2008 marks the 50th anniversary of the short-lived Jordanian-Iraqi union, known as the Arab Federation. On February 14, 1958 the kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq, whose kings were first cousins, merged to become a single country.
That's the flag of the Arab Federation above. It was flown alongside each country's individual flags for the 5 months that the Federation lasted. An identical design was previously the flag of Iraq from 1920-1924.
So many questions? Why did Jordan and Iraq merge? Why did the Federation last only 5 months? Why that flag? Doesn't that flag look like the nearly identical twin of the modern Palestinian flag? And wasn't the new federated country, as short as it lasted, the most bizarrely shaped entity on the world map?
Two weeks before the monarchies of Iraq and Jordan agreed to merge into a federated state, the Arab Republics of Egypt and Syria also merged into a single state, the United Arab Republic. The UAR's flag (left) was created based on Egyptian colours, with 2 stars representing the 2 republics. After the breakup of the union, Egypt returned to its older flag, while Syria kept this one. (More on UAR flags here.)
The UAR was envisioned to be the first step on a path to a single, united, pan-Arab (presumably headquartered in Cairo) country stretching from the Atlantic Ocean (Morocco) to the Arabian Gulf (Oman). But the idea - the brainchild of Egyptian President Gamal 'abd al-Nasser - never took root. Yemen also nominally joined the UAR, but that was it.
It only took 2 weeks, back in 1958, for Egypt's main rival at the time, Iraq, to create a bipolar pan-Arab world by hooking up with Syria's main rival, Jordan, to form the AF.
The Federation came to an abrupt end when King Faisal II of Iraq was deposed in a bloody nationalist coup on July 14, 1958. The UAR merger managed to last until 1961, until a coup in Syria ended the formal union with Egypt.
Interestingly, the leader of the Iraqi coup, Abdel Karim Qassim, later wished to join the UAR in 1961 (before the coup in Syria), and what became the new flag of Iraq (left) was the UAR flag, but with 3 stars (representing Iraq with Syria and Egypt). In 1991, in the wake of the Gulf War when most of the Arab World allied against Iraq, Saddam Hussein changed the Iraqi flag, adding in between the 3 stars the Arabic - الله اكبر - allahu akbar, or "God is great."
This flag, with the 3 stars deleted, was adopted earlier this year as the new flag of Iraq.
The AF's flag, meanwhile, was based on the Jordanian flag (left), simply with the seven-pointed star removed from the triangular red field. What had been the Iraqi flag until the merger was a similar design, with 2 stars instead of one.
The seven-pointed star, which was removed from Jordan's flag to create the Arab Federation's flag, is said to represent the first surah of the Qur'an, which has seven verses. The star found its way on to the new flag of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1917 and later the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq around 1924, so it is often thought to be the symbol of the Hashemite clan (the kings of Jordan and Iraq at the time were brothers). But in fact, the red triangle itself is the representative symbol of the Hashemites, and has a much older history in the Arab world.
Which brings us to the Palestinian flag (left), which resembles the flag of the Arab Federation, excepting the different proportions of the triangle. To make a long story short, the Palestinian flag is, like many of these flags, based on the flag of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks during WWI. The revolt's leader was Sharif Hussein of the al-Hashemi (Hashemite) family of Mecca (hence the red triangle).
As for the black, white and green bars, which have been repeated throughout many of the flags in this article, they are the symbol of modern Arab unity. These "pan-Arab" colours, envisioned during the nascent era of pan-Arab nationalism just prior to the First World War, represent the 3 eras of medieval Arab caliphates: the Umayyads (660-750 C.E., based in Damascus) carried a white standard; the Abbasids (750-1258 C.E. based in Baghdad) had a black flag; and the Fatimids of Egypt (909-1171 C.E.) preferred green. In addition to being the colour of the Hashemites, red was the colour of the Arab rulers in Andalucia from the 8th-14th centuries C.E., and also of the Khawarji, who led a rebellion against the Abbasids in North Africa.
The Palestinan flag was formally adopted after 1948, based on the Jordanian flag (Jordan controlled the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem at the time), minus the star, and with a right triangle instead of an isosceles triangle. Why the triangle change? I don't know. If someone out there knows, please tell me.
Finally, we turn to the geography of the Arab Federation on the map. Jordan already looks funky, with its eastward-jutting panhandle the result of creative British cartography which wanted, after World War I, to connect the British mandates of Transjordan and Iraq and disallow French-controlled Syria from bordering Arabia. Back in the 1950s, Jordan also had a westward pimple on its map, what we now know as the West Bank.
The formal federation of Jordan and Iraq created this geographical ink blot (above), which resembles a coffee pot (Jordan) with a handle (West Bank); the coffee pot is emitting some sort of sprayed cloud (Iraq) towards Iran. If you imagine Israel holding the handle, we have perhaps a prescient metaphor for today's Middle East conflict.
Or, if you rotate the map 90 degrees clockwise, you get what appears to be a giraffe lunging its neck upwards above a low tree top.
A curious giraffe: the legacy of the Arab Federation.
(If you read Arabic, here's a whole lot more reading you could do on the evolution of Arab flags.)