In recent days, the Crimean peninsula has been at the heart of what some have described as the greatest international crisis of the 21st century. But this is not the first time the region has been so critical to international affairs. Many educated people have at least heard of the great struggle known as the Crimean War (1853-56), although its causes and events remain mysterious to most non-specialists.
If the conflict is remembered today, it resonates through the heroic charitable efforts of Florence Nightingale and the foundation of modern nursing. Actually, that earlier war deserves to be far better known as a pivotal moment in European religious affairs. Without knowing that religious element, moreover—without a sense of its Christian background—we will miss major themes in modern global affairs, in the Middle East and beyond.
Given its date, that religious emphasis may seem wildly anachronistic. This was, after all, a highly modern struggle between the Great Powers of the day: Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire against Tsarist Russia. The war was fought with highly modern technology, including railroads and telegraphs, not to mention deadly artillery. Some 800,000 died, almost half from disease—at least as many fatalities as in the American Civil War of the next decade.
Yet the war's causes seem to belong to a strictly pre-modern era, and Orlando Figes' excellent recent history calls this The Last Crusade. As in medieval times, the war grew out of the situation of Christians under Muslim rule in the Middle East, and specifically the control of Jerusalem's holy places.
From the 15th century, the dominant Muslim power was the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which ruled over millions ...