In the context of modern European political conflicts and conflict resolutions, the name of Crimea is very apparent, resonating not only in recent years, but in fact for centuries. This short play takes a brief look at the strategically important peninsula and takes readers back through its turbulent history as well as its beautiful literary and artistic treatment in the past.
Since the 13th century, Crimea (also known as the Crimean Peninsula) has gone through a long and complicated history. Since then, it has changed hands several times. It was part of the Mongol Golden Horde, then an independent Muslim Crimean Khanate, then the Ottoman Empire, then the Tsarist Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union (when the Crimean Tatar Muslims took suffered a lot under Joseph Stalin for their support of Hitler), then Ukraine, and now back in Russia. The 16th century founder of the Crimean Tatar dynasty, Menli I Giray, was a distant descendant of Genghis Khan, Batu Khan and Kubla Khan. Similar to the great 14th-century Central Asian empire-builder Tamerlaine (or Tamburlaine, as the English playwright Christopher Marlowe called him), who was known as Amir Timur or “Sahib-i-Qirani”, meaning “Lord of the Fortunate Conjunction of the Planets”. Khan Giray also took the imperial title of “Ruler of the Two Continents and Khan of the Khans of the Two Seas”.
In 1764, another Khan, Qirim Giray, commissioned the Persian master Omer to build a fountain in the Islamic Bakhchisaray Palace of the Crimean Tatar Khanate. Inscribed in gold above the fountain are a number of mostly secular verses in praise of the Khan. One of the verses, however, was a Quranic verse, similar to dozens of others throughout the Quran describing paradise with rivers, gardens, and springs. Verse #18, “A fountain there called Salsabil” in sura #76 is one of those verses expressing the idea of the benefits the righteous will enjoy in heaven. In any case, the fountain in the palace of the Tatar khanate was made famous by 18and century Catherine the Great of Russia and her greatest lyric poet Alexander Pushkin. Both honored and celebrated the Tatars and their famous Bakhchisaray palace, the “Russian Alhambra” (or the “Russian Taj Mahal” perhaps?). Catherine the Great visited the elaborate and lavish 500-year-old Bakhchisaray (meaning “the palace in the garden”) in 1787 when she stayed there for three days and even wrote poems commemorating the beauty of the place with fountains, mosques and a mausoleum. Pushkin, who visited the city in 1820, wrote his 3500-word poem “The Fountain of Bakhchisaray” (1824). The poem is about one of the great Khans and his legendary tragic love story, which takes place near the real “Fountain of Tears” above the palace, followed by some other poems by him about the palace and the fountain. One of the most famous works of poets and artists from different countries (Poland, Ukraine and Russia) who visited the Crimean Tatar Palace is Boris Asafyev’s 1934 ballet “The Bakhchisaray Fountain”, based on the poem by Pushkin.
A classic piece of children’s literature, English poet Robert Browning wrote “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” (1842), himself a retelling of the medieval version of a legend, as a gift for his friend’s sick son, actor and benefactor William Macready. The poem lists the exploits and successes of the piper’s experience record, including the liberation of ethnic Southeast Asian Muslim Chams living in the Central Asian Muslim land of Tatarstan (now the peninsula from Crimea) “huge swarms of midges”.
As Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson, a contemporary of Browning, had to be loyal to the British Crown (Queen Victoria in his day) and was obliged to support and glorify the British Empire. His famous poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854) is a patriotic but painful tribute to the suicidal charge of a British light cavalry brigade at the Battle of Balaclava (Ukraine) during the Crimean War (1854-1856 ). The war was waged by Russia against Turkey, Britain and France. The war began as Russia sought to control the Dardanelles (formerly Hellespont), a long and narrow but highly strategic strait connecting many lands in the region. (It’s like the Bosphorus, also known as the Istanbul Strait, the narrowest strait in the world, used for international shipping connecting Asia, Europe and the Middle East through the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, and, by extension through the Dardanelles, the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, and, through the Kerch Strait, the Sea of Azov.)
The Russian plan was therefore not only a threat to the Anglo-French sea routes, but also an incursion into the Ottoman/Turkish Empire. Not being heavily armed, nearly two hundred and fifty British men out of about six hundred and forty were killed or wounded at the charge of the light brigade. Tennyson immediately commemorated the battle as the “Valley” or “Jaws” of Death. It is this poem that contains the oft-quoted lines of duty, loyalty, courage, patriotism and sacrifice: “It is not for them to answer / It is not for them to reason / It is for them to do and to die.”
Alexander William Kinglake was a famous English travel writer. His Eothen; or Traces of travel brought back from the East (1844) was an immediate success. The work (with “Eothen” in Greek meaning “the Orient” or “of the Orient”) was/is a travel book as part of the larger western colonial enterprise. Kinglake apparently did to the Arabs of the Middle East what his two great contemporaries James Mill in his 3 vol. History of British India) and the social and artistic critic John Ruskin did so in his treatment of India – negative, belligerent and authoritarian, both ruthlessly striking down Hindus and Hindu institutions in India. However, Kinglake then is considered the first modern travel memoir in the non-fiction genre. One of Winston Churchill’s favorite books, then was described by Elliot Warburton (author of The Crescent and the Cross; or, Romance and Realities of Oriental Travel, 1844) as a book evoking “the Orient itself in vital present reality”. Kinglake is, of course, best known as a historian for his masterpiece The invasion of Crimea: its origin and an account of its progress up to the death of [British Commander] Lord Raglan (in 9 volumes, 1863) on the complex history of the Crimean peninsula which has seen its tumultuous existence through the centuries, in particular the Crimean War of the mid-19th century.
The Crimean War was also the origin of the late 1920s epic by Russian novelist Mikhail Sholokhov. And calm flows the Don. It was also the origin of the modern nursing and hospital system and the reforms of the International Red Cross initiated by “the lady with the lamp” Florence Nightingale during that war. Religious (Catholic-Orthodox Schism) and political conflicts that were in the immediate background of the war included the forces of Russian expansionism, Western prevention, Ottoman/Turkish outreach, Greek/Eastern Orthodox Church , Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam). While Muslim Tatars saw themselves expelled and nearly exterminated by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and are now a small minority in Moscow and nearby Kazan perhaps still scared of the majority Russian Orthodox Christian (formerly communist) regime, their original homeland, Crimea, was ceded to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. Ukraine, for its part, a large country in Eastern Europe, was part of the Union (USSR) until the Union itself collapsed in 1991. Just as Crimea recently returned to the world stage annexed by Russia since 2014, Ukraine was also recently invaded, on 24 February 2022, by Russia, which wants to reintegrate it into its fold or its sphere of influence.
Crimean Muslim Tatars suffered greatly under Stalin for their alleged support of Nazi Germany. His forced deportation of the entire Muslim Tatar population (nearly 230,000) from Crimea in just two days in May 1944, claimed an estimated 100,000 casualties on the way to Uzbekistan. He made them die and suffer like (1) Hitler made the Jews, and (2) Vladimir Putin made the Muslims of Chechnya (250,000 civilians killed in 1999 alone, not to mention the first Russian war against Chechnya , 1994-1996, under President Boris Yeltsin, who had to settle for a ceasefire rather than a decisive victory), and (3) what Bashar Al-Assad has recently done or could still do to his own Syrians. Ironically, Asafyev’s ballet and Pushkin’s rather lengthy lyric poem (mentioned above) were highly regarded by Stalin, who again caused immense suffering to the Crimean Tatars in 1944. Likewise, ironically , anti-LGBT Putin nodded to build spectacular mosques. in Chechnya three years ago, as he also publicly stated around the same time that insulting the Prophet Muhammad does not count as an expression of artistic freedom but as a “violation of religious freedom”. His comment is reminiscent of Empress Catherine the Great who supported her Muslim population and religious practice by saying, in reference to other locals’ opposition to Muslim mosques built with tall minarets, that what rose in the sky was only not his business and that his business was to take care of his people and his business on the ground.
As history shows, there is no last word in politics or in the formation of political-electoral alliances which, needless to say, make for strange complicities. Russian Muslims should get along with their government in a balance of understanding, tolerance and acceptance. Otherwise, they risk being uprooted again. At the same time, the world should be more aware of the beastly killers of Boko-Bashar-Haram, who are failing Muslims, just as fanatics and extremists of all other colors and creeds are also trying to belittle other faiths and religions , sometimes including their own. So cruel, devastating, inhuman, dehumanizing and demoralizing are or could be all fundamentalists of all colors! (For references I am grateful to a number of numbers from Saudi Aramco World).
*QM Jalal Khan is the author of Bangladesh: Political and Literary Reflections on a Divided Country and Divided Bangladesh: Political and Literary Reflections on a Corrupt Police and a Prison State. His March 2020 release is “Sheikh Hasina’s brutal BNP phobia and outrageous ‘midnight’ takeover through Dacoity vampire voting and nasty s/election rigging with an absolute record of huge white-collar corruption “.