Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman

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Birdman – a portrait of Steven Runciman by Cecil Beaton (1920’s)

By the time he died, in 2000 at the age of 97, Sir Steven Runciman knew that he was a “‘relict of a past age’”, the “embodiment of a…nearly mythical era.” Minoo Dinshaw’s brilliantly entertaining biography of the great historian of Byzantium restores him to public view and provides a vivid picture of many aspects of 20th-century Europe that now seem almost as remote as the crusades and religious schisms he described in his books.

First published in The Economist, 9 September 2016

Runciman was not aristocratic by birth—his grandfather, a shipping magnate, had established the family fortune—but he was immensely grand and well connected. His parents were the first married couple to sit together in the House of Commons. And his father, who was part of Lord Asquith’s cabinet before the first world war, survived the declining fortunes of the Liberal party to lead the doomed mission to Czechoslovakia in 1938. He could claim in 1991 to have known every 20th-century prime minister except Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who died when he was a toddler, and Bonar Law, “‘whom nobody knew’”. Introduced by his governess to French, Latin and Greek by the age of seven, he won scholarships to Eton—in an era of clever men like George Orwell, Cyril Connolly and Anthony Powell—and to Cambridge, where he lived in the “scornfully beautiful Great Court” of Trinity College. Through his friend Dadie Rylands (they were named the Tea Party Cats “for their velvety urbanity”) he met Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes and other members of the Bloomsbury group.

Despite frequent trips to London to socialise with the “bright young people” (and be photographed with his budgerigar by Cecil Beaton), Runciman won the first-class degree and prize fellowship that were to launch his academic career. Of the Cambridge spies recruited in the 1930s, Guy Burgess was a pupil and friend and Anthony Blunt a “supercilious” colleague. Employing political and diplomatic connections to the full, he travelled in style to Romania, Bulgaria and Asia. He established his reputation with histories of the emperor Romanus Lecapenus, the first Bulgarian empire and Byzantium. When he inherited wealth from his grandfather in 1938, he gave up his university fellowship.

Unfit for military service, Runciman spent the war in the Balkans and the Middle East: in Sofia as press attaché to the British Legation, Jerusalem, Cairo and Istanbul. There he narrowly escaped a bomb blast, spent three years as professor of Byzantine history and art, and became an honorary Dervish. Between 1945 and 1947 he led the British Council in Athens. Osbert Lancaster, a witty cartoonist, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, who would become a glamorous writer, were there. Greece was lurching towards civil war and Runciman gained an abiding love for the country, pleasure from upstaging the British ambassador and the position of Astrologer Royal.

On his return to Britain, Runciman split his time between London and the Hebrides, and wrote the books that were to make his name: the ground-breaking three-volume “History of the Crusades”; and a succession of works on Byzantine history that drew on a wide variety of sources, Muslim and Greek, most notably “The Sicilian Vespers” and “The Fall of Constantinople”. Francis Birrell, a Bloomsbury acquaintance, had greeted Runciman’s first book with the acknowledgment that fewer than “half a dozen people were really competent” to review it (and that he was not one of them). There were no such reservations about later volumes, which were lively, authoritative and well received.

Runciman was not to everyone’s taste. He loved to tease, possessed a “queenly persona”, snubbed people who failed to interest him and “had a tongue like a viper if he wanted to use it”. He was a gossip who adored royalty; he entertained the Queen Mother to lunch at the Athenaeum Club every year; four queens are said to have attended his 80th-birthday party.

Despite being able to compose an alphabet of lovers with every letter except Q (“I shall die Qless”), he was to claim that he had “never been in love”. He retained a wide circle of loyal friends and was a popular laird of the Isle of Eigg, not least because he would invite his musical friends to stay and perform at the village hall. (Yehudi Menuhin was “memorably described” by the ferryman as “a handy man for a ceilidh”). He gave his name and time to numerous public bodies and causes, at home and abroad. A final apotheosis, three months before he died, for his service as Grand Orator to the Patriarch of Constantinople, was a descent by helicopter on the Holy Mountain of Athos.

Mr Dinshaw’s choice of subject for his first book is an inspired one. He interweaves the strands of a long and variegated life with sympathy, elegance and awareness of the wider picture. In recognition of Runciman’s fascination with the supernatural, chapters are headed with quotations from Arthur Waite’s “The Key to the Tarot”. He refers frequently to novelists such as Evelyn Waugh and Olivia Manning, authors of trilogies about the war. And his turn of phrase is as arresting as Runciman’s own—one family friend is “unceremonious, crapulous”. Mr Dinshaw has done Runciman proud. To whom will he turn his attention next?

Buy Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman. Click the link.

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Ancient textiles from the East in Western churches and museums

Sketch of silk shroud from the tomb of Edward the Confessor, 11 th C

Sketch of silk shroud from the tomb of Edward the Confessor, 11 th C

Julianna Lees is compiling a list of Eastern textiles pre-1200 in Western churches & cathedrals, and a photographic resource to go with it. She is interested in Silk Road influence, Sassanian fragments, Byzantine, shrouds, etc.

On her Flickr site she makes the following observation:

Ancient textiles from the East have often been conserved in Western churches and cathedrals. They were sometimes used as shrouds and subsequently venerated as holy relics, the source of lucrative pilgrimages. They were also brought back from the East by crusaders and pilgrims, or given to established abbeys and cathedrals by great lords and princes. Some of these Sassanian, Byzantine, Egyptian and Moorish textiles are still in religious edifices, in their treasuries or episcopal museums. Others can be found in museums all over the world. There is no doubt that they have been of the greatest importance in disseminating the styles and cultural influences of the Silk Routes into Western Europe and many motifs familiar to us on Romanesque capitals and artefacts have their origin in the imported silks and especially the Sassanian images.

Why not visit her Flickr site for the textiles or all her other albums with an amazing set of pictures, many of which are Byzantine related.

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Turkey: Muslims demand right to pray at Hagia Sophia

Why can’t people just leave it is it stands? It has worked so far.

Muslims in the Turkish city of Istanbul have gathered in front of the world-famous Hagia Sophia mosque which has been turned into a museum in the city of Istanbul, demanding prayer rights inside the building and its restoration as a place of Muslim worship.

First published in Press Tv 28 May 2016,

“In the name of thousands of our brothers we demand to be allowed to pray inside the Hagia Sophia mosque,” Salih Turhan, an organizer of the demonstration, said of the towering former Byzantine church, which also served as a mosque for more than 450 years before it turned into a museum more than 80 years ago.

An imam led a prayer in front of the vast building as people celebrated the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the term used to refer to what is currently known as Istanbul during the Roman/Byzantine Empire.

“Let the chains break, open Hagia Sophia,” chanted the crowds gathering at the plaza, urging the government to heed public calls for restoration of the place as a mosque.

People said the place should serve again as a mosque because the decision to turn it into museum in 1935 was a “fait accompli without public’s will.”

Hagia Sophia, which means Holy Wisdom in Greek, was built the sixth century. It served as a Christian basilica for more than 900 years before it was converted to a mosque in 1453 as a symbol of Ottoman victory over the Bezants.

It was a mosque for 482 years until the modern secular Turkey was founded on the ruins of the Ottomans.

The monument, which is currently on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, is regarded as a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture.

It features an immense and very famous dome supported by huge pillars while its walls are sheathed with marble and decorated with mosaics.

Sultan Mehmet II ordered the addition of four minarets to the structure and its interior was decorated with Islamic art.

Since the rise of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, advocates of secularism have feared that Hagia Sophia may be transformed back into a mosque.

They have mostly called for the edifice to be turned into a church.

“Demanding Hagia Sophia to be used as a church is as nonsense as claiming Istanbul is not a Turkish city but a Byzantine city,” Turhan said.

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Holidaying in Amalfi and finding Byzantium

DSC05522When we think of the Amalfi coast most will think of spectacularly beautiful, and fashionable towns clinging to precipitous rock faces, expensive hotels, and maybe even the odd film star walking the streets of Amalfi or Positano. Made popular as a holiday destination by the British in the 1920′ and 1930’s, I would imagine that few of us know that the town of Amalfi itself is a former Byzantine vassal state and its cathedral is rich in Byzantine treasures including great bronze doors looted in the Fourth Crusade.

By Tom Sawford

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First mentioned in the 6th century, Amalfi acquired importance as a maritime power, trading grain from its neighbours, salt from Sardinia and slaves from the interior, and even timber, in exchange for gold dinars minted in Egypt and Syria, in order to buy the Byzantine silks that it resold in the West. The Amalfi tables provided a maritime code that was widely used by the Christian port cities. Merchants of Amalfi were using gold coins to purchase land in the 9th century, while most of Italy worked in a barter economy. In the 8th and 9th century, when Mediterranean trade revived it shared with Gaeta the Italian trade with the East, while Venice was in its infancy, and in 848 its fleet went to the assistance of Pope Leo IV against the Saracens.

An independent republic from the 7th century until 1075, Amalfi extracted itself from Byzantine vassalage in 839 and first elected a duke in 958; it rivalled Pisa and Genoa in its domestic prosperity and maritime importance before the rise of Venice. In spite of some devastating setbacks it had a population of some 70,000 to 80,000 reaching a peak about the turn of the millennium, during the reign of Duke Manso (966–1004).

In 1073 the republic fell to the Norman countship of Apulia, but was granted many rights. However, in 1131, it was reduced by King Roger II of Sicily, who had been refused the keys to its citadel. The Holy Roman Emperor Lothair, fighting in favour of Pope Innocent II against Roger, took Roger prisoner in 1133, assisted by forty-six Pisan ships. The Pisans, commercial rivals of the Amalfitani, sacked the city; Lothair claimed as part of the booty a copy of the Pandects of Justinian which was found there.

In 1135 and 1137, Amalfi was again taken by the Pisans and rapidly declined in importance. A tsunami in 1343 destroyed the port and lower town, and Amalfi never recovered to anything more than local importance.

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The Black Madonna of Positano

In medieval culture Amalfi was famous for its flourishing schools of law and mathematics. Flavio Gioia, traditionally considered the first to introduce the mariner’s compass to Europe, is said to have been a native of Amalfi. The patron saint of Amalfi is Saint Andrew, the Apostle, whose relics are kept in Amalfi Cathedral (Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea/Duomo di Amalfi). The remains of St. Andrew were reportedly brought to Amalfi from Constantinople in 1206 during the Fourth Crusade by Cardinal Peter of Capua.

The towns of the Amalfi coats contain many interesting Byzantine references and influences, none more than Positano, where the church of Santa Maria Assunta features a dome made of majolica tiles as well as a thirteenth-century Byzantine icon of a black Madonna. According to local legend, the icon had been stolen from Byzantium and was being transported by pirates across the Mediterranean. A terrible storm had blown up in the waters opposite Positano and the frightened sailors heard a voice on board saying “Posa, posa!” (“Put down! Put down!”). The precious icon was unloaded and carried to the fishing village and the storm abated.

Please enjoy these photographs taken during our holiday last year.

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SPBS Summer Lecture – Hellenic Centre London, 7 June

archangelThe Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies summer lecture will be held on 7 June 2016 at The Hellenic Centre, 16-18 Paddington St, London W1U 5AS.

Professor Liz James will talk about:

Material Faith: the mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, and the angels of the Panaghia Angeloktistos, Kiti in Cyprus.

Free entry for SPBS members but please confirm attendance to Hellenic Centre.

See the poster for full details. Lecture starts at 7.15 pm.

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Was the Ottoman Empire really history’s longest-lasting empire?

19th-century painting of Osman I, the first Ottoman emperor. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

19th-century painting of Osman I, the first Ottoman emperor. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

It was one of the most resilient empires in world history, but how did it start? And why did it end?

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of History Revealed

Was the Ottoman Empire really history’s longest-lasting empire?

That’s a debate that is hard to fit into a nutshell. But, the ever-changing world power – an Islamic network of countries comprising much of the Mediterranean coast (besides Italy) – began in 1299 and did not conclude until 1922.

This means that it certainly outstripped the British Empire in terms of longevity, if not reach.

Depending on the start and end dates, though, the Roman Empire could be said to have lasted longer, beginning in the first century BC until the fifth century AD.

How did the Ottoman Empire get started?

The name comes from an anglicisation of ‘Osman’, after Osman I, the founder of the dynasty, who would go on to rule the Empire. The area known as Anatolia, or Asia Minor, the westernmost fringe of Asia, was split into numerous Turkish states following the end of the medieval Sultanate of Rum. At the same time, the Byzantine Empire (the name given to the Eastern arm of the Roman Empire) was falling. Osman and his followers were there to pick up the spoils.

At first, the Ottoman powerbase was only one of many in the region. Osman’s son Orhan, however, was much more interested in conquest, so extended his land to the Balkans. He went on to block trade routes and reduce Byzantine control in the north west, all of which allowed for further expansion.

Ultimately, the greatest treasure to be captured in the whole hemisphere was the city of Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire for 1,000 years.

Was it a straightforward march to greatness?

Between the Byzantines fighting back, Mongol interventions, internal strife and regular Crusades from the west, it was not. Sultan Bayezid, Osman’s great-grandson, was imprisoned by the Turco-Mongol leader Timur, triggering years of civil war that only ended when his son, Mehmed I, emerged as the victor.

It was, in turn, his grandson Mehmed the Conqueror who earned his name as the man who took Constantinople. Around this time, the city became known as ‘Istanbul’, which to the Greeks meant ‘in the city’, but was claimed by the conquerors to mean ‘full of Islam’.

Mehmed’s forces had taken control of all areas surrounding the city, including the strategic hotspot of the Bosporus Straits, and all it took to complete the campaign was a 57-day siege, starting in April 1453. When the Sultan set foot in his new capital, he proclaimed: “The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars.” He even claimed the title of Caesar.

The majesty of Istanbul’s ‘Blue Mosque’ (Tetra Images/Getty Images)

The majesty of Istanbul’s ‘Blue Mosque’ (Tetra Images/Getty Images)

Was it a harsh regime, under Shariah Law?

There’s actually very little to suggest that the Ottomans were any more brutal in their ruling than any other European power of the time.

The Christian Orthodox Church was maintained, and the succeeding sultans were just as likely to ally themselves with the rulers of France, for example, as any other empire-building nation if it were mutually beneficial.

By the middle of the 16th century, in the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire boasted a population of more than 15 million people across three continents, as well as being one of the strongest military and naval forces on the planet.

So what went wrong?

Managing to maintain the Empire over four centuries could hardly be called ‘going wrong’. Yet it’s true that by the 19th century, the dwindling Empire was known as “the sick man of Europe” – a term coined by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia during the Crimean War.

Russia emerged as one of the key antagonists of the Ottoman Empire, and the Crimean War was in part caused by the Empire’s decline, as growing European powers faced off to take over their territories.

Despite the dissolution of the Empire, it was to emerge as the victor of one more major military campaign – Gallipoli, in which the Allied forces failed to take over the Turkish peninsula.

However, Turkish forces became so strained that their signing of the Armistice of Mudros in 1918 effectively handed Istanbul over to the English and French, who began carving up what remained of the Ottoman Empire – ushering in a whole new era of tribalism and strife.

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Exhibition – Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity

This decorative panel from a tunic was woven in around the year 500 AD, in Egypt when it was part of the flourishing Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. The panel is in the wondrous little show called “Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity” at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, a fairly recent addition to New York’s cultural and intellectual scene thanks to funding from Shelby White and her Leon Levy Foundation.

The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World’s spring exhibition, Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity, offers intimate glimpses into the lives of those who commissioned and used textiles and more sweeping views across Late Antique society (roughly third to seventh century AD). The exhibition brings together over fifty textiles of diverse materials, techniques, and motifs to explore how clothing and cloth furnishings expressed ideals of self, society, and culture. By their valuable materials and virtuoso execution, the textiles displayed their owners’ wealth and discernment. To modern viewers, the materials and techniques also attest to developments around the Mediterranean world and farther east along the routes of the silk trade. The Late Antique owners, in choosing from a vast repertory of motifs, represented (hopefully more than actually) the prosperity and well-being of their households. The owners represented themselves through the distinctively gendered imagery of manly and womanly virtues in mythological and Christian subjects so that in these textiles, we see distinctly personal manifestations of the religious transformation of the Roman Empire into a Christian Empire.

Further details of the exhibition, which unfortunately only runs until 22 May, can be found here.

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