) Ibid and the captions of "Verzameling der Vlaggen by alle natien in gebruik" (Amsterdam, 1835-1850), a manuscript in the library of the Flag Research Center, illustration No. 37.
(35) The flag --perhaps an elaborated version of the 1765 standard (...)-- as it appears in [smi75a], p. 55, is an illustration from 1835 reproduced from the Verzameling.
Santiago Dotor, 16 April 2003

The Bey's standard shown in National Geographic (1917) is somewhat different from the Flaggenbuch (1939) version, with a long description and explanation.
Željko Heimer, 12 April 2003

Other Historical Flags of Tunisia

Franciae Vexilla (#15/61, September 1999) has a colour plate showing historical flags of Tunisia, entitled "Les ancêtres du drapeau tunisien". (Ancestors of the Tunisian flag). Tunisia was nominally under Ottoman rule from 1574 to 1881 (French military intervention). According to Pierre Charrié (loc. cit.), ensigns with six horizontal white and red stripes or with green and red stripes were reported as soon as 1756. The dates reported below correspond to the publication year of each source, when available. Captions are by Jean Renault. 

Libro de conoscimiento (14th Century)

by Ivan Sache, 28 September 1999

Semi-elliptical, white field with a black crescent facing the hoist. About 5:6.  (See also: Tunisia in "Book of All Kingdoms").

Charles V Atlas (1375), "Gabes"

by Ivan Sache, 28 September 1999

Rectangular dark yellow field with incurvated tail and a white crescent pointing upwards. About 3:5. [Charles V le Sage (1338-1380), king of France (1364-1380), gathered a huge collection of manuscripts.] [Gabes is a port of southern Tunisia located on the eponymous gulf.] 

Charles V Atlas (1375), "Tunis"

by Ivan Sache, 28 September 1999

Charles V Atlas (1375), "Tunis". As Charles V Atlas (1375), "Gabes", but with red field and red fringes along the tail. 

Znamierowski (2000) (French edition: Encyclopedie mondiale des drapeaux) shows on p. 104 (section 'the Muslim crescent') three flags made of a crescent pointing upward on a monocolour field. The Gabes flag is a white crescent pointing upward on a rectangular orange field. The Tlemcen flag is a blue crescent pointing upward on an white field. Tlemcen, now called Tilimsi since the Algerian toponymic reform, was the capital of the Central Maghreb in the 14th-16th Centuries. The Tunis flag is a white crescent pointing upward on an red field.

Unfortunately, Znamierowski does not give precise sources for these three flags. He mentions, however, that the first flags with the crescent appeared on portolans and navigation maps of 14th Century. The 'Libro de Conoscimiento' (14th Century) shows several flags with a crescent (placement not precisely described) on a white field:
- Kings of Damas and Lucania: yellow crescent
- Cairo: blue crescent
- Mahdia (Tunisia): purple crescent
- Tunis: black crescent. Image shown here.
- Buda: red crescent.
It is not clear from the text if 'Cairo' flag was the flag of Cairo or king of Cairo. Same for the three other ones. Znamierowski adds that portolans from the 14th-16th Centuries often showed for Tunis one or two white crescents on a red field. Examples of such renditions are shown here.
Ivan Sache, 11 March 2001

Charles V Atlas (1375), "Tunis, variant"

by Ivan Sache, 28 September 1999

Charles V Atlas (1375). "Tunis, variant". As Charles V Atlas (1375), "Tunis", but with blue field and fringes. 

Venetian portolan (Vesconte)

by Ivan Sache, 28 September 1999

Venetian portolan (Vesconte). Red field with two white crescent pointing upward, side by side, and three rectangular tails. About 3:8 (incl. tails). [Portolans are ancient maritime maps showing port location and coastal geometry, usually in a fanciful way. They are often ornamented with flags, also often fanciful]. 


W.Dowmann (1685)

by Ivan Sache, 28 September 1999

W.Dowmann (1685). Semi-elliptical red field with three yellow crescents facing the fly, side by side with decreasing size. 1:2. 


Lems (1700)

by Ivan Sache, 28 September 1999

Lems (1700). Red field with a "blazon tail" and a white crescent facing the fly. About 3:5. 


Laurie (1842)

by Ivan Sache, 28 September 1999

Laurie (1842). "Tongue-like" red field with a green horizontal stripe in the middle, "protruding" at the fly. About 3:5. 


Laurie (1842), variant 1

by Ivan Sache, 28 September 1999

Six horizontal white-red-white-red-white-red stripes. About 3:5. 


Laurie (1842), variant 2

by Ivan Sache, 28 September 1999

Semi-elliptical, with six horizontal blue-red-green-red-blue stripes. 2:3. Very similar to Common historical flag of Tunis.

Nouveau Larousse Illustré (19th Century)

by Ivan Sache, 28 September 1999

 As Laurie (1842)-variant 2 but rectangular. 2:3.

Ivan Sache, 28 September 1999