BETWEEN THE LINES / Living history: Simon Russell Beale on Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades

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The Independent Culture
'On a February day in the year AD 638 the Caliph Omar entered Jerusalem, riding upon a white camel. He was dressed in worn, filthy robes, and the army that followed him was rough and unkempt; but its discipline was perfect. At his side was the Patriarch Sophronius, as chief magistrate of the surrendered city. Omar rode straight to the site of the Temple of Solomon, whence his friend Mahomet had ascended into Heaven. Watching him stand there, the Patriarch remembered the words of Christ and murmured through his tears: 'Behold the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet.' '

From A History of the Crusades, Volume 1 by Steven Runciman (CUP, 1953)

I FIND it difficult to say exactly why I find this passage so moving. It is, of course, impressive - a grand mixture of elegance and irony - but that in itself would not account for its emotional impact. More compelling than Runciman's command of his medium, is his evident affection and respect.

This short scene is dominated by two great and honourable men. We know (as yet) nothing of their past lives or their future actions. For the moment they stand, the one watching the other, both aware that a fragile world-order is crumbling and that their contributions to that change have not been insignificant. They are also, despite victory and defeat, equals.

I suppose, at its simplest, that is why I love this passage. When historical events are written about with this sort of command, they take on not only the universality of a fairy tale but also a certain moral weight. Runciman writes both seductively and instructively about the dignity and beauty of different religious beliefs and about the difficulties of their co-existence. The fact that it is presented with the poise and simplicity of a Biblical story makes it all the more impressive.

Simon Russell Beale is playing Richard III, previewing in the RSC's The Other Place from tonight.

(Photograph omitted)