Damascus steel is steeped in history and shrouded mystery and to this day, the sight of the sinewy lines and designs bring a glint to the eye of many a knife lover.
Damascus Steel in the Hearts of Medieval Warriors
The mere appearance of a Damascus steel blade evokes what may be a latent Western awe of fierce exotic fighters charging fearlessly, blood at the knees, and a questioning of why God would allow Saracen victories over Christian warriors fighting in the name of God, King and country. The Christian warriors here being the Byzantine Empire and later the armies of the Crusader kingdoms.
Whether this is an intrinsic fear of savage, demonic, strange looking sword wielding hordes in the Western psyche or a remnant memory of an zealous eighth grade teacher vividly describing a day in the life of a hapless crusader fighting Saracens in the twelve hundreds is an exploration for another day.
But try it yourself, take a look at a sword or dagger made of Damascus steel and give yourself a moment of contemplation to experience what it evokes. No, really, do try it.
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The Origins of Damascus Steel
Damascus steel knives first appeared in the Indus Valley of India about 2,500 – about 500 BC. They were made using formula of compositing and refining metals and a forging process that resulted in a blade possessed with an extremely sharp cutting edge blade that was rigid enough to cut through a torso in a single swing, flexible enough not to break at meeting a Crusader’s shield at the wrong angle, yet hard enough that you didn’t need to take a break from battle to sharpen just because you had to cut through bones while lobbing off peoples’ limbs.
However, and although the first weapons made from Damascus steel did first appear in India, they only became mass produced and standard issue to soldiers in about 625 AD after the Muslims armies overran the Byzantine regional capital of Damascus.
Previously it appears that they purchased their Damascus steel swords from Persian manufacturers who appear to have imported the knowledge from their Indian counterparts. Indeed ancient Sankscrit writings in cities of the Eastern Persian Empire (round about Afghanistan today) appear to show that craftsmen from India (and among them blacksmiths) did hire out their expertise to the Persians.
And as you’ll see below it appears to be a Persian who first pointed out the benefits of Damascus steel to the generals of the nascent Muslim empire and who in their turn turned the ancient world on its head.
Here’s another great selection of hand made Damascus steel knives (and an axe or two)
The Practical Attraction to Damascus Steel
The distinctive looking and mysterious Damascus steel captured the imagination and
admiration (not to mention envy) of many Western Emperors, Kings, and Generals as it came charging out of the mist and dust of of the Middle East, lobbing off heads of Romans, Greeks, Crusaders and every other manner of infidel that was unfortunate enough to be standing in its killing zone.
Damascus steel started to sow terror in Western hearts with the Muslim warriors charging out of the Arabian Peninsula after the armies of the nascent religion of Islam started to spread their wings into the Persian and the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empires.
Muslim armies are first reported to have started using Damascus steel in one of their earlier battles (Called the Battle of the Ditch), where a Persian consultant (a fellow by the name of Salman Al Farsi) was giving tips to the new Muslim generals on how to defend themselves from an impending attack of Pagan Arabs from Mecca.
It was probably that very same Persian who first introduced the Muslims to the delights of
Damascus steel for putting an end to an enemy’s will to fight by chopping off his head, or perhaps just a limb, during battle.
You see there are records go back to about 200 BC showing that the Persians became acquainted with this marvellous metal and the lovely weapons it made from being on the trade routes between India and the Middle East and Europe. So it makes sense that our Persian friend who advised the early Muslims pointed out to them that a
lightweight, rigid, strong, blade that kept its edge after much lobbing off of human things was rather a good thing for them to invest in to give them an edge, as it were, while defending their new religion.
And so it was that Muslim blacksmiths imported the art of making Damascus steel from the Persians and started to arm their soldiers with it.
And records do exist of military leaders are blaming Damascus steel to the victories of Muslim armies who were able to carry on fighting effectively because their weapons kept their edges longer on the battle fields.
Also after battles they had to spend
less time re-sharpening weapons and more time sleeping, making them better rested fighters the next day.
The lighter weight of Damascus steel also meant less exhaustion from swinging them which again meant longer periods of energetic fighting while western fighters began to feel fatigue in their arms from swinging their heavier weapons.
The Secret to the Strength of Damascus Steel Knives
Damascus steel blades get their strength from the process of heating, folding, beating and repeating the process over and over.
A quick calculation will demonstrate how the folding process that gives Damascus steel
its lightweight strength can have a huge multiplication effect. A piece of steel that is folded over and forged 7 times, that will give it 128 layers. Fold and beat that piece of steel 16 times and you have a whopping 65,000 layers of folded beaten and forged steel.
You don’t need a blacksmith’s outfit to try it – just do the math on a calculator.
It is this multiple folds that gave Damascus steel its deadly strength and sharpness, while the addition of lighter carbons that essentially replaced the heavier steel made it more lightweight.
And this is where Damascus steel gets its distinctive layered look, because some of the folds included carbon additives while others didn’t.
The mineralogical composition and forging processes used by ancient blacksmiths remain
a mystery. For one, the manufacture of Damascus steel was always considered a military secrets in the empires that it served and blacksmiths who knew how to make it were sworn to secrecy. Divulging the processes to anyone but state approved apprentices was akin to giving away military secrets and punishable by death.
To further shroud the mystery, all records of the manufacture and use of Damascus steel seems to have disappeared quite suddenly around 1700 AD.
The Sudden Disappearance of Damascus Steel
It seems that Damascus steel fell out of favour with the major powers of the time and manufacturing it for state and military purposes petered off. Within fifty years, all records and knowledge of Damascus steel had vanished.
There seems to be several factors at play.
There are reports that an resurgent church in the west labelled Damascus steel as a Muslim invention and therefore, the work of the devil. And in the 1700’s your average blacksmith, or indeed you specialist Damascus steel forger, was disinclined to be associated with the devil, what with all the torture and burning of hapless heretics that the Church was enjoying at the time.
Another seems to be the Ottoman control of Arab Muslim territories and in their conservative, self centred way, the early marauding Ottomans frowned upon any technology not of their own making, viewing it as a threat and of course inferior. And so as the Ottoman armies became the primary beneficiaries of the arms industry, the latter adopted its manufacturing to their favourite customer – that being whichever mad Ottoman Sultan ruled at the time.
There are also reports that the disappearance of Damascus steel coincided with a rising fascination in alchemy and the transposing of base metals into gold. This, being a prospect that was not to be sniffed at, attracted many contemporary metallurgists, and who is was more metallurgical in late medieval times than the metal mixers who made the King’s swords. And so you friendly local blacksmiths turned their collective backs on their arms factories in favour of late night secretive sessions of concocting gold.
You might also be interested in these
great Damascus steel rings
Renewed Interest in Damascus Steel Blades
Although the complexities of making Damascus steel and the exact composition and process has been forgotten, the basic ideas of mixing carbon elements to hot steel and multiple folding to strengthen it was not. And what remains of the knowledge has been the basis of the resurgent interest seen in Damascus steel in recent years.
Sure the swords has been replaced by the machine gun as the primary weapon of armies (for better or for worse) and blade making is no longer the bulwarks of the arms industry, but as collector items and unique pieces of cutlery, Damascus steel has seen a revival.
Owning a piece of Damascus steel kit is not merely owning a a knife, it is more like being in possession of an ancient secret and a cultural heritage as well as a uniquely beautiful work of art for no two Damascus steel are alike. It is an item that carries a history and an culture that you can talk about to your friends and children.