2090 – “The beauty of the Mountain, which remains, in my experience, the loveliest piece of scenery in all the universe.” About Steven Runciman

The men on this picture were shown before, in the post about the painter Derek Hill. Now we shift our focus to Steven Runciman. An interesting man who travelled for the last time to the Holy Mountain when he had reached the age of 97. Sir Steven Runciman is the second on the left, next to Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia. To put him is his era, he studied French with Aldous Huxley and was a close friend to George Orwell.

According to Andrew Robinson, a history teacher at Eton:

“he played piano duets with the last Emperor of China, told tarot cards for King Fuad of Egypt, narrowly missed being blown up by the Germans in the Para Palace hotel in Istanbul and twice hit the jackpot on slot machines in Las Vegas”. (Wikiwand)

If this was put in a film, the critics would comment that such a life is rather unlikely. In addition: his first student in Trinity College in 1927 was, the later British diplomat and Sovjet agent Guy Burgess, who is remembered for his intellectual brilliance and his dirty fingernails. His life spanned nearly a century in which he travelled a lot. Thanks to an inherited fortune he had the means to travel. A famous quote of his: “riches should come as the reward for hard work, preferably one’s forebears”. Runciman is well known for his History of the Crusades. The book was criticised for his admiration of the Byzantine Empire, which was damaged severery by the brutal forces of the crusades. The fourth crusade lead to the downfall of Constantinopel.

A photographic portrait of Steven Runciman at his home in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. made by Murdo Macleod for the Guardian.

As said he travelled to the Holy Mountain in the year 2000 when he had reached the blessed age of 97. The reason he travelled there was that he wanted to witness the blessing of the Protaton Tower at Karyes, which had been refurbished thanks to a gift from him. He had donated his Onassis prize of 1997. The price was $ 200.000. He inaugurated the monastic archive of the Tower. His first trip to Greece was almost more than a lifetime ago, in 1924.

Here we have Steven Runciman as a student in Cambridge.

Anthony Bryer describes Runciman in his obituary as follows:

“It was to Mount Athos that SR (Steven Runciman) made his final and most astonishing journey, in July 2000, in his 98th year. It was to inaugurate the treasury and archives of the Holy Mountain, to which he had dedicated his Onassis Prize of 1997. They are housed in a fortified library, the Protaton Tower, which is a Byzantine version of Elshieshields Tower where SR kept his own papers in Dumfriesshire. The Patriarch of Constantinople did not come, having some trouble with the monks of Athos, but SR was pleased that the monastery of Vatopaidi gave him the guest-room used by the Prince of Wales. In an interview there he spoke of his first visit to Athos in 1937, but did not mention his return then, by bus to Thessaloniki when he assisted at the childbirth of a fellow passenger, in a thunderstorm. The scene is described in A Traveller’s Alphabet under A for Athos.”

In his book A Traveller’s Alphabet: Partial Memoirs (1991) the lemma under A is Athos and not Athens were he lived for more than a year.

The Protaton Tower in the fog as we saw in in April this year.

In the tower the following text can be read:

“This tower of the Protaton was restored, decorated, and enriched as a treasure house for both archive and library, that is as a sanatorium for the soul, and as a store for vestments, and was brought to its present state of splendour through the generous support of the great master and leading light of all those who are concerned with the Eastern Roman Empire and the history of our nation, Sir Steven Runciman, so that this building, which was once the defence tower of the village of Karyes, should now be the guardian of the treasures and of the saving memory of the Holy Community, on the 2nd/15th day of July in the year of our Lord 2000.”
(Quote from the Yearbook of the Friends of Mount Athos, 2000.)

He delivered a speech and talked about his first visit to the Holy Mountain: he had arrived in July to find it shrouded in a chilly mist such as he had left a few days previously in his native Scotland. ‘But the skies soon cleared and I was able to see the beauty of the Mountain, which remains, in my experience, the loveliest piece of scenery in all the universe.‘ (Quote from the Yearbook of the Friends of Mount Athos, 2000.)

A painting of Steven Runciman by Stephen Conroy

After his death his collection of Edward Lear watercolors were donated to the Scottisch National Galleries.

Bas Kamps

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2 Responses to 2090 – “The beauty of the Mountain, which remains, in my experience, the loveliest piece of scenery in all the universe.” About Steven Runciman

  1. Japetus says:

    The image below (taken from the ‘Explorer’ editions guide to Mount Athos) depicts the inscription inside the tower of protaton, which acknowledges sir Runcimans donation for the restoration. It is interesting to see that his name (Sir Stephen Runciman) is spelled in a very old fashioned hellenicised way as: ‘Kir Stefanou tou Ransimanou’ (Κυρ Στεφάνου του Ρανσιμάνου)

  2. baskamps says:

    Thank you, Japetus, for your interesting contribution. The picture of the inscription is a welcome addition to the blog.

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