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The Caliphate of Mekka

The Sharifs of Mekka

The Kingdom of Hejaz

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia



Armed Forces




The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia comprises the holy places of Mekka and Medina. These two cities were the first political focus of the Muslim World. The period of the first four caliphs after the death of Mohammad is known as al-khulafā' ar-rāshidūn: the Rashidun or “rightly guided” Caliphate. Under the Rashidun Caliphs, and, from 661, their Umayyad successors, the Arabs rapidly expanded the territory under Muslim control outside of Arabia. In a matter of decades Muslim armies decisively defeated the Byzantine army and destroyed the Persian Empire, conquering huge swathes of territory from the Iberian peninsula to India. The political focus of the Muslim world then shifted to the newly conquered territories.

From the 10th century (and, in fact, until the 20th century) the Hashemite Sharifs of Mecca maintained a state in the most developed part of the region, the Hejaz. Their domain originally comprised only the holy cities of Mecca and Medina but in the 13th century it was extended to include the rest of the Hejaz. Although, the Sharifs exercised at most times independent authority, they were usually subject to the suzerainty of one of the major Islamic empires of the time. In the middle ages, these included the Abbasids of Baghdad, and the Fatimids, Ayyubids and Mamluks of Egypt.

Beginning with Selim I's acquisition of Medina and Mecca in 1517, the Ottomans, in the 16th century, added to their Empire the Hejaz and Asir regions along the Red Sea and the Al Hasa region on the Persian Gulf coast. The degree of control over these lands varied over the next four centuries with the fluctuating strength or weakness of the Empire's central authority. In the Hejaz, the Sharifs of Mecca were largely left in control of their territory (although there would often be an Ottoman governor and garrison in Mecca).

For a time the Hejaz was controlled by the Saudi’s but these were defeated in 1818 by the Egyptian Viceroy and the Egyptians continued to occupy the area until 1840. After they left, the Sharifs of Mecca reasserted their authority, albeit with the presence of an Ottoman governor and garrison

By the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire continued to control or have suzerainty (albeit nominal) over most of the peninsula with the Sharif of Mecca ruling the Hejaz.

In 1916, with the encouragement and support of Britain (which was fighting the Ottomans in the First World War), Hussein bin Ali of the Hejaz led a pan-Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire with the aim of securing Arab independence and creating a single unified Arab state spanning the Arab territories from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen. This resulted, after the collapse of Ottoman power, in an independent Hejaz of which he proclaimed himself king, with the tacit support of the British Foreign Office. His chief rival in the Arabian peninsula was Ibn Saud, the king of the highlanders on the highland of Najd, who annexed the Hejaz in 1925 and set his own son, Faysal bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, as governor.

On January 10, 1926 Abdul-Aziz declared himself King of the Hejaz and, then, on January 27, 1927 he took the title King of Nejd (his previous title was Sultan). By the Treaty of Jeddah, signed on May 20, 1927, the United Kingdom recognized the independence of Abdul-Aziz's realm (then known as the Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd).

In 1932, the two kingdoms of the Hejaz and Nejd were united as the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”




The Caliphate of Mekka



Each tribe of pre-Islamic Arabs had its own identifying coloured banner, and Muhammad himself is reported to have had a flag called ‘uqab,[1] which according to one account was white, according to another was square, black, and spotted with divers colours, while a third says he had two, a large black one and a small white one. [2]

Evidently another emblem of the Arab troops was the open hand which they carried as the Roman troops had carried their eagle. The open hand talisman already had a very long history and was destined to have a long future.  Such an open hand is on the staff of the socalled sançak sharif said to have been of Muhammad but maybe considerably younger. Today it is preserved in Istanbul. The sançak sharif is green with two breadths of golden embroidered inscriptions. On the staff is an open hand keeping a miniature Quran.

In addition to the banners of Muhammad there is also the sword Dhu'l-Fakar which he took from a man  called al-'Ās b. Munabbih.

Another piece reported to have belonged to Muahmmad himself is his mantle, Burda, which was bought by Mu'āwiya and was preserved for a long time in Baghdad. It was burned by Hülegü in the 13th century but a replica (thought to be the original) is kept in Istanbul.

The colour of the Burda is green and that is the colour of a Commander in Chief, Commander of the Guard and comes domesticorum or comes excubitores, known from Byzantium and later Roman Empires. In muslim context it may be considered to be the colour of the Commander of the Faithful.


The development of emblems of the empire, the state, the ruler and the lower strata of society took place after the conquest of Baghdad at a time when the focus of Muslim power had shifted from Mekka to the newly conqered territories and peoples.


The Sharifs of Mekka


The heraldic history of Saudi Arabia is mainly the history of the Sharifs of Mekka and in particular the Sharifs from the Hashemite Dynasty who ruled the Hejaz from 1201 until 1924. The title of sharif is the title of the descendants of Hassan, a son of the daughter of Muhammad, and Ali, the fourth caliph of Mekka (656-661).

In particular in younger sources this Ali is called “The lion of God, the face of God, the Conqueror Ali” and this formula is represented by a calligraphy of a lion. Later, some caliphs were associated with a lion like Aziz-Billah (975-976) and Al Mustasim (1242-1258). [3]


Although in some rare western sources a lion is mentioned which may refer to the Hashemite Sharifs, we can not say that a lion was the emblem of the Hashemite Dynasty. A lion was the emblem of rank of the governors of the provinces of the Ancient Empires which have existed in the Near East. In that sense the “Lion of Juda” which is mentioned in several places in the the Holy Bible has to be interpreted. In that respect the “Lion of Juda” and the “Lion of God” are on the same military and administrative level, be it that Ali, contrary to Jesus, in fact  held such a high position.

In the Middleages the lion was quite common as a symbol of military rank. He was used by emirs in the East and by dukes and counts in the West, military governors of the third and fourth rank. In its use a Roman and Byzantine tradition was continued.


Of this kind of lion a great number are known from the Holy Roman Empire (after 1157) but it is for sure that in that time the lion was a common symbol of military rank in the Arab world also. Many examples testify that, be it that these lion were not depicted on shields but were embroidered on official dress or depicted on belongings of the ruler.

An example of such a lion is on this piece of silk cloth



Lion. Purple silk serge. From the tomb of St. Julian in Rimini.

Byzantine, 9th -10th century, based on a Sassanian original.

(Museo Nazionale, Ravenna.)


Contrary to Western custom, the lion in the Arab world was, following Byzantine and Sassanian examples, very often depicted on a medallion and sometimes also on its own. The arms of Sharif Muhammad Abu Normay (1254-1301) as depicted in the Wijnbergen Roll of Arms, may have been based on such a medallion depicting a golden lion on a red field enclosed by a golden ring. [4]


Arms of  “le. Roi darrabe”

A.: De gueules au lion d’or armé d’azur, à la bordure d’or.

Wijnbergen Roll n° 1299.


The other arms ascribed by the Wijnbergen Roll to muslim rulers may have had the same form. A most striking example is the coat of arms of Alexandria: Or, a disc Sable charged with a lion Argent.

The arms of Arabia with a lion and a bordure were also documented in the report of the Konstanz Council (1417) of Ulrich Richental. He writes:

 „Der hochwürdig fürst der küng von Arabia, da dannan das gut gold kommet, das gold die von Engelland händ, dar uß gemüntzet wirt die guldin, die man nempt nobell. Des bottschaft kam mit den byschoffen und botten von Engelland und von im ain landtfahrer. Und ist under im küng von Hyspie und ist für sich selb, das er nitt bedarff der herren von Ordo.” [5]


Arms of Arabia in the Richental Chronicle, fol 131 v


This rather puzzling legend poses many questions and we wonder for example what an envoy of the sharif of Mekka had to do in an English delegation? Nevertheless we may be sure that with this “Arabia” the Empire of the Sharif of Mekka is meant.


A last documentation of a coat of arms of the King of Arabia has Ducange in 1680 who writes: Le Roy d’Arabe, d’or au lyon de gueules bordé de mesme & besanté d’argent. (i.e. Or, a lion Gules within a bordure of the last and strewn with plates) [6]

Unfortunately Ducange gives no references and consequently the arms may have been of any period before 1680. The lion strewn with plates may be a leopard or panther, a heraldic beast known from Ilkhanid Persia and China, which makes the enigma only the greater.

It must be admitted that all European sources giving information about the arms of Muslim rulers are very puzzling and extremely unreliable. Also, no data about the emblems of the sharifs of Mekka have come to us from Arabian sources

We may conclude that it is not unlikely that the emblem of the Sharifs of Mekka was a lion indeed. Data supporting this thesis however are quite scarce  and unreliable.


The Flag


About the flag of the Sharif of Mekka it is the same story as about the emblem. Nevertheless there is a passage in the 14th century Book of Knowledge: 

”I departed from the island of Ansera, crossed the river Cur, and made a very long journey until I came to Arabia, traversing a great extent of land, and arriving at the city of Al Medina where Mahomat was born. Thence I went to Mechen where is the law and testament of Mahomat in an iron chest and in a house of calamita stone. For this reason it is in the air, neither ascending nor descending. Know that this Mechan is the head of the empire of the Arabs. Its device is a red flag and on it in Arabic letters in gold. [7]

On the illustration we recognize the corrupted form of the arabian La illaha illah Allah (There is no God but Allah). Its colours correspond with the arms of the sharif.



Mekka on the portulan of  Gabriel de Vallseca. The flag painted black.

Another, younger flag may have been yellow with a white crescent. Such a flag is documented by Gabriel Vallseca on his portulan of 1439. It was the emblem of  a Mameluk vassal or governor. Later, this flag was overpainted black, probably by a later owner of the map or when Mekka was conquered by Selim the Cruel.

In the time of the Ottoman protectorate a flag was flown in the Hejaz consisting of a white crescent at the mast end and five-pointed star in te right upper corner on a red field. [8] This was the flag flown by rear-admirals and was also the flag of the Government of the Porte. Today it is the flag of the Turkish Republic.


Kingdom of Hejaz



Husayn ibn Ali



Sharif Hussein bin Ali rebelled against the rule of the Ottomans during the Arab Revolt of 1916. On 30 May 1916 he proclaimed the Hejaz independent of the Ottoman Empire. Between 1917 and 1924, after the collapse of Ottoman power, Hussein bin Ali ruled an independent Hejaz, of which he proclaimed himself king, with the tacit support of the British Foreign Office. His supporters are sometimes referred to as “Sharifians” or the “Sharifian party”. His chief rival in the Arabian peninsula was the king of the highlanders on the highland of Najd named Ibn Saud, who annexed the Hejaz in 1925 and set his own son, Faysal bin Abdelaziz Al Saud, as governor. The region was later incorporated into Saudi Arabia.

The achievement of Hussein ibn Ali is known from stamps and paper money issued during his reign. Also there is a sculptured version above the entrance of Aqaba Castle which served for some time as his residence. The achievement is as follows:


Achievement of the Kingdom of Hejaz as on pound notes, 1924


Arms: Vert, two spears in saltire, their staffs Or, their points argent, their tassels Gules, charged with a commanders’ baton per pale Or and Sable between two swords per pale, Argent, hilts in chief Or.

Crown: The sharifs’ headdress and his belt proper.

Supporters: Two palm-trees standing on a white ribbon proper.

Mantle: Gules, fringes and tasseled Or, lined ermine, on its cupola Aqaba Castle proper, and place on two national flags in saltire being black, white and green with a red triangle at the mast end.


Photo Phungster

The Hashemite achievement above the entrance of Aqaba Castle.


The first flag, adopted 1917 was of three stripes black, green and white with a red triangle at the mast end. In 1920 the stripes were rearranged into black, white and green.





Al Mamlakah al Arabiya as Saudiyah



Between 1924 and 1925 the Hejaz was captured by Abd al Aziz, the Wahhabite sultan of  Nejd, independent since 1921 In 1927 he let himself be proclaimed King of Hejaz, Nejd and dependencies.



His seal of 1929 shows a palmtree between two swords and a tughra of the motto “La ilaha ila Allah, Mohamed Rasul Allah” in chief.

On coins an achievement appeared consisting of a shield charged with two swords in saltire and supported by two palm-trees.

Silver riyal, 1928-’40

 showing the achievement of the United Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd


King ‘Abd al-Aziz Al Sa’ud,

during his visit to the Aramco camps in January 1947.

Life photo by David Douglas Duncan – courtesy Judy Webster Bauer.

The picture shows an early version of the royal emblem

After the unification of Hejaz and Nejd in 1932  into the Saudi Arabian Kingdom a new emblem was introduced at an uncertain date but probably just after WWII. This consists of a single palmtree standing on two swords in saltire. The emblem is gold for royal use and is placed on a green shield. For other purposes the figure is white or green.

Nowadays the emblem is often depicted full-colour.





ð See ilustration in the head of this essay



In 1946 the traditional Wahhabite flag was made the national flag of the kingdom. It is green with the motto “La ilaha ila Allah, Mohamed Rasul Allah” in white lettering and a sword per fess in base


The royal standard at first showed the royal emblem but later the standard was changed into a green square cloth with two swords in saltire and the motto in chief. Stll later the royal standard became identical with the national flag, the royal emblem in gold added in the left upper or lower corner.


Royal Standard of King Saud (1953-1964)




Plaque from Luristan (W. Iran):

Palmtree between two griffins.

 2nd half of the 2nd millennium B.C. .

The Swords in saltire

The emblem was introduced in a time when, continuing a longer muslim tradition, many nations adopted two swords in saltire below a national badge for emblem of the army, in particular the armies of the former British colonies.[9]


The Palmtree

A date palm was a symbol of the territory of several empires in antiquity. Examples are from Akkad, Susa, Sumeria, Assyria and from Mesopotamia in general. Another example is from the kingdom of Sicilia. The palmtrees of Saudi Arabia are clearly borrowed from the achievement of the Hejaz. 



as said before, was the colour of the mantle of Muhammad. It was chosen by the Wahhabites because they consider themselves to be the special guards of the holy places of Mekka and Medina. The Wahhabites, contrary to the Hashemites, are no descendants of the Prophet and for that reason do not have the right to bear green. Neither can they consider themselves to be allies of Ali as they are Sunnites and not Shiites. So, the use of green for the flag  is only justified by a new interpretation of the symbolism of the colour.


General Intelligence Presidency .


The General Intelligence Presidency (GIP); (Arabicرئاسة الاستخبارات العامة‎ Ri'āsat Al-Istikhbārāt Al-'Āmah), also known as the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) is the primary intelligence agency of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia


Mabahit / المباحث العامة


The al-Mabāḥiṯ al-ʿĀmmah, (General Investigation Directorate), is the “secret police” agency of the Presidency of State Security in Saudi Arabia, and deals with domestic security and counter-intelligence.






Mutaween (مطوعين)


The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (abbreviated CPVPV;هيئة الأمر بالمعروف والنهي عن المنكر‎), also informally referred to as Hai’a, is the Saudi Arabian government agency employing “religious police” or Mutaween (مطوعين), to enforce Sharia Law within that Islamic nation.


Saudi Armed Forces


Saudi Armed Forces Organization


Emblem of the Ministry of the Interior


Ministry of Defense and Aviation




Saudi Arabian National Guard

Joint Chief of Staff




Royal Saudi Land Force



Royal Saudi Naval Force




Royal Saudi Air Force




Royal Saudi Air Defense Force




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© Hubert de Vries 2006-07-06; Updated 2011-05-27; 2018-06-26



[1] ‘Alam, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, p. 248. Dr. Ettinghausen points out that ‘uqab means ‘eagle’. Thus the name is an interesting example of the persistent association of the royal bird and the flag. 1 Reported respectively by Jabir (contemporary with the prophet), al-Bara ibn ‘Azib (a companion of Muhammad), and Ibn ‘Abbas, and cited, but without specific references, by T.P. Hughes, A dictionary of Islam, London, 1885, pp. 606-7

[2] Van Vloten,  op.cit., p. 110, citing Chardin, p. 37. Van Vloten expresses his doubt of this ‘legend’, on the ground that the hand-insignia Chardin saw were symbolic of Husayn and Hasan and hence post-dated the arab conquest; but he failed to take account of the extreme antiquity of this motif. Dr. Ettinghausen calls attention to the fact that there is no reference in the Arabic authors to the use of the hand emblem, an omission which might create a presumption against the theory. But would the Arabic authors have been apt to refer to a practice so detestable from their point of view, since it would have perpetuated a pre-Islamic amulet or fetish? It is of some interest to note in this connexion that the so-called Standard of the Prophet preserved at Istanbul (a standard c. 12 feet (c. 4 m.) long, barry of four pieces, in chief vert, the others embroidered, or) has attached to it the figure of a hand, though in this case it holds a copy of the Qur’an; for while the banner is not, of course, contemporary with the Prophet, it probably goes back to quite an early tradition. See Hughes, op. cit., p. 607.

[3] 1. Chrystal jug with lion of caliph Al-Aziz Billah. Treasury of the S. Marco, Venice. 2. A function with a possibly royal connotation is implied by the use of a briljant golden “moon” above a jade lion on the top of a black umbrella held over the head of the Abassid caliph. This is reported by the mid-7th/13th century Chinese author, Chau Ju-kua, in his account of Baghdad. The translators and commentators of the text have cogently argued that this moon must have been a crescent, since a circular emblem would have been taken for a sun (Chau Ju-kua; on the Chinese and Arab trade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, tr. by F. Hirth and W.W. Rockhill, St. Petersburg, 1911, 135 and 137, n.3).

[4] ) 1272 ca A.: De gueules au lion d’or armé d’azur, à la bordure d’or. L.: le.Roi darrabe. Wijnbergen n° 1299. In that era all of the Arabian peninsula was meant by Arabia and not the Roman province of Arabia which was situated for the main part in today’s Jordania.

[5] ) In a younger version “Yspania” instead of  “Hyspie”.  Richental Ulrich: Das Konzil zu Konstantz MCDXIV-MCDXVIII. Faksimile Ausgabe. Josef Keller Verlag. Hamburg, 1964. fol. 131 b. (These arms together with the arms of Ninafe (= Mosul): Purpure, a lion Or.).

[6] ) Ducange, Car. Du Fresne: Historia Byzantina. dupl. comment. illustrata prior: familias ac stemmata Imperat. Constantinop. &c. Paris, 1680. P. 362.

[7] ) Libro del Conoscimiento de todos los reynos y tierras y señorios que son por el mundo, y de las señales y armas que han cada tierra y señorio.  Book of the knowledge of all the kingdoms, lands, and lordships that are in the world. The Hakluyt Society. Second Series N° XXIX. Issued for 1912.

[8] Hefner, O.T. von, M. Gritzner & A.M. Hildebrandt: Die Wappen der Ausserdeutschen Souveräne und Staaten. Baner & Raspe. Nürnberg, 1856. Repr. Neustadt a/d Aisch, 1978. Taf. 66.

[9] The swords in saltire and the royal crest of the UK-Army however was only adopted in 1938.

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