The Legendary Swords Of Damascus - Now Only Museum Pieces
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer
“The Damascene swords are not made any more. We have long lost the secret of how they were produced. There are only a few left, mostly in museums and rare antique shops. But look! I have one here! If you can afford it, its only $10,000.”
The Damascene merchant was dramatic as he drew a curved sword from its scabbard, informing us that this was one of the very few still to be found for sale.
He went on to inform us that the swords one sees for sale in the shops of Damascus, mostly produced for tourists, are only replicas of their ancestors and are only bought as decorative pieces by the wealthy and those who have a passion for traditional handicrafts.
However, in the past, the Damascene swords were something different. For the Arabs, they were competitors to the pen. Either you could defeat your enemy with the sword or with the pen. The great poet al-Mutanabbi, whose poetry is considered by the Arabs as perfection itself, wrote:
“The arid land knows me well, the night, the mounted men, the battlefield, the sword, the writing pad and pen.”
Another poet Abu Tammam wrote when the Caliph al-Mu’tasim, acting against the dark predictions of the astrologers, stormed and captured the Byzantine city of Amorium:
“Truer than words of books is the sword in its tidings,
Its edge is the boundary between seriousness and rompings.
The white gleam of swords, not the black ink of books,
Clears doubts and uncertainties and bleak outlooks.”
The Arabs had a saying that ‘the sword and the pen were the constitutional props of any country’, hence, the importance of swords for the nation.
Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth, was for hundreds of years known for its fine swords. Sword-making was for centuries one of the city’s most diversified and traditional crafts. Coming in a wonderful variety of shapes, with numerous designs and motifs, they were legendary for their sharpness and were considered superior to all other swords. During the Crusades, Damascus swords became famed in Europe, bringing to mind horsemen charging into battle with their curved sword blades shining in the sunlight.
There were many myths and legends relating to the swords of Damascus, mostly dealing with their unrivaled flexibility and razor-edge sharpness. One such tale tells of a meeting between Richard the Lion-Hearted and Saladin. Richard, to impress his guest with his great power, cut through with his broadsword a thick iron bar with a single blow. Saladin, unimpressed, threw a silk pillow into the air and, as it fell, sliced it into ribbons with his Damascene blade.
Another story relates that the Damascene blade was so flexible that a man could take the hilt in one hand and the point of the sword in the other, then bend the sword around his body and when released the blade would spring back to its original shape.
It had to be hard enough to cut almost any target with a reasonably slight impact, yet stiff enough to resist bending when slashing. On the other hand, it had to be flexible enough to avoid breaking when it was violently slashed.
A fine-grained sword of extraordinary workmanship, the Damascene blade was fashioned from steel with a high carbon content, making it both light and durable. Prized for its distinctive wavy surface, linked by poets to ant tracks or rippling water, the sword was a weapon of the highest quality. In the minds of the ancient Arabs, the culture of the sword was rich and varied, revealing their character, psychological taste and approach to life.
The medieval Europeans were so amazed and intrigued with the Damascus swords that myths sprang up about how they were made. According to the Encyclopedia of the Sword, one legend has it that the metal was forged after the raw material was mixed with grain, then fed to chickens and afterward the droppings were melted to retrieve the steel; another was that at the final process, the blade was cooled by thrusting it through the body of a muscular slave to ensure that his strength would be infused into the metal. Others believed that the strength of the Damascene sword came from quenching the blade into the urine of a redheaded boy or a goat, which had been fed on ferns for three days.
Historically these swords are believed to have been made by hammering a batch of low carbon wrought iron into thin sheets, then tying these tightly into bundles. A batch of high carbon caste iron was then heated until molten then the bundles were thrown into the melted iron. The bundled sheets would suck in the melted cast iron into the empty spaces, in the process partially melting the wrought iron sheets and welding the bundle into a solid mass. The mass would be hammered into a rough shape of a sword while still hot. After being cooled, the blade would be filed, ground and polished, then finely decorated.
The finished swords would usually have a coloured surface pattern. According to Nick Evangelista in Encyclopedia of the Sword, the most prized were the ones with a series of bars crossing the blade, known as “Mohamet’s Ladder”. Damascening, the art of decorating weapons by inlaying with another metal such as gold or silver, was a characteristic of these swords. Visitors to Damascus during the Middle Ages were always impressed with the artisans inlaying their swords with elegant ornamentations.
The reputation of Damascus as a producer of fine swords likely came, not only from producing these blades, but also from the fact that the city was the centre of the sword trade in the Middle East – dealing in swords from as far as Persia, India and the Yemen.
By about 1000 A.D., the Arabs introduced the art of making Damascene steel to Toledo in Arab Spain, which thereafter the city earned a reputation as a producer of delicate steel. Today, remnants of that industry still remain, producing souvenir swords for tourists.
True Damascus steel stopped being produced on a large scale in the 14th century when the Turco-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane devastated Damascus and carried all the sword-smiths back with him to work for his armies. By about the 15th century, production of these exceptional swords had almost ended. Damascene steel, which had once spurred envy and myths among Europeans, had ceased to exist.
Today, descendants of the great craftsmen who had in medieval times made superb swords for great armies now produce replicas of the work of their ancestors for streams of tourists. Thus the asking price by the Damascene merchant of $10,000 for one of these bona fide medieval swords was a true bargain – that is if it was truly an authentic Damascene sword.