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Two years ago, Turkish television, with evident glee, showed film of a fight that had broken out in the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. Brotherly love was at work. The Greek Orthodox were smuggling a monk into the tomb just as an Armenian ceremony was getting under way. Enraged, the two sets of monks then started battling it out, smiting each other with processional crosses or anything else that came to hand. There were two dozen casualties and several arrests. The peace has since been kept, very uneasily, between the six churches claiming their rights in the Holy Places, and these have to be defined down to small details. 

The Orthodox, on the whole, are the most demanding and cantankerous, and in a way you can see how such quarrelling did, in 1853, manage even to bring about European war. The Catholics installed a Latin cross in Bethlehem, and the Orthodox defaced or stole it. The French sent a warship and a bully to tell the Turks to respect an old treaty. The Russians sent another bully and another warship and eventually the British and French came to the Turks' rescue. The Crimean War (1854-1856) resulted. 

The story sounds absurd and indeed sounded absurd to civilised people at the time. But it was in deadly earnest. The fire-eating Lord Palmerston as Prime Minister said that the moment had come to destroy Russia: there should be a European coalition, including Sweden and Turkey, to throw her back to her old boundaries — the "pre-Petrine Muscovy", of which the Germans were to speak in 1918 when they imposed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk and created independent Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, etc. Palmerston's plan broke down, partly for a quite simple logistical reason — you cannot really invade Russia unless you are Genghis Khan — and mainly because at that time no one in Berlin wanted to take on Russia. Those squabbling monks, bashing each other with chasubles, opened up enormous geopolitical issues. At the end of the line, within three years of the treaty at Paris that ended the Crimean War, a united Italy was coming into existence. Then, in 1866, comes Greater Prussia, and the German Reich.

Photo-op: Officers and men of the 13th Light Dragoons who survived the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, photographed by Roger Fenton in October 1854 

The Crimean War is, in other words, a wonderful subject, on every level, and with Orlando Figes it has found the historian worthy of its width and depth. The only reproach that I might make at him is that, though he can handle sources in the half-a-dozen languages you need to write up this war, he has not managed Ottoman Turkish. Marx, who understood exactly how important this war was, set himself to do Ottoman Turkish (I do not think that he succeeded). For there is another side to the Crimean War, also important for today. How do you Westernise the Middle East? The Turks have made a decent go at it.

The religious squabbles were important in themselves at the time — to understand this you just need to look at the street corners of any town in England, with their Victorian churches, often rather decent buildings, that no one now quite knows what to do with. When Gladstone as senior politician denounced the Pope for claiming to be infallible in matters of dogma, his pamphlet sold 100,000 copies, and fathers of families, of a Sunday evening, would assemble their troops and read his moralising budget speeches. Figes is rather good when it comes to collecting sermons as to the wrongs of Orthodoxy. Usually, Protestants, as Pope-haters, got along tolerably well with the Orthodox, at any rate Russian Orthodox. There was much inter-marriage: the Romanov dynasty itself was either 97.5 per cent Lutheran German or 100 per cent Lutheran German, depending on how you rate the likelihood of Catherine the Great's becoming pregnant with Peter III, famous for drunkenly substituting a Te Deum for the requiem mass laid on for his predecessor. His brains were bashed out with a footstool wielded by Count Orlov, Catherine's lover. Just the right background for the guardianship of the Holy Places. 

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October 1st, 2010
8:10 PM
I look forward to reading this as well.

D J Austin
September 29th, 2010
5:09 PM
I agree that this book is a valuable addition to the English-language literature on the Crimean War. As regards the war as seen from the Turkish side, I can strongly recommend a recent publication:- "The Ottoman Crimean War (1853-1856) by Dr. Candan Badem: Published by Brill (Leiden and Boston), 2010: 436 pages: ISBN 978 90 04 18205 9. That book is the 44th in a massive series on the Ottoman Empire. D J Austin

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