In 1825, Nicholas I became Russia's tsar. He was head of the Russian Eastern Orthodox Church. His subjects knelt when he came into view. Everyone, including scholars, was expected to be devoted to the "sacred principles" that Nicholas stood for. Nicholas was sincerely devout. He saw himself as leading and defending God's order. He adhered to the motto of his family (the Romanovs): "orthodoxy, autocracy, nationality."
During the struggle by his fellow Orthodox Christians for independence, Nicholas eventually joined the fighting on the side of the Greeks. Turkey's Sultan retaliated by closing passage for Russian ships into the Mediterranean. The Russians again won in warfare against the Turks. With the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople, the Turks ceded to Russia most of the eastern shore of the Black Sea and recognized Russian sovereignty over Georgia and part of Armenia. They also agreed to Russia's occupation of Moldavia and Walachia, the granted autonomy of Serbia, and they promised to close the straits between the Mediterranean and Black Sea to foreign, in other words British and French, warships. This latter matter upset the British and the French.
For the British, Turkey and its empire were a market for the export of their manufactured goods and a source of raw materials. Britain was moving toward friendship with the Ottoman sultan as a buffer against Russian expansion. The British looked forward to the greater liberalism and Westernization under the sultanate, and the sultan in turn welcomed the friendship of both Britain and France as protection against the Russians.
The British were concerned about India, and it was now that they first invaded Afghanistan from India, believing that the Afghan ruler, Dost Muhammad, was too friendly with the Russians. The invasion was a fiasco for the British. It was stability that Britain was interested in. Stability was conducive to trade, and Britain was the world's leader in trade. The British followed its Afghanistan fiasco with an attempt at improving relations between the Russians and the Turks. In 1841 the London Straits Convention affirmed Ottoman control over the straits between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, an agreement with other European powers including Russia and signed by Turkey. It was agreed that no power would send warships through the straits in time of peace. Tsar Nicholas was happy to cooperate with Britain while the British saw the agreement as preserving a European balance of power by preventing Russia's navy from dominating the Mediterranean Sea.
Then in 1846 a disturbance occurred inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem – the holiest of sites for Christians and therefore a focal point for conflict. To maintain peace there the Muslim governor of Jerusalem had been posting soldiers inside and outside the church. Despite this, fights had been erupting. And on Good Friday a conflict between who was to use the altar first escalated into a brawl. In his book The Crimean War, Orlando Figes writes:
The rival groups of worshippers fought not only with their fists, but with crucifixes, candlesticks, chalices, lamps and incense-burners, and even bits of wood which they tore from the sacred shrines. The fighting continued with knives and pistols smuggled into the Holy Sepulchre by worshippers of either side. note49
The riot ended with more than forty people dead on the church's floor. In 1847 and 1848 there were more unseemly scuffles between Catholic and Orthodox Christian monks and priests in Jerusalem; the representatives of the Orthodox Church emerged triumphant: for example, at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Catholics had placed a silver star to commemorate the place of Jesus' birth. It was pried out and stolen, and Catholics described Orthodox monks as the thieves, and in Jerusalem Orthodox monks and Catholic priests again scuffled.
France's president, Louis Napoleon, made a show of being a good Catholic and championed Roman Catholic control over Christianity's sites in the Holy Land. Turkey's sultan, Abdulmecid I, had been educated in France, and he favored French control over the Christian sites. Nicholas saw this as a blow to Russia and to Orthodox Christianity. On April 19, 1853, while waiting for a response, Russia proclaimed the right to protect Christians in the Ottoman Empire. On May 21, the Ottomans rejected the Russian ultimatum.
Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire was deeply in debt and dependent on British and French for loans. In response, the Ottoman Empire had cut its land and naval forces. Nicholas saw opportunity and in July he moved his armies into Moldavia and Walachia, states within Turkey's empire. Futile negotiations between Russia and the Ottomans followed. In Turkey, Sultan Abdulmecid came under pressure from nationalists and religiously concerned Muslims. Religious leaders were raising fears among Muslims that the Russians were going to destroy their mosques and build churches in their place – similar to the Muslims having turned the great Orthodox Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople into a grand mosque.
In September in Turkey there were mass demonstrations and petitions urging a holy war against Russia. Theological schools sent the Sultan declarations of their willingness to sacrifice their lives. Numerous petitions were filled with quotations from the Koran. Religious leaders met with the Sultan and ventured an ultimatum: either he declare war or abdicate.
They got their war. In an enlarged session with his Grand Council, Sultan Abdulmecid gave in. On October 4 he declared war. The Crimean War, with the British and French on his side, was on its way.
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