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Crimea: The Last Great Crusade

Crimea: The Last Crusade
by Orlando Figes

  • Part of the British camp outside Sevastopol, 1855

The Crimean War is important for other reasons. It was the first modern war, even if its generals did not grasp this at the time. The Crimea was, Orlando Figes writes, “the first war in history to be brought about by the pressure of the press and public opinion”, a circumstance that he links to technological change: the development of the railways and the speeding up of communications. But it was also a war of religion, not just a great-power collision with a profound impact on all the countries involved. How many people realise, for example, that the fight with the bully in Tom Brown’s Schooldays reflects the British–Russian struggle?

Orlando Figes’s book on the Crimean War is the sixth hefty volume so far to emerge from a career mainly devoted to 20th-century Russia, yet it is the sort of book that takes many scholars a lifetime, using British, French and Ottoman sources as well Russian ones. What is more, it tries not to take sides, and the sufferings of both combatants and forgotten bystanders, such as the Crimean Tartars and Circassians who lost their homeland, come clearly into focus.

Both minorities figured on the edges of the war but later got painted out. Seventy-five years ago, when Harold Temperley wrote a classic account of the Crimean conflict, the Circassians got only a one-line mention and the Tartars none at all. Figes tells their story, sparing no detail of the cruel fate, virtual genocide in fact, which awaited Circassians and Tartars as a result of the expansion of Tsarist rule.

Figes is a marvellously lucid writer, and manages to compress an extraordinarily wide range of details into a narrative anyone can enjoy. Forgotten individuals speak again through brilliantly selected quotations. The account of Turkish history is fair and clear – though here and there are small slips which might be corrected in a later edition. Official executions for apostasy from Islam, as opposed to neighbourhood lynchings, were not taking place in the Turkey of the 1850s, and the last such execution happened in 1843, not 1844. One of the greatest Tanzimat statesmen, Aali or Âli, is mistakenly conflated with Mehmet Ali Pasha, a hated rival.

Several of the dates given (both for his time as chargé d’affaires in London and as foreign minister) are not quite right, and there is rather too little about his role in the peace. Elsewhere, Fuad Pasha is wrongly given as an Ottoman delegate at the Paris Conference.

Small quibbles like these should not be allowed to spoil one’s enjoyment of a magisterial account of a tragic war, one which is often spellbinding and invariably illuminating for specialist and general reader alike.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 47
  • Fly in the Face of Fashion

    Rather than follow the crowd and dismiss Ankara as a dull, soulless modern capital, says Patricia Daunt, visitors should take time to discover why the famed Angora of old, twice capital in ancient times, is back on the map.

  • The Wines They Are A-Changing

    Over the past decade Turkey’s wine industry has come of age. It is now more than ready to join the grown-ups of the wine-producing world. Kevin Gould and the Cornucopia team pick the best of a sparkling bunch. Photographs by Berrin Torolsan.
    Cornucopia’s self-guided wine tours

  • Bloodshed in the Balkans

    The First Balkan War, a hundred years ago, is an obscure affair, overshadowed by the First World War that followed. But it ended the Ottoman Empire in Europe and came close to ending Turkey itself. It left almost half a million refugees and three times as many dead. David Barchard tells the story of a catastrophic conflict

  • The Daredevil Scholar

    With a taste for adventure Indiana Jones would appreciate, the Dutch architectural historian Machiel Kiel has risked life and limb in his mission to expose the annihilation of Ottoman monuments in the Balkans. The art historian Holta Vrioni pays tribute to his work and exploits

  • The Curious Cabinet of Cornelis Calkoen

    When Amsterdam’s renovated Rijksmuseum reopens in 2013, the public will be able to visit the Turkish Cabinet of Cornelis Calkoen, the Dutch republic’s ambassador to Istanbul from 1727 to 1744. For more than a century now the museum has been the keeper of his collection of paintings.

  • The Coolest Thing

    ‘Never swim before the first watermelon rind falls into the water,’ goes an old Istanbul saying. By the time they ripen, the sea will have reached just the right temperature for swimming.

  • A Nomad Among Nomads

    She was born to be a New York society beauty, but the late Josephine Powell’s chosen world was that of the Anatolian Nomad. Five years after her death, her archive of photographs recording old Anatolia in all its glory will see the light of day in Istanbul

  • A Dutch Treat

    As Turkey and the Netherlands celebrate
    400 years of fruitful trade with a series of spectacular exhibitions in both countries, Philip Mansel, author of a new history of the Levant, reflects on the curious role of the Dutch at the Sublime Porte

  • Yörük Köy: A Mansion of Perfect Modesty

    Not far from the World Heritage city of Safranbolu lies the quiet village of Yörük Köyü, once famed for its valiant cavalry. Berrin Torolsan continues her series on Anatolia’s country houses with a visit to the Sipahioğlu Konak, a beautifully built mansion of satisfying simplicity and unassuming flair.

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Issue 47, 2012 Queen of the Nomads
£10.00 / $12.74 / 414.64 TL
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