افغان تاريخ

From Ariana to Afghanistan

By Mir Hekmatullah Sadat

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According to Flags of the World, “Since time immemorial man has felt the need of some sign or symbol as a mark to distinguish himself, his family or country, and such symbols have taken many differing forms, of which one is the flag” (Barraclough, 1978). Political scientists, historians, sociologists, and others recognize flags as artifacts expressive of cultures of certain times and places. The scholarly study of the history, symbolism, etiquette, design, manufacture, and other aspects of flags is known as “Vexillology” stemming from the Latin word Vexillum (Banner) which was coined by Dr. Whitney Smith of the Flag Research Centre. According to Fruhlinger (1996, Nov 26),

The vexillum (pl. vexilla; v pronounced like an English w in classical Latin) was the term for the standard carried by the Roman legion. This word is itself a diminutive for velum, sail, which confirms the art historical evidence (from coins and sculpture) that vexilla were literally “little sails” i.e. flag-like. (Velum in English has various specialized meanings, mostly pertaining to sail-like things: the membranes of certain mollusks, and a kind of drafting paper, bear the name.) Going further back, the word velum comes from the Indo-European roots VAG- or VEH-, involving motion. These produced the Germanic words that became Saxon (and later English) words like wagon and way, which are unrelated to the flying verbs above.

In the rich and diverse cultural-linguistic heritage of Afghanistan, there exist numerous words for flag such as bayraq (incorporated from the Turkish language),parcham(in Dari), lewa (religious purposes such as Islamic), darafs (dating back to the Aryana era), alam(military purposes), togh (used in holy shrines), andjanda (for holy shrine purposes). The flag, over the centuries, has developed many special uses.

The Atlas of Ancient and Classical Geography by Samuel Butler and Ernest Rhys, showing Ariana in the east (yellow) based on Eratosthenes descriptions.

Flags recognizable as such were the invention, almost certainly, of the ancient civilization of China and the Indian subcontinent. The first “flags” consisted of symbols attached to the tops of poles. Such flaglike objects appear in Egyptian art of the mid-3000’s BC. Cloth flags were probably first used in China about 3000 BC. These flags were made of silk. Barraclough (1978) informs us that in 1122 BC, the founder of the Chou dynasty in China had a white flag carried before him. It is also known that in 660 AD a minor prince was punished for failing to lower his feudal flag before the emperor. Flags had equal importance in ancient India, being carried on chariots and elephants.

Originally, flags took the form of cloth or similar material displaying the insignia of a community, an armed force, an office, or an individual. It marked the position of an important individual before a battle, during a siege, throughout a ceremony, or at a tournament. For the monarch or feudal lord it marked the palace, castle, saluting base, tent, or ship where he was actually present. The royal flag had all the attributes of kingship, being identified with the ruler and treated with a similar respect. It was thus a crime even to touch the flag-bearer. The flag was the first object of attack in battle, and its fall would mean confusion if not defeat. The monarch would rarely expose his flag and his person together, the flag being normally entrusted to a general. Flags are now extensively employed for signaling, for decoration, and for display.

In recent times the issue of flag burning busied the United States Supreme Court. Incinerating a nation’s flag often signifies political protest and a great insult. In addition, when the flag of one country is placed above that of another, the victory of the former is denoted. Hence, in time of peace, it would be an indignity to hoist the flag of one friendly nation above that of another. Each national flag must be flown from its own flagstaff. To denoted honor and respect, a flag is dipped. When troops parade before a sovereign or other reviewing officer, the regimental flags are lowered as they salute superiors. A flag flying at half-mast is the universal symbol of mourning. The white flags is universally used as a flag of truce.


The color and designs of national flags are not arbitrarily selected but rather stem from the history, culture, or religion of the particular country. Many flags can be traced to a common origin, and such ‘flag families’ are often linked both by common tradition and by geography. In the Middle East the predominance of Islam has generally influenced flags to been comprised of the four traditional Muslim colors of red, white, green, and black. Many of these flags use one or several of these colors in tricolor format along with some emblem.

The black color in our flag is derived from the Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) time. Black was the color of Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) banner. The flag was heroically carried and hoisted into the battles, from the 822 AD to 1022 AD (2nd to 4th century Hijri).

According to Ghobar (1963), the black flag was raised again by Abu Muslim Khorasani in 746 AD in the city of Marwa. Khorasani was a General and leader who rose through the ranks in the ancient land of Afghanistan, Khorasan. Abu Muslim, dressed in black attire, led the revolutionary movement for people’s independence and an end to taxation without representation in Khorasan. Abu Muslim declared himself Shahan-shah Khorasan in reward for his services to the Abassid caliph. The Abassid dynasty still depended on him to keep order because Abu Muslim had the support of the inhabitants of Khorasan. This movement changed the base for influence in the Islamic World. The base became international, emphasizing membership in the community of Muslim believers rather than Arab nationality. The black color symbolized the struggle for independence and the Muslim guardians in the Abassid era in 746 AD (129 Hijri).

From the 9th century until the 10th century, the Ghaznavid era took root on present-day Afghanistan. Ghaznavid power reached its zenith during Sultan Mahmud’s reign. During this period, the palace of Lashkari Bazar near Lashkar Gah just north of Qalah-e Bust, Kandahar was built. The famous poet Ferdowsi (d.1020 AD) completed his epic Book of Kings (Shahnama) at the court of Sultan Mahmud in the year 1010. During this period, the color red became the standard color of the Ghaznavid Civilization. This strong culture continued where Abu Muslim Khorasani left off. He forged an empire that stretched from the Oxus to the Indus Valley and the Indian Ocean; in the west he captured most of Persia and eventually encapsulated North Africa and the Middle East. The Ghaznavid’s influenced the inhabitants of what is referred to as Pakistan to embrace Islam. A devout Muslim, Mahmud expanded the frontiers of the Islamic World. The red color came to represent the blood of the martyrs of Islam and the valor of the brave ghazis(fighters/warriors).

The outer surface of arch is covered a tile or terracotta band of floral arabesques and a band of interlacing geometric motifs — including pentagrams and Hindu swastikas. Kufic bands to the right and left of the arch contain incomplete segments of a Quranic verse.


According to Sadat, Ahmad Shah Baba, for the united government of Afghanistan, chose a national insignia representative of a sword, a star, and ears of corn which were also included in the flag of Afghanistan (3). The ears of corn are symbolic of the agricultural nature of Afghanistan. Moreover, the two ears of corn are symbolic of the first Loya Jirga in 1747. It was then that all the various tribes united and choose Ahmad Shah Baba as their first formal Afghan leader. The famous dervish, Saber Shah Kabuli, crowned the ears of corn upon his head to signal the prosperity of his reign.

About a century later, among the Ghazis and other heroes lays the stories of brave women such as Malalai. In today’s political atmosphere, where women are treated as property the achievements of women like Malalai must be noted. Her patriotism and struggle was exemplified during the Battle of Maiwand on July 29, 1879, where the victorious Afghans led by Sardar Ayub Khan ensured victory over the British forces. Throughout the midst of shelling and warfare, Malalai stood firm and kept the red flag of war aloft to the last minute until success was declared. The red has come to symbolize the lives and sacrifices of brave warriors for the preservation of their motherland and religion.

After the expulsion of British colonialism, Afghans hoisted again the green color. It represented a new beginning and was the color of the Prophet’s turban. Yet, the color green has even deeper meaning in our history of the land. During a Naw-Bahar (early spring), a tradition dating back to the Aryana Civilization, a green flag would be flown to commemorate the season. By the same token, green symbolized vegetation, lushness, and prosperity. Besides this tradition, green has become a favorite color in the Islamic world noticeable in many nations’ flags.

Similar to the color of the flag, there have existed many emblems. In the course of history, the emblems have assumed various shapes and forms. Lions are often referred to as the king of the animal kingdom; therefore, many civilizations adopted that animal as their emblem.

Five thousand years ago in the present-day Afghanistan, the first flag for a formal government belonged to King Yama. According to historical texts, this flag is referred to as Darafsh-Aryana. The first capital of the Aryan civilization was in Balkh, known then as Bukhd or Bukhdis. This city was symbolic of a united culture and enlightenment. The ancient flags were comprised of peacock feathers with the sun as their emblem. Ahmad Shah Baba and his Abdali descendents symbolized this heritage by using peacock as ornaments on their crown. Legends describe the beautiful high flags flown from the city’s lofty towers.

According to ancient Dari folklore tales, there exist legends regarding Kawa-e Hadad (the leather flag of a Blacksmith) which resembled a flag. Many poems and poets such as Ferdowsi have written interesting books and articles regarding Kawa-e Hadad. Kawa-e Hadad is a symbol of the resistance movement against the corrupt King Zahak. Kawa is a leather-material used to generate air with it for the refreshment of the fire, so that the metal becomes hot and can be smelted. A famous blacksmith raised his Kawa, as a form of flag, to lead the resistance against Zahak who wanted to sacrifice the blacksmith’s son. The other inhabitants of the city allied themselves with the blacksmith, and this movement was so successful that it dethroned an evil king. Later on, this Kawa or leather flag used by the blacksmith came to be globally known as Darafsh-e Kawiani.

A settlement existed at Balkh as early as 500 BC, and the town was visited by the Greeks, the Turks, Kushans and Arabs. During the 8th century, Balkh became the capital of Khorasan. At the time of the Abasids and Samanids, Balkh earned its name as a capital and center of learning earned it the title Mother of Cities (Umm al-Bilad). This city produced one of the greatest Afghan prides’, Maulana Jalaluddin Balkhi (Rumi). Unfortunately, like many of us, Maulana’s had to migrate because the region pillaged by the Mongol invaders under Ghengis Khan in 1220.

In the 19th century AD (13th century Hijri), the state emblem appeared as a minbar (pulpit) under an arch on a flag. It is from the pulpit that the faithful are led to the right path, the path leading to salvation, justice, and freedom. This emblem was symbolized of worship and faith among Muslims in Afghanistan. In modern times, since about 1890, the state emblem has been a stylized picture of an open mosque with a praying mihrab (a mark in the wall of a mosque) and pulpit. This is the constant reminder of the influence of Islam because the mihrabs of mosques always point towards Mecca, the direction in which all Muslims pray. The pulpit and the arch are representative of Islam.

After a study of various flags used in different eras of Afghan history, the flag was again augmented to fulfill the patriotic needs of the Afghan people. In the early part of this century, a Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) convened in 1928 after Shah Amanullah Ghazi’s tour of Europe chose to add to the existing national flag three vertical fringes, a wreath of wheat, a rising sun, and a star; to the foot some snowy mountains and a tape with the inscriptions “Afghanistan.” The wreath of wheat (two ears of corn) symbolizes agriculture and refers to the tradition that one of the army officers, Ahmad Shah Baba, was chosen monarch in 1747 at a tribal council and crowned with such a wreath by the famous dervish Kabuli. The sunrays resemble the old name of Afghanistan, Khorasan meaning, “land of the rising sun.” It symbolizes freedom and promises a new bright future. Subsequent national flags also included a cogwheel and an open book. The cogwheel was chosen for its symbolism of the forthcoming industrialization; the open book represented the Holy Quran and knowledge of the past and future to come. In addition, the prior mentioned colors green, red, and black were incorporated into a tricolor flag. The tricolor flag took the shape of black, red, and green vertical stripes. Shah Amanullah Ghazi led Afghanistan to independence and similarly raised the first nationally independent flag since the mid-1800’s century. The arms and colors designed appealed to the patriotic and religious sentiments of the Afghan people.

After Muhammad Nadir Khan was proclaimed king in 1933 through his comrade-in-arms, the Amani flag was restored, the old shield was included, as a concession to those in favor of tradition and the return of Shah Amanullah Ghazi to the throne. Contrary to the prior mentioned approach, Nadir Khan did change the color of the royal flag. The royal flag which was the color black since the days of Dost Muhammad Khan changed to red during Nadir Khan’s reign.

On September 2, 1947 the Independence of Pashtunistan was proclaimed, although this was never realized during the de-colonization of British India. The provisional flag symbolic of this movement was a red flag with inscriptions “Pashtunistan” or “Pashtunistan Zindabad” (Long Live Pashtunistan). The flag was comprised in a diagonal or semicircular form. This Pashtunistan issue reached its peak in 1955. At that time, Afghan protesters stormed Pakistan’s Embassy in Kabul, as well as, the Consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar. The demonstrators expressed their sentiments towards Pakistan’s policies by incinerating their flag. Almost forty years later, the conflict with Pakistan reopened old wounds and in 1994 this act was repeated in Kabul.

President Muhammad Daud changed the tricolor pattern to a horizontal shape in 1973 and the national ensigna was modified to contain ears of corn, pulpit, and sunrays. More impressive than any of these changes was the re-introduction of the eagle into the flag. According to Lawrence Keppie, The Making of the Roman Army, “Marius [Gaius Marius, a Roman General] is also credited with making the eagle the legion’s first standard, and a focus of loyalty and affection.” In ancient times, the emblems often bore resemblance to lions and eagles. The lion was widely used as a symbol of strength and courage, and the eagle was often used to signify powerful, swift, high flying, and graceful flight, and keen vision. Eagles are representative emblems of the original Aryan Civilization. The Aryans lived in the high mountainous areas of the region where their foremost animal companions were the beautiful eagles. In ancient legends told throughout Afghanistan, the eagle has had a sovereign place in society. In those times when a tribe chose their leader or when tribes chose a king; they would gather at a place and let the eagle take flight. Whomever’s shoulder or head the eagle perched on would be designated as their rightful leader. There is also an Afghan saying regarding good luck: Oqab-e padshahi bar sarash nishasta ast (A royal eagle has perched on his/her head). Moreover, the eagle is said to represent the legendary bird that brought a crown for the first king of Afghanistan, Yama.

In the twentieth century, the Afghan flag took slightly different shapes; however, it still contained major commonalties. The colors of the flag were usually interpreted as standing for progress from the dark times of the past sacrifices to prosperity. Black stood for the past flags, red for the bloodshed of heroes for independence, and green is symbolic of the Islamic faith and for hope in the future. Although the exact form of the flag has been changed several times, these colors are recognized as the national color.

The myths, legends, and historical incidents concerning our flag and the emblems, therefore, present a variety of cultural riches. The liberation of the people of Khorasan and the dawn of a new day are represented by the rising sun. The flag has contained in its coat of arms such ears of corn and eagles remind the Afghan people of their heritage and their honorable roots. The Holy Quran, mihrab, mosque, and minbar are seen as emblems of religious enlightenment and faith as they indicate the direction of Mecca.

During the summer of 1992, the government handed over the administration of the country to an exiled provisional government located in Pakistan. As of June 5, 1992 the new rulers of Kabul had not yet altered the official flag. In the opening parade of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, the Afghan delegation paraded with the legal flag consecrated by the Constitution of 1987. In the past decade, After 1992, the Afghan flag has changed so much that experts have gone so far as awarding the title, “Most Changed Flag of the 20th Century” to the Afghan flag.

According to Talocci (1982), flags are an everyday object, yet the vast majority of people are quite ignorant of them. While most individuals can recognize a half dozen national flags, generally little or nothing is known of their history, symbolism, or usage. Adults as well as children are attracted by the bright colours and motion of flags, but rarely is consideration given to why flags are used or what they mean; the flag is a reminder of lost territories, of patriot heroes, of hopes for a better future, of the promises of religions and political systems, of the sanctity of the ways of past generations. The American Revolution of 1775-1783 and the French Revolution of 1789 in large part created the modern sense of citizen participation in the formation of the nation which nowadays we take for granted (pages 7-8).

The flag was based on the will of the Afghan people in both religious and national tradition relative to the history of the land. Throughout history the Afghan flag has represented sanctity for those seeking refuge in it, national liberation from oppression, and was always designed by aspirations from environmental and philosophical symbols.

The existence of our national flag has not been handed to us so easily, great men and women sacrificed all for their people. Therefore, individuals’ loyalties and allegiances to their homeland should surpass other individualistic or sectarian interests. Furthermore, under Chapter 1, Article 1, of the United Nations’ Charter, Afghanistan must be allowed to regain its “self-determination” from exploitative neighboring and regional countries. 

  • 1901-1919: Black field with central white emblem of mosque, flags and wreath. 
  •  1919-Sept. 1928: Same, except central emblem surrounded by eight pointed sunburst. 
  •  Sep.1928-Jan.1929: Vertical black, red, green. Central white emblem of mountains, sun, wreath, topped by a star. 
  •  Jan.1929-Oct.1929: Similar to 1919-1928. 
  •  Oct.1929-1933: Same three-striped field, but using earlier emblem used periodically between 1901-1928 surrounded by sunburst. 
  • 1933-1973: Same three-striped field, central white emblem of mosque, flags, and wreath. 
  •  July 1973-Apr.1978: Horizontal field, lower half-green, upper half is black over red. Emblem in upper hoist of eagle, pulpit, wreath, sunburst. 
  •  Apr.1978-Dec.1979: Red Field with gold emblem in upper hoist consisting of script characters saying “Khalq” (Masses Party), wreath, and star. 
  •  Jan.1980-Nov.1987: Three equal horizontal stripes of black over red over green. Multicolor emblem in upper hoist of pulpit, book, wreath, sunburst, topped by cogwheel and a star. 
  •  Nov.1987-Apr.1992: Same as previous, but emblem lacks book and red star. Also the cogwheel was relocated to the bottom and the green “horizon” below the sunburst is now curved. 
  •  Apr.1992-Dec.1992: Three equal horizontal stripes of green, white, black with white text on green stripe saying Allah Akbar (God is Great) and black text on white stripe saying the Shahadat. 
  •  Dec.1992-Aug.1996: Same three stripes with a golden emblem similar to past flags centered in the middle. 
  •  1996-Present: The flag (at least initially) was a plain white banner, later incorporated the inscriptions of theShahadat in center. 
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