Crimean history has been driven by its strategic location and access it provides to the Black Sea. In 1475, the Crimean khanate accepted nominal suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Sultan Mohammed the Conqueror, but it functioned mostly autonomously. Subsequently, the Russian Czars, starting with Peter the Great ( 1672–1725), craved to expand their empire southward at the expense of a weakened Ottoman Sultanate, to gain access to the warm waters of the Black Sea. Catherine the Great (1729-1796) went even further. She dreamed of dismembering the Ottoman Empire, restoring the Byzantine Christian Empire with the capital at Constantinople, and installing her grandson on the throne. She had built a stellar reputation in the European Courts as an enlightened ruler who had cultivated close relations with intellectuals and philosophers of the day, such as Voltaire and Diderot, and had patronized art and literature. But she was a ruthless sovereign when it came to pursuing her territorial ambitions in the south. Catherine finally succeeded in capturing Crimea in 1783 and gaining access to the Black Sea. The Ottoman Turkey, with Sultan Abdul Hamid 1 on the throne, derisively referred to as the “sick man of Europe”, was too weak to mount an effective defense. The last of the hereditary khans of Crimea, Shagin-Girei, was deposed by the Russians and eventually exiled to Constantinople. In the following years, one-third of the Tartar population fled to the Ottoman territories, to be replaced by imported Russian, Greek and Armenian nationals. The capture of Crimea, long-coveted, represented a huge triumph for Catherine and Russia. She planned a victory tour of her newly acquired territory to celebrate the victory. In January 1787, four years after the conquest, the 58-year-old Empress embarked on an arduous journey, over a thousand-mile long, from St. Petersburg to Crimea, traversing forbidding terrain that would take six months on horse-drawn carriages to accomplish. Some fascinating details of her travel are narrated in the book, The Great Upheaval, by Jay Winik (2007, HarperCollins Publishers). Catherine was accompanied by a convoy of 2,300 people, including security guards, doctors, footmen, cooks, chambermaids and ladies in waiting. Winik describes the splendor of the procession as follows: “Her carriage, drawn by ten magnificent horses, was furnished with cushioned benches and tables and was so massive that a man could stand up in it.” The grand procession finally arrived at Crimea, and an exultant empress, following a long-tradition of the victorious, decided to sleep in the ancient palace of the Khans, the Bakhchisarai, a m arvel of beautiful architecture that exquisitely blended the Moorish and Turkish styles, with water fountains irrigating the lush gardens, with rose, jasmine and orange trees exuding an aura of the exotic East. A shrewd ruler, Catherine maneuvered to win the favor of her new subjects, inviting local Imams and muftis and showering them with attention and expensive gifts. Catherine the Great had finally won Crimea, but this is the closest she would come to Constantinople and realizing her dream of placing her grandson on the Ottoman throne.
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