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Sir Steven Runciman: The Spider, the Owl and the Historian

Anthony Bryer considers the life and work of this great historian, who died in November 2000.

'The Spider has wove her web in the imperial palace,
The Owl has sung her watch song upon the towers of Efrasiyab.’

This Persian distich about the Spider and the Owl was by tradition recited by the young Sultan Mehmet II as he surveyed the Sacred Palace of the emperors of Byzantium after his conquest of Constantinople on May 29th, 1453. One way or another, no historian of the event can avoid repeating the verse, from Edward Gibbon in 1788 to Steven Runciman in 1964 - I quote an English version of 1734, where Efrasiyab is today’s Samarkand. The story is too good to be true. These lines are impossibly romantic. Can they also be authentic? Yes, in so far as it is possible to capture an extemporary utterance which hung on the air for five centuries. Then in 1914 the account of Tursun beg, who was there to hear the sultan in 1453, was published and tradition was confirmed.

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